Summer Festivals in Vancouver

A dragon boat filled with oarsmen wearing Viking helmets.
Participants in the 2011 Rio Tinto Alcan Dragon Boat Festival. Photo © Jer, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

In June the Rio Tinto Alcan Dragon Boat Festival (False Creek, 604/688-2382, third weekend of June) takes place. Dragon Boat racing is a 2,000-year-old Chinese tradition held on or around the summer solstice. Originally held to ensure bountiful crops, these races are now held throughout the world. Vancouver’s festival attracts up to 2,000 competitors from as far away as Asia and Europe. In addition to the races, a blessing ceremony and cultural activities take place in and around the Plaza of Nations.

Throughout summer, Bard on the Beach (Vanier Park, 604/739-0559, mid-June to late Sept.) performs three favorite Shakespeare plays in two open-ended tents in Vanier Park, allowing a spectacular backdrop of English Bay, the city skyline, and the mountains beyond. Tickets are well priced at just $22-34 for 1pm and 3pm matinees and $45 for 7:30pm evening performances. They’re sold in advance through Ticketmaster and on the night of the performance at the door.

Watching amateur variety acts at the Kitsilano Showboat (Kitsilano Beach, 604/734-7332, late June-Aug.) on a warm summer evening has been a Vancouver tradition since 1935, when local authorities decided that free entertainment would keep local spirits up through the Depression. Today amateur singers, dancers, and musicians take to the Showboat stage Monday, Wednesday, and Friday nights to entertain more than 100,000 people throughout the 10-week season.

Vancouver taps its feet to the beat of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival (throughout the city, 604/872-5200, last week of June), when more than 1,500 musicians from countries around the world gather to perform traditional and contemporary jazz at 40 venues around the city. The festival kicks off with a free street party in historical Gastown, as well as other venues including the historical Orpheum Theatre, David Lam Park, Granville Island Market, Metrotown, and the Commodore Ballroom. Get your tickets early; if you want to go to several events, buy a jazz pass from Ticketmaster.

Canada’s national day is Canada Day (Canada Place/Steveston, July 1). The main celebrations—music, dancing, and fireworks—are held at Canada Place, but if you head out to the Steveston Salmon Festival (604/718- 8094), you’ll come across a massive salmon barbecue, art show, food fair, children’s festival, drag racing, and more.

In addition to wonderful music, the Vancouver Folk Music Festival (Jericho Beach, 604/602-9798, middle weekend of July) features storytelling, dance performances, live theater, and a food fair. Summertime folk festivals draw crowds across North America, and although the Vancouver version isn’t the best known, it still attracts around 40 big-name artists performing everything from traditional to contemporary to bluegrass to the music of the First Nations. The beachside venue includes seven stages with the city skyline and mountains beyond as a backdrop. A day pass costs $60-90 with a three-day weekend pass offered at a worthwhile savings.

The Celebration of Light (English Bay, 604/733-7171, late July/early Aug.) draws multitudes of Vancouverites. It’s the world’s largest musical fireworks competition, filling the summer sky with color. Each year, three countries are invited to compete; each has a night to itself (the last Saturday in July, then the following Wednesday and Saturday), putting on a 30-minute display at 10pm; on the final night (first Saturday in August), the three competing countries come together for a grand finale. The fireworks are set off from a barge moored in English Bay, allowing vantage points from Stanley Park, Kitsilano, Jericho Beach, and as far away as West Vancouver. Music that accompanies the displays can be heard around the shoreline; if you’re away from the action, tune your radio to 101.1 FM for a simulcast.

The Vancouver Pride Parade (downtown, 604/687-0955, first Sun. in Aug.) culminates a week of gay pride celebration. It runs along Denman Street, ending at Sunset Beach, where there’s entertainment and partying. Festivities during the preceding week include a picnic in Stanley Park, Gay Day at Playland, a ball at Plaza of Nations, art exhibitions, nightly parties in local nightclubs, and following the parade, a harbor cruise.

Attracting more than 300,000 spectators, Abbotsford International Airshow (Abbotsford, 604/852-8511, second weekend of Aug.), one of North America’s largest airshows (and voted world’s best in the 1990s), is held at Vancouver’s “other” airport, 70 kilometers (43 miles) east of downtown in Abbotsford. The highlight is a flyby of Canada’s famous Snowbirds, but there’s a full program of stunt and technical flying and an on-ground exhibition of military and civilian planes from all eras of aviation. Tickets are $30 per adult, $12 per child, or $100 per vehicle, and camping is $25 per site.

The country comes to the city for two weeks at the end of August for the Pacific National Exhibition (Hastings Park, 604/253-2311, late Aug.), one of Canada’s largest agricultural exhibitions. What began as a simple fair in 1910 has grown into a massive event, with live entertainment, multiple attractions, and special events at Playland. One of many highlights is the twice-daily RCMP musical ride, a precision drill performed by Canada’s famous Mounties. Each day of the fair ends with Fire in the Night, a colorful extravaganza of lasers, dancers, and fireworks. The Pacific National Exhibition Grounds are 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) east of downtown along Hastings Street East where Highway 1 crosses Burrard Inlet. Admission to the grounds is $15.

Wander down to the wharves of Granville Island on the last weekend of August and you’ll think you’ve stepped back in nautical time. Wooden boat owners from along the Pacific Coast gather at the island for the Wooden Boat Festival (Granville Island, 604/519- 7400, last weekend of Aug.) and allow enthusiasts to view their pride and joys during this casual gathering of seafaring folk. Children aren’t forgotten: knot-tying demonstrations, boat building, and the singing of salty sea tunes will keep the younger generation happy.

Related Travel Guide