MONTREAL -- If you want to experience the real Montreal, come in February.

While it may seem a hard sell given the city's packed lineup of summer festivals, the organizers of Montreal en Lumiere argue the city actually shines brightest in the wintertime.

"If you have to visit Canada, the idea isn't to visit in the summer," said Maurin Auxemery, who co-ordinates the 11-day winter festival's concert lineup.

"It's a winter country, it's a cold country, so people should visit in February rather than in May, June, or July."

To entice visitors, organizers have put together a lineup of events based on three themes: arts, fine dining and outdoor activities.

The event, which is sometimes referred to as the High Lights festival, was founded in 2000 and has grown to be one of the city's largest, attracting more than one million visitors annually.

Auxemery admits that sometimes it can be tough to attract big-name artists, who may shy away from the cold and often aren't touring in February.

As a result, the festival has become known for what it calls "Montreal premieres," featuring local performers presenting the first show of their upcoming tours.

So while this year's festival includes well-known international artists such as jazz vocalist Gregory Porter, British-based singer ALA.NI and American singer-songwriter LP, Auxemery says it's also a chance for visitors to get to know some talented Quebec artists.

These include local favourites such as The Franklin Electric and Isabelle Boulay as well as up-and-comers such as Gabrielle Shonk, a folk-soul artist from Quebec City who Auxemery describes as "one of the most natural artists I've ever seen."

The more than 200 shows are scattered around a number of venues and also include dance, circus and theatre performances.

For foodies, the festival offers a full lineup of culinary activities that go far beyond the standard "restaurant week" offerings, according to festival spokesman Jean-Pierre Curtat.

In honour of this year's theme of knowledge transfer, the festival is offering family cooking workshops, demonstrations by culinary schools from around the world, conferences and a culinary walking tour of Old Montreal.

The festival is also highlighting Quebec's lesser-known Cote-Nord region by bringing in chefs from that area who make use of local ingredients from the boreal forest.

Many of the activities, Curtat says, focus on involving the audience to give them a unique experience.

As an example, he cites the festival's series "Planete Montreal," which pairs top restaurants with celebrity guest chefs such as singers or Olympic athletes.

"You have to see it like an artistic performance," he said. "Restaurateurs don't just do a special menu, they do activites that are out of the extraordinary."

True to its name, the festival also includes a number of outdoor lighting shows aimed at brightening up the short winter days.

These include Illuminart, a series of outdoor interactive light displays that combine light, art and technology.

There's also a free outdoor site with family-friendly activities that in past years have included a zip line, a ferris wheel, and free outdoor concerts.

And on the night of March 3 there's Nuit Blanche, an all-night event featuring hundreds of activities, most of which are free.

Curtat says the night is a fitting cap to a festival that's all about embracing winter rather than hiding from it.

"In the winter we have a tendency to stay inside in front of the fire," he said.

"This is a way to live winter and to see that even in winter it's friendly, it's fun, and we can do things that are very artistic."

The festival runs next Feb. 22-March 4.