Festival fever first gripped me at Troja Chateau, a 17th-century Baroque palace in Prague. French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky was singing in ethereal tones while cherubs tumbled from the ceiling and a host of divinities and aristocrats looked on from vivid trompe lʼoeil walls. Mesmerised, I thought, This isnʼt real. Iʼm in a movie.

As I came to learn, that was not an isolated moment. In fact, larger-than-life experiences are the norm at festivals, which offer uniquely immersive environments. Everyday concerts can be sublime, but when artists gather to explore ideas and celebrate the music over a concentrated period of days or weeks, something magical happens. Like those trompe lʼoeil walls, the music takes on new dimensions.

If festivals hold the promise of transcendence, they also give pause, especially for a first-time visitor. With so much to see and hear, where does one start? And how does a listener craft something cohesive out of a dazzling array of programs, performers and places? The short answer is, have a game plan.

BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall © David Karlin
BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall
© David Karlin

This starts by understanding the nature of festivals, which are not all created the same. The oldest and biggest tend to offer a wide variety of performers and formats – symphonic concerts, chamber music, recitals – typically organised around themes, anniversaries or styles. Others focus on composers, like Beethoven or Mozart, supplementing their music with that of their peers, progenitors and successors. Sometimes the focus is on a genre, like early music or modern music, or an instrument like the piano, which has spawned specialty festivals all over the world.

On a deeper level, taste and aesthetics come into play. Resonant venues like historic churches, palaces and castles that match the music, or where the composers actually performed or took inspiration, can be reason enough to attend a festival. For many visitors, the larger setting is also a consideration. During those hours youʼre not actually in a concert hall, the city or surrounding countryside should be attractions in themselves, ideally informing your musical experience.

So start with an interest – music you love, or want to learn more about, or hear played by the best. For both novices and aficionados, thereʼs nothing wrong with chasing stars, especially at a sprawling affair like the BBC Proms, which runs for nine weeks. With a 123-year-old pedigree and the allure of Royal Albert Hall, the Proms attracts world-class talent in every category. This summer that will include conductors (Esa-Pekka Salonen, Sir Simon Rattle), orchestras (Vienna Philharmonic, Staatskapelle Dresden) and soloists (Joshua Bell, Martha Argerich). Looking to make a big splash with its inaugural this year, Barcelona Orbertura hosted Valery Gergiev, Grigory Sokolov and Matthias Goerne.

On the downside, tickets to see the stars are the most expensive and difficult to get, often requiring reservations months in advance. So one shouldnʼt overlook lesser-known talent, which in many ways can be just as satisfying, playing with the ardor and ambition of youth. The BBC Proms is particularly good at showcasing young players and competition winners destined to be the stars of tomorrow. The Barcelona Obertura schedule included a generous sampling of local musicians and ensembles, giving visitors an opportunity to hear familiar music interpreted with a Spanish flavour.

Aus LICHT, Karlheinz Stockhausen © Archiv der Stockhausen Stiftung fur Musik
Aus LICHT, Karlheinz Stockhausen
© Archiv der Stockhausen Stiftung fur Musik

For more diverse tastes, many big festivals also offer dance, theatre, art exhibits and other programming that cross-pollinates the music, often in highly imaginative ways. This yearʼs Istanbul Festival, for instance, includes jazz, electronica, ballet, modern dance, contemporary African music and films by David Lynch. Another standout in this regard is the Holland Festival, which for 70 years has been one of the worldʼs premier venues for the avant-garde. This yearʼs offerings include two groundbreaking works of music theatre – aus LICHT, a 15-hour marathon of Karlheinz Stockhausenʼs music spread over three days, with one segment played from hovering helicopters, and Eight, a virtual reality piece (viewers wear VR glasses and headphones) by the innovative Dutch composer Michel van der Aa.

If festivals offer opportunities for offbeat exploration, they can also be safe havens for traditionalists. Devotees of Handel can spend an entire week basking in his music in Halle, Germany, the city where he was born. Anyone looking to deepen their knowledge and appreciation of Mozart can hear his music paired with his fatherʼs and other contemporaries in Augsburg, Germanyʼs “City of Mozart.” The Aldeburgh Festival on Englandʼs Suffolk coast brings to life Benjamin Brittenʼs vision of a creative campus every year, with the composerʼs music as the centrepiece. Typically, festivals of this nature offer lectures and other supplementary activities designed to help listeners learn more about the composers and their music.

Itʼs a rare festival that does not include one or two operas, with some devoted entirely to the operatic repertoire. The Holy Grail for serious fans is the Munich Opera Festival, which brings some of the biggest names in the opera world to perform classics like La traviata, Le Nozze di Figaro and The Bartered Bride. This year there are also recitals by superstars Erwin Schrott, Anna Netrebko and Anne Sofie von Otter. In the summer, grand British country estates like Glyndebourne and Longborough serve up charming productions with long intermissions for picnic lunches or formal dinners. And even if youʼre not a fan, the Savonlinna Opera Festival offers a rare treat – atmospheric productions in a 15th-century castle off the coast of southeast Finland.

St Olaf's Castle, Savonlinna © David Karlin
St Olaf's Castle, Savonlinna
© David Karlin

For the uninitiated, opera can be daunting, demanding intense concentration for long periods of time (not to mention an iron bum). Festival newbies will have an easier time with chamber music, which is more accessible, typically played in small settings that lend intimacy to the performance and give the audience an opportunity to watch the interplay between accomplished musicians. Chamber concerts also tend to be more adventuresome, staged at unusual venues like factories, art galleries and scenic outdoor sites. Finland is a hotbed for this, with a string of summer chamber festivals along its western and southern coasts, and the Kuhmo Festival, which takes the music right to the very edge of civilisation. In Ireland, the West Cork Chamber Music Festival offers concerts in an historic manor, church and coffee shop amid the rich, rugged beauty of County Cork.

London Festival of Baroque Music, Ex Cathedra in St John's Smith Square gardens © Janet Skidmore
London Festival of Baroque Music, Ex Cathedra in St John's Smith Square gardens
© Janet Skidmore

Newcomers will also find easy access through Baroque music, which takes listeners back to a more relaxed, melodic era. The explosion of interest in performing early music on authentic period instruments has brought a wealth of festivals, making the choices a bit more complicated. Some, like the London Festival of Baroque Music, explore trends and developments in Baroque while serving up popular favourites like Handelʼs Messiah. Others, like Pragueʼs Summer Festivities of Early Music, offer more refined programming (obscure composers, exotic instruments) in historic settings like Troja Chateau, chosen to match the period and style of the music.

If you are new to the music and the festival scene, location may be your primary consideration. Prague is a wonderful place to hear Baroque music, but with 10 centuries of art and architecture on display, it has plenty to offer outside the concert hall. Gstaad, Switzerland hosts several major music festivals every year, including the prestigious Menuhin Festival. However, you donʼt need to know anything about stellar violinist Yehudi Menuhin to appreciate the breathtaking beauty of the Swiss Alps. The entire town of Bergen, Norway gives itself over to a lively, colourful festival in late spring every year, but exhilarating moments also await in the nearby Norwegian fjords.

The Bergen International Festival offers very good family programming, another consideration to keep in mind. Classical music for adults forms the core of most festivals, but a growing number include concerts specifically for children, along with crafts, games and other participatory activities that can make the festival an enriching experience for the entire family.

13th-century Haakon's Hall, Bergen International Festival © Bergen International Festival | Martin Totland
13th-century Haakon's Hall, Bergen International Festival
© Bergen International Festival | Martin Totland

A final note of caution: Donʼt overdo it. At many festivals itʼs entirely possible to see two, three or four concerts a day, and tempting to take advantage of such incredible bounty. Like anything else, though, ears and eyes wear down from overexposure. For a truly rewarding and memorable experience, you need to be at your peak. Think of it like fine dining – something to be enjoyed at leisure, savoured afterward and leaving you wanting more.