Roc On! At CANADA’S Festival d’été de Québec

This year, Canada’s largest music festival turns 45, and Quebec City is pulling out all the stops with a brilliantly eclectic line-up ranging from Aerosmith to The Wailers.

Festival d'été Quebec CrowdIt’s a pretty tough act to follow: Take a 400 year-old walled city with a historic core that’s an architectural marvel, mix it with 11 days of city-wide concerts, more than 1,000 artists, over one million festival-goers from around the world and there you have it — Festival d’été de Québec, the coolest summer music happening most Americans have never heard of. It’s our loss. But there’s still time to make plans as tickets and rooms are still available in Quebec City, the inviting capital of Quebec province. (Just to give you an idea of how popular the Festival is locally, the thousands of advance passes that were made available in Quebec were snapped up in less than 24 hours).

Essentially, the Festival takes over downtown Quebec City during its run, which this year is from July 5-15. If you were in town, you couldn’t really avoid it if you wanted to, but why would you want to miss an amazing assemblage of talent that includes every genre you can think of including jazz, blues, pop, electronica, world, metal and more. Eclectic doesn’t begin to describe the lineup this year (and every year for that matter). This year’s choices range from Bon Jovi, Lionel Richie, Skrillex, Aerosmith and LMFAO to Sarah MacLachlan and arty Canadian bands like Jean Leloup, City and Colour, as well as world music acts such as the sultry Inna Modja. And with Quebec’s heavy French influence, it should come as no surprise that rock crooner Johnny Hallyday will be a headliner. Previous  years have been just as star-studded, and have featured stars such as Elton John, Sting, Metallica and John Fogerty.

Elton John Festival d'été de Québec Stephen Marley at Festival Quebec

Acts are scattered across a total of 10 indoor and outdoor venues mostly centered near the heart of the city that give you a great excuse to explore this delightfully walkable city including areas such as the Saint Roch Quarter and the Old Quebec district. Smaller, indie acts tend to perform at more intimate indoor venues such as Le Cercle, while the biggest acts, such as Bon Jovi and Aerosmith, will perform outdoors on the Bell Stage on the Plains of Abraham.

Adding to Quebec’s musical mojo this year is another high-profile event taking place shortly after the Festival d’été de Québec concludes that promoters are billing as “The Event of a Lifetime.” In this case, it just might be more than hype. On Saturday July 21, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fame will perform The Wall. Pink Floyd’s famous work hasn’t been performed outside and on this scale since it was performed at the Berlin Wall exactly 22 years ago, and this production promises to be epic, with an 800-foot wall a part of the spectacle. (As of this writing, tickets are still available for $90.50 (CAD) for General Admission and $181.50 (CAD) for Front Stage Area. (Take note that this event is not part of the festival and is ticketed separately).

As for the Festival Pass, which covers all the other stages and shows during Festival d’été de Québec, advance tickets are sold out, but for visitors and die-hard locals, there is still a straightforward way to get tickets without dealing with shady (and illegal) resellers. Over fifty local hotels such as the Festival’s official hotel, The Hilton Québec, are still selling packages that include the Festival Pass which will get you into all the shows.

Best of all, if you’re lucky enough to go like I did last year, you’ll find Quebec City as powerful a draw as the concerts. In fact, even if you don’t make it to one of the Festival’s official shows, chances are good the music will find you. For instance I happened upon some talented buskers playing spontaneously under a bridge on the cobblestones of the three century’s old Chemin Royale, or Royal Road. It turned out to be a great free show thanks to the group’s talent and the surprisingly good acoustics of the bridge.

Old Quebec’s Timeless Charms

Quebec City

View of Old Quebec. Photo: Wladyslaw Benutzer

Vieux-Quebec, or Old Quebec, is a place where you can find yourself in a sort of geographic vertigo. You vaguely remember you are in North America, but the cobblestone streets, centuries-old ramparts, cuisine and, of course, French language keep saying you’re in Europe. You’re not. The mighty St. Lawrence River that provides gorgeous vistas from the ramparts here are postcard-perfect reminders you are in Canada. It’s also difficult to find someone who doesn’t speak at least some English, and service in restaurants, bars , hotels and other venues you’ll visit during your stay is warm, efficient and down-to-earth Canadian as well.

Make sure and explore the rues, or streets here, like rue Saint Jean, which behind the ramparts becomes a walking street brimming with open-air cafes, bistros, bars and boutiques. During the festival, it will also play host to street entertainment including street theater, stilt walkers giant puppets and roving musical acts from Quebec and Europe.

Another avenue not to miss is Grand Allée with it’s grand, 19th-century buildings. Filled with open-air restaurants, boutiques and trendy locals and visitors, it’s been called the Champs de Elysees of Quebec. It could also be called the Sunset Strip of Quebec considering the restaurants and clubs here like Savini get très festive after the sun goes down.

Other areas of the city not to miss during your downtime from the shows include the newly hip Saint Roch district. It’s main street, rue Saint Joseph, buzzes with restaurants, bars and live theater. A favorite here is Korrigane, popular with locals for its locally brewed craft beers and inviting open-air patio.  And finally, to get a true sense of the history and rich textures of the city, wander down the Escalier casse-cou, literally Breakneck Staircase (or better yet, take it easy and opt for the funicular) to explore the cozy lanes, inviting cafes and historic structures of the Basse Ville, or Lower City. It’s just another reminder that while you may have come to the city for the festival, Quebec City will ultimately seduce you with it’s own special music.

All festival images courtesy of Festival d’été Québec

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