For many people, music is the opposite of travel. It comes to us. If your dream is seeing “the Boss,” you wait for a tour, then buy your ticket to a variation on the same show in some big-box arena.

Yet some music venues are destinations themselves. After poring through hundreds of candidates in the U.S., here are 11 iconic venues where it’s more about the experience of being there, than who happens to be on stage.

The iconic lights outside the Apollo Theater in Harlem. (Photograph by Tanakawho, Flickr)

The iconic lights outside the Apollo Theater in Harlem. (Photograph by Tanakawho, Flickr)

Apollo Theater (Harlem, New York)
A survivor of Harlem’s first renaissance, the Apollo has been a go-to music mecca in uptown NYC for nearly a century. Ella Fitzgerald and Stevie Wonder found fame there and James Brown recorded his legendary live album there. Heck, a memorial service and viewing was held there when he died in 2006.

The best time to go, on Wednesdays for their outrageous Amateur Night, is no secret, but witnessing the wide array of talent on display — and being a part of the alternately cheering and catcalling audience — more than deserves the rave reviews.

Blueberry Hill (St. Louis, Missouri)
Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame first-round inductee Chuck Berry still plays intimate shows at Blueberry Hill in his hometown. At 86, who know how much longer he’ll be doing it, so better get there on the double.

The classic venue (named after the song made famous by fellow first-round inductee Fats Domino) is stuffed to the gills with memorabilia — and stuffed animal heads. But Berry fans head to the basement Duck Room, named for Berry’s duck-walk strut. Arthritis may lead some of the guitar legend’s riffs astray these days, but his wit and singing remain crystal clear. Go early, and you can get very, very close.

Fitzgerald Theater (St. Paul, Minnesota)

Get a taste of traditional New Orleans jazz at Preservation Hall. (Photograph by Nagari, Flickr)

Get a taste of traditional New Orleans jazz at Preservation Hall. (Photograph by Nagari, Flickr)

The throwback variety radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion,” is touring this year, but its real home is the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. Built in 1910 as the Shubert, it adopted the name of the city’s most famous literary son, F. Scott Fitzgerald, in 1994 due to efforts of folks like Companion host Garrison Keillor.

The show returns to its home base in September, and remains the definitive place to take in the show’s trademark corny jokes and singers revisiting blues, gospel, and folk classics.

Preservation Hall (New Orleans, Louisiana)
Preservation Hall was set up in 1961 to help preserve traditional New Orleans jazz and runs 45-minute shows for $15 (cash only) in front of a packed crowd.

Arrive an hour ahead of time to get a seat. The house band lets the trombones and tubas and trumpets soar across the scales. You won’t leave unhappy.

Ground Zero Blues Club (Clarksville, Mississippi)
Travel an hour and a half down Highway 61 from Memphis (and near Robert Johnson’s fabled “crossroads” meeting place with the devil), and you’ll come to Clarksdale — a humble little hamlet with a handful of places to have a beer and eat some ribs. But the town’s greatest asset is Ground Zero.

It’s best in April, during the Juke Joint Festival, but the classic joint – with faded couches out front, pulled pork cooking inside, and a mix of musicians churning out primo blues – just feels right any time of year. Even if it is only 12 years old, and co-owned by Morgan Freeman.

The Barn (Woodstock, New York)
Ever see a “Midnight Ramble”? After making music history at Big Pink, the simple home-studio of Bob Dylan and his band, The Band, who helped countrify rock ‘n’ roll’s psychedelic vibe in the late ‘60s, drummer Levon Helm stuck around and began hosting rambles at his barn down the road.

Even after Helm’s recent death, his barn continues to host rambles, a mishmash of musicians sampling Americana folk and Band songs, that help keep his legacy alive. Go early to mingle and drink in the grass parking lot outside, then find a spot to stand (I recommend just behind the stage).

Gruene Hall (New Braunfels, Texas)
Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth may be the world’s biggest honky-tonk, and Gilley’s in Houston may be preparing for a comeback, but for laid-back, historic kicks, Gruene Hall – “the oldest continually run dance hall in Texas” – still takes the prize.

Opened in 1878, this honky-tonk backed by the town water tower has played host to a laundry list of country greats (Townes Van Zandt, Lucinda Williams, and Lyle Lovett among them) who cut their teeth on the stage. The timeless venue still shines.

Ryman Auditorium (Nashville, Tennessee)

It’s where Hank did it his way. And where Earl Scruggs put bluegrass on the map, Johnny Cash staged his TV show, and Robert Altman filmed his fascinating 1975 movie, Nashville.

Built as a tabernacle in 1892, the Ryman Auditorium famously hosted the Grand Ole Opry radio show from 1943 to 1976. (Though the Opry’s gone on to bigger pastures most of the year, it returns to its roots each winter.) But the Ryman remains a temple of twang and beyond, hosting acts as varied as Neil Young to Blondie. You can also tour the legendary building.

Surf Ballroom (Clear Lake, Iowa)

The Ringers onstage at the Troubadour. (Photograph by Sean Byron, Flickr)

The Ringers onstage at the Troubadour. (Photograph by Sean Byron, Flickr)

Iowa might not be high on your travel bucket list, but if you’re a rock fan, or crave a Back to the Future timewarp, you should add it. Walking into the Surf Ballroom – which resembles a stylish retro bowling alley – is like stepping into 1959. More precisely, it’s like walking into February 2, 1959, when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper played their final show.

Since that fateful, fatal, crash, the Surf hangs onto its look and pays tribute to the rock ‘n’ roll legends by hosting a festival every February. Big names, wanting to pay homage themselves, make it here, too.

Troubadour (Los Angeles, California)
Apologies to the Whisky a Go Go or the Hollywood Bowl, but Troubadour, on Santa Monica Avenue since 1957, is L.A.’s essential rock stage.

It was here that Lenny Bruce got arrested, Joni Mitchell went California (she’s Canadian), Tom Waits got discovered, and Guns N’ Roses got signed. Plan ahead; the compact stage, backed by the venue’s iconic neon sign, sells out — and fills up — fast on big nights.

The Village Vanguard (Manhattan, New York)
The cozy Village Vanguard is one of a handful of jazz-era survivors that simply needs to experienced once. Opened in 1935, the Vanguard served as a bebop breeding ground in the ‘50s and the setting for seminal jazz recordings by Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, and Bill Evans. A show here remains a rite of passage and a badge of pride for stand-out musicians on the rise.

Any night is the real deal, but if you want to see surviving old-school session players, you’re in luck; they still play here regularly.

Robert Reid has written a couple dozen guidebooks for Lonely Planet and regularly appears to discuss travel trends on national TV. Follow him on Twitter @ReidOnTravel.

Comments

  1. Tom Walje
    Denver
    July 14, 2013, 10:23 am

    “Yet some music venues are destinations themselves.” And Red Rocks Amphitheatre fails to make the list?

  2. Robert Reid
    July 14, 2013, 1:19 pm

    Thanks for the comment. I think Red Rocks is a classic. Could’ve easily added it! I opted against as I preferred smaller, indoor venues more. This easily could’ve been a Top 20 list but I went, out of respect to Spinal Tap, with 11.

  3. Mike Thompson
    Tulsa, OK
    July 15, 2013, 1:18 pm

    The Surf Ballroom is in Clear Lake, Iowa not Central Lake.

  4. Robert Reid
    July 15, 2013, 1:43 pm

    Hi Mike. Thanks for the Iowa correction — I’ve made it in the article!

  5. Matt Bych
    Nashville, TN
    July 15, 2013, 4:06 pm

    Why does everyone look miserable in the Ryman picture? Weird.

  6. T. Martin
    United States
    July 15, 2013, 4:18 pm

    The Troubador is on Santa Monica Blvd but it’s in West Hollywood.. Great venue though. I thought if there was only spot in LA on the list it would have been the Greek Theatre.
    Not knocking the Troub though.

  7. ross rylance
    charlotte nc
    July 15, 2013, 4:50 pm

    What about The Auditorium Theater in Chicago?

  8. Jodi
    California
    July 16, 2013, 12:52 am

    What about The Fillmore?

  9. matthew chambers
    Kentucky
    July 16, 2013, 1:08 am

    You left out The Legendary Dobbs on South St. in Philadelphia …one of the most iconic places to play on the east coast. shame on you

  10. Gary Knowles
    Madison, Wisconsin
    July 16, 2013, 10:45 am

    An excellent list. I’d suggest a visit to Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua on Mount Aswabay ski hill near Bayfield, WI. A June to Sept. intimate circus tent venue seats about 600 overlooking Lake Superior and features a variety of big time traveling shows (Johnny Cash, Avett Brothers, Beach Boys, Glenn Campbell, Joan Baez, Willie Nelson, Nanci Griffith, Taj Mahal, Trampled by Turtles) as well as emerging talent (Elephant Revival, Pret Near Sandstone, Corey Carlson) and the resident Blue Canvas Orchestra. Now in its 27th season, BTC is a wonderful small place to enjoy music. http://Www.bigtop.org

  11. Steven L Johnson
    United States
    July 16, 2013, 11:01 am

    Some serious omissions here’ No Bluebird in Nashville, TN, Club Passin, in Boston., Mass or Comfy Couch Concerts in Wixom, MI?

  12. Robert Reid
    July 16, 2013, 12:53 pm

    Thanks for all the great suggestions. Someone oughta make a book out of this. And be sure to get in Philly’s Dobbs too.