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Quebec City's Festival d,été ideal time to explore this historic city

Unforgettable setting, culinary treats plus musical star power



If the Plains of Abraham are a place most people associate with history books, then a trip to Quebec City during its annual Festival d'été de Québec makes for a whole different take. The grassy meadows are also the site of the massive music fest's headline concerts, where this year Sting and Peter Gabriel were shaking the trees on their Rock Paper Scissors tour in front of a crowd of 80,000 fervent fans.

It was on these battlefields in 1759 when British troops defeated French soldiers, allowing them to take control of Canada the following year. It's a beautiful and historic spot, the former battlefields making for an unforgettable setting to witness musical legends rock on North America's biggest self-supported stage right near the expansive St. Lawrence River.

While die-hard Canadian music lovers are most likely familiar with happenings like the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and Austin, Texas's South by Southwest Music Festival, it's a wonder the Festival d'été de Québec isn't more well-known outside of la belle province. With the weak loonie, the megafest that takes place every July is a worthy alternative for those willing to travel far and wide to catch the world's hottest acts.

Now in its 49th year, the Quebec event is the largest music festival in Canada, with more than 300 shows over 11 days at outdoor and indoor venues all within walking distance of each other in the picturesque Old City.

It draws major star power: this year alone the lineup included Selena Gomez, Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Lumineers, Rammstein, Sheryl Crow, Ice Cube, Neil Finn of Crowded House, Bryan Ferry, Duran Duran, and more.

Past acts have included the Rolling Stones, Lady Gaga, Elton John, Bruno Mars, Keith Urban, Snoop Dogg, and Aerosmith.

But the fest also showcases new and rising talent, like Charlotte Cardin, Boy & Bear, Peter Bjorn & John, and X Ambassadors. Every genre is covered: folk, electropop, rap, traditional French song, hip-hop, reggae, heavy metal, and then some.

Aside from the vast range of music on offer, what makes the Festival d'été de Québec remarkable is the price of admission: an all-access pass that gets you into any show you want during those 11 days costs just $90. And the pass is transferable. Compare that to any other music festival in North America and you've got a serious bargain.

While 64 per cent of festival visitors come from within Quebec, just 10 per cent travel from elsewhere in Canada. Another 10 per cent are from the States, with the remainder coming from around the globe.

With most concerts happening in the evenings, the fest allows visitors the chance to stroll Quebec City by day and experience its old-world charm. The city provides a taste of France without the overseas flight, a postcard-perfect place with narrow cobblestone streets, stone buildings (some dating back to the 1600s), soaring church spires, and rich heritage. Old Quebec is the only fortified city north of Mexico, making it a UNESCO world heritage site.

It's an easy walk around the 4.6-kilometre wall of that fortified colonial core, offering views of the Plains of Abraham and the St. Lawrence Seaway. The Promenade des Gouverneurs is a riverside boardwalk beneath the Citadel — look for cannons poking out of stone walls — that connects the Plains to the must-see Fairmont Chateau Frontenac. Perched on a cliff atop Cape Diamond, the world's most photographed hotel resembles a magnificent and imposing castle, with a central turret, circular towers, stone and brick walls, mahogany panelling, and coffered ceilings. It's worth splurging on a pricey cocktail in the 1608 Wine & Cheese Bar to get a sense of the history of the luxurious hotel, itself a national historic site. (The bar takes its name from the year Samuel de Champlain established the first French foothold in North America.) Built in 1883, the hotel is where Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mackenzie King met in 1943 to strategize for the allied invasion of occupied Europe.

The whole city makes for easy walking, in fact, which is a boon to travellers seeking to offset the effects of experiencing traditional French Canadian food. Poutine (said to be the perfect hangover dish) is found everywhere — the French fries topped with gravy and cheese curds are available in all sorts of variations, including toppings of duck confit, foie gras, and beef jerky. Other mainstays are tourtière (flaky pie made with any combination of beef, pork, elk, veal, bison, and other meats), French onion soup (typically topped with gruyère, emmanthal or comté), tarte au sucre (sugar pie), and pouding chômeur (poor man's pudding, made by pouring a caramel sauce onto cake batter before baking).

The Marché de Vieux-Port, which is a bit like the Granville Island Public Market in Vancouver, is a waterfront one-stop shop for those dishes, as well as Québécois wine and beer, and more.

Hit the city's classic bistros and sidewalk cafés come summer when you can dance the calories off at the Festival d'été, and you've got a sweet made-in-Canada holiday for music, food, and history buffs.