'There's something for everyone': Why the Lilac Festival is one of Calgary's biggest parties

Now in its 33rd year, Lilac Fest has been a hallmark community event in Calgary since 1990.

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June’s arrival doesn’t just bring longer days and (hopefully) sunny weather, but also the return of one of Calgary’s most enduring and popular outdoor events — the Fourth Street Lilac Festival.

Considered the yearly kickoff to Calgary’s summer festival season, Lilac Fest returns to take over Cliff Bungalow/Mission and the Beltline on Sunday, boasting a plethora of vendors, live music and culinary offerings.

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The free festival will run from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. along 4th Street, between 12th Avenue and Elbow Drive S.W.

For the first time, this year’s Lilac Fest will also expand into Central Memorial Park and along 17th Avenue between 2nd Street and 5th Street S.W., making it the largest rendition ever.

Jennifer Rempel, event producer for the festival, said food will be a bigger focus than ever this year, along with an emphasis on attractions for younger attendees.

“We have really grown and expanded our kids’ area and we’ve expanded into Central Memorial Park, so we’ve created a space for people to get out of the crowds and sit back on a bench to watch a band play in the park and enjoy those vendors,” she said.

Now in its 33rd year, Lilac Fest has been a hallmark community event since 1990, when more than 10,000 people attended the inaugural outdoor street fair, according to Calgary Herald archives.

Lilac Fest now sees more than 100,000 people make their way to Mission and the Beltline to take in the sights and sounds across 15 city blocks on the first Sunday in June.

But just why did Lilac Festival become such a smash hit?

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Rempel said the event’s main allure is that it provides something for everyone and there’s no barrier to entry, financial or otherwise. After cancellations due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, she said the festival has come back bigger and better than ever in each year since.

“If you want to come shop, find something artisanal, if you want to engage with a 4th Street patio, if you want to watch a band, if you want to grab some great food truck food, there’s something there for everyone,” she said.

Another reason it’s become so popular is because Lilac Festival also serves as a small business “incubator,” and provides an important economic boost for businesses — including both local storefronts along 4th Street and the various vendors that set up booths.

A survey conducted a few years ago found the average attendee spent $52 at Lilac Festival, according to Rempel.

“If you think of over 100,000 people coming to this event, that’s $5.2 million in one day. So just from that stimulus, it’s one of the businesses’ busiest — if not the busiest — days of the year,” she said.

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The various vendors on display include festival favourites such as Calgary Mini Donuts, Family Squeezed and Sugar Creek Kettle Corn Co., to exotic flavours from the likes of Little Seoul, Mumbai Bites, The Dumpling Hero and Tikka N Tequila.

Another big reason that Lilac Festival is so popular is because of the free live entertainment. This year, more than 70 music and dance performances will be spread across eight separate stages on Sunday (one more than last year). Entertainers will range from solo artists to bands, dance schools and cultural groups.

The new kids’ area will be hosted in a private parking lot on the west side of 4th Street near 18th Avenue, according to Rempel. Attractions there will include a kids’ rave, a craft table, a mini locked room, performances from Evergreen Theatre and even kids’ yoga.

Road closures along 4th Street S.W. and on a portion of 17th Avenue between 2nd and 5th streets will be in effect throughout the festival.

To minimize vehicular traffic in the area, attendees are encouraged to use public transit or ride-share/taxi, or by bike or on foot, Rempel said.

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