50 iconic rock venues across the world
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50 iconic rock venues across the world
It’s next to impossible to pinpoint exactly where, or when, rock ’n’ roll began. Most music critics agree it really took off in the 1950s but argue over which artist or group was the originator, and therefore, where, exactly, the birthplace of rock is. So while we can’t say for certain who that first rock star was, or which state or country can lay claim to the genre, we can trace the history of the style of music through the venues that shaped it.
To do this, Stacker used news reports and musical histories to compile a list of 50 iconic rock venues across the world. While many of these venues are concentrated in NYC and London, which were two of the earliest cities to champion the new style of music, we’ve included venues from every continent and dozens of countries. From Cafe Wha? to the O2 Arena to Copacabana Beach, each of the concert halls, clubs, and arenas on this list played a significant role in the shaping and history of rock.
Read on to learn a little more about rock and roll through the venues that shaped it.
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Located in Minneapolis, Minnesota, First Avenue is one of the oldest independently owned and operated music venues in the country. Prince really put the club on the map in the ’80s when he regularly performed there and made it both the set and setting for his movie “Purple Rain.” Over the years, First Avenue has hosted an abundance of other acts like R.E.M., Run-DMC, The Kinks, U2, and Pat Benatar.
Cafe Wha? // Wikimedia Commons
Without Cafe Wha?, many of today’s legends may not exist. The former coffeehouse in Greenwich Village, New York, allowed artists like Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan to hone their talents early in their careers, preparing them for the arenas they play today. In fact, it was here that Hendrix was discovered by former Animals bass player Chas Chandler, who whisked him away to London and transformed him into the iconic guitarist we know and love.
Madison Square Garden
First opened in 1879, Madison Square Garden is arguably the world’s most famous arena. Playing a show here indicates an artist or group has really made it to the top of their game, and selling one out is an even bigger accomplishment. Almost every major rock band you can think of has headlined at least one night at the Garden, but the most notable might be Billy Joel, who played his record 65th show here in July 2015.
Mount Smart Stadium
New Zealand may not have loads of rock venues, but the few it does have hosted some pretty memorable acts. For instance, Queen played Mount Smart Stadium just a few months before their iconic performance at Live Aid in 1985. Rumor has it the band dug through a huge selection of its backlist even though lead singer Freddie Mercury had indulged in a few too many drinks before taking the stage.
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The unofficial capital of grunge, Seattle’s The Crocodile spent nearly 30 years in its original location in the Belltown neighborhood. There, bands like Nirvana (who played a legendary surprise show in the early ’90s), Death Cab for Cutie, and Pearl Jam all took the stage. Though their lease was not renewed after the COVID-19 pandemic, the club’s owners aren’t willing to let the music die just yet, having relocated to a newer, bigger space a few neighborhoods over, where they hope to launch the careers of a whole new generation of grunge groups.
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Festival Hall was the original House of Rock and Roll in Australia and was sought out by groups for its size and electric atmosphere. Some of its most notable concerts include appearances by The Beatles, Queen, the Ramones, Foo Fighters, and Powderfinger. The megachurch Hillsong bought the concert hall in 2020, leaving many to wonder if its debaucherous rock ’n’ roll days are over.
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The O2 Arena
Bon Jovi played the first-ever show at London’s O2 Arena in 2007. Muse packed in the most audience members at 21,000. Prince performed here 21 nights in a row. Having existed for just over a decade, the massive concert hall has managed to pack in plenty of history and firsts for rock ’n’ roll, and it seems poised to pull off a lot more.
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A recent victim of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Boardwalk, in Sheffield, England, closed down in early 2020 after decades of rock. A small bar with a stage in the back, the venue is known as the birthplace of The Clash, who played their first show here, and is also closely linked to the Arctic Monkeys and Joe Cocker. A recent petition seeks to have the building landmarked rather than turned into commercial space, much to the relief of music fans everywhere.
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Built into an old limestone quarry in Rattvik, Sweden, Dalhalla rocks, in the most literal way possible. Though the venue, which has amazing natural acoustics, usually hosts opera performances, a handful of rock groups have also stepped on the stage. Most recently, Deep Purple, Judas Priest, and The Hives have all held concerts here.
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In 1994, Rod Stewart made history when his free New Year’s Eve concert held at Copacabana Beach drew in a record-setting audience of 3.5 million. A little over a decade later, the Rolling Stones would also play a free concert at the Rio locale, with 1.5 million in attendance (the concert tape is finally set to be released sometime in 2021). While only a few concerts have been held at the beach to date, the massive turnouts have earned the venue a place in rock history nonetheless.
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Bonds International Casino
Speaking of legendary concerts, the Clash once performed at Bonds International Casino in New York City an incredible 17 nights in a row in order to ensure every fan who bought a ticket for their original eight-night run would have a chance to see them perform. Each night had a different opening act, which included groups like Dead Kennedys and Grandmaster Flash. Many of these performances were illegally recorded, and tons of bootleg recordings exist of the various nights.
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The Fillmore West
Located just blocks from the painted ladies in San Francisco, The Fillmore served as a center for psychedelic music and the counterculture during the ’60s and ’70s. The Warlocks (aka the Grateful Dead) played their first concert here, and other bands like The Doors, Pink Floyd, The Cure, Sonic Youth, and The Who all cycled through as well. Additionally, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers played a whopping 27 shows here (over the course of two different appearances) before Petty’s passing in 2017.
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The Fillmore East
Sister venue to the Fillmore West, the Fillmore East was located in the rock ’n’ roll heart of NYC: the East Village. Over the course of its three-year existence, it hosted sold-out shows for headliners like Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, and the Grateful Dead. Shortly after its opening, the theater ran six straight nights of The Who’s “Tommy.”
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Built inside a motorsport circuit, Foro Sol is one of the premiere concert venues in Mexico City. With the capacity to seat 50,000 people, the venue has opened its doors to the likes of Pink Floyd, the Rolling Stones, Metallica, the Killers, and U2. Madonna was also the first international act to host a show here back in 1993.
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Located in Vancouver, Canada, Pacific Coliseum, or the Rink on Renfrew, has opened its doors to a number of rock ’n’ roll bands since 1968. Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, and the Doors all played here during the ‘70s and ‘80s, as did the Grateful Dead, who recorded a significant portion of their “Pacific Northwest ’73-’74: Believe It If You Need It” live concerts here.
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The most attended club of its size in the world, Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club is famous for its rowdy parties and hardcore scene. Several of rock’s biggest acts performed some of their earliest concerts here including Nirvana, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Public Enemy, Fugazi, R.E.M., and Black Flag. The venue is also famous for its secret shows, which have been held by the likes of Green Day and Radiohead.
Built for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, Nippon Budokan found an unexpected second life as one of Japan’s premier music venues. The first rock group to play here was The Beatles — a decision that upset locals, who suggested the band play at a nearby garbage dump instead. Led Zeppelin’s shows at the venue are considered among the best of their career, and Kiss, Cheap Trick, and Deep Purple all made memorable appearances here as well.
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Former NYC nightclub Wetlands Preserve is unique in the fact that it is both a rock ’n’ roll venue and an environmental activism center. The Tribeca space primarily hosted “post-Grateful Dead jam bands” like Phish, Dave Matthews Band, the Spin Doctors, and the Roots—in other words, a lot of soft rock performers. The club closed its doors for a final time on September 10, 2001, after falling victim to the neighborhood’s rising rents.
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The 100 Club
Since 1964, The 100 Club in London, England, has been on the cutting edge of music, from the blues to punk to indie rock. The Sex Pistols, the Clash, and the Banshees all played here regularly during their heyday, as did Oasis, Alice Cooper, and the Rolling Stones. The club is small, which gives concerts a much more intimate vibe than those played at the nearby O2 Arena, which is surely a major draw for fans of the genre.
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Dubbed “the best rock and roll bar in the world,” Cherry Bar, in Melbourne, Australia, is known as the premier after-party venue for touring rock bands. It’s not just a place where these groups kick back and enjoy a drink or two, but also one where they take the stage. The Arctic Monkeys, New York Dolls, the Black Keys, and Matt Sonic and the High Times have all taken the small stage and played a tune or two for lucky patrons.
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Back in 1989, at Lenin Stadium in Moscow, Russia, a couple of the world’s biggest rock bands gathered to perform at a concert that—at least on the surface—intended to fight the drug war that was raging in the eastern European country. The lineup that night included Cinderella, Gorky Park, Nuance, Brigada S, Scorpions, Skid Row, Mötley Crüe, Ozzy Osbourne, and Bon Jovi. To this day, the Moscow Music Peace Festival surely remains one of the biggest western music festivals to ever take place in the former Soviet Union.
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One of the few theaters to feature Black acts and artists during the segregation era, the Apollo Theater is an iconic part of rock ’n’ roll history. James Brown recorded his album “Live at the Apollo” on the Harlem stage, which arguably altered the course of the genre, molding it into what we know it to be today. (His connection to the theater runs so deeply that he laid in state on the stage after his death in 2006). Jimi Hendrix and Prince are among the other rock ’n’ roll icons to have headlined shows here, often sharing evenings with other blues and jazz artists.
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Located in NYC’s Webster Hall through much of the 1980s, The Ritz was one of the city’s premier rock ’n’ roll clubs. It was the first venue in the country to combine live performances with video (which it did via a 30×30 foot screen behind the bands). Its innovative setup drew tons of artists through the doors, including Depeche Mode, Talking Heads, Sting, and U2.
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Although not technically a venue in the sense that no major rock ’n’ roll artists ever performed a single set in its hallowed halls, Studio 54 still earns a mention on our list as it played an instrumental role in helping to establish the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle. A disco club in midtown Manhattan, Studio 54 frequently hosted the biggest celebrities in the world (like Freddie Mercury, Mick and Bianca Jagger, and Debbie Harry) who would indulge in all the sex, drugs, alcohol, and dancing their hearts could desire. In typical rock ’n’ roll form, the venue did what it wanted without asking permission, but this approach (which resulted in tax evasion and a lack of a liquor license) eventually got it shut down after just three short years.
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The Greek Theater
In the heart of Los Angeles lies the outdoor concert venue the Greek Theater. Owned by the city, as it’s in a public park, the venue has seen everyone play under the open air for its audiences, including genre-bending guitarist Carlos Santana, rock legend Bruce Springsteen, and Death Cab for Cutie.
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Though Manchester’s Hacienda nightclub is best remembered for its house music days, it started out as a more typical rock ’n’ roll club. In its early days, the venue helped launch the careers of groups like Oasis, Happy Mondays, and the Stone Roses. The Smiths also played a series of shows here in 1983.
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Opening way back in 1922, the Hollywood Bowl has hosted almost every musical act under the sun over the course of its 100-year run. The Beatles performed at the outdoor venue three times, and featured a selection of their best performances from the concerts on the album, “The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl.” More recently, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers completed their 40th-anniversary tour here in 2017, playing the final shows of Petty’s life in front of sold-out audiences.
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Max Yasgur’s Dairy Farm
In early 1969, Max Yasgur, an upstate New York dairy farmer, agreed to loan his 300-acre property out to Joel Rosenman and John P. Roberts, the financiers, and organizers of the Woodstock Music Festival, for three days. Although he was assured that only 50,000 attendees were expected to show, an unprecedented 400,000 people attended, making the event one of the biggest and most notable in American history. Among the 32 acts that performed included rock legends like Country Joe and the Fish, Santana, the Grateful Dead, The Who, and Jimi Hendrix.
Unsurprisingly, Antarctica has no major concert venues, but that hasn’t stopped rock from reaching the isolated continent. In 2013, Metallica became the first major group to perform in the northern tundra, playing to a group of 120 in an unnamed pop-up dome near the heliport of Carlini Base. The heavy metal group appropriately named the record-setting show, “Freeze ’Em All.”
The Electric Circus
Drugs, circus performers, and rock bands all mingled together at the Electric Circus, an East Village club that invited artists like Sly and the Family Stone, Deep Purple, and Dr. John to provide an evening’s worth of entertainment. In 1970, a bomb exploded on the dance floor, injuring several partiers, and the club never really recovered, closing its doors a year later.
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Whisky a Go Go
An anchor of the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, Whisky a Go Go has been around since 1964 and has had some of rock’s biggest names grace its stage. The Doors, Van Halen, Led Zeppelin, Kiss, Guns N’ Roses, AC/DC, Metallica, and Mötley Crüe all played some of their earliest shows here, as did Alice Cooper, who recorded one of his many live albums (“Live at the Whisky A-Go-Go 1969”) at the venue.
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One of the tenets of rock ’n’ roll is an anything goes, all-are-welcome type attitude, both values that give the genre its inclusive feel. However, these vibes were nowhere to be found at the Mudd Club, a Tribeca punk rock venue that was all velvet ropes and strict rules (at least outside—it was an entirely different and rowdy story on the inside). Despite the venue’s antithetical attitude, a couple of notable bands were still affiliated with it, including Talking Heads, Debbie Harry, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, and the Ramones.
Max’s Kansas City
Located in lower Manhattan, Max’s Kansas City is widely considered one of the birthplaces of glam rock. Often frequented by Andy Warhol and his crowd, its avant-garde reputation quickly made it a home base for artists like David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Lou Reed. Debbie Harry, the eventual frontwoman for Blondie, was even a server here in the ’70s.
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One of the most scenic outdoor venues in North America, the Gorge Amphitheater is located in Washington, just off the Columbia River. Its lawn seating allows for plenty of fans to pack in, listening to acts from Phish to Metallica to Tool to Pink Floyd. Pearl Jam, a local band from Seattle, has played dozens of concerts here over the years, so much to the point where they’d almost qualify as a house band. They’ve even released a box set recording of some of their best dates titled “Live at the Gorge 5/06.”
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The rock ’n’ roll palace of Detroit, the Grande Ballroom was a music mecca in the ’60s and ’70s but has since fallen into a state of complete disrepair. At one point, acts like the Stooges, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Who, and MC5 would regularly rock the house, but only pigeons and rats grace the crumbling stage today.
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In 1974, Bruce Springsteen introduced the E Street Band to the world at Tower Theater in Philadelphia. Though it was only two years old at the time, the venue had already hosted several rising stars like David Bowie and Peter Gabriel with Genesis. Today, the club can say that it’s had almost everyone who’s anyone in the rock ’n’ roll world on its stage, including U2, the Grateful Dead, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and The Smiths.
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Coney Island High
A three-story nightclub in the East Village, Coney Island High was a punk rock heaven in the early ’90s. The Ramones (frontman Joey Ramone, especially) frequented the venue, as did acts like Helmet and Social Distortion. Though it only remained open for four years before falling victim to Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s cleanup NYC efforts, the club still maintains legendary status among punk aficionados.
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You may not have expected to find a bona fide castle on this list, but here we are. Slane Castle in Ireland has hosted some of rock’s most epic concerts, including those headlined by Metallica, David Bowie, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the Rolling Stones. U2 even famously took up residence within the castle to write and record their hit album, “The Unforgettable Fire.”
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Originally named the Camden Theater, KOKO has served as a movie theater, recording studio, concert venue, and nightclub over its 120 years in the heart of London. The Sex Pistols, Iron Maiden, The Cure, and The Clash have all performed here, and Madonna played her first-ever U.K. show on its stage. In early 2020, a fire decimated much of the club, destroying 30% of the roof, but it’s been largely replaced and is set to reopen in 2022.
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Estadio Monumental Antonio Vespucio Liberti
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The Bowery Ballroom features music acts of all kinds but is especially known for breaking in new indie rock acts. The Black Keys, the White Stripes, and Arcade Fire all played early shows here, as have more traditional rock groups like Metallica, the Strokes, and The Killers. The venue is known for its incredible sound quality and is one of NYC’s most beloved concert halls for music purists.
In 1972, Wembley Stadium holds its first official concert: The London Rock and Roll Show. Featured acts included Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley and His Comets, and Chuck Berry. In the years since, the massive arena has held dozens of other rock ’n’ roll concerts and events, including Live Aid.
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Approximately 250 million years ago, dinosaurs roamed Morrison, Colorado. Today, the Red Rocks amphitheater, which seats nearly 10,000, has been built over the former stomping grounds of those massive reptiles. U2 (who filmed their “Under a Blood Red Sky” concert film there), Stevie Nicks, and the Dave Matthews Band are among the acts to have been regular performers since the venue’s inception in 1941.
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On Easter Sunday in 1967, the first “Be-In” event at Vancouver, Canada’s Stanley Park was held, with over a thousand people in attendance. The audience was treated to a bevy of psychedelic rock performances over the course of the experience, including an appearance by Country Joe and the Fish. The grassroots event was held for a number of years, well into the ’70s, with different bands and headliners playing shows each time.
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Nicknamed “Big Egg,” the Tokyo Dome has been played by some of music’s biggest acts, most of whom have sold out the 55,000-seat arena. Holding a show here is considered the pinnacle of success in the Asian country—artists can really say they’ve made it after at least one show at the arena. Among those to have held concerts here over the years include Van Halen, Mick Jagger, Bon Jovi, Duran Duran, U2, Aerosmith, Guns N’ Roses, X Japan, and Eikichi Yazawa.
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Each year, a few lucky NYU students are randomly assigned to The Palladium, a once-famous music hall that has now been converted into dorms. Back in the day, the likes of Iggy Pop, Blue Oyster Cult, and Kiss all performed here. It was also the site of an early show on the Rolling Stones’ first U.S. tour.
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Ciudad Deportiva de la Habana
Given the limitations on foreign acts entering Cuba, western music has very little foothold in the country. This is why it was such a big deal when, back in 2016, the Rolling Stones was allowed to perform at Ciudad Deportiva de la Habana, one of the country’s biggest stadiums. The concert, which featured many of the band’s standards which had formerly been declared “ideological deviation,” was recorded and turned into a concert DVD.
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The undisputed birthplace of punk rock, CBGB was a club located on the Bowery in the heart of NYC. In its early years, it was closely associated with acts like the Ramones, Blondie, Joan Jett, and Patti Smith, then with acts like Sum 41, Korn, Green Day, and Guns N’ Roses in the ’90s. The club closed in 2006 (with Smith headlining its last show), but it has been added to the register of historic places and now hosts a city-wide rock ’n’ roll festival each year.
Despite censorship in China, the country is home to a thriving music scene that includes a number of rock bands. One popular venue for these bands is MAO Livehouse (MAO stands for “Musician Audience Organizer” and is not a nod to the communist leader), an underground hall that regularly hosts heavy metal and indie groups. The original location was shut down in 2016, but a new one opened shortly thereafter, carrying on the tradition of resistance.
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Africa, in general, is not a popular destination for many major musical acts due to security concerns as well as a general lack of large venue space. However, several rock ’n’ roll acts have played FNB Stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa, as part of global or world tours. After one Bon Jovi concert in 2013, the stadium, which seats almost 95,000, was robbed in an “Oceans 11”–style heist. Guns N’ Roses, U2, Metallica, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have also held concerts here.
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