The Best Festivals on Vancouver Island
Laidback, pretty, on island time — that’s Vancouver Island, a huge, forested island off the coast of the Vancouver, British Columbia’s mainland. Folks here love to play outside, in and on the water, and gathering to hear live music. The sunny summer months are ideal for sitting on a picnic blanket on the lawn with friends and listening to the latest "it" band, dancing with the crowd til the stars come out, or sitting back among the flowers and trees to savor classical favorites. Here are some of the island’s best musical gatherings — and don’t miss all the other festivals, either, like food, wine, and even bathtub racing.
Royal Athletic Park and Around Victoria
The very last event of the concert season calendar may well be the year’s best, many fans say. The island’s biggest musical shindig is August-September’s genre-blending Rifflandia, and for regulars, it’s a little different each year. It’s four days of lounges, DJs, parties, and music on 18 stages. Venues might include a rooftop tent at Royal Athletic Park, the Capital Iron night stage, and streets around Victoria, spotlighting some 150 performers. Rub elbows with locals and discover talented international and Canadian up-and-comers. Spanning hip-hop, alternative, pop, rock, house, R&B, blues, and mash-ups of everything in between, past headliners have included Courtney Love, Astrocolor, DiRTY RADiO, Jurassic 5, and De La Soul. Check out the eclectic, local-minded artisan market in Royal Athletic Park, too, with an emphasis on vintage, upcycled, and handmade goods. Weekends often sell out, so get your tickets in advance.
Vancouver Island Musicfest
For a long weekend in mid July, eco-friendly, volunteer-powered Vancouver Island Musicfest takes over the fairgrounds in pretty, seaside Comox. World-class acts play on six stages, with a vast list of headliners along the lines of Barenaked Ladies, Bruce Cockburn, and Emmylou Harris, covering everything from contemporary, to rockabilly, to bagpipes. Even so, it feels folksy, friendly, and fun. Each stage has its own personality; the Concert Bowl for big bands and dance performances; the workshop stage for jam sessions and song circles; and the Crossroads for workshop sessions like songwriting and Q&As with the artists. Dancing here is a must, as is onsite camping in the tree-lined setting. Sign up early, though, if you want to get a spot — and a ticket.
TD Victoria International Jazz Festival
Strong line-ups distinguish the 10-day late June-early July TD Victoria International Jazz Festival, one of the longest running in the city. It’s big: 85 concerts on 13 stages around town, 35,000 fans, and 350 performers, including 73 bands, playing jazz, blues, roots, and worldbeat in all forms; 25 events are free. Impressive local, Canadian, and international talent includes the likes of Serena Ryder, the David Murray Infinity Quartet with Macy Gray, Nikki Yanofsky, Bettye LaVette, and Herbie Hancock. Another option is mid June’s Victoria Ska Fest, North America’s longest running, over five nights at multiple venues. It’s a showcase of the world’s best in ska, dub, reggae, jazz, dancehall, and punk. Designed as a for-the-people fest, some shows are free. Past acts have included Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, Tanya Stephens, Chicago Afrobeat, Mos Def, and Fishbone.
Sooke River Bluegrass Music Festival
You know it’s camping season when the laid-back Sooke River Bluegrass Music Festival rolls around. Everyone's are welcome at this Father’s Day weekend gathering, celebrating 15 years in 2017, in the scenic oceanfront community of Sooke on the island’s southern tip. The roster of locals and visiting talent is acoustic, with 20 performances on the open-air stage, as well as the Big Top Square Dance to join in on, plus food and a market. Try an instrument workshop and join a jam session. The fest happens at on the woodsy Sooke River Campground set right on the water, about 45 minutes from Victoria. Bring along a chair or picnic blanket and your swimsuit for a dip in the river. The beach is also nearby.
Aboriginal Cultural Festival
Royal BC Museum, Victoria
A showcase of local First Nations talent, the June Aboriginal Cultural Festival always coincides with National Aboriginal Day. It’s colorful, educational, high energy, and authentic. The three days celebrate Songhees, Esquimalt, and from across the province, other BC First Nations’ culture, heritage, and values with traditional music, storytelling, dance, food, and art. One highlight is the Alex Wells, a world hoop dancing champ, and the kick off — when the host chiefs arrive by canoe in Victoria’s Inner Harbour. Not only is it a free event, the action takes place at the Royal BC Museum’s outdoor plaza stage in downtown Victoria. Combine a visit to see the museum’s acclaimed collection of Aboriginal art and artifacts with some festival performances.
Blooms, Music and Fireworks!
Butchart Gardens, Brentwood Bay
First, there’s the music — the classics, outdoors on the lawn. Then, there’s the flora — the 55-acre world-renowned Butchart Gardens, an enchanting landscape of trees, flower beds, shrubs, winding paths, gurgling fountains, and vined pavilions, accented by romantically wild English-style and formal gardens near Victoria. The scent is just as alluring wafting on the balmy summer evening air. Finally, there’s the fireworks, choreographed to the music, that crackle and boom and light up the night sky. The Blooms, Music and Fireworks! concert series goes on all summer on Saturday evenings and concerts are included with regular garden admission. You can either reserve a VIP chair or bring a blanket, or lawn chair, and sit on the grass. But arrive early to secure your spot at this event that’s been popular since it started in the 1970s.
After the music ends, be sure to sample all of Victoria’s top offerings — from whale watching and fishing, to shopping and museums.
Find more festivals and attractions at the Tourism Victoria website.