Québec City Proves the Best Things in Life Really Are Free

Québec City, the 400-year old capital of “New France,” has long been viewed as a budget-friendly alternative to expensive Old World destinations. But this summer it’s a better value than ever thanks to no-charge attractions and activities that give new meaning to the locals’ traditional rally cry “Vive le Québec Libre!” (“Long live free Quebec”).

Tour the Town: Quaint, cobbled, and impossibly pretty, the UNESCO-designated Old City is easily covered on foot. To make the most of it, all you need do is download a gratis English-language walking map. Using that as a guide, feel free to meander the labyrinthine streets lined with meticulously-preserved 17th- and 18th- century buildings, many now occupied by shops and bistros. Along the way, pop into some of the city’s divine churches, among them Église Notre Dame des Victoires erected in 1688.  Then, for a more secular experience, take a break on Terrasse Dufferin: a riverside boardwalk, backed by the castle-like Fairmont Château Frontenac (which is a magnet for buskers, balloon sellers, ice cream peddlers and people watchers).  Afterwards you can tackle those iconic and frequently fought over ramparts. Oh, if your feet do get sore, don’t panic: an electric 20-seat minibus provides free scheduled service within the Old City.
Photo by Susan M-W
Bone Up on the Back Story:

If the intricacies of imperial politics and the long-running battle between colonial French and English forces leave you baffled, you can get a high-tech history lesson courtesy of The Image Mill. It’s an after-dark sound and light show masterminded by acclaimed artist/director (and hometown hero) Robert Le Page – the same man who is responsible for bringing The Ring cycle to New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Fast-forwarding through four centuries in about 50 minutes, The Image Mill projects a series of très cool images on side-by-side silos which together make up the world’s largest screen. The best spot to view it from is behind the Espace 400e Pavilion in the Old Port neighborhood where standing room spaces are plentiful… and free. The show runs Tuesday through Saturday until September 3; starting at 10 pm in July, 9:30 pm in August, and 9 pm in September.

Photo by Susan M-W
Say “Hurray” for Soleil:

The province of Québec gave Cirque du Soleil its start back in the 1980s. Now the legendary company returns the favor by staging a summertime extravaganza with 100-odd performers exclusively in the capital city. And mais oui! It’s free. Like most Cirque productions this one features mind boggling acrobatic and an ambiance that is decidedly eccentric: Les Chemins Invisibles (aka “The Invisible Paths”) has a Nightmare before Christmas vibe. The costume designer, for instance, seems to have been equally influenced by Mad Max and Edgar Allen Poe. Even the outdoor venue – an assemblage of scaffolding and Baroque-looking concrete beneath a highway overpass in the Lower Town – qualifies as quirky. See for yourself Tuesday through Saturday until September 3. The hour-long show begins at 9:30 pm in July, 9 pm in August, and 8:30 pm in September.

Photo by Susan M-W
Lick a Few Windows:

You couldn’t possibly leave a continental French city without first browsing the boutiques and the same rule applies here. Actual purchases, of course, come with a price tag attached. However,  lèche vitrines – literally translated as “window licking,” the local equivalent of window shopping – won’t cost a dime. Although shops in the upper part of the Old City are filled mainly with tourist tat, ones in the posher lower portion (particularly those in the Quartier du Petit Champlain and on Rue St-Paul) have enough in the way of fine art, antiques and chic collectibles to double as galleries. Nearby, frugal foodies can enjoy a different sort of shopping destination, the Marché du Vieux-Port de Québec. Inside this sunny market, you will often find purveyors passing out complimentary samples of local delicacies including pâtés, maple products, tasty baguettes, even hand-dipped chocolates.
Hmmm. Fabulous French freebies and no trans-Atlantic plane ticket required. Can you say “vive la différence”?


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About the author: Susan M-W

Living up to her turn-of-the-millennium resolution, Susan MacCallum-Whitcomb doffed her professorial robes and traded university teaching for full-time travel writing in 2000. In the years since, she has covered six continents and contributed to dozens of Fodor’s guide books, as well as a host of popular magazines, newspapers and websites (Canadian Living, Global Traveler, The Globe & Mail, Fodors.com, Usatoday.com, Wedding Bells … you get the picture). When not riding camels with her kids in the Sahara, breezing through museums in Boston, or tangoing badly in Buenos Aires, Susan can be found working happily at home in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

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