I’ve had a few weeks off from travelling, but I’m now off again in search of some warm weather. Given this, I thought I’d do a full breakdown of each place I’ve busked in: how much hassle you get from the police, how much money you make, etc. And because I like lists and stuff, it’s all in alphabetical order. So, from Austria to the USA, here is:
‘The Guide to European Busking and Some Other Places That Aren’t in Europe And One That Isn’t Really But Is According to Eurovision and FIFA For Reasons Too Complicated to Go Into Right Now’
Vienna and Salzburg are both excellent places to busk. The police are pretty strict in the former, but since the pedestrianisation of Mariahilferstrasse the hourly rate is superb (I realise I’m straying into Alan Partridge territory by discussing these sort of issues, but they’re genuinely important for buskers. Although I obviously take the opposite view to Norwich’s erstwhile DJ. I don’t give a hoot about traders getting access to Dixons. Apologies for this diversion, which will be completely nonsensical to you if you haven’t watched Alan Partridge).
In Salzburg you’re more likely to get hassle from the tour guides, who think they run the place and disapproved of me because I wasn’t playing Eidelweiss on a continuous loop. They love their Sound of Music there. Cracking place though.
Good money here. Bruges in particular, on account of the fact that it’s full of relatively well off tourists. Ghent, Antwerp and Leuven are all pretty good too, although the latter is almost entirely a university town and I’ve been told it’s really dead during uni holidays. Brussels isn’t so good for busking, and no one really likes Brussels anyway, even people who live there. I stayed with a friend while I was there, who introduced the view from her fourth floor flat by saying, ‘It’s an OK view, but unfortunately it’s of Brussels’. Nuff said.
Vancouver is a beautiful place, but pretty poor for busking. This is in part due to a lot of ‘competition’ from beggars, who I am told tend to gravitate towards Vancouver because it has far milder winters than anywhere else in Canada. Which makes perfect sense, but a combination of that and a lack of pedestrianised streets (back to Partridge again) makes it difficult to make much money here. Stunning city, though.
Prague is the only city in which I’ve been given an on-the-spot fine for busking. I’ve heard similar stories from other buskers: the fine tends to be around 200kr (about £8) and around lunch time, which suggests that the Czech police are kind of like the kid in your school who beats you up for your lunch money, expect they wield genuine legal power. I decided to pay the fine entirely in 1, 2 and 5 kr coins from my busking case, which didn’t go down brilliantly, particularly when I pocketed 2 100kr notes given to me by two local onlookers, angry at what they were seeing.
Money’s decent if you don’t get fined though, particularly given how cheap the city is.
Copenhagen is a lovely city and Stroget is the street for busking. Good money, but then it sort of has to be if you want to get by financially in Denmark.
I’m yet to find a really good busking spot in Paris – answers on a postcard if you have! Or just send me a tweet or something. Toulouse, Lyon and Lille were all pretty good without being spectacular, but at least I don’t tend to get much hassle from the police in France. Someone robbed a few euros from my case in Lille, the most anyone has ever taken from me in a single swipe, but it’s probably unfair to hold Lille personally responsible for that.
German police probably the friendliest I’ve come across, on the whole. When I was busking by the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, I was accosted by a police officer, who asked me to move. I assumed he meant I had to leave the area, but all he wanted me to do was move 20 metres to my right. Which was fine, but I was intrigued to know why.
‘Oh, it’s not problem, but right now you are blocking the entrance to the American Embassy’.
Ah yes. Sorry about that.
The Eastern German town of Halle gave me my most fruitful day outside the UK so far, although its residents were a little confused about why I was there (I was staying with a friend – they don’t get many tourists in Halle) while Koln, Hamburg, Lippstadt, Erfurt, Dortmund and Munster are all fairly profitable. Weimar, however, is excellent. A small town of around 60 000 people, there is a high student population with plenty of tourism in relation to its size. Perfect busking conditions. If you do go there, pop in to Maqam’s shisha bar for a jam with Gaith – great, chilled out place and there are always loads of musicians hanging around there.
I made bugger all busking in Budapest, but what a city! Go there, but don’t expect to make money. Particularly as busking is banned on the main street for pedestrians (Vaci utca).
I thought my wide repertoire of Irish folk would go down wonderfully in Dublin, but it turns out Dublin locals are not always keen on hearing Black Velvet Band or Tell Me Ma for the sixth time that afternoon. There’s a lot of competition for places on Grafton Street, but it’s a fun and lively place to busk.
I went to a live music session in the evening that, by complete coincidence, was also attended by John Sheehan of the Dubliners, along with an entire film crew from RTE 1, Ireland’s main TV station. Somewhere, there is a documentary of his life with a short clip from a pub called the Cobblestone, with me in the background getting steadily more drunk on the free Guinness provided to all the musicians by the generous landlady, and struggling to keep up with the various tunes being played. That was my first and so far only night I’ve spent in Ireland.
‘You are aware it’s not going to be like this every time to come to Dublin?’ the landlady warned me. Sadly this is probably true.
If you time it right (i.e. avoid times when Jerusalem is on high alert), Israel can be pretty good for busking. Both Jerusalem and the very modern city of Tel Aviv were pretty good – Haifa much less so. I met a family from New Jersey in Jerusalem who were rather taken aback to hear me tear into some of the slightly more obscure Bruce Springsteen songs when they told me where they were from. Not quite what they expected from a trip to Israel, I suspect.
I’m heading back to Italy soon and so far I’ve only busked in Turin, so I’ll know more soon, but Turin was a bit crap. Nice place though. Delicious pizza, too.
I went to Luxembourg in February. It was midweek, the weather was foul and the streets were pretty deserted. But what a place this is for busking! Even despite these negative factors, I still managed to make a killing. I headed for Grand Rue (Big Road in English, which sounded promising) and, without a single other busker or police officer in sight, had an excellent afternoon.
Confusing language though. I wasn’t even aware that there was a language called Luxembourgish, but apparently there is, and it’s a clumsy mix between French and German. I say clumsy because they are very different languages – it seems whoever was in charge of this language flipped a coin for each word to decide whether to use the French or German, and then changed a couple of letters entirely at random just for a bit of variation. I would apologise to anyone from Luxembourg reading this who might be offended, but the chances of anyone from Luxembourg are so vanishingly small that it’s probably not necessary.
Much like Flanders, the Netherlands is a good place to busk with not too much hassle from the authorities. I’ve tried Amsterdam, Utrecht, Rotterdam and Maastricht and all have been pretty decent.
Solsbury Hill is particularly popular in Maastricht, although I didn’t do any songs about treaties, so I might have missed a trick there. Same goes for Lisbon. Sadly I can’t comment on Versailles as I’ve never busked there.
Krakow is a wonderful place to busk on a Saturday night if you’re prepared to pander to the ‘British stag do’ market. Mainly because they tend to be pretty drunk and barely understand the currency when sober. I got handed a 100 zloty note, worth about £20, for singing Oasis (which I usually avoid, on account of it being horribly cliched, but when it’s going to get you that sort of money, I say ‘in a for a penny, in for a zloty’)
Warsaw was a bit of a disappointment in a number of ways, including the busking, during which an angry local threw a bag of water on my head while shouting in Polish, which exploded all over me and my guitar. The police are pretty po-faced too. Not a massive fan of Warsaw on the whole.
Lisbon was very fruitful indeed – partly because I was the only busker prepared to play in the heat of summer in mid-afternoon as the temperature approached 40 degrees (potentially illegally, as I belatedly found out there some laws about busking in siesta time).
Faro was a strange place to busk in – very quiet and mainly populated by British pensioners. So much so that, on an evening stroll, I happened across a showing of a Ken Loach film about the NHS in the main square. Which was very good and everything, but still… a tad odd. There weren’t many people around in the day, presumably because most British people turn redder than a beetroot if exposed to the Portuguese sun for more than ten minutes, so they go into some sort of reverse hibernation.
I’ve only tried Bratislava, but that was pretty good, particularly when you take into account the low cost of living. Plus, I stayed in a lovely hostel called Wild Elephants and I found a pub showing Brighton v Watford, the result of which virtually sealed promotion to the Premier League for the ‘Orns. So Bratislava will always hold a place in my heart. I had an interesting conversation with a police officer where we worked out the best common language between us was German (which is rare, bearing in mind that I speak virtually no German), during which I think he was telling me I needed a license, but I’m not entirely sure. I was packing up at that point anyway, so who knows?
I enjoyed busking in Ljubljana – decent money and friendly locals. If you head here, do take a trip to Lake Bled, which is a really beautiful place. Probably not worth busking there, but by the time you get to ‘S’ in the alphabet, you’ve done a lot of busking by now and deserve a break. Crack open a beer and enjoy the view.
The Spanish police are not the friendliest I’ve come across, particularly in Barcelona and Madrid. Try busking on Las Ramblas in the former and stern-faced police will appear as if from nowhere to tell you that live music is a stain on the image of this lively, vibrant city. Ahem. Either that or they’ll tell you. ‘You move now.’
Toledo was much better, as was, to a slightly lesser extent, San Sebastian. Which I was very pleased with as I only went to San Sebastian because my mate told me that David Moyes really liked it, something he revealed when asked if he wanted to move back to the Premier League. Although it has to be said that choosing to live in San Sebastian over managing Newcastle is damning it with the very faintest of praise. Regardless of all that, it’s a place they’re both cities worth visiting.
I’ve never felt more ‘Bear Grylls’ than when busking in Stockholm in January. I managed about 3 hours before heading inside for fika (the Swedish tradition of drinking coffee and occasionally eating pastries, one which I believe derives from the Viking era) with my busking partner. If I’d attracted the attention of the police it would probably just be to stop and have a chat. Very peaceful people on the whole, the Swedes.
Malmo was also pretty good, but avoid a restaurant called Victors, which served up raw chicken, and dismissed our complaints with the defence of ‘they’re not Chinese chickens!’ Which wasn’t really the point.
I earned the equivalent of around £25 an hour in Switzerland, which is almost enough for a cup of tea. The advantage of Switzerland is that their highest denomination of a widely used coin is worth more than any other country I’ve been to (aren’t you glad you got this far? We’re talking coin denominations!) The fact that 5 franc coins exist (roughly £3.50) is a real boon for buskers. This is in stark contrast to the USA where the highest value coin is worth around 17p, which makes life a bit more difficult.
On the down side, Swiss cities are rather dull. Sorry Switzerland. You’ve got some beautiful countryside and mountains and everything, but Zurich, Basel and Lausanne didn’t really inspire me that much.
As I’ve just mentioned, the USA is a little problematic because of the low worth of its coins, but also because of the lack of densely populated pedestrianised areas. A combination of this and needing to find somewhere with no wind (to prevent the dollar bills blowing away), I was mainly relegated to busking in subway stations in both San Francisco and New York.
My favourite moment of busking in the USA came on my third day in New York, when a man dropped some money into my case and shouted ‘You make New York what it is, man!’
It’s nice to know I had made such an impression on the place in such a short length of time.
Anyway, onwards and upwards. Milan tomorrow, then on to Naples. And then… well, who knows? Exciting times ahead!