The best festivals in Ottawa


Ottawa festivals

As the capital of Canada, Ottawa is often regarded as one of the great cultural hubs of North America. From historic buildings to galleries and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there is plenty to give the city its reputation.

One of the most exciting things about Ottawa is the world-class festivals that light up the city each year. As travel bloggers Katherine and Jordon from World Abound explain, “Having both grown up in Ottawa, we’ve certainly taken for granted the large amount of festivals the capital hosts every year. However, the more we travel, the more we’ve come to realize just how lucky we are to live in such a culturally vibrant city.”

Ottawa Festivals, a website dedicated to promoting and supporting events in the city, explains the importance of festivals in Ottawa to Canadian culture on a grander scale:

“Festivals, special events and fairs add vibrancy to the city, animate our historic neighbourhoods and cultural institutions, create an environment for learning and understanding, provide venues for local artists while making the arts more accessible to residents, and help brand Canada’s Capital Region as a world-class tourism destination.”

Ottawa celebrations

With influences from around the world and a community of cutting-edge artists, it’s no surprise that this is the case. “Ottawa is home to many festivals throughout the year – from internationally-acclaimed events to smaller cultural and ethnic celebrations – which highlight the best that Canada’s capital has to offer,” says Michael Crockatt, President and CEO of Ottawa Tourism.

No matter your age, interests, or even the time of year you are planning to enjoy your Canada holiday, Ottawa is sure to have a festival for you! Here are our top picks of the best festivals in Ottawa.

Winterlude, 3-20 February

For Katherine and Jordon, one of their favourite festivals each year is Winterlude. They say, “We love testing our skating skills on the Rideau Canal and checking out the ice sculpting competition at Winterlude during – you guessed it – winter.” Running from February 3rd to 20th in the Ottawa-Gatineau region, this festival is the perfect event to visit in the colder months.

Canadian Heritage explain that this year is particularly special for the festival, as visitors can get involved in some fantastic events to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Confederation. They tell us:

“Gatineau’s Jacques-Cartier Park will be transformed into Snowflake Kingdom, where giant snow slides and a labyrinth will surely amuse the little ones and adults alike. In Crystal Garden, located in Ottawa’s Confederation Park, we will be able to see ice carvers in action while they participate in the 30th International Ice-Carving Competition as well as attend outdoor performances from Canadian artists. And of course, the world’s largest skating rink—the Rideau Canal Skateway—will also host lots of activities, like the annual Bed Race and the very first Ice Dragon Boat Festival in North America!”

Tulip Festival, 12-22 May

Canadian Tulip Festival
Image: Canadian Tulip Festival

In the heart of the spring season, see Ottawa in bloom during the Canadian Tulip Festival. As Michael Crockatt explains, the festival will celebrate its 65th anniversary in May 2017 and feature over 3 million tulips, painting the city in a rainbow of beautiful colours.

This is one of the most popular festivals each year for locals and tourists alike. Crowds flock to parks and walkways to take in the vibrant spectacle of these flowers blooming en masse. Kita Szpak from the festival tells us that this year, to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary and the festival’s 65th, the theme of the event will be “One Tulip – One Canada”. She says, “This flagship festival showcases the Capital’s official flower as a symbol of international friendship”, a value for which Canada is famous worldwide.

Visit the tulip festival to experience a diverse selection of floral exhibits as well as artistic installations, culinary experiences, interactive family programming, breath-taking fireworks set to music, vintage military displays and guided tours of tulip fields. Kita suggests exploring the four venues across the city:  Lansdowne Park Tulip Gallery – for a friendship, arts and culture experience; Dow’s Lake/Commissioners Park – for their Living Tulip Experience; Byward Tulip Park(ing) – for the Urban Tulip Experience; and Garden Promenade Tulips – for the City Tulip Tour Experience. The largest event of its kind the world over, this eye-catching festival is perfect for everyone from horticultural enthusiasts to those simply looking for the perfect holiday photo.

Ottawa Fringe Festival, 8-18 June

In honor of World Refugee Day I highly recommend that you ALL go watch FUGEE at the #ottawafringefestival #FUGEE was so much more than an entertaining show. It was eye opening and heart wrenching piece that gave me a small glimpse of the struggles that so many refugees are going through today. Even though I can never fully understand the immensity of the hardships that many have gone or will go through, I can say that because of this play I’ve become more aware and motivated to take on the responsibility given to me as human being. That is, to love and bring refuge to all those who’ve experienced such outrageously difficult circumstances because people are people regardless of their citizenship status. SHOW TIMES • #FUGEE plays tonight @ 11pm and today only…50% off tickets (!!!) at the box office [Arts Court Theatre elevator B 2nd floor] by 5pm (in-person only). Spend the last hour of World Refugee Day at Academic Hall. Thursday June 23rd @ 6PM Saturday June 25th @ 9:30PM #WithRefugees

A photo posted by G R A C E N G U Y E N (@gracenguyenxo) on

Since it was founded in 1997, The Ottawa Fringe Festival has been the leading annual fringe theatre festival in Ottawa. An independently produced fare giving 100% of ticket sales to the artists, the event is a big supporter of local arts and culture, returning over $1.62 million to their acts over the years. However, there are many more reasons to visit the festival than this. Over ten days, you will laugh, cry and be inspired by local performances, from plays to stand up, multimedia and public speaking.

Last year saw amazing acts such as comedy show Blindside, which the Montreal Times described as an experience that left them helpless: “We laughed until we cried, and cried until we laughed”. Division 161 was a play about two government agents discussing their invasive surveillance plan over beer. There was even an interactive show of nude modelling featuring physical theatre, live music and perspective drawing.

A highly cultured festival that will leave you energised after every performance, the Ottawa film festival offers something to everyone, whether you’re a theatre buff or just want to have a good laugh.

Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival, 22-25 June

Non stop racing all day at #ODBF! Come on down to the beach and cheer on our teams! Photo by @sofiesharom #summer #beach #racing #idriveadragon #ottawa

A photo posted by Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival (@ottawadragonboatfestival) on

The Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival was founded in 1994 in partnership with the Hong Kong Canada Business Association, and immediately caught the audiences’ attention. Currently boasting over 200 teams, it is the ultimate festival for sports fans and is now known as the largest dragon boat festival in North America. One of the hottest sports festivals in the city, the event offers free admission to concerts, amusement attractions and sports demonstrations, while also hosting a variety of artisans and exhibitors.

There are also, of course, hair-raising boat races, which this year are being held at Mooney’s Bay Park. Each year the festival sees about 5,000 paddlers partaking and over 75,000 attendees, and when you experience the event, you’ll see why. Watch high-paced water races before enjoying cultural presentations and ceremonial activities, all while sampling delicious dishes from local food vendors. With previous bands featured including The Sheepdogs, Arkells, Stars and Down With Webster, the festival is sure to have exciting things in store for 2017.

Canada Day 2017, 1 July

Canada Day will probably be the biggest event in Canada for 2017. On July 1st, events up and down the country will be celebrating the country’s ‘birthday’ in style, making this the perfect year to visit the cultural capital for brilliant events and festivities. As Michael Crockatt points out, Ottawa holds the biggest Canada Day party on Parliament Hill each year, but this year, “Ottawa is celebrating Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation all year long, with special programming at annual festivals, as well as new blockbuster events – many of which are free!”

Natalie Huneault from Canadian Heritage continues:

“In 2017, Canada’s Capital will be the scene of spectacular activities to mark the 150th anniversary of Confederation. A full weekend of events in Ottawa will highlight Canada Day in an outstanding way. Join us on Parliament Hill for activities that will include concerts of international Canadian artists, an extraordinary firework display and more.” Dance to great music, eat delectable food, learn about Canada’s history and culture and immerse yourself in all things Canadian during this ultimate celebration of the country’s past, present and future!

Canada Dance Festival, 2-16 July

If performing arts are your thing and you’re looking for something a little different to the usual music festivals, check out the Canada Dance Festival in July. Jeanne Holmes from the festival explains:

“The Canada Dance Festival is the only festival in the country solely focused on the presentation of Canadian contemporary dance artists, showcasing work purely from the perspective of dance rather than through the lens of theatre or inter-disciplinary performance. Our festival, presented annually in Ottawa, celebrates the brightest and best dance from across the country, showcasing the national landscape of amazing Canadian creators. It’s a dance lover’s dream.”

Watch incredible displays of dance of all genres, from ballet to hip hop, Kathak to contemporary, with artists and dance troupes who have travelled from urban centres and smaller regional cities to join in the celebration of dance.

Jeanne comments, “Visitors come to Ottawa – our national capital – to get a sense of what Canada is, what makes us a country. And at the CDF you can really find out what that means. The gathering of dancers and companies from across Canada is the coming together of a small and far-flung community of artists all telling uniquely Canadian stories through dance.”

Ottawa Bluesfest, 6-16 July

Thanks to everyone for coming out to an epic day 7 of #RBCBluesfest2016! See you tomorrow!

A photo posted by RBC Bluesfest (@ottawabluesfest) on

One of the most highly-recommended music festivals in the whole of Canada, let alone Ottawa, is the Ottawa RBC Bluesfest. This world-renowned festival has been a registered charity for 15 years and, as Michael Crockatt explains, is “one of the world’s top 10 outdoor music festivals according to Billboard Magazine.”

The festival celebrates blues music and its associated genres, featuring music from genres such as jazz, funk, rock, pop and soul, big name and grassroots, old and new. In 2016, the festival was headlined by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and featured acts such as The Lumineers, Billy Idol, Alessia Cara, City and Colour, AWOLnation, and a whole host of local artists to get every music lover dancing.

The festival boasts an average annual attendance of more than a quarter-million fans each year, and has played a huge role in the careers of countless North American and international acts. Not only is the festival full of arts-based fun, it also has a fantastic impact on the local area. Over 3,500 community volunteers work hard to ensure that the event is environmentally friendly, whilst the charity aids school arts programmes and runs music workshops in the city to encourage interaction with the arts.

Between catching some incredible music, take time to see circus performances, play garden party games and even pamper yourself in pop-up spas. Due to the friendly atmosphere of the occasion, artists often host meet-and-greets with festival-goers, and last year Olympic athletes even visited on their way to Rio!

CityFolk Festival, 16-17 September

Day 4 was AMAZING!?Thank you to all of the performers, fans and volunteers who made #CityFolk2016 possible!

A photo posted by CityFolk (@cityfolkfest) on

Another much-loved music festival, recommended by Katherine and Jordon at World Abound, is City Folk Fest. Situated at Lansdowne Park, CityFolk is the perfect place to expand your cultural horizons with its eclectic mix of music and dance performances. For 2017, the stellar line-up features high profile acts such as James Bay, Vance Joy, Vanilla Fudge and Bryson Tiller.

Their partner event, Marvest, is actually free to the public, where you can get ahead of the trend by watching over 70 up-and-coming acts. See the likes of Tribe Royal with a folk-pop ambience and honest vocals, or William Lamoureux – a violin force to be reckoned with some 400 performances to his name.

This festival is perfect for passionate music fans and casual visitors alike, with a brilliant BSOMA KidZone offering special children’s and family performances on the weekend. Sample some mouth-watering local craft beer at the Aberdeen Pavilion, or check out the unique creations of local artisan and craft vendors.

The festival says: “We are family-friendly, community-focused, culturally diverse and committed to sustainability and eco-friendly initiatives.” Visit CityFolk Fest and you’ll not only broaden your musical horizons, but your cultural ones, too, learning about the complex fusion of influences that makes Canada what it is.

The Ottawa International Animation Festival, 20-24 September

Bye Ottawa! See you next year

A photo posted by Noam Sussman (@noamypoo) on

For lovers of the silver screen, and particularly the more modern reincarnation, the Ottawa International Animation Festival is a must visit. Kelly Neall from the event explains:

“The Ottawa International Animation Festival is one of the largest events of its kind in the world.  Every September, hundreds of animation artists, fans and industry types fill packed cinemas to see the best new animated films from around the world. Expect to see highly creative, innovative and sometimes mind-blowing shorts and features.”

Visit the festival to watch some stunningly-designed and thought-provoking animated pieces, but also to hear inspirational talks from figures in the industry. Kelly tells us that past guests have included Robot Chicken’s Seth Green and Matt Senreich, Adventure Time’s Pendleton Ward, Regular Show’s J.G. Quintel, and Disney directors John Musker and Ron Clements (Moana, The Little Mermaid). There are certainly plenty of influential animators and designers to share insider tips and insight.

After a day of learning about this fascinating art and watching some of the best shorts in the world, nightly parties are held where you might even be able to meet some of the big name attendees themselves!

Glowfair, date TBC

Taking the classic block party and expanding it to an unprecedented level, Glowfair is a festival that combines music, art and light. Occurring across ten city blocks, with two music stages and twenty bands and DJs, this festival encapsulates the most exciting electronic developments on the scene. As Heather Garrod, Glowfair co-chair, told the Ottawa Citizen: “Glowfair is about celebrating music, light, art and diversity in our community.”

Last year saw some exciting emerging talent such as Toronto trio Keys N Krates, who won the 2016 JUNO for Dance Recording of the Year, and Dragonette, who earned a JUNO in 2012. There is also a silent disco – an after-hours street party where festival-goers tune into two different DJs using Bluetooth headsets – an outdoor art gallery, Glowfit yoga, an enchanted forest and even a two-block kids’ zone. What more could you ask for?!

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