Where to catch free festival performances across Canada this summer
Catching a live music performance and enjoying a packed festival season is an integral part of the ultimate Canadian summer experience. Unfortunately, though, those all-access passes and VIP tickets can leave a gaping hole in your budget. What if you could see your favorite stars live in concert, laugh it up at a comedy festival and party outdoors all season long for the bargain price of—nada, nothing, not a dollar. Interested? Some organized events across Canada don’t have a cover charge at all, for others you may need to get just a little creative to snag a gratis ticket. Read on for the best free festivals and events across the country throughout summer 2018.
1. Tim Hortons Dragon Boat Festival: June 21 to 24, Ottawa
The nation's capital welcomes serious athletes as well as enthusiastic amateurs to compete in paddling races on the Ottawa and Rideau Rivers in a festival that combines drumming, live music and plenty of team cheer. You’ll also find performers, activities for kids, stalls to buy a variety of paddling merch and some of the best food trucks in the region. All weekend long, you can catch free performances from Sam Roberts Band, Wintersleep, Broken Social Scene Matt Mays and Hollerado, no paddling required. Where to stay: HI Ottawa Jail
2. Just for Laughs: July 11 to 29, Montreal
Tickets to see world-famous comedians like Trevor Noah and Jimmy Carr can cost well into the hundreds of dollars, but those short on extra dough need not miss out on all the fun. Strolling around the streets of Montreal near the Scène Vidéotron stage during the festival you’ll find plenty of street performers, pop-up comedy performances and even an outdoor circus! The city is buzzing during this festival and there are plenty of free activities and events to keep the laughs coming without running up a big tab. Where to stay: HI Montreal
3. Tremblant International Blues Festival: July 6 to 15, Mont Tremblant
Mont Tremblant is a favorite among skiers all winter long but the cute Swiss-style pedestrian village becomes the perfect outdoor venue for a summer of live music during the warmer months, and it’s all free! Unknown street performers and famous faces alike share the stage in over 100 hundred concerts in these picturesque settings. Where to stay: HI Mont-Tremblant
4. Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition: July 6 to 8, Toronto
Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square plays host to this festival which gives visitors a chance to interact with 340 makers and creators and watch in real time as art is made.This totally free event welcomes over 114,000 visitors a year and gives them all a chance to enjoy multidisciplinary art mediums under the warm summer sun. Where to stay: HI Toronto
5. Love and Records Festival: September 16, Lethbridge
Just two hours from Calgary on a late summer's day you can enjoy spoken word poetry, stand-up comedy, an outdoor art gallery, yoga classes and even a fair at this eclectic and family-friendly festival. The soundtrack to this fun day is supplied by 12 hours of live Canadian country, folk, pop and indie music. Where to stay: HI Calgary City Centre
6. Sound of Music Festival: June 9 to 17, Burlington
About a 45-minute drive from Niagara Falls or an hour from downtown Toronto, the city of Burlington holds a nine-day music extravaganza called The Sound of Music. Paid tickets are available for headline shows, but without spending a single penny you can rock out at the Downtown Streetfest featuring five totally free live music performance areas. There is also a carnival where you can soak up the atmosphere, and if you fancy a ride on the Ferris wheel or a train ride, single ticket prices start from just $1.75. Where to stay: HI Toronto or HI Niagara Falls
7. Vancouver Jazz Festival: June 23 to July 2, Vancouver
Right in the city centre, the Vancouver International Jazz Fest includes 150 free musical performances as well as nightly no-cost shows at Frankie’s Jazz Club and the Mill Street jam. You can even filter their online event calendar to show free performances only. This world-famous event welcomes some of the greatest names in jazz and crossover artists including Grammy-winning performers from around the globe. Where to stay: HI Vancouver Central, HI Vancouver Downtown or HI Vancouver Jericho Beach
8. Red River Ex: June 15 to 24, Winnipeg
For an hour between 10:30 and 11:30 a.m. on both of the Sundays during this ten-day festival, entrance is free, although a small donation to the Red River Exhibition Scholarship Foundation is appreciated, if possible. You’ll find fun rides, live shows, concerts and even a master sand sculptor! Where to stay: HI Rossburn, 9 Finger Ranch
9. Halifax Busker Festival: August 1 to 6, Halifax
Buskers and street performers take over downtown Halifax for six days every summer, and all of the performances are entirely free (though if you have a good time, a tip is always much appreciated). Catch comedians, musicians, acrobatics, fire shows and more at shows that stretch along the waterfront. Where to stay: HI Halifax
10. Penticton Peach Festival: August 8 to 12, Penticton
The Okanagan isn’t known only for its vineyards and wines, it’s also a fruit-growing paradise and every year the community of Penticton gets together to celebrate one of its favourite fruits, the peach. The Penticton Peach Fest is five days of entertainment, events, parades, food, fruit and more. This year you can even catch free headline performances from Canadian rock icons Kim Mitchell and April Wine. Uh, hello Canada in the 80s, we missed you. Where to stay: HI Penticton
11. Edmonton Fringe Festival: August 16 to 26, Edmonton
This ten-day arts fest in Edmonton is North America’s oldest and largest fringe festival, featuring plays and performances from over 1,500 artists at venues throughout the city’s Old Strathcona neighbourhood. For a few years, HI Edmonton has been offering up venue space for a local troupe each year, and hostel guests are usually invited to catch a free rehearsal show before the fest begins. Stay tuned to HI Edmonton’s Facebook page for more details on this year’s performances. Where to stay: HI Edmonton
Two bonus tips for scoring free tix to festivals this summer
Although we’ve highlighted free shows and admission to a range of different festivals and music shows across the country, there are two other ways to enjoy sold-out performances without spending any money at all.
Most festivals are in need of volunteers to help set up and pull down equipment, clean up the venue, direct and advise visitors or even dress up in costume as a mascot. For a few hours of your time you’ll get to enjoy some world-class entertainment and add something unique to your resume. Be sure to apply early as volunteer spots can be in high demand.
Find a good spot nearby
Keep your eyes peeled for a patch of grass, hilltop square or balcony seat vantage point where you can bring a picnic, a glass of wine or just a camping chair to chill and enjoy the sweet tunes and perhaps even firework show come evening for free.