If you’re looking for a new festival experience, you’ll need a guide. Here, Lonely Planet writer Sasha Brady explains why France’s long-running Rencontres Trans Musicales music festival is worth traveling to and why you should make it a reality.
The Rencontres Trans Musicales in France have become a December tradition for me. I’ve been going there every year since 2016 (bar 2020), and it’s a cherished winter experience; a festive urban getaway and a laid-back music festival rolled into one. I always come back from the festival feeling like I’ve discovered something special, and every year I try to encourage more friends and family to come. This year, I will try to tempt you.
What is that?
Trans Musicales, as it is commonly known, is an annual music festival in the French city of Rennes that takes place in early December. For nearly 50 years, the festival has launched the careers of various up-and-coming artists by connecting them with bookers, labels and agents to find a greater platform for their music. Daft Punk was spotted by Virgin Records here in 1995, and over the years Trans Musicales have been among the first major European gigs for bands like Nirvana, Portishead, Massive Attack, Björk, MIA, Janelle Monáe, Bon Iver and Lizzo .
When Jean-Louis Brossard launched the festival in 1979, no one attended. It mainly attracted art students and local artists, but has since become one of the most diverse multi-genre music exhibitions in Europe.
Why should I go there?
You’ll often get to see rising stars before they hit the stages of major European festivals like Glastonbury, Primavera, Sziget and Body & Soul the following summer. You’ll also find established artists, but the focus is usually on emerging talent from all corners of the globe – so if you want to immerse yourself in new music across a range of genres, this is the place for the TO DO. Expect hip-hop, rock, jazz, afrobeat, rap, afro-trap, electronic, pop and maybe some genre you don’t have never heard of like Icelandic feminist pop or digital voodoo.
The festival is ideal for anyone who also wants to take a city break. It takes place in the evening, so during the day you are free to stroll around Rennes, the capital of Brittany. It’s a really charming place to explore, especially the old town with its maze of cobbled streets, half-timbered buildings and excellent bistros and bars. It is home to the Marché des Lices, the second largest market in France, where you can stock up on bread, cheese, wine and other French treats. And because the festival takes place in December, you’ll find Rennes lit up like a Christmas tree with twinkling light shows across the city and various festive markets where you can spend a few pleasant hours over a mulled wine.
If you really want to push the boat out, you can end the experience with a few days in Paris. The city is only 90 minutes away by high-speed train and you’ll find the City of Lights sparkles more than usual as it gears up for the festive season. It’s a pleasant time to visit as the Christmas tourist rush hasn’t arrived yet and the town can feel surprisingly intimate.
When is this happening?
The main part of the festival at Parc Expo will take place from Thursday December 8th to Saturday December 10th. But you will also find concerts and conferences in the bars, theaters and concert halls of Rennes.
Where is he?
Most Trans Musicales take place at Parc Expo, a collection of large aircraft hangars and industrial warehouses near the city’s airport. Buses leave the city about every 15 minutes to take people there and back. The festival starts at 8 p.m. and lasts until the early hours.
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As for European festivals, tickets are reasonably priced with a three-day pass between €35 and €72. Day passes are also available.
Can I find food and drink at the festival?
Yes, there’s an entire hall dedicated to food and drink, and the quality is definitely higher than what you would typically expect at a music festival. You will find natural wine bars, oysters and food stalls serving cuisine from local chefs. Each year there is also a restaurant that offers a three-course menu that changes daily and is created by a guest chef. Last year, Michelin-starred chef Julien Lemarié delighted guests with a Japanese-inspired seasonal menu.
Don’t forget to pack
Comfortable shoes or sneakers and a jacket. It’s not Coachella – ‘festival fashion’ isn’t a thing here. The dress code is casual and it can get chilly in some venues so you’ll need something to keep you warm, preferably layers, as you might sweat when it’s time to dance.
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Where should I stay?
There is no camping on the festival, so you will have to organize your accommodation in Rennes yourself. The town is small and easy to navigate. You’ll likely be within walking distance of the main festival bus stop no matter where you choose to stay. Otherwise, there are buses and metros in Rennes that will get you there in no time.
My accommodation choice is The Magic Hall, a cute retro hotel right in the middle of things. Or, Le Paris Brest, a design hotel near the center and the train station.
How to get to Rennes?
You can leave Paris by taking the high-speed train from Gare Montparnasse to Rennes in less than 90 minutes. Trains are fairly regular, leaving approximately every half hour.
You can also fly directly from major European cities like London, Manchester, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Rome, etc.
My favorites for a perfect weekend in Rennes
To eat: Small type; head to this friendly cafe if you fancy a plant-based breakfast or lunch. Try Le Petite Ourse for dinner, where you’ll find beautifully presented seasonal dishes (note: it’s closed on Saturdays and Sundays), or the Michelin-starred IMA for its French-Japanese tasting menu. One of my favorite places to eat is the discreet and intimate Le Marrakech for tasty and reasonably priced Moroccan cuisine.
Beverage: Rennes is a university town, so there are plenty of watering holes for everyone. There are old-fashioned taverns in dark half-timbered buildings, music bars and Parisian-style wine cellars like La Grappe, Rewined and Pénates. Rue Saint Michele, known as Rue de la Soif (or Drinker’s Alley), is a cobbled street with the highest concentration of bars in the city. Start here and work your way up.
Do: Visit the Christmas market for raclette and mulled wine or the Lices market for all sorts of trinkets and produce. Les Halles Centrales is another great market serving everything from seafood to natural wine and French pastries. For culture, head to the Museum of Fine Arts in Rennes and try the Museum of Brittany for history. If you’re looking for French fashion, Rennes is home to great vintage and second-hand stores; my favorites are Soleil Noir and Antoine & Colette. If you want to do a day trip before the festival, take the train (less than an hour) to St-Malo.