From the mouthwatering flavours of the Middle East to the joy of exploring a vibrant community, the Ottawa Lebanese Festival has a long tradition of bringing people together with its cultural flair.
Once a celebration of Saint Elias Day at the well-known St Elias Church at Mooney’s Bay, the Lebanese Festival has grown from a beloved religious celebration to a delightful community event built around food, music, culture and family fun.
Now in its 33rd year and proudly supported by CAA North & East Ontario, the five-day celebration has something for everyone, from the midway and games to savoury foods and decadent desserts.
According to George Hanna, the festival chair and owner of the Gabriel’s Pizza chain, as the Lebanese population in Ottawa has grown, so has the awareness of the culture within the city.
“It’s grown into a love for the food… that translates into more people visiting the festival each year,” he says.
So, clear your calendar and get ready to enjoy a slice of Lebanon here in Ottawa.
The taste of Lebanon
The food is one of the biggest draws to the festival. All the meals are prepared at Saint Elias Centre by countless volunteers of all ages who bring the flavours of Lebanon to life.
You will find all your favourite Lebanese dishes at the food tent, like hummus, falafels, tabouli salad and shawarma platters. Hanna admits that he looks forward to the food all year, especially the chicken shawarma. “I know you can get it anywhere in the city,” Hanna says. “But the festival way is a little different, and you only get it once a year.”
You can even order food for pickup. Order all your favourite dishes for pick up through the festival’s website and bring home a piece of Lebanon.
To satisfy your sweet tooth, check out the family pavilion to enjoy desserts, drinks and coffee. Here you’ll find desserts like sheybiyet, a cream-filled baklava-style pastry with walnuts or pistachios. For more sweet treats, head to the marketplace for booza, a Lebanese ice cream made on the grounds.
For those with teenagers visiting the festival, head to the teen tent. The festival’s hard-working young adult volunteers create a teens-only space to satisfy a sweet tooth. It has ice cream, cold drinks, snow cones, cotton candy and candy apples.
At the Saj tent, see firsthand where cuisine and tradition meet. Saj is a middle eastern unleavened flatbread and a time-honoured tradition. Making and enjoying the bread is something passed down by generations in Lebanon. Watch as the bread is made right in front of you on a convex metal griddle, and enjoy.
Enjoy the entertainment
Every year, the Lebanese Festival welcomes incredible talent to the stage. The blend of contemporary and customary performances will keep you entertained.
The opening ceremonies occur on the CAA festival stage on July 19 at 7:30 p.m., following the Al Arz Lebanese dancers. The Al-Arz dancers find inspiration from folklore as they challenge traditions. You can also take in traditional dabke dancers on the main stage and learn the dance from the experts.
Hip-hop singer Karl Wolf takes to the stage Thursday night. The Toronto-based singer and producer was born in Beirut, and his music intertwines his Identity as a Lebanese Canadian. “He comes every year and donates his time to the festival,” Hanna explains, promising a fantastic performance from the singer.
For families, check out the midway, a fun staple at the event. Purchase a ride bracelet to ride all day, taking in the thrills and excitement. Plus, meet Ottawa’s mascots at 2 p.m. on July 22. See Spartacat, Big Joe, Riley, and Chef Gabe on the main stage, and keep your eye out for them in the crowds.
At its heart, the festival is all about coming together, a point that George Hanna says is a key reason he continues to chair the event.
“It’s sentimental to me to be able to do something for my community and give back,” he says.
His volunteers give back, too. Nearly 400 community members come together to make the festival the joyful celebration it is, he adds.
If you go
The festival is held at the St. Elias Centre on July 19 to 21 from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. and July 22 and 23 from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
How to get there
There is complimentary parking and a shuttle service from the Canada Post parking lot to the festival entrance.
While you are there
Take a tour of Saint Elias Cathedral and the rich connections to Lebanese culture and community. This year’s 50/50 draw, powered by the Ottawa Senators Foundation, gives half the proceeds donated to the Saint Elias Centre and Cathedral.