It’s my first night at Festival d’été de Québec, Canada’s biggest outdoor music festival in glorious Québec City, and I’m having a bit of a moment. I’m faking my knowledge of Metallica.
“I hope they play ‘Enter Sandman,’” a friend gushes in my ear and I nod like I know what that is as we jostle for space on the grassy meadows of the Plains of Abraham, which tonight are pulsating with 100,000-plus fans come to hear the thrash metal titans.
“Québec City, are you aliiiiive?” lead singer James Hetfield howls into the sultry July night, a rallying cry that ignites the multitudes jammed into this national historic parkland that was once a battlefield for the nation. Standing there among the sweaty mass of adoring fans, watching Hetfield work the crowd into an almost religious fervour, it’s hard not to feel the vibe—even if you don’t know a lick of the lyrics.
Festival d’été general manager Daniel Gélinas knows all about this magic.
“You see that stage? It’s kind of a church. It’s now a little mythic,” he tells me the next day as we stroll around the storied grounds of the Bell Stage, the festival’s main venue overlooking the historic site where French and British troops battled for continental supremacy in 1759.
This much is certain: the 51-year-old summer music festival definitely rocks one heck of a location. “Billy Joel comes here and says, ‘Wow, what is this?’ We built this place to give a super experience to the artists,” says Gélinas.
And they’ve succeeded: the biggest names in music have performed here, from the Rolling Stones to Lady Gaga.
For 11 days each July, the music world sweeps in and transforms the romantic, regal, walled Upper Town into concert heaven. Thrash metal not your scene? No worries. One of the festival’s biggest draws is its eclectic lineup. For its 50th anniversary in 2017, it brought in The Who (in their only Canadian gig) and the Backstreet Boys, Muse and Melissa Etheridge, Lady Antebellum and Kendrick Lamar. This year’s lineup includes The Weeknd, Jethro Tull, Lorde, Foo Fighters, Cyndi Lauper and Neil Young. Forgive the cliché, but there really is something for everyone.
The other big draw? It’s affordable. Festival passes start at just $95 (no single tickets are sold), and they’re transferable, meaning if a show isn’t to your taste, you can send a friend instead.
Gélinas says this model was built with and for the city. More than 140,000 passes are sold annually and attract some 1.5 million visitors to Québec. It’s precisely this volume of visitation that allows them to bring in top-notch talent without charging extra fees.
With six stages set up—five outdoors and all within walking distance of each other—music is everywhere.
Of course, the charms of the city almost steal the show. The feeling on the cobblestoned streets is electric, the atmosphere almost carnival-like, an infectious joie de vivre emanating from the crowds gathered around spontaneous street performances and terrasses that ring with laughter late into the night.
And then there’s the food. After dancing and singing up an appetite, nibble on decadent bison tartare and sip a posh crème de cassis concoction at trendy cocktail bar Bistro l’Atelier on the bustling Grande Allée, or go for gourmet poutine paired with a heaven-sent strawberries-and-cream milkshake at Le Chic Shack, a line-out-the-door burger restaurant in a repurposed home overlooking historic Dufferin Terrace.
Concert goers can opt too to spend time between gigs cruising down the St. Lawrence River, shopping at fashion-forward Québec department store Simon’s, or simply walking the narrow, meandering streets, drinking in the sights.
We even find time for a half-day excursion with Québec Bus Tour to nearby Île d’Orleans, a tranquil agricultural island just 15 minutes from the city centre.
Catch the morning tour bus outside the iconic Château Frontenac, the world’s most photographed hotel, and within minutes you’re transported to a pastoral landscape of historic farms, centuries-old churches and heritage homes, where you can sample succulent just-picked strawberries and locally-made products from chocolatiers, maple producers and cider and cassis makers across the island.
Back in the city that night for another concert, it’s just a short walk through the orderly crowds to find a stage.
At the Bell Stage, British rocker Damon Albarn has command of the Plains. Briefly, he leaves the stage, guitar in hand, and wades into a sea of devotees, all madly, wonderfully, lost in the moment.
“I think I love you, Québec,” he shouts. The fans thunder back their approval.