How To Survive the Treasure Island Music Festival: A Veteran's Guide

The view from the Ferris wheel at the Treasure Island Music Festival, 2013. (Photo: Gabe Meline)

Sure, it sounded crazy back in 2007 to have a music festival on Treasure Island, smack-dab in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. But over the last eight years, the Treasure Island Music Festival has grown into an irreplaceable jewel in the festival calendar's postseason. Yes, it has minor challenges of weather and transportation, but it also has great rewards in prescient booking and an incredible setting. Since its inception, it's been my favorite music festival on the planet.

If you're a newcomer — if you've never hopped on the shuttle to the festival, ridden the Ferris wheel and watched the sun set over the San Francisco skyline while your favorite band plays — then there are a few things you should know. Having made the mid-Bay excursion five out of the past seven years, I'll fill you in on getting there, getting around, and getting the hell out of there before the fog freezes your fingers.

Just kidding. The cold's not that bad. Except for that one year.

Get There Early

The thing that intimidates people most about Treasure Island is the very thing that makes it great. Everyone takes public transportation to the festival. Well, not everyone — you can be schmancy and fork out big bucks for an island parking pass — and to be clear about the “public” part, it's not exactly MUNI. It's something even crazier: Google buses! Yes, you, too, get to pretend to be one of the elite on a real-live Bauer shuttle. The bus ride always has a festive atmosphere, and even if you're shy, eavesdropping on others' conversations is always rewarding.

Buses leave from the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. Get there early. Really. Get there early. I can't tell you how many times I thought I budgeted enough time, only to find myself disembarking from the bus on the island and running wildly to see the band I really wanted to see. My advice: give yourself two hours' lead time. If you're dying to see Banks at 2:45, get to the Civic Center at 12:45 just to be safe. If you're driving, parking in any one of the lots near the Civic Center can take forever, and then bus lines, bus traffic, will call, entrance lines — it all adds up.

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Once You've Made It

Congratulations! Here's the good news: unlike larger festivals, you won't be walking back and forth for miles and miles. The grounds are small, and there are only two stages, with no overlap between sets. The best path between the two stages is definitely on the west side of the field, closest to San Francisco. Not only is it less-populated, but it's scenic, too.

The second stage is so small, there's almost no bad place to watch from, but for the main stage, you'll want to head for the trees on the west side of the field. In fact, walk up the entire way behind the trees, and you can usually slide into the crowd right in the front of the stage, off to the side a little bit.

Got some down time? The booths at most other festivals are usually awful corporate-tent kryponite, but at Treasure Island, I'm telling you, it's like Etsy threw up all over the place. Booths change from year to year, but in the past I've seen interactive yarn art, a vintage video game arcade, vintage clothes, do-it-yourself electronic music and some weird wandering monsters playing Klezmer music.

And of course, there's the Ferris wheel. The 60-ft. tall ride is an icon of the festival, and if you want to avoid the lines, ride it early in the day. But man, if you want an amazing view, brave the lines right before sunset. If you time it just right, the view is incredible.

Ana Tijoux, from France, appears at this year's festival.
Ana Tijoux, from France, appears at this year's festival.

Don't Just Show Up for the Headliners

This year more than any other, the Treasure Island fest is an excellent showcase for bands you've never heard of but that are about to blow up. When you comb through the history of the festival's past lineups, you find acts playing early daytime slots that would go on to headline large halls and theaters — Fleet Foxes, Vampire Weekend, St. Vincent, Flying Lotus, Grimes, Haim and Disclosure all come to mind.

So who to catch this year? Personally, I wouldn't miss XXYYXX, Ana Tijoux, Ryan Hemsworth, Cathedrals, or Banks. Everyone's got different tastes, of course. Over at KQED Pop, there's a Spotify playlist of sure shots from this year's lineup, and our pals at Noise Pop have put together a Top 10 playlist as well. You already know to catch Zedd, Outkast, Alt-J and Massive Attack, but get there earlier and you'll be rewarded.

And Then the Fog Rolls In

You need to layer yourself like a mofo at this festival. Because of the ocean breeze, the flat, sea-level terrain and the infamous Bay fog, it can get cold. In 2010, the coldest year yet, I actually left before Belle & Sebastian because I didn't bring a thick enough jacket—and I love Belle & Sebastian. So don't worry about looking silly with a thick sweatshirt tied around your waist all day. You'll need it later.

Here's another thing: leave before the last song. I'll do you a favor and tell you that Outkast has been closing out their set every night with “Int'l Players Anthem” and “The Whole World,” so if you want to bail after “So Fresh, So Clean,” you'll get a head start on the shuttles. If you wait, lines for buses back to the city get really long.

And there you have it — a perfect weekend spent on the island.

The Treasure Island Music Festival runs Saturday–Sunday, Oct. 18-19, on Treasure Island. Details and ticket info here.