Osheaga Credit © Eva Blue - Tourisme Montréal

Montreal Brings Music Tourism to a Crescendo

Osheaga Credit © Eva Blue - Tourisme Montréal

Fans at festivals like Osheaga embrace Montreal and its array of outstanding music experiences. (Photo by Eva Blue/Tourisme Montreal)

Montreal isn’t just a city with a European sensibility. It’s an urban metropolis where creativity imbibes every aspect of life, and where the city’s long-standing music scene is felt as part of everyday life. The music here is bold, experimental, and eclectic.

The music scene was elevated in the 1920s, when Prohibition-era Americans gravitated to its bars and nightclubs at a time when Montreal was one of the only places in North America where people could freely drink. As the decades progressed, genres of music and its popularity morphed and expanded. Disco of the ‘70s was replaced by house music, particularly in gay clubs. In the ‘90s, the city witnessed the rise of rave culture and Eurodance, and the gay-benefit Black and Blue Festival was founded, not only raising money for people living with HIV/AIDS but becoming renowned as an all-night dance party.

Today, music in Montreal is expressed in a wide range of genres — from techno to indie, jazz, classical, hip-hop, blues, and country. It’s a city where many famous musicians got their start, or eventually settled. The memory of legendary singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen lives on in the city, with two large murals commemorating his death. Siblings Martha and Rufus Wainwright continue to be a significant part of the music scene, while notable Canadian indie rockers and musical luminaries are based here.

The city’s influence on music culture and its boundless appeal as a festival destination where music is constantly luring travellers in search of meaningful good times is key to why it was chosen as No. 1 on the 2023 Vacay.ca 20 Best Places to Travel in Canada ranking, an annual list curated by travel writers and editors.

The Roots © Eva Blue - Tourisme Montréal -EN Credit © Eva Blue - Tourisme Montréal 

The Roots were among the headliners of the 2022 Montreal International Jazz Festival. (Photo by Eva Blue/Tourisme Montreal)

Part of the beauty of the music scene in Montreal is the fact that it is so accessible, with free or affordable music in parks, in outdoor concert venues, in small jazz clubs in Old Montreal, in intimate clubs and bars along Saint-Laurent Boulevard, like Casa del Popolo and La Sala Rossa, and during annual festivals, some ranking among best in the world.

As Montreal native and music aficionado Michael Ferrier surmises, it’s the city’s reasonable prices that really allows for such a burgeoning — and experimental — art scene. “Unlike many other major metropolitan cities, Montreal is a place where you can live solo for under $1,000 a month, work part-time, and still have plenty of time to play music or paint or write.” It is also a city where “the overlap between French and English creates an ecosystem that cares about the arts a lot,” Ferrier notes.

Music is everywhere. On Sundays in May through to July, you can join in the drumming and dancing that takes place as part of the weekly tam-tam jam sessions on Mount Royal. Spend time in the summer, and enjoy impromptu jam sessions in city parks — like Parc La Fontaine and Jarry Park — and in public places such as Esplanade Tranquille, Pied du courant and on pedestrian-only streets. Visit the Quartier des Spectacles — Montreal’s downtown Entertainment District — to see a show: 100 play per month across 30 venues within a one-square-kilometre radius, and most festivals have an outdoor component that is free, with performances by many A-list musicians. Or take advantage of the free live music from the Montreal Symphony Orchestra in places like Olympic Park and Complexe Desjardins. Then as day turns to night, take advantage of the vibrant nightlife, with bars and nightclubs serving alcohol until 3 a.m.

Leonard Cohen Mural _ Eva Blue-EN Credit © MU, Ville-Marie, ElMac Gene Pendon (2017) - Photo_ Eva Blue

The Leonard Cohen mural in downtown Montreal is one of the city’s most beloved pieces of public art. (Photo by Eva Blue/Tourisme Montreal)

Montreal also boasts many major music festivals — most concentrated in summer, but many also held throughout the year. The city is home to the largest jazz fest in the world, where homegrown talent like jazz pianist Oscar Peterson once performed. Last year marked the opening of Lasso Montréal, a new country music festival at Parc Jean-Drapeau on St. Helene’s Island — the site of Osheaga, the ever-popular multi-day arts and music festival that drew more than 120,000 fans last August. And there are countless moe, such as: the Montreal First Peoples Festival, an Indigenous cultural event; the punk rock Pouzza Fest; the Metro Metro urban music festival that features hip-hop, R&B, and more; and the Festival International Nuits d’Afrique.

Much of the diversity and personality of Montreal is expressed not only in its creativity, but in its neighbourhoods. Choose your mood. Most visitors to the city know about the historic charm and cobblestone streets of Old Montreal but did you know that Verdun, in the southwest part of the city, was ranked the 11th coolest neighbourhood in the world by a Time Out index survey in 2020? And that it even has its own small beach? Or that Villeray, located north of Little Italy, has also made it to the same cool neighbourhood listings, reaching No. 18 in 2021?

If you are visiting Montreal, there are also many great hotels to choose from. Hôtel William Gray gained notoriety in 2017 when Lady Gaga ordered pizzas for her fans who were waiting for her outside of the hotel. Two other great nearby options are the Hotel Nelligan and Saint-Sulpice Hotel.