Live Report: Sziget Festival 2023

A magical trip to the Island of Freedom...

On its 30th year anniversary, nearly 500,000 people have congregated to Budapest to celebrate at Sziget Festival. Routinely known as the European Glastonbury and The Island of Freedom, Sziget Festival 2023 marked yet another year in paradise. 

With over 50 stages, reviewing Sziget was always going to be a lofty task. Sadly, I did not visit all 50 stages – but take it as a sign that it is practically, physically impossible to be bored at the festival. It’s an impressive feat of logistics that there’s little sound spillage and plenty of bars for hydration; clearly these guys have mastered the art of putting on a show. 

Florence + The Machine started off the festival on Thursday with a wild bang, bringing her riveting woodland ritual energy to the Sziget crowd. Whether it’s loud noisy numbers like ‘Ship To Wreck’ to more sinister numbers like ‘Big God’, Florence manages to pull you in with ease. “Thank you for your offerings!”, she chanted as people got up on shoulders to the sound of ‘Rabbit Heart’. It’s exactly the right start needed for a huge festival like Sziget. 

On Friday, we were treated to YUNGBLUD, whose charisma truly knows no bounds. Yeah, it’s a bit performatively sweary – are you sufficiently punk if you don’t say fuck in the middle of every sentence? Nevertheless, his ability to turn an uncertain crowd into raving, waving fans in an hour is very impressive to watch. Then we caught a snippet of Loyle Carner, who keeps proving that his artistry continues to flourish. He opened with the raging ‘Hate’, and delivered the monologue to ‘Polyfilla’ under a picturesque streetlamp. Then, we sped off to headliners Imagine Dragons, who blessed Hungary with their titanic stadium rock anthems. This is the perfect band to headline your festival given how mighty their sound is – wait until you’re screaming “RADIOACTIVE!!!” in a giant, raucous crowd.  

Come Saturday, we saw a fresh-faced Niall Horan with his smooth blend of 80s pop and his revamped talk show aesthetic. He was his natural charming, down-to-earth self, complimenting the Hungarians as sexy people and wearing the Hungarian flag colours in his outfit. It’s a bit of a strange jump to David Guetta as the headliner, but the crowd was absolutely wild for him. What’s great about Guetta is that he is unafraid to play the classics of Eurodance and EDM; fans were treated to crowdpleasers such as ‘I’m Blue’, ‘I Gotta Feeling’ and Peggy Gou’s breakout summer hit ‘Na Na Na’. 

On the last day of our trip, we managed to catch Arlo Parks on the main stage, who soothed everyone with her gorgeous, silky voice. The vocal mixing was a little too quiet for my taste, but she powered on through with her stripped back performance in the cozy afternoon sun. From Arlo Parks, we made it to the last bit of synth-pop powerhouses M83 (but just missed ‘Midnight City!’ Gah!). It was a grandiose, epic finish to their set that incorporated booming, psychedelic synths and Anthony Gonzalez’s trademark wail. Finally, Mumford & Sons headlined with their folk-pop hits like ‘Little Lion Man’ and ‘I Will Wait’. I’ll be completely honest, I haven’t kept up with them since 2012, but I hear Marcus Mumford has an excellent, stirring solo album (and to be fair, the crowd was pretty pleased with their setlist). 

Sadly, we didn’t get to see Macklemore, Lorde or Billie Eilish – but given the sheer amount of extracurriculars at Sziget, there was hardly a dull moment. Where else can you find Niall Horan singing ‘Little Things’ as someone bungee jumps in the background? There’s amusement rides, glitter stations, art and dance workshops at the festival. 

Sziget also presents itself as a haven for queer people with its Magic Mirror stage, where you can find everything from Drag Brunches to performers like Cakes da Killa and Raisha Cosima. Given the disturbing increase in anti-LGBT+ legislation growing in Hungary, it is genuinely incredible to see a major festival like Sziget platform queer artists and issues. 

The festival boasts performers from over 62 countries; however, it would be nice to see acts outside the Anglosphere to be on bigger stages asides from the ‘Global Village’. You’re telling me there’s no room for K-pop acts or Latin popstars on the main stage? Imagine what European K-pop stans would do if they found out SHINee or Bad Bunny were performing in Budapest.

Given its international nature, however, everyone at the festival is incredibly friendly and welcoming; I personally counted dozens of Australians and Kiwis who had made the arduous 24-hour journey to come to Sziget. And for good reason: 30 years on from its initial inception, Sziget proves why it’s one of the most impressive festivals you could attend in Europe. There’s no shortage of fun to be had on this island and you get to see some of the biggest artists in the world in one of the most gorgeous cities in Europe.

Words: Alex Rigotti // @alex_rigatoni

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