There’s so much to see and do as festival season heats up in Waterloo Region
by Ian Shantz | July 2023
Summer in Ontario has forever been the season for those quintessential festivals, a chance to get out and celebrate the best of what’s around.
Waterloo Region is brimming with a diverse range of events symbolic of the people and places that shape the area’s identity. The only issue will be finding enough room on your calendar!
From popular mainstays such as the Uptown Waterloo Jazz Festival to relative newcomers like Art Hop, there are numerous ways to get out and play over the coming weeks and months.
Waterloo Region’s proximity to the GTA and surrounding areas makes it an instant, year-round favourite for road-trippers and locals alike. With Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge located minutes apart and the region’s four townships easy to access, visitors can easily fill their day or weekend with an assortment of experiences.
We’ve put together a quick-hit guide of the festivals set to heat up Waterloo Region this summer. All that’s left for you to do is show up and enjoy!
FOOD AND DRINK
Downtown Kitchener Ribfest & Craft Beer Show, July 14-16
This saucy event has been attracting messy-faced visitors for 20 years this summer. Running July 14-16 in the downtown jewel that is Victoria Park, this free event is a community favourite and a well-oiled machine. Mouth-watering barbecued ribs and chicken, some 20 craft beers, most of which are local, daily live entertainment and the Kids Fun Zone make this event an instant hit each year. Eventgoers are encouraged to bring donations for The Food Bank of Waterloo Region. Those under age 19 must be accompanied by an adult. Chestnut Park in the Park VIP Zone passes are available, granting special access and souvenirs. Gates open at noon on Friday and close at 6 p.m. on Sunday.
Cambridge Ribfest & Craft Beer Show, Aug. 11-13
An event so nice you could do it twice. The Cambridge Ribfest & Craft Beer Show mirrors what is offered by its Kitchener neighbour but with a later date. Held in beautiful Riverside Park, the event is in support of Rotary Cambridge Sunrise. Rotary recently announced that it will produce the event alongside Impact Events Group Inc., which also puts on the Kitchener event, among others. Several Cambridge breweries highlight the list of brews on offer at this marquee regional event, which before the pandemic attracted 25,000 people annually. There is no admission fee, however, donations to Rotary Cambridge Sunrise will be accepted at the gate. The event starts at noon on Friday and ends at 6 p.m. on Sunday.
Wellesley Apple Butter and Cheese Festival, Saturday, Sept. 30
Get to know your ABCs at the Wellesley Apple Butter and Cheese Festival, a festival mainstay in the region and the perfect foodie event to bookend the summer. Not surprisingly, the festival puts a spotlight on the popular Wellesley brand apple products which includes apple butter and apple cider.
There’s much more on offer, however, at this Wellesley Township festival, which drew inspiration from the Elmira Maple Syrup Festival and New Hamburg Quilt Auction when it was formed in 1976. Food, craft and specialty vendors set up in the village, including the Queens Bush Road street mall, on the final Saturday in September. Limited edition die-cast model trucks are available for purchase at the festival, attracting avid toy collectors from all over, while the annual horseshoe tournament is a crowd-pleaser. Don’t miss the pancake breakfast.
Kultrún World Music Festival, July 13-16
All the world’s a stage at this outdoor festival happening July 13-16 in the Village of St. Jacobs. The Kultrún World Music Festival is organized by Neruda Arts, whose mission is to enhance cultural understanding and diversity in the community through the arts. Neruda Arts’ signature event is free to attend and includes interactive workshops for children and adults, drumming circles, theatre, dance and arts, crafts and food vendors. Performances by international, national and local artists will take place at two stages in St. Jacobs: the Main Stage at the village’s baseball diamond at 3 Water St., and the Peace Stage nearby along the river. A pre-festival symposium takes place Thursday, July 13 at the Neruda Arts studio at 8 Spring St. in St. Jacobs. This marks the 11th year for the Kultrún festival, which recently moved to St. Jacobs after many years in Kitchener’s Victoria Park.
Sun Life Uptown Waterloo Jazz Festival, July 21-23
If there’s a festival that needs no introduction, it’s the Sun Life Uptown Waterloo Jazz Festival. This July will mark the 30-year milestone for this renowned event, which draws thousands to the city centre for performances from award-winning jazz musicians. Cuban-Canadian Grammy and Juno Award winner Alex Cuba is the scheduled headliner on Friday, July 21, followed by headliner and fellow Juno Award winner, Flamenco guitarist Jesse Cook on Saturday night. The weekend event will wrap up with a 3 p.m. performance by 3D Jazz Trio on Sunday. The three-day festival runs in the Waterloo City Centre parking lot across from Willis Way, 100 Regina St. S. There is no admission charge.
Kitchener Blues Festival, Aug. 10-14
This event’s musical landscape has shifted in recent years, gearing more to a younger audience. As the TD Kitchener Blues Festival prepares to enter its 23rd year it will do so as a perennial powerhouse among the region’s summer events. The festival has been touted as the biggest free-admission blues festival in Canada, drawing up to 150,000 people to downtown Kitchener. And with good reason. The demographic has gone from predominantly a 50-plus crowd to mostly 30- to 50-year-olds in recent years and this year’s lineup is reflective of that, according to artistic director Claude Cloutier. Among the more than 60 acts set to hit five downtown Kitchener stages over the weekend will be ’90s hitmakers Spin Doctors, I Mother Earth and Odds, while A Flock of Seagulls, Grapes of Wrath, Men Without Hats and The Legendary Downchild Blues Band will appeal to a slighter older generation. The lone paid ticket event is Spin Doctors with opener Digging Roots, kicking off the festival on Thursday on the OLG Clock Tower Stage.
ARTS AND CULTURE
Neebing Indigenous Art Fair, July 7-16
After a successful first year in 2022, the Neebing Indigenous Art Fair returns to Bingemans in celebration of Indigenous art and culture. Visual art created by Indigenous creatives will be showcased, weaving stories and teachings into works that explore the depths of the Grand River and beyond. Featured artists at the 2023 event include Thomas Sinclair, Patrick Paul, Autumn Smith, Jared Tait, Chief Lady Bird, and Bree Island. This year’s event will offer increased interactive components on select dates including storytelling, a live painting session, a drum group with singing and dancing, and ‘An Evening With Cedar Spoon,’ highlighting Indigenous chefs and cuisine on July 15 from 7-9 p.m. Tickets to the art fair are $12 in advance and $15 at the door.
Cambridge Scottish Festival, July 14-15
Be glad in plaid at the Cambridge Scottish Festival, which has been celebrating Scottish culture and heritage for more than four decades. This year’s festival will once again take place at Churchill Park, 200 Christopher Dr., Cambridge, where it returned last year after a two-year hiatus. Bagpipes and drums will be prevalent throughout the two-day affair, highlighted by its Games Day featuring pipe bands, dancers and athletes from across the province and beyond. Visitors can learn about Scottish heritage in the festival’s ‘Avenue of the Clans’ and the Heritage Tent, while exhibitors and vendors including a beer tent and a variety of food will round it all out. The Friday concert featuring the Mudmen starts at 7 p.m. There is free parking on site.
Moparfest, Aug. 19-20
Car culture lives in the fast lane at the annual Moparfest at the New Hamburg Community Centre (251 Jacob St.). This will mark the 42nd edition of the summer staple in Wilmot Township. Regarded as Canada’s largest all-Mopar car show, Moparfest is a festival for all ages and backgrounds. While car enthusiasts flock to this event from all over each year, being a car buff is not a requirement. Aside from access to the car show and an abundance of car-related activities, there is a non-automotive market, 50/50 draws, a kids’ area, a silent auction table and food trucks. The show is open both days from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., General admission is $20 and there is no admission fee for children under 12. Free parking and a free shuttle are included.
Waterloo Busker Carnival, Aug. 24-27
The Sun Life Waterloo Busker Carnival juggled a two-year absence due to the pandemic before returning last year. This year, the not-for-profit, volunteer driving carnival turns 35, marking three-and-a-half decades of entertaining families in the Waterloo Region with acrobats, contortion, comedy and fire-breathers wowing festivalgoers at the popular carnival. Vendors include a variety of crafts as well as international food, while midway games and a Ferris wheel have previously been part of this family-friendly festival. There is no admission fee to the carnival. While the participating artists receive some travel assistance, they are not paid by the carnival and make their living on the tips they receive. After each show, the artists will “pass the hat” for tips and donations. The 2022 event featured 10 world-class acts, circus workshops and local art for sale. Watch for the 2023 events schedule to be released soon.
Art Hop, Sept. 8-9
This relative newcomer on the region’s festival circuit is dubbed “an ode to why we love KW.” It’s put on by KWFamous, a company “celebrating people, places, and things in KW … through merch, events, and shenanigans.” While Art Hop hadn’t revealed its roster at the time of this writing, in 2022 the festival hosted 10 different experiences and more than 100 artists throughout the two-day festival. It’s dubbed as “an immersive arts and music festival experience” showcasing the “new wave of creativity, and keeping it close to home.” The events focus on art, dance, fashion, music, and more. There are free and ticketed events planned – check the website for updates and information.
Lumen, Sept. 23
In an area known as Silicon Valley North, it seems only right there would be a festival that features the city’s tech innovation side, while also celebrating the arts. Light, art and tech meet at Lumen, a one-night festival that takes over Uptown Waterloo.
Featuring light-based new media, media art and projections-based work, Lumen’s installations will feature the work of artists using various mediums and incorporating technology platforms to “explore the exchange between technology and creativity.” The festival aims to celebrate the public spaces in Uptown Waterloo and animate them in ways that invite visitors to explore the city through a new lens. Lumen features the work of local and international artists, entrepreneurs, and technology. More than 30 artists will be showcased during Lumen, which runs Saturday, Sept. 23 from 6-11 p.m. This is the seventh year for the festival: watch the website for the full schedule of events.
IMPACT 23, September 26 – October 1
IMPACT is a 6-day festival that brings cutting edge local, national and international performances to various stages throughout Kitchener and Waterloo. IMPACT 23 will offer performances for the entire family to be experienced in outdoor and indoor venues. The festival will feature work from Australia, Tunisia, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Canada. Join IMPACT and engage, play, and rejuvenate with hundreds of artists and thousands of guests from across the country and beyond! IMPACT is an initiative of MT Space Theatre. Founded in 2004, MT Space is dedicated to theatre that centralizes racialized and marginalized voices to address social issues and shift narratives – bringing different communities together to create a community of difference.