Over the Fourth of July holiday this year I decided to forgo the beach and barbecue and instead headed up to Montréal for a quick trip to take in as much music, culture and (of course) food as possible, all centered around the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal –– the main reason for my visit. Armed with an embarrassingly large tourist map of the city, a festival schedule and some dining recommendations, here’s a peek into how it all played out.
The 39th edition of the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal brought hundreds of thousands of people to the Quartier des Spectacles – the main festival hub – for ten days and nights of world-class musical performances encompassing various genres. With each year the festival grows in size, and ambitious plans for the 40th edition are already underway. The largest jazz festival in the world (Guinness World Records) has hosted some of the biggest names in the industry, including Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis.
Even if jazz isn’t your thing, the Festival is definitely still worth checking out, especially since two-thirds of its hundreds of performances (of which there were 500 this year) are free. The free outdoor performances are a casual affair – grab a beer and take a seat in the shaded Place Heineken stage (a choice midday perch during this year’s scorching heat wave) or snack on some late night pulled pork poutine while watching a performance at the massive Scéne TD stage.
The Food and Drink
On the festival grounds, the array of options is impressive and reflects the diversity of Montréal’s food scene. Highlights include the aforementioned (and personally recommended) pulled pork poutine from Le Smoking BBQ, freshly shucked oysters and wine at Oyster Bar and traditional Mexican dishes from Maria Bonita.
For lunch, I ventured off the festival grounds to see more of Montréal and get out of the blazing heat.
On my first day at the Festival I headed to the nearby Quartier Latin for lunch, as per a local’s recommendation. I ate at La Panthère Verte, a hip vegan restaurant with a sustainable mission and seriously delicious food. I ordered the falafel bowl (falafel, hummus, marinated lentils, sweet potatoes, cole slaw, pita, lettuce, tahini) and paired it with the house lemonade, served in a mason jar. The lemonade hit the spot with just the right amount of sweetness and the generously sized falafel bowl was filling and satisfying.
On my post-lunch stroll back to the festival I stopped to admire street art, which the city has in abundance thanks to an annual Mural Festival. As the Jazz Festival brings in global talents to create an accessible cultural experience, the Mural Festival brings impressive artwork to the streets of Montréal for all to enjoy.
For my second, and sadly last day in Montréal I dined at an outpost of modern brasserie Les Enfants Terribles located on the 44th floor of Place Ville Marie. I enjoyed some beef tartare and a warm cauliflower dish with squid ink sauce, mushrooms and toasted hazelnuts alongside panoramic views of the city showcased by floor-to-ceiling windows lining the space.
Nearby bars to check out include Les Foufounes Électriques, a classic rock bar that has hosted the likes of Nirvana. An open-air front seating area accented with potted plants and a colorful mural leads into a dimly-lit interior and eventually a serene back patio with more greenery and graffiti. Nearby is Le Sainte-Élisabeth, tucked into an unassuming street. When you first walk in you get that classic pub vibe with taps lining the compact bar and polished wood accents throughout. In the back is the “hidden” terrace the bar is best known for, with soaring brick walls (so high you’ll need to crane your neck to see the very top of them) covered in vines. It’s a stunning sight and a favorite hangout year-round; heat lamps are brought out in the colder months.
During my quick visit I attended a variety of concerts, both indoor and outdoor. If you’re planning your visit, note that the lineup changes every year.
I saw performances by two different groups from local college Cégep de Saint-Laurent – Ensemble Super Sax et trompettes and Big Band at the Scéne Rio Tinto stage. The shows had a fun vibe and I sweated it out with my fellow concert-goers as we bobbed our heads to the powerful brass melodies and whooped at the end of each passionately played solo.
I listened to the laid-back sounds of Antoine Loiselle Quintet at Place Heineken. Loiselle, on guitar, was joined by a pianist, a bassist, a drummer and singer. Songs ranged from melodic and sweet to upbeat jams punctuated by futuristic keyboard sounds.
Swiss pianist and Montréal Jazz Festival vet Félix Stüssi played a set at L'Astral with his trio, Les Malcommodes, along with some special guests. Their songs were wonderfully whimsical and at times bizarre. One of the musicians turned his flute as he played to produce some interesting sounds and during the opening number sprinkled in some shrieks as he played blaring notes from his saxophone. It was a playful performance that had the audience smiling and laughing during these over-the-top moments.
Though the majority of the acts took place in the main Festival area, some of the ticketed events were held in neighboring venues. The highly anticipated Ludovico Einaudi concert, for example, was hosted at the massive Bell Centre, home of the Montréal Canadiens ice hockey team. As it was a piano concert, I was expecting a subdued, refined affair. Instead, Einaudi put on a dramatic and captivating show, meticulously executed alongside a handful of other musicians, including a particularly badass cello player. At the end of each piece, Einaudi – whose back was to the audience – lifted his hands dramatically as the lights faded to black and the audience went wild every time. It was seriously epic.