Thanks to their loud, brash, and nocturnal nature, rock concerts are often held in dark bars and nightclubs designed to withstand the abuse of rowdy fans and guitar-smashing rockers. But as musicians earn a following, they eventually graduate from beer-soaked basements to prestigious theaters, outdoor amphitheaters, arenas, and stadiums. For performers and music fans alike, playing or attending a show in a space like Carnegie Hall, the Royal Albert Hall, Madison Square Garden or Colorado’s Red Rocks Amphitheater can be a momentous, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that ties together the sublime power that great music and architecture can both evoke. As rare as these opportunities are, an exclusive group of iconic musicians have managed to reach an even higher level of prestige by organizing one-off performances amid humanity’s most treasured historical sites—from the Acropolis and ancient Mayan cities to the Colosseum and the Eiffel Tower.
While these special concerts have given fans the chance to experience music history firsthand, many have also been mired in scandal as local officials and residents have raised concerns about potential damage to the sites or inappropriate commercial misuse of treasured cultural landmarks. Despite these legitimate and often justified concerns, these nine iconic sites have hosted some of the most ambitious concerts in the history of popular music:
1. Odeon of Herodes Atticus, The Acropolis, Athens
Located on the southern edge of the Acropolis of Athens, the steep-sloped Odeon of Herodes Atticus—originally constructed in the year 161 CE and left in ruins by 267 CE—was renovated in 1950 and began hosting concerts shortly thereafter. Frank Sinatra performed a pair of benefit concerts at the ancient theater in 1962, and the venue has since welcomed acts like Andrea Bocelli, Elton John, Diana Ross, Jethro Tull, Foo Fighters, Yanni, Sting and two separate performances by operatic tenor Luciano Pavarotti in 1991 and 2004.
2. Piazza San Marco, Venice
In one of the most infamous examples of a rock concert causing problems on a treasured historic site, the psychedelic rock legends Pink Floyd organized a free concert in Venice’s Piazza San Marco in 1989 which attracted such a large audience that the stage had to be moved onto a floating platform moored in the water beside the Basilica di San Marco. Without proper facilities and crowd control measures, the crowd of 200,000 caused significant damage to the Renaissance-era basilica and adjacent areas. Surviving news footage shows destroyed masonry details throughout the site and audience members urinating against the cathedral doors in absence of proper toilet facilities—an original sculptural figure was even broken off of the Basilica by crowd members climbing the facade for a better view.
3. Chichen Itza, Yucatán Peninsula
Built around 600 CE, the ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza survives as one of most significant ancient historical sites left in North America. The sacred site hosted a large scale performance among its stepped pyramids by opera star Placido Domingo in 2008, followed quickly by a concert with pop icon Elton John in 2010.
4. Giza Pyramid Complex, Egypt
Living up to their reputation as one of the most adventurous live acts in rock history, the Grateful Dead became the first rock band to perform at the foot of the Sphinx of Giza when they travelled to Egypt for three concerts in 1978, culminating their cosmic adventure with a final show performed during a full lunar eclipse. Dead bassist Phil Lesh still reflects on the experience with awe decades later, musing in his 2005 memoir: “our performance lit a fuse, and myth descended into reality.” Following their lead, the Giza Pyramid Complex has since hosted performances by Sting in 2001 and Yanni in 2015.
5. Circus Maximus, Rome
Originally laid out in the sixth century BCE and used as a stadium for Ancient Roman chariot races, the Circus Maximus hosted one of ten simultaneous benefit concerts known as Live 8 in July 2005, featuring Duran Duran as well as a lengthy lineup of Italian acts. The English band Genesis, featuring drummer Phil Collins, would attract a crowd of 500,000 fans to the Circus Maximus for a concert on their 2007 reunion tour, and the Rolling Stones also performed on the site in 2014.
6. The Colosseum, Rome
While they have not yet reached the scale of concerts held at other historic sites, the Colosseum’s newly appointed chief caretaker has announced his desire to re-activate Italy’s most visited historic site by staging rock concerts on a wood-planked section that once served as the stadium’s floor. So far the Colosseum has housed a benefit concert featuring Elton John, Andrea Bocelli and Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, as well as an intimate 400-seat performance by Paul McCartney in 2003.
7. Red Square, Moscow
Flanked by the colorful onion domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral, the Kremlin and the mausoleum of former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, Red Square has hosted a number of western rock acts since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, including shows by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Paul McCartney, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, Placido Domingo and Dutch electronic dance DJ Tiësto.
8. Eiffel Tower, Paris
With space for performances at the foot of the tower and in a reception space inside in the tower itself, the Eiffel Tower has been the site of historic concerts like French new age musician Jean-Michel Jarre’s 1995 concert that drew 1.25 million fans to the base of the tower, as well as recent performances by Alanis Morissette, Justin Bieber, David Guetta and the prog-rock band Muse.