Is Festival d’Été de Quebec Canada's best-kept secret?

By Anna Haines
July 12, 2019
Courtesy of Quebec Summer Music Festival

It was pouring rain and I was standing on the Plains of Abraham, a 267-acre park where the British defeated the French in 1759, bringing an end to France’s presence in North America. Being Canadian, I felt a surge of patriotism, and grateful to call such a great country home. But as rain pelted my head and my compatriots belted out the words to Mariah Carey’s “Heartbreaker,” I have to admit: Canada's history was not foremost on my mind.

Courtesy of Quebec Summer Music Festival

I was in Quebec City from Toronto, where I am based, to attend the Festival d’Été de Quebec, an 11-day music festival dating back to 1968. And Mariah Carey was on the Bell Stage — the largest in North America, situated within the park — showcasing her five-octave range. It was my third day at the festival, which runs through July 14, and as I grooved to Mariah's hit songs, it dawned on me that it was the most English I’d heard since I’d arrived.

Courtesy of Quebec Summer Music Festival

With locals accounting for almost 70 percent of the festival’s attendees, I couldn’t help but feel like a bit of an outsider — in the best way possible. I scanned the diverse, pulsating crowd, marveling at the fact that, for just $80, I had gained access to over 250 performances by the likes of Gucci Mane, alt-J and Village People. I wondered: How was it that I had only recently learned of this festival, one of the longest-running in North America? And more pressingly: Could I reserve a ticket for next year?

While the historic Woodstock festival turns 50 this August, Festival d’Été de Quebec is celebrating 52 years since pharmacist Jacques McDonald organized an intimate summer event highlighting local artists. Since then, the festival programming has broadened to include international headliners (The Rolling Stones, Elton John, and Lady Gaga), in addition to Francophone and world music. 

Courtesy of Quebec Summer Music Festival

Most music festivals I’ve been to involve traipsing through slippery mud and elbowing my way through inebriated crowds. Not at Festival d’Été de Quebec, which tends to draw a much more, ahem, civilized crowd. And it’s no surprise why: unlike the jam-packed schedules of most festivals, the Quebec City festival has a much more laissez-faire vibe. Headliner performances take place in the evenings, freeing up the day to explore Old Quebec (adjacent to the Plains of Abraham) and learn about its 400+ years of history.

Courtesy of Quebec Summer Music Festival

When I wasn’t at the festival, I ate at upscale restaurants like Chez Muffy, a farm-to-table eatery set in a former 1822 warehouse, and bedded down at the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac — the grand dame whose castle architecture, breathtaking views, and sumptuous interiors made it my kind of “festival accommodation.”

Courtesy of Quebec Summer Music Festival

Back at the festival, I saw Norwegian DJ Kygo give an emotional encore performance backed by a string octet. He waved a Quebec flag as fireworks and confetti rained down from the sky. I turned to the grey-haired man next to me, who was taking in the spectacle while smoking a vintage pipe. Canada’s best-kept secret? I'd say so. 

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