If you’re looking for a new festival experience, you’re going to need a guide. Here, Lonely Planet writer Sasha Brady explains why France’s long-running Rencontres Trans Musicales music festival is worth traveling for and why you should make it happen.
France’s Recontres Trans Musicales has become a December tradition for me. I’ve been every year since 2016 (bar 2020), and it’s a cherished winter experience; a festive city break and laid-back music festival rolled into one. I always come away 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’m going to try and tempt you.
Trans Musicales founder Jean-Louis Brossard © Getty Images
What is it?
Trans Musicales, as it’s 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 emerging acts — connecting them with bookers, labels, and agents to find a bigger platform for their music. Daft Punk got scouted by Virgin Records here in 1995, and over the years, Trans Musicales has been among the first major European gigs for acts like Nirvana, Portishead, Massive Attack, Björk, M.I.A., Janelle Monáe, Bon Iver, and Lizzo.
When Jean-Louis Brossard started the festival in 1979, certainly nobody traveled for it. It mainly attracted art students and local acts but has since evolved into one of the most diverse multi-genre music expos in Europe.
(Clockwise L-R) Montreal-based Japanese Psych-Rock band TEKE TEKE, Congolese-Belgian rapper Lous and the Yakuza, and French singer Lou Doillan at Trans Musicales © Getty Images
Why should I go?
You’ll often get to see rising stars before they make it to the stages of major European festivals like Glastonbury, Primavera, Sziget, and Body & Soul the following summer. You’ll find some established acts too, but the focus is generally on emerging talent from every corner of the globe — so if you want to immerse yourself in new music across a range of genres, this is the place to do it. Expect hip-hop, rock, jazz, Afrobeat, rap, Afro-trap, electronic, pop, and maybe a genre you’ve never heard of like Icelandic feminist pop or digital voodoo.
The festival is ideal for anyone who wants a city break too. It takes place in the evening, so during the daytime, you’re free to hang out in Rennes, Brittany’s capital. It’s a really lovely place to explore, particularly the old town with its maze of cobbled streets, half-timbered buildings, and great bistros and bars. It’s home to the Marché des Lices, France’s second-largest market, 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 displays across the city and various festive markets where you can while away a few cozy hours over 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 more sparkly than usual as it gears up for the festive season. It’s a nice time to visit as the rush of Christmas tourists has not yet arrived, and the city can feel surprisingly intimate.
Rennes is one of France’s most picturesque cities with a remarkably well-preserved Old Town © Getty Images
When is it happening?
The main part of the festival in the Parc Expo will run between Thursday, December 8, and Saturday, December 10. But you’ll also find gigs and talks at bars, theaters, and concert venues in Rennes.
Where is it?
Most of Trans Musicales takes place at the Parc Expo, a collection of large aircraft hangars and industrial warehouses near the city’s airport. Busses depart from the city every 15 minutes or so to take people there and back. The festival starts at 8pm and runs until the early hours of the morning.
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(Clockwise L-R) New Orleans act Tank and the Bangas, Beninese afro-pop band Star Feminine Band, French Armenian singer Jacqueline Baghdasaryan, and Tunisian singer Jawhar at Trans Musicales © Getty Images
As far as European festivals go, tickets are reasonably priced with a three-day pass ranging between €35 and €72. There are also day passes 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 notably higher than what you’d typically expect at a music festival. You’ll find natural wine bars, oysters, and food stalls serving cuisine from local chefs. Every year there’s also a restaurant that hosts a three-course daily-changing menu created by a guest chef. Last year, it was Michelin- starred chef Julien Lemarié who treated attendees to a Japanese-inspired seasonal menu.
Don’t forget to pack
Comfortable shoes or sneakers and a jacket. This isn’t Coachella — ‘festival fashion’ isn’t a thing here. The dress code is casual, and it can get cold in some of the halls, so you’ll need something to keep you warm, preferably layers, because you might work up a sweat when it’s time to dance.
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Rennes is a foodie paradise © Sasha Brady / Lonely Planet
Where should I stay?
There’s no camping at the festival so you’ll need to sort out your own accommodation in Rennes. The city is small and easy to navigate. You’ll likely be within walking distance of the main bus stop to the festival, no matter where you choose to stay. If not, there are buses and metros in Rennes that will get you there in a jiffy.
My pick for accommodation is Le Magic Hall, a cute retro hotel right in the middle of things. Or, Le Paris Brest, a stylish hotel that’s close to the center and the train station.
How do I get to Rennes?
You can depart from Paris by taking the high-speed train from Gare Montparnasse to Rennes in under 90 minutes. Trains are pretty regular, leaving every half hour or so.
You can also fly direct from major European cities like London, Manchester, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Rome, and more.
Sasha’s top picks for Rennes
My picks for a perfect Rennes weekend
Eat: Petite Nature; drop into 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 Saturday and Sunday), or the Michelin-starred IMA for its Japanese-French tasting menu. One of my favorite places to eat is the low-key and intimate Le Marrakech for tasty and reasonably-priced Moroccan cuisine.
Drink: Rennes is a university city, so there are lots of watering holes to suit all tastes. There are old-school 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 out.
Do: Visit the Christmas market for raclette and mulled wine or the Marché des Lices market for all sorts of trinkets and produce. Halles Centrales is another excellent market serving everything from seafood to natural wine and French pastries. For culture, head to the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rennes and try Musée de Bretagne 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’d like to squeeze in a day trip before the festival, take the train (less than an hour) to St-Malo.