The summer music festival in 2023 looks very different than it did a decade ago. Hell, every city big and small seems to have its own music fest these days. And while at times, it could feel like an oversaturated market, it makes it easy for anyone to enjoy a flood of music in the sunshine without having to go too far. But for many of us, well…that’s just not enough!
The thrill of traveling to a music festival is still a ritual for me each summer, especially when you get an opportunity to experience a vibrant town or better yet, a bustling international metropolis, in the process. Enter Montreal Jazz Festival. Now in its 43rd year, the largest jazz festival in the world goes down across 10 days from June 29 to July 8, and it offers a whole lot more than just jazz music. It takes place in Downtown Montreal’s sweeping urban footprint known as the Place des Festivals — a modern complex of six outdoor stages filled with art, food and drink options — and at 10 other clubs, halls and venues within and around it.
Incredibly well-funded by the government of Quebec, over two-thirds of the 350 concerts taking place in 2023 are free to the public. And we’re not just talking about free shows from local Quebecois dive bar players here, either. This is legit programming from world-class artists. 2022 saw The Roots close out the festival in historic fashion on the main TD Stage for well over 50,000 revelers. Meanwhile 2023’s edition will feature eclectic heavyweights like LA future funk bassist Thundercat, Toronto jazz-hop instrumentalists Badbadnotgood and R&B singer Macy Gray on the same free main stage.
But there’s a lot more than just music that makes the Montreal Jazz festival worth traveling to. With most of the programming taking place from the early evening into the night, it gives festival-goers an opportunity to explore the many corners of the city in the daytime. Montreal is one of the best food cities in the world, and it’s so damn charming in the summer. Plus, the city is incredibly easy to get around in whether you’re walking, biking or taking public transportation. A trip to Canada might seem daunting, but with a modest 1.5 hour flight from NYC or a lengthier, but still vastly worth it five-hour flight for Californians like myself, Montreal Jazz Festival is totally worth traveling to, whether you speak English or French. Here’s why:
Let’s talk about the good stuff right off the bat. Montreal’s bagel scene is known to rival that of New York City’s. Highlighted by the big two of St. Viateur and Fairmount Bagel shops, there’s definitely something in the water when it comes to bagels in Montreal. In fact, it’s a little bit more than that because there’s typically no salt in the dough of the smaller Montreal bagel variety. Where the yeast of New York bagels is fed with barley malt syrup, Montreal uses a touch of honey or sugar, giving these jewels a slight sweetness. But the biggest differentiators are the big brick wood-burning ovens that Montreal shops use to bake their bagels. A trip to St. Viateur’s flagship bakery to watch the bagels get fed into the oven and then pulled out for your consumption thereafter is a must.
Le Plateau, Old Town and an Underground City
The Plateau Mont-Royal (or just “Le Plateau” if you’re among locals) is a dream in the summer. The arterial Ave Mont-Royal is car-less this time of year, and it’s filled with artistically adorned seating for slow afternoons and curvy bike lanes that make it a cinch to breeze through. The local government also helps restaurants and businesses stock up their outdoor gardens and flower beds to drive home a cushy community vibe. Rent a Bixi e-bike from a bevy of downtown stations and motor on past the stunning street art-laden Blvd Saint Laurent up to Le Plateau for coffee, lunch, dinner, shopping, or whatever else entices you in this seemingly utopian neighborhood where it feels like somebody genuinely cares about the quality of urban life.
Old Montreal can get a little touristy, but its cobblestone streets are a joy to walk through while discovering knick-knack shops and stumbling upon the grandeur of Notre Dame Basilica. Find your way back Downtown through one of Montreal’s underground passageways, usually reserved as a refuge from the harsh snowy winters. It’s a literal underground city with a pedestrian network of over 20 miles in between Metro stations and shopping malls.
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A Foodie’s Paradise
When I said that Montreal is one of the best food cities in the world, I wasn’t exaggerating. While you’re waiting for the festival to get started up in the evening, check out Montreal’s famous smoked meat sandwiches at iconic Schwartz’s Deli for a hearty lunch. Similar to pastrami, Montreal smoked meat is made with the darker brisket cut rather than the navel, famous in NYC. Marche Jean-Talon is a glorious open-air market where you can try a variety of freshly shucked Canadian oysters, sample local cheeses or buy cans of maple syrup to take back home. If you’re trying to wow your friends on the ‘gram, Drogheria Fine’s walk-up window sells simple and perfect Gnocchi al Sugo served in a Chinese food box; the lines have gotten longer over the years.
It wouldn’t be Quebec without a proper poutine, and places like the intimate and no-frills Patati Patata — a short walk from Downtown and a stone’s throw away from Schwartz’s — are a haven for the local delicacy of crispy french fries topped with cheese curds and beef gravy. The Portuguese chicken scene is strong everywhere in all of its piri-piri bathed deliciousness, but Rotisserie Portugalia is a home run. Chinatown is adjacent to the heart of Downtown and worth stopping in for pork buns at one of the many walk-up bakeries, a full service dim sum feast at Kim Fung or late-night pork chops with noodles at Amigo.
If you need a shorter night of music for when you don’t feel like hopping from two to three festival stages, then a trip to the Little Burgundy neighborhood for an unforgettable dinner at one of Frédéric Morin and Allison Cunningham’s three neighboring restaurants is the truth. Joe Beef is the widely popular Lyonnaise-style bistro serving almost over-the-top delicacies like Cotes de Bouef and lobster spaghetti. Liverpool House is a slightly more casual spot with a menu that leans towards neighborhood accessibility, while Vin Papillon is a wine bar concept with shared plates and a farm-to-table lean. Don’t miss the jambon de petit bourgogne, a cured in-house ham with shaved emmentaler cheese at Vin Papillon, but you can’t go wrong at any of these establishments.
You won’t have to venture too far from Downtown to find world-class libations. On the edge of Chinatown, Le Mal Necessaire is a tiki bar concept with inventive drinks like the Painkiller, made with añejo rum, ananas liquer, creme de noix de coco, orange and spiced with muscade. If it’s beer you’re after, Brasserie Dieu Du Ciel in Mile End might just have the best pint or tulip in the city. Offering everything from hazy IPAs to sours and the flagship Blanche du Paradis Belgian Wit, it’s a comfortable perch to kill an hour or two. There’s a robust queer scene a short walk from Downtown in the Gay Village (yes, that’s what it’s called) with dive bars and club nights galore. And then there’s old reliable, Nyks Pub in Downtown, open very late with their wide selection of Scotch, Canadian gin and the best damn tap of St. Ambroise cream ale from the McAuslan brewery that I’ve ever tasted in my life.
Eclectic Concerts and Venues
While the French-Canadian city’s bars, restaurants, accessible neighborhoods and bagels are worthy of a trip themselves, you come to Montreal Jazz fest for the eclectic music programming. Decorated greats like pianist Herbie Hancock, singer Diana Krall and blues guitarist Buddy Guy highlight the more straightforward jazz programming, but Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and singer Allison Krauss, French pop star Christine & The Queens and psychedelic R&B singer Nick Hakim are also on the bill.
And the discovery aspect at Montreal Jazz Fest’s unique venues is strong. Gesú is a converted church made into a theater, Pub Molson Export is a pop-up intimate outdoor garden of sounds, and Le Studio TD features late-night shows with buzzy indie jazz and hip-hop fusion acts from drummer Kassa Overall to bassist Carrtoons to harpist Brandee Younger. Club Soda features indie acts, while the Place des Arts is a multi-theater performance arts center smack in the middle of the festival grounds. No two stages look remotely the same, and it promises a new musical adventure at every turn.
At the end of the day, the best music festivals incorporate the cities where they take place. A trip to Montreal Jazz Festival doesn’t just feel like a jaunt to a festival, but rather an all-encompassing experience in an international locale without having to stray too far from home.
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