Cheap thrills: the best free UK festivals of 2023


Festival 23

Centenary Square, 28 July-6 August

After successfully hosting the 2022 Commonwealth Games last summer, Birmingham is striving to keep that sporting and cultural legacy alive with a free jamboree in the city’s Centenary Square. As well as a gigantic screen and live music stage, the 10-day festival will feature promenade performances, participatory workshops and special takeover days by local cultural organisations including south Asian arts boosters Sampad and carnival specialists ACE Dance and Music. The organisers’ aim? To “conjure the shared moments, magic and memories of 22”. The full programme will be announced on 28 June.


International festival

Various venues, 29 June-16 July

Alongside its attention-grabbing big-ticket shows, this biennial event has always featured a packed programme of free entertainment in Festival Square. That cultural hub has relocated for 2023 – it is now sited outside the landmark new Factory International venue – and its riverside open-air stage will host more than 190 artists, bands and DJs over the festival run, including funk-punk veterans A Certain Ratio, South African sensation Nakhane and avant-poppers the Orielles. Yayoi Kusama is bringing a big immersive environment, You, Me and the Balloons, and beyond the square, Ryan Gander’s ambitious art installation, The Find, will scatter collectible coins inscribed with cryptic instructions across Manchester, inviting everyone to be part of a city-wide treasure hunt.


River Stage

National Theatre, to 2 July

The 2023 edition of the National Theatre’s free outdoor arts blowout has been in full swing this month but still has two more curated weekends to go. The multidisciplinary Shubbak festival proudly celebrates modern Arab culture, from the politically pro-active Hawiyya Dance Company to the underground soul sounds of Beirut Groove Collective (AKA DJ Ernesto Chahoud). The final weekend sees Hackney Empire’s Young Producers – a shrewd crew of tastemakers aged 14-21 – serve up beatboxing, steel drums, grime and much more.

Greenwich Docklands international festival

Various locations, 25 August-10 September

The long-running Greenwich Docklands festival has taken “acts of hope” as its 2023 theme, presenting a bustling schedule of free outdoor theatre, art, dance and circus performances in public spaces to encourage creativity and reflection. Early highlights include Ancient Futures, a DayGlo Thamesmead dance party that takes a sci-fi look at west African folklore, and Cygnus, a quirky nocturnal ballet performed by serene robotic swans at Royal Victoria Dock. Check the website later this month for the full programme.

Animatronic swans in London. Photograph: Florian Ullbrich


British Firework Championships

Plymouth Sound, 16-17 August

Things are about to get lit: the natural amphitheatre of Plymouth Sound provides a dramatic backdrop for the long-running British Firework Championships, which see six professional companies launch their glittering displays from the Mountbatten breakwater while thousands of pyrotechnics fans look on from the shore. Things do not get fired up until after dark but the event lays on family-friendly entertainment from the early evening of both nights, including a funfair, live music and food stalls at favoured viewing location the Hoe, dominated by distinctive local landmark Smeaton’s Tower.



Various venues, to 17 September

The UK’s largest festival of contemporary art offers a city-wide programme of free exhibitions, performances, screenings and community events under the banner of “uMoya: The Sacred Return of Lost Things”, celebrating ancestral and indigenous forms of knowledge, wisdom and healing. With more than 30 artists exhibiting in historic buildings, art galleries, museums and public spaces, highlights include a new large-scale multilingual neon work on Stanley Dock and a carnivalesque installation injecting revolutionary spirit into the Liverpool One open-air mall.


International riverside festival

Various locations, 3-6 August

This long-running free outdoor shindig sees the market town taken over by local and international artists for a packed family-friendly programme. Highlights include French innovators Bivouac, UK dance troupe Akademi, circus specialists Upswing and Portuguese theatre company Teatro Só.

Dance troupe Akademi in Stockton. Photograph: Justin Jones


Cults & Classics open air cinema

Queens Park Arena, 3-21 July

The community-led Queen’s Park Arena in Glasgow’s Southside has expanded its summer season of free screenings, kicking off with a Back to the Future double bill. After that, the programme alternates between family matinees (including Toy Story, Mary Poppins and Frozen) and more mature evening fare (Scarface, A Nightmare on Elm Street and Braveheart). The amphitheatre is also staging a host of other free activities all summer, including participatory fitness workshops, an open stage for local musicians, the second annual community choir festival, Laugh in the Park comedy festival and storytelling events for kids.

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Parc Bute, 15-16 July

Taking place in the shadow of Cardiff Castle, this free two-day festival celebrates Welsh-language culture in all its forms. That means more than 40 bands – including melancholy indie rockers Bwncath and heavy brass ensemble Llareggub – playing across three stages, plus the usual food stalls and beer tents, and a wide range of activities for everyone from teens to toddlers. The vibe extends to the rest of Cardiff, with bars, cafes and venues across the city hosting free events in the week leading up to the festival.


International balloon fiesta

Ashton Court Estate, 10-13 August

Up, up and away … and it helps to get up early if you want to make the most of Europe’s largest free annual hot-air balloon festival. The first morning mass ascent begins at 6am on the Friday, with up to 100 balloons gracefully lifting off (below). If the family sleep in, there are other mass ascents at 6pm on all four days of the festival (weather permitting). The rest of the time, get up close to tethered historical balloons, chat to aerialists during their pre-flight prep and investigate the nearby market crammed with local stalls and family activities.

Balloons in Bristol. Photograph: Paul Box © framedogs


Music in the Parks

Various locations, to 30 September

What better way to celebrate a city’s grassroots music scene than with free performances in some of its greenest spaces? Every Friday and Sunday this summer (and beyond) will see local Belfast talent – including folk groups, jazz trios, contemporary choirs, hip-hop collectives, African drumming ensembles and brass bands – perform afternoon shows, culminating in a grand finale concert at City Hall. The rolling series of gigs encompasses a dozen leafy locations, including urban sanctuary CS Lewis Square.


re/action festival

Various locations, 26-27 August

This new-for-2023 festival sets out to examine issues of climate change through the lens of creativity, injecting Leicester town centre with family-friendly pop-up shows, installations and exhibitions. They will include oversized wandering creations piloted by Puppets With Guts, interactive theatre from award-winning Plunge Boom and a recital by the Vegetable Orchestra, who toot on root veg. There will also be a dedicated “re/purpose” area exploring the ways old household items can be given a new lease of life.