Sziget: What I Learned on the Eurotrip of a Lifetime
written by Jane Lawrence
Sziget Music Festival at a glance
I am a Sziget survivor, one of 496,000 happily exhausted Szitizens voted off the Island of Freedom after seven full days of amazing entertainment, long drinks and short sleeps.
In the middle of Budapest’s Danube river, Obudai-sziget (“Old Buda Island”) hosts revellers from all over the world who flock to this sacred ground each year for one of Europe’s largest music and culture festivals.
Over the Sziget bridge, summer days are spent lounging on giant mushrooms and nights are spent gallivanting from stage to stage enjoying incredible acts, conveniently staggered so you don’t miss a second. Rowdy youths and young children alongside their parents roam between attractions, interactive art installations mean every turn is beautifully bizarre, and you’re never lost for a cuisine to try, a good brew or a boogie.
Music genre: A complete mix. Rock, pop, blues, reggae, indie, electronic and everything in between…
Camping : If you have a seven or five day pass, or at least two consecutive day tickets you are eligible to stay on the island as basic camping is included. You can camp almost anywhere on the island, so some thought should go into which stages and amenities you’d like to be close to. There are several upgrade options for a little more comfort, as well as designated family camping (complete with child minding services) and ability camping for those who require a little more assistance. Caravan camping proved popular, as did the pre-pitched tent option and the early sold-out VIP for glampers.
Capacity: XL – a record 496,000 people attended Sziget this year.
Crowd type: Totally diverse. If you’re a human or a peaceful pet, there is a place for you on the Island of Freedom. When I think of the perfect Szitizen, a laid back creative comes to mind.
Water stations: Yes, several, as well as plenty of opportunities to buy from vendors.
For the first-timers
If you’re a Sziget newbie, you will not be left dazed and confused. From the minute you step off the plane at Liszt Ferenc International Airport, you’re immediately greeted to Sziget madness and fellow excitable attendees forging their path to the festival gates.
It feels as if the entire city goes into full Sziget mode: supermarkets transform their store layouts and open their doors in preparation for what is surely their biggest week of the year. Public transport timetables are ramped up with a more frequent schedule and there are ample Sziget staff on hand to assist you.
The nearby Auchan (largest general store known to man) has everything you could ever need to go from bare necessity backpacker to qualified camper in one shop. At walking distance, you can easily top up on supplies day by day.
If there’s one thing you must add to your ticket purchase, it’s the Sziget-Budapest CITYPASS. This wristband is your key to getting around for the duration of Sziget, allowing you to use all public transport options within the city borders, one free entrance to a famous Budapest spa of your choice and further discounts on museum admission and tours. With a CITYPASS, using public transport is a breeze. The tram/suburban rail seemed to be most popular, running every 10-15 minutes. Your Sziget stop is called Filatorigat; you can’t miss it, just follow the crowd.
From the airport, free Sziget shuttle buses run transfers every 30 minutes and back again on the final day of the festival. Taxis are another alternative, and often more convenient, but it’s hard to gauge whether you’re getting a fair price or if the driver is taking advantage of your foreigner status.
The island itself is walkable and laid out extremely well. It is relatively easy to become disoriented as camp sites fill up and drinks go down, so a decent walk around on the first day isn’t a bad idea.
Food and drinks are plentiful and relatively affordable. There is a no BYO alcohol policy, but you can pick up glasses of wine cheaper than soft drinks at around 400 Forints (just over 1 Euro). The same goes for beer ranging from 510 to 740 Forint. Spirits are all 1050 Forint, or just over 3 Euro. A cocktail bucket was the perfect morning pick-me-up—grab a large one to share with your pals in ‘hair of the dog’ fashion. If there’s one thing you must try once, it’s the famous Hungarian Palinka, a traditional fruit brandy and easily the strongest and most revolting shot you’ll ever down. 55% anyone?
There is an enormous range of food to choose from as well as catering for specialised groups (vegans, vegetarians, children, etc). Don’t forget to dabble in some Hungarian fare, too.
On site, there is a cashless payment system called Festipay which allows you to top up a separate card for all purchases. Alternatively, you can use a MasterCard pay wave card. This was a novel idea, but the card was often left behind and would’ve been more effective attached to our wristbands. I can’t help but think money on the wrist would’ve led people to higher spending, too.
This year, Sziget’s main stage was dedicated to Dan Panaitescu, their booking manager and a key member of the festival family who passed away in July. This stage, the OTP Bank A38 stage and the Telekom Arena were all relatively standard and held the bigger names, while dozens of other villages, tents and theatres represented different genres. The bigger crowd spaces were noticeably roomy, made even more enjoyable by a pleasant and non-aggressive crowd.
Given Sziget’s theme of crazy artistry, you could expect many unique and funky stages. My favourites were the Colosseum, a downscaled replica of the Roman wonder, and the Cirque du Sziget tent which saw spectacular circus action each day. If you were feeling inspired, you could head along to the Travelling Funfair to test your own acrobatic feats.
There were small street theatres that would make their way down the roads, showcasing weird and wonderful performances on bikes and trailers. You could’ve passed these on your way to the Afro-Latin-Reggae village or perhaps the Blues Bar. Maybe you were going to grab a drink at the Cokxpon Chill Garden or going to The Beatles set at the Tribute stage. Point is, opportunities are endless.
Given the exceptional lineup, I could rattle off so many names I was excited to see over the week. I spread my time across the big names on the main stage and OTP Bank Arena, staying relatively mainstream given the lack of time to seek out fresh faces I had never heard of—a week really wasn’t enough.
Rhianna was the major headliner, and although her presence got everyone buzzing with the excitement, it was a somewhat lackluster performance. She came on half an hour late and seemed to fly through a number of songs from her new album Anti, with no real connection with the crowd. Alas, I got my “Umbrella” fix.
The theatrics during Sia’s set were exceptional, and made up for not seeing a lot of the artist herself, as she stood at the back of the stage behind her wig. Her dancers are absolutely incredible, and beautifully tell the story behind her songs with their bodies as she shies away from the spotlight.
Jess Glynne was without a doubt the highlight of my week. She is such a talent who should’ve been on main stage. I’ve followed her for a while, and along with her band, she totally exceeded my expectations. She was very charismatic and engaged with the crowd in a natural, likeable way—it was refreshing to hear an artist not sound over-rehearsed. She even openly admitted she didn’t know to pronounce the festival’s name (she and I both!) and often made supportive references to her band.
Other very contrasting highlights were David Guetta and Tinie Tempah—who were crazy high energy—and the Lumineers, who provided an early evening easy listen on the final night as I sat in the grass reflecting on how I’d made it through the week.
The closing party led into Hardwell’s set, the last hoorah of electro-house complete with confetti, fireworks, glowsticks, and a first listen of his new song “Need The Most”.
Things to do
-‘before I die’ wall
– Sziget beach
VIP or nah
VIP camping gets you a number of luxury add-ons in an exclusive VIP area…
-a safe deposit
-additional showers and toilets
-have your tent pre-pitched
If you’re wanting a notch up from this, there are extreme VIP packages offering glamping in the form of wooden houses, pre-settled caravans and farmhouses all on site. I didn’t see these and they sound great, but I’ll take the 7am-sun-burning-you-awake-in-your-tent over this any day.
I’d like to end with few closing tips I wish I had known as a rookie:
-stock up on toilet paper. There are none in the porta-loos, adding to an already unpleasant experience.
-pack clothes for all seasons. It chills down at night! A plastic poncho would be a sexy accessory to have on hand in case of a sudden downpour. Grab yours before it’s needed because when the rain comes, they fly off the supermarket shelves.
-the same goes for trainers/boots you don’t mind ruining in a mosh pit full of mud. Pick up a cheap pair you can ditch at the end; this is no place for clean kicks.
-charging your phone/camera is just as much as a pain as it is at any other festival. Queues for charging stations are long and tedious. Battery packs work wonders, you can never have too many.
-smother yourself in insect repellent. I encountered a range of creepy crawlies during my stay, including one with a vicious bite that felt like a bee sting.
-make adding money to your Festipay card your first stop, and try to avoid having to top up more than once. Those lines get long and your motivation to join the long queues as days go by will be very low.
-bring back the bum bag! These are essential for holding your valuables and your pesky Festipay card.