The Buskers Festival enlivens Karlsplatz with world-class performers

Since time immemorial, humanity has been fascinated with unusual feats of derring- do, turning to jugglers, jesters, jackanapes and troubadours for amusement. Their modern successors, street artists, continue their legacy on the high streets, giving relief from the daily pendeln (commute) and this month, some of the very best will assemble in central Vienna for the Buskers Festival.

First appearing back in 2011, the festival has rapidly evolved into one of the most kaleidoscopic events in the city, drawing crowds upwards of 80,000 over a single weekend. Transforming the magnificent baroque backdrop of Karlsplatz into an open-air circus, outstanding performers from around the globe will vie for your attention with music, dancing, live theater, acrobatics, fire eating and performance art. Featuring veterans as well as new talent, over 800 applications were received with 40 lucky acts cherry picked to ensure only the finest get to perform. Arts and crafts, face painting and juggling lessons round out the program for all ages, as well as a green workshop on upcycling and recycling.

The experience of performing for an unsuspecting public often proves an invaluable school of hard knocks for budding entertainers, with many big names cutting their teeth on street corners. Rod Stewart, and, more recently, Ed Sheeran both started out playing for tips in central London (Stewart was even deported from Spain for vagrancy during his busking days). British comedian Eddie Izzard first began performing around Covent Garden while Robin Williams was a mime in New York’s Central Park while still studying at Juilliard. Even Pierce Brosnan worked as a fire eater before moving on to acting and eventually the role of James Bond. And, of course, Cirque du Soleil remains the most prominent example, founded by Canadian street artists Guy LaLiberté and Gilles Ste-Croix, transforming sideshows into big business with the help of artistic sets and costumes.

Taking the Streets

Busking may be a familiar sight in many European cities, but wayside performers are noticeably thinner on Vienna’s pristine avenues. Traditionally lumped together with beggars and panhandlers, until recently busking was treated with apprehension by authorities, who addressed the issue by placing daunting bureaucratic hurdles: A street performer’s licence is mandatory, and applicants often waited an inordinate length of time only to be given a random plot with very little foot traffic. Unsurprisingly, many itinerant entertainers skipped Vienna altogether, plying their trade in neighboring Prague or Salzburg. However, the city’s attitude has gradually warmed to the phenomenon in part due to its ongoing love affair with pedestrian zones like Mariahilfer Strasse, promising to make the City of Music far more receptive to street performers. Most notably, Wiener Linien have followed London’s lead and begun experimenting with permitting select buskers to play certain U-Bahn stations, with the pilot project launched at Westbahnhof this summer. After an overwhelmingly positive reception, they are now expanding the project this month, using the Buskers festival to hold castings for potential performers.

In keeping with the layout of previous years, there will be six areas dotted around the square, featuring simultaneous on-the-hour performances. Mobile acts will mingle with the crowd, creating a hive of buzzing activity.

Entry to the festival is free. However, please remember that the performers rely on crowd contributions for an income – so don’t forget to raid your piggy bank in advance! With a little encouragement, some of the acts may become familiar faces on street corners – or perhaps, one day, stare down from billboards.

Sept 8-10, 1., Karlsplatz.