It’s hard not to fall in love with Quebec City, a place that exudes old European charm, chic bistros and century-old fortification walls. The city is as European as it gets in North America.
When strolling Quebec City’s winding cobblestone streets, you often have to remind yourself that you are in Canada, not Europe. The road signs are written in French. The streets have French names. The locals speak French, and many consider themselves French — so much so, that at one point, the Quebecois fought for the province’s separation from Canada.
Founded by Samuel de Champlain in 1608, Old Quebec is considered to be the cradle of French civilization in North America. However, the city was an important point of interest for more than the French. The fur trade in the region also attracted the British, who attacked the French colony on numerous occasions.
Quebec City sits on a bluff at a narrow point on the St. Lawrence River. The city’s name is derived from the Indian word kébec, meaning “where the river narrows.” The city’s strategic position made it difficult to conquer, but eventually, in 1759, the British managed to take control of the colony and the northern part of the continent. The city’s rich history and culture make it a must-visit Canadian travel destination.
The town is divided into two parts – the Lower Town which sits at the waterfront, and the Upper Town which is the fortified old historic quarter, up on the bluff of Cape Diamond.
In the Lower Town, you can walk around the scenic Place Royale and see the site of the original French settlement established by Samuel de Champlain in 1608. Here, you can also visit the Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, a small church erected by the French to commemorate their victories over the British. Next to Place Royale, you shouldn’t miss the huge “Fresque des Québécois,” a mural that recounts the history of the city.
Being the oldest part of Quebec City, the Lower Town is defined by a labyrinth of narrow streets and stone buildings. One if its most famous spots is the famous Rue du Petit-Champlain, a lovely cobblestone street lined with bistros and original shops that was voted Canada’s most beautiful street in 2014.
The Upper Town area can be reached either climbing up one of the old steep staircases, or by taking the funicular for a 2 minute trip to the top. The funicular will drop you on the Terrasse Dufferin, right in front of Château Frontenac.
The centerpiece of the historic quarter is the stunning Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, a grand hotel that towers above the rest of the city like a modern fairytale castle. Said to be the most photographed hotel in the world, this iconic building is worth visiting even if you aren’t staying there. You can wander through the hotel lobby and marvel at its dark-wood opulence.
A great way to learn more about the history of Quebec is le Bus rouge (the Red Bus). The narrated tour starts in front of Musée du Fort, right across from the Chateau Frontenac, and goes to areas outside the old city wall. You can get off and on the bus as often as you please and see the city at on your own pace. The bus departs every 30-45 minutes, between 9:30 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.
To visit Québec City’s highest viewpoint, take the Observatoire de la Capitale elevator to the 31st floor of the Marie Guyart building. From there, you’ll have a bird’s eye view of the St. Lawrence River, Île d’Orléans, the Plains of Abraham, and the fortifications surrounding Old Québec.
Built more than 200 years ago as a prison, Morrin Center later became home to Morrin College – Quebec City’s first English-language institute of higher education. A visit here will not only allow you to see the jail cells of the former prison, but also the old labs of the Morrin College and the beautiful library that has a collection of over 24,000 books.
Located atop Cape Diamond, the highest point in the area, the Citadel is the largest British fortress built in North America. In modern times, the massive fortress has been converted into a military museum. During the summer months here is where people gather to watch the Changing of the Guards ceremony.
Just a short drive away from the city, you can see one of Canada’s most beautiful waterfalls. Although not as famous and wide as Niagara Falls, Montmorency Fall is still one of the most beautiful falls in North America. The water plunges 272 feet (83 meters) into a bowl-shaped basin on the St. Lawerence River. There is a cable car that will take you to the top of the waterfall from where you can walk across the foaming white water on a suspended footbridge. During the freezing Canadian winter, the water stops flowing and the waterfall turns into a mountain of ice that is often climbed by local daredevils.
Because it’s not very far from the city center, Île d’Orléans makes a beautiful day trip in summer. The only way to fully explore it, however, is by car. The island is home to many historic homes and beautiful churches as well as vineyards and blueberry and strawberry plantations. This is where you can taste some of Quebec’s best ice-wine and ice-cider, eat some delicious ice cream and home baked cookies, and enjoy a hearty meal at one of the many restaurants around.
Also within a short drive from Quebec City, you can have an Aboriginal experience at Huron-Wendat Nation at Wendake. There is a hotel, restaurant and an interesting museum on the site. Here you can find out a lot about the history, traditions and the way of life of the First Nation. There is also the authentic reconstruction of a Huron village where you can see archeological artifacts and craft demonstrations.
One of the ‘must-see’ stops in Old Town Quebec is the unique and unusual Le Monastère des Augustines hotel located in the historic building of the Hotel-Dieu de Quebec, the first hospital on the American continent built in 1639 by the Augustine nuns. Even if you don’t lodge here overnight, the museum of the monastery is worth a visit.
Another not-to-be-missed place is the wonderful Auberge Saint Antoine. The hotel was built on one of the city’s richest archaeological sites and displays a beautiful collection of artifacts found during its excavation. Even if you are not a guest of the hotel, you can still wander through the lobby and admire the wealth of artifacts displayed.
The in-house bistro-restaurant is on of the city’s best. Established in a former warehouse, the restaurant serves delicious French-inspired food using local ingredients and some of the most highly acclaimed dishes in the city.
Quebec City is a unique place that will not disappoint even the most traveled visitor. It’s spacious, yet it can be explored on foot. It offers postcard-worthy scenery, a charming old town, a wealth of award-winning restaurants and is home to countless interesting attractions within a short driving distance from the city center. There’s no better time to set your Quebec City visit in stone than now.
Trivia: Quebec is the birth place of Celine Dion, the scene where the first street performance of Cirque de Soleil happened, and also the place where Antoine de Saint-Exupéry –author of The Little Prince– also lived for a while.