Shoeclack’s Guide to Ottawa Bluesfest
Now celebrating its 23rd year, Ottawa Bluesfest is known worldwide as one of Canada’s best outdoor music festivals. Featuring some of the biggest acts on the planet, the 2016 edition was headlined by Red Hot Chili Peppers, City and Colour, Brad Paisley, The Lumineers, John Fogerty, Nelly, and many more. As well, the festival hosted a ton of local bands from Ottawa, Montreal, and Toronto. With 11 days of music, Bluesfest is a collection of music fans and artists alike, and represents the perfect blend between an intimate, local festival and a massive fest that attracts world-class acts.
A Breakdown of the Bluesfest Experience:
In terms of value for your dollar, an Ottawa Bluesfest festival wristband is one of the best purchases you can make in the summer. Not only do they offer wristbands for the full 11 days (with a special discount for students and youths), but they have “Pick 3” and “Pick 5” wristbands that offer you the choice to save some money by picking the specific dates you want to see. This adds a lot of flexibility for music fans that can’t attend the entire festival but still want to see their favourite, must-see acts. Day passes are sold for an average of $50 (with some sold-out shows charging more), and discounts are offered as you pick more.
During the weekday shows at Bluesfest, the gates open around 5 PM, with acts playing from 6 PM until the noise curfew by-law at 11 PM. Because it is a relatively short day for a festival, most people (especially locals) commute in after work. One huge benefit of Bluesfest is that, although it is 11 days long, it doesn’t usually require taking any days off work. Another benefit to late start times at the festival is that waiting in the pit for a weekday headliner is much more manageable than if you had to wait from noon like at other festivals. After arriving early, you can easily camp in front of the stage and wait for your favourite band. This year, less than an hour after the gates had opened, a sizeable crowd had already formed in the pit for Red Hot Chili Peppers, who weren’t scheduled until 9:30 PM.
Weekend shows are a different story. Like other traditional festivals, the gates open early in the afternoon and artists play all day. Stamina is definitely required, so be sure to drink lots of water, bring sunscreen, and pace yourself through hot days. Bring small snacks and a water bottle, which can be filled for free at one of their many water stations. The weekends also offer the opportunity to explore the festival grounds in their entirety, as well as seek out bands you haven’t heard before. Instead of feeling like a one-off concert like some of the weekdays can be, it definitely has the atmosphere of a full-scale outdoor festival. With a variety of genres being represented across the festival, as well as many delicious food vendors, everyone can enjoy wandering around the grounds for the day.
With your Bluesfest pass (regardless of length), you also get free public transit in Ottawa. You can take advantage of buses and the OTrain, so your commute home after a long day at the festival is as stress-free as possible. However, while Ottawa transit is very accessible, it can take quite a bit of time if you’re staying far away from the fest. If that’s the case, and you don’t mind spending a few extra dollars, taking a taxi or uber car is also a great choice – just be sure to walk away from the festival gates to a less busy area before calling.
The biggest downside to a festival that lasts 11 days is trying to find accommodations for the entire time. If you are attending for a short period, finding an affordable hotel or AirBnB near the festival should be fine. If you’re there long-term, it can be more difficult – not to mention, expensive. Another option is staying at local hostels. For budget travellers and students, these can be a great option for finding inexpensive accommodations while also meeting a ton of people also going to the festival. If that sounds like your idea of a great time, check out the Ottawa Jail Hostel, which hosts guests in an authentic, refurbished prison that closed in 1972.
Over the course of 11 days, you’re sure to see every kind of weather Ottawa summers have to offer. From rain delays and cold nights to brutal humidity and 40 degree heat, make sure you are prepared for everything. Naturally, thunderstorm delays are a reality of outdoor festivals, especially one that is located right beside the river. Ponchos and umbrellas are a great way to stay dry. Should you encounter a lengthy rain delay (like this year’s hour long delay for AWOLNATION and Sam Hunt), take the opportunity to meet new people as you huddle someplace dry.
One of the best things about visiting Ottawa, especially during the weekdays when shows start later, is exploring the city. From the Canadian War Museum located right on the festival grounds to the Byward Market, Ottawa is flourishing with cultural and artistic events year-round. As well, Ottawa is home to some of Canada’s most beautiful architecture, including the centre of the country’s politics. Take advantage of the free public transit and explore the city.
Tips from a Bluesfest Veteran:
Use the Free Public Transit
Although it’s not the fastest form of transportation, saving the cash on cab rides and parking is definitely a good idea. If you’re in the city for the majority of the 11 days, you can save quite a bit of money. In my experience, the Ottawa OTrain system and buses are generally easy to navigate for tourists, especially compared to the overwhelming public transit of larger cities. As well, especially on weekdays, it’s a great way to kill some time before the gates open. Check out the Byward Market, Little Italy, and Bank Street if you’re looking delicious food or a lively neighbourhood.
Keep an Eye on Social Media and the Bluesfest App
Bluesfest prides itself on offering its attendees a unique, personal festival experience. From artist meet & greets and autograph sessions to charity auctions for seats literally side-stage, they put a lot of effort into getting fans closer to the music and musicians they love. Keep an eye on social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram) and download the Bluesfest app to follow along with all of the special events and activities that pop up throughout the festival.
Explore all the Stages
Like any major outdoor festival, one of the most rewarding things is falling in love with a band you’ve never heard before. Although it may be enticing to camp out for your favourite headliner (especially on weekdays), try to take a few hours to explore the festival grounds and see at least one act at each stage. I think my favourite moment of this year’s fest was stumbling upon a small act at the Monster Energy stage and watching them as a thunderstorm brewed in the distance over the river.
Be Prepared for Huge Crowds on the Main Stage
With such an intimate atmosphere, it’s easy to forget just how massive Bluesfest can get. The past few years have reminded attendees of the massive crowds that gather for world-class main stage acts – Lady Gaga in 2014 and Kanye West in 2015 come to mind. This year, Bluesfest set a personal record in its 23rd year by selling out the Red Hot Chili Peppers show in advance – the first time it’s happened in their history. Almost 40 000 people flooded through the gates, making the main stage one of the most crowded sets I’ve ever seen. For major acts, be sure to arrive hours early if you want to be close to the stage. As well, once you have a good spot, stick around – you probably won’t be able to leave and come back.
Thanks for a great year and see you next year Bluesfest!