The best festivals in Croatia this year

So how exactly did the Croatian coast become Europe’s favourite festival-going riviera? Much of the credit must go to the Zadar-based Garden organisation, who organised the first ever Garden Festival back in 2006. The Garden’s combination of niche music, small numbers, blissfully unspoiled beaches and slightly bonkers boat parties laid down the template for events elsewhere. Today, The Garden Festival is still going strong, and the Garden site at Tisno remains buzzing throughout the summer with a string of associated events.

Numerous other festivals up and down the coast have taken up the creative baton; Hideout at Zrće, Outlook in Pula, and Unknown outside Rovinj are just three of the most successful. If the Adriatic festival boom does have a downside then it is simply that most of these events are marketed towards young Brits, and you won’t necessarily meet many Croats there other than the ones working behind the bar. If you want to hang out with people you haven’t already met down at the students’ union, then head instead for the kind of indie-rock events (Zagreb’s InMusic, or Šibenik’s SuperUho) that are well patronized by locals, or visit a fun-for-all-the-family urban festival like Varaždin’s Špancirfest. Here, in chronological order, are ten of my top festival recommendations for summer 2014.

For, Hvar, June 19-22

Boats moored in Hvar, Croatia, Europe

If the island town of Hvar increasingly enjoys a chic, boutique-tourism profile, then For, with its 2500-ticket limit, is the festival for chic, boutique people. This year’s outing consists of four nights of live music at the Veneranda Club followed by four early mornings of DJ-induced thrills and chills at Carpe Diem Beach, a short boat journey off-shore. The impressively strong line-up, headed by Californian rock sisterhood Haim, also includes Neneh Cherry, Darkside and Klaxons. Mark Ronson and Erol Alkan are among those lugging their record boxes to the beach.

InMusic Festival, Lake Jarun, Zagreb June 23-25

Recent years have seen InMusic in danger of falling victim to over-hype; rated somewhat ridiculously by National Geographic Traveler as one of the top three festivals in the world, and puffed-up by the Huffington Post as the “Woodstock of the twenty first century”. What’s great about InMusic is that it is nowhere near being either of these things: it’s a medium-sized indie festival on the outskirts of Zagreb: small enough for the lakeside site to be easily manageable, large enough to attract 2014 headliners The Black Keys, The Pixies, Foals, Bombay Bicycle Club and MGMT. InMusic’s capital-city location ensures that you can spend your days enjoying an urban break, your nights staggering carefree around the grassy shores of Jarun.

Electric Elephant, Tisno, July 10-14

If the Garden Festival is the godfather of Adriatic festivals then Electric Elephant is the groovy uncle. Crucial to its success is the music: a well-curated mix of eclectic, old-school and cutting-edge dance sounds that appeals to music obsessives as well as the party crowd. Based at the Garden’s summer HQ in Tisno, Electric Elephant follows hard on the heels of this year’s Garden Festival: two-week tickets covering both events are a steal at €150 (£120/$200). The enclosed bay in which the Garden site is located creates a unique community-festival atmosphere; the town of Tisno with its stone houses and fishing boats is only a short walk away. This year you can see the likes of Tom Findlay (Groove Armada), Simian Mobile Disco (Dj set), Derrick May, Francois K and many more.

Argonaughty action at The Garden Festival - credit Garden Festival by Heather Shuker

Seasplash, Fort Punta Christo, Pula, July 17-21 

This long-standing celebration of reggae culture is the first of this summer’s festivals to take place at Punta Christo, the Habsburg-era naval fort that also hosts Outlook (see below) and Dimensions (on the same site in August). This year’s Seasplash is set to be a dub-lover’s delight, with a host of local and international sound systems, plus live sets from Asian Dub Foundation and Gentleman’s Dub Club. With Weekend tickets costing a reasonable E49, and cheaper day tickets relatively easy to get hold of, this is one of the Adriatic’s more accessible festivals.

Ethno Ambient, Solin, Split, July 18-19

Despite a 17-year track record Ethno Ambient remains the rough diamond of the World Music calendar. Offering two nights of international music beside a ruined amphitheatre in the ancient Roman city of Solin, it certainly enjoys a unique setting. This year’s line up features amazing acoustic-electronic fusionists Greekadelia; Irish ethno-folk veterans Kila; and Kries, the Croatian ethno-rock-beat-electro group who have done so much to stimulate the local scene.

Outlook 2013_ credit Marc Sethi-9983Outlook Festival by Marc Sethi

Lost Theory, Deringaj, near Gračac, July 22-28

Located in a beautifully unspoilt corner of the Lika (described with some accuracy as the ‘Croatian outback’ by the festival website), this celebration of far-out, experimental, electronic dance music features the kind of acts that even long-term denizens of the psychodelisphere will have trouble pronouncing, never mind remembering. You can also watch films in the Culture Dome; or chill with nature in the Dub Forest. Lost Theory’s other main other main attributes are ecological consciousness, community spirit, and a lot more facilities for families and children than you will find elsewhere.

Super Uho, Šibenik, August 3-5

If there’s one festival that has the Croatian press agog with interest in 2014 it’s Super Uho (Super Ear), the boutique indie festival set to take place on the Šibenik waterfront. Headlined by The National (whose love affair with the Croatian audience goes back to their early, pre-fame days), Super Uho is in many ways a riposte to Terraneo, the alt-rock festival that put Šibenik on the map between 2011 and 2013 only to be cancelled by its mysterious new owners in 2014. Super Uho is organized by Terraneo’s original co-founder, Mate Škugor, and is named after Žedno Uho (Thirsty Ear), the cutting-edge music festival Škugor runs in Zagreb. What will make Super Uho special is the relatively intimate scale of the event and the history-soaked Mediterranean-city location.

Špancirfest, Varaždin, August 22-31

There’s nothing quite like arriving at a destination where the whole town is out on the tiles; and in Varaždin the party goes on for well over a week. What began as a festival of street entertainment has grown to become the biggest single summer event in the this area of Croatia; with clowns, jugglers and children’s theatre shows taking over the town centre during the day; live music on open-air stages at night. As a family-oriented festival with a touch of party-hard nocturnal energy, Špancirfest is unique, and fully deserves the inland detour.

_MG_5062Unknown Festival, sourced by Maouris Music

Outlook, Fort Punta Christo, Pula. Sept 3-7 

In its seventh year it’s already an institutional pillar of the Croatian festival scene, Outlook is a fantastic treat for fans of reggae, jungle, dub, dubstep and beyond, with stages set up in the former bastions and moats of the Punta Christo naval fort. One key to Outlook’s success is the way it mixes sound-system culture with the kind of live acts that long-term fans of the genre are eager to see – Busta Rhymes, Barrington Levy, Jah Shaka and the incomparable Horace Andy are just some of this year’s living legends. Ms Lauryn Hill will be performing just down the road in Pula’s Roman arena on Outlook’s opening night.

Unknown, Rovinj, September 8-12 

Offering a perfect blend of the mellow and the motivational, Unknown in many ways represents the perfect end-of-summer party. This year’s festival is a typically shrewd piece of eclectic programming, aimed at kind of music lover who wants to witness a live performance by one kind of band before dancing to a DJ spinning a completely different genre. On-stage acts include Chic, Churches, London Grammar; DJ sets are provided by Disclosure, DJ Harvey, Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs and many more.

Featured image: Electric Elephant by Heather Shuker. Explore more of Croatia with the Rough Guide to Croatia. Book hostels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.