Montreal’s many festivals reach their peak during the summer months, yet the festival fun continues at high levels throughout the year. To help you plan, here’s Tourisme Montreal’s Guide to the city’s most entertaining, must-see festivals…
By the time May arrives, Montrealers are ready to soak up the sun and spend as much time as possible outdoors: the city happily complies with Aires Libres, turning several blocks of downtown thoroughfare Sainte-Catherine Street into a pedestrian-only area adorned with strings of pink lights (Les Boules Roses) and full of free entertainment until the beginning of September. Hear the classical and contemporary sounds of string quartets and soloists, Bach and Tchaikovsky, and more at the Chamber Music Festival during much of May, or opt for electronic experimentation at international music festival Elektra. By the end of May, the Montreal Bike Fest helps us tune up for summer with rides around the city, including popular all-day event Tour de l’Île de Montréal and night-time travels on the Tour la Nuit.
After all that activity, relax and unwind at Mondial de la Biere, featuring all manner of beer from Quebec and beyond. More music comes in late-May with Mutek, not only one of the best-known and respected electronic music festivals in the world, but five days of fun too. See some of the best avant-garde theatre and dance in the world at Festival Transamériques, and stick around in mid-June for all kinds of small-scale, big-talent theatrical surprises at the Montreal St-Ambroise Fringe Festival and summery entertainment at the Folk Fest on the Canal, where folk, rock and blues musicians play outdoors along the historic Lachine Canal.
Most of Montreal’s biggest and best-known festivals fill the city with entertainment throughout July, just as the heat of summer comes on strong: french music and culture takes the stage at Les FrancoFolies de Montréal before hundreds of musicians and thousands of fans make the Montreal International Jazz Festival a spectacular time, and comedy festivals Just For Laughs and Zoofest lighten any mood, as does circus festival Montreal Complètement Cirque, welcoming talented trapeze artists, jaunty jugglers and capricious clowns from around the world. Explore the wide world of underground and rare horror, suspense and fantasy films at the Fantasia International Film Festival, and the vastness of African culture through music, dance, food and more at Nuits d’Afrique. And get to know what’s hot in electronic-infused rock music at the MEG Montréal Festival at the end of the month. (With all of these festivals on the go, be sure to take advantage of the Festimania pass.)
Each of these festivals also offers several free shows outdoors in the Quartier des Spectacles, while Week-ends du Monde, a family-friendly celebration of the many cultures that make up the population of Montreal, is held entirely outside at Parc Jean-Drapeau, as is the Dragon Boat Challenge, and electronic-music dance party, Piknic Electronik, every Sunday afternoon all summer. Also throughout the summer, look to the night sky once a week to see the L’International des Feux Loto-Québec competition, located at La Ronde amusement park, to see some of the best fireworks in the world.
In the city centre, see the latest in high fashion in Montreal style at the Mode & Design Festival, and, at Place des Festivals, bear witness to the cultural diversity, traditions and contemporary issues presented at the Montreal’s First Peoples’ Festival, and right next to Berri-UQAM metro station, live music, circus performances, art and gourmet food trucks liven spirits at Place Émilie-Gamelin, including a showcase by music festival M for Montreal, and music and theatrical performances as part of Fierté Montréal, which culminates in a huge Pride Parade.
Meanwhile, Montreal’s cultural diversity is a hot ticket too at the Montreal Highland Games, Haiti on Fire!, Matsuri Japon, and Italian Week. Blues, jazz, folk and traditional Québécois music fill the days and nights of FestiBlues International de Montréal in mid-August, while the Festival International de Tango de Montréal welcomes stars of the sultry dance and hosts milongas every night. Tennis fans make their way north to Uniprix Stadium where the world’s top male tennis pros face off in the Rogers Cup, while young tennis hopefuls head to the Sun Life Esplanade at Olympic Park for the Mini Rogers Cup — opening day luckily coincides with First Fridays, a monthly event that pairs all kinds of creative food-truck fare, wine and music.
Music and arts festival Osheaga has become one of the biggest festivals of its kind in Canada, drawing thousands of fans and transforming Parc Jean-Drapeau (located on an island in the middle of the St-Lawrence River, right across from downtown Montreal) into a multi-stage outdoor venue for indie-rock, pop, hip hop, folk, electronic dance music, art happenings and more. The following weekend at Parc Jean-Drapeau is all about the power of Heavy MTL a festival dedicated to heavy rock and metal music. Chill out with friendly folks at the Montreal International Reggae Festival, while anime fans flock to town, often in costume, for the Otakuthon Anime Convention. Later in the month at the Gilles-Villeneuve racetrack is the 24hrs Inline Montreal relay race for teams of inline skaters.
On the opposite side of the river, eat well and plentifully at the Omnivore Food Festival at restaurants around the city, and take a trip back in time to the Pointe-à-Callière’s 18th-Century Public Market – witness historical re-enactments, peruse the market’s many food and beverage choices, and hear authentic stories and music of New France. At the end of August and through September, a more contemporary marketplace pops up along a two-kilometre stretch of Mont-Royal Avenue as stores have street sales and restaurants set up patios for enjoying August’s warm, relaxing evenings. Also at the end of August, new art-house and documentary films debut at the Montréal World Film Festival, the Montreal Fetish Weekend indulges certain proclivities and curiosities, and the hair grease comes out for the music-filled Red Hot & Blue Rockabilly Weekend.
The summery weather really does continue into September, and Montreal doesn’t hesitate in holding more major events and festivals, many of them still outdoors. Downtown in the Quartier des Spectacles, play along with interactive multi-media installation, Mégaphone. Created by cutting-edge entertainment studio Moment Factory and projected on the multi-storey President Kennedy pavilion of UQAM university, Mégaphone is all about reclaiming public space and connecting with other people. In similar ways, Les Escales Improbables, alters the landscape of the Old Port with numerous interactive artworks and dynamic performances that encourage public participation. And OUMF, turns St-Denis Street in the Latin Quarter into a party zone, with live music, visual art, food and activities for kids. In mid-September, fans of comic books, science-fiction, anime and gaming come in droves to Montreal Comiccon to mingle with film and TV stars, artists and writers. Eat, drink and dance at the Montreal Ukrainian Festival, and dance some more (or just watch the professionals do it) at the Festival Quartier Danses. Throughout the month, see 25 photography exhibitions at 14 sites in the city, all a part of Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal. Get a dose of snow-covered peaks and extreme skiing and snowboarding at the International Freeski Film Festival (iF3).
Spend time in the natural sanctuary of the Montreal Botanical Garden during Jardins de Lumière, when lanterns light up plants, ponds and pavilions of the Chinese and the Japanese Gardens while stories of myth and legend are brought to life. Stepping away from nature and onto the catwalk, Semaine Mode Montréal showcases Montreal’s fashion talents at the L’Arsenal factory-turned-gallery space in Griffintown. Meanwhile, major art museum, Musée d’Art Contemporain, re-starts its live-music-meets-art Friday Nocturnes series after a summer break and French-language literary fest Festival international de littérature welcomes authors and readers. Also later in the month, a spectacle of human nature unfolds as the Marathon de Montréal sees runners cross the city, and human nature of a slightly more naked kind comes out to play at the Montreal International Burlesque Festival. And famed music festival Pop Montréal enlivens the city with some of the coolest sounds and people around just before Journées de la culture sees Montreal’s museums and art galleries host hundreds of special events in the final weekend of September.
As the weather starts to cool and memories of winter begin to resurface in October, Montrealers maintain their joie de vivre, starting with the Black & Blue Festival, a bevy of LGBT dance nights, art exhibitions and performances. Superb film festival Festival du nouveau cinéma gives us a preview of brand-new films and rarities from around the world. Pick out a whole new one-of-a-kind wardrobe, with accessories to match, at the Braderie de Mode Québécoise. And delight in Quebec’s multi-cultural, multi-talented, theatre, dance, musical and literary ways at the Québec Intercultural Storytelling Festival, the Festival du Monde Arabe, and the Festival de Théâtre à L’Assomption.
Fittingly, with November’s colder days come four film festivals of international renown: the cutting-edge Montreal International Documentary Festival; CINEMANIA, featuring new French-language films from around the world; the Image+Nation LGBT film fest; and at the end of the month, the Montreal Brazil Film Festival. Dozens of top-notch Montreal restaurants keep us warm and well-fed with specially-prices seasonal menus during TASTE MTL. The art, politics and audience-participation performance combine in Montreal tradition ATSA: Fin Novembre. And hear all kinds of beautiful music during the month at the Montreal Bach Festival, the multicultural Festival Séfarad de Montréal, and the 11-day French-language music festival Coup de cœur francophone, where Quebec’s musical talents impress.
Once December is here and winter starts in earnest, Montreal slows down somewhat, but keeps spirits high with festivals that light up the town. Christmas artisanal and craft fairs, the Santa Claus Parade and more festive-season activities keep December bright, while in January, the Fête des Neiges festival turns Parc Jean-Drapeau into a winter wonderland, with an ice village, snowshoeing, skating, sleigh rides, music and more. In February, Montreal en Lumière focuses on bringing some of the best in food, wine, music and illuminated outdoor art to the Quartier des Spectacles. Fans of summer’s Piknic Electronik flock to its winter version: Igloofest, four weekends of electronic dance music from international and local DJs, all outdoors at Montreal’s Old Port. And in late-February, curl up in a cozy movie theatre for an insider-look at Quebec at Rendez-vous cinema Quebecois, and for insights into creative minds and the wide world of art at the International Festival of Films on Art (FIFA).