If you’re a Francophile like me, but don’t want to shell out for the airfare or simply don’t have the time to travel to France, consider heading north of the U.S. border to Quebec City in Canada. This provincial capital and one-time French stronghold shares Europe’s distinctive Old-World charm, haute cuisine, and romantic language.
Last summer our family visited Quebec City for a few days, and it was instant l’amour. Of course, perfect weather in a city that endures a million feet of snow in the winter, was a plus. The city is every bit as lovely as some of my favorite places in France, and summertime brings out the best in Quebecers. They use their precious few months of sunshine to the fullest, squeezing out every last drop of golden warmth.
Strolling Quebec’s Old City, or vieille ville, you’ll stumble upon amazingly talented street performers juggling, singing, dancing, and playing instruments. Sidewalk cafes bustle at all hours, and outdoor concerts fill the calendar (and the air) every weekend with music both sweet and boisterous.
What to Do In Quebec City
Practice your French: Despite the fact that Canada came under British rule in 1760, and most of Canada is English-speaking, the province of Quebec remains fiercely French. About 80% of the province’s nearly 8 million inhabitants have French as their native language, and most people only speak French. Quebec City is no exception, so even though the French is somewhat different than that which is spoken in France, it’s a great place to go and parler francais.
Shop: Being in Quebec City feels a lot like being in Europe – think Paris’ Mont Martre, only closer. You can enjoy the unique ambiance of the city’s neighborhoods by strolling from one boutique shop to another and exploring the city’s wonderful art galleries and gourmet food shops.
Check out the pedestrian streets of Petit Champlain, North America’s oldest shopping district, featuring decorative art shops, craft boutiques, and historic homes. Inside the ramparts along Rue St. Jean, you’ll find souvenir shops for the perfect take-home gifts, and along the narrow streets of the Old Port and Place Royale, you can browse antiques and art.
You’ll find some of the best and most unique shopping by venturing outside the Old City, to neighborhoods like Saint Roch, with its hip, designer boutiques and avant-garde stores; Avenue Cartier in the heart of the Montcalm District; and Avenue Maguire with artisan food shops and other distinctive merchants.
Learn about Canadian History: When most Americans think back to history class, Canada isn’t usually the first country that springs to mind. And when asked to name famous people related to the Canadian story, it’s usually hockey great Wayne Gretsky who tops the list, not Samuel de Champlain, the French explorer who founded Quebec City in 1609, or the Marquis de Montcalm, who was defeated by British commander James Wolfe in 1759, leading to Britain’s eventual takeover of Canada.
The reality, however, is that Quebec City has so many interesting and enjoyable historic sites, you could spend days retracing the city’s French and British heritage. Top spots include the Citadelle, which is built at the city’s highest point, Cap Diamant, and is still an active military installation where the public can observe the changing of the guards at 10 a.m. every day in the summer through Labor Day; Parc Jeanne d’Arc featuring an equestrian statue of Joanne of Arc and stunning summer flowers; and the 250 grassy acres of Battlefields Park that provides stunning views of the St. Lawrence River. Battlefields Park also includes the famous Plains of Abraham, site of the 1759 battle between Montcalm and Wolfe.
But really all of the Old City – from its fortifications, monuments, and churches, to the formidable Chateau Frontenac, which was built in the late 1800’s by the Canadian Pacific Railway Company and is now the city’s premier hotel – is one big, living, and vibrant museum. And if you’re there in early August, you can check out the New France Festival featuring costumed parades and historical re-enactments.
Stroll and Explore: The beauty of Quebec City, and especially the Old City, is that it’s so small and compact, you can go almost anywhere on foot and get lost in its romance. Even if you have nothing on your itinerary and no map to guide you, you’ll enjoy charming street after charming street filled with shops, cafes, and art galleries.
The higher Upper Town, or haute-ville, is dominated by Chateau Frontenac. The Dufferin Terrace is a wide boardwalk that runs along the back of the hotel and has a panoramic view of the St. Lawrence River and the town of Levis on the opposite shore. It’s in the Upper Town too where you’ll find most of the historic sites mentioned above.
The Lower Town, or basse-ville, is the oldest part of the city, and you can reach it from the Upper Town by heading down L’Escalier Casse-Cou, a stairway steep enough to be nick-named “Breakneck Stairs.” For a less-taxing alternative, take the scenic funicular car for a small fee. Top attractions in Lower Town include the popular plazas, Place Royale, and Place de Paris; the Musee de la Civilisation; and the Old Port Market, where you’ll find fresh produce, cheese, local wines, and handicrafts.
From the Place de Paris in Lower Town, you can catch a ferry to the town of Levis across the river for a more off-the-beaten-path experience. The ferries run about every half hour and offer wonderful views of the Quebec City skyline that are especially striking at night.
Where to Stay
There’s no shortage of places to stay in Quebec City; it’s just a matter of deciding what type of accommodation you prefer and booking early for stays during the high seasons of summer and Winter Carnival. Here are a few suggestions to get your planning started:
- Hotel Manoir de l’Esplanade: This is where we stayed. Hotel Manoir de l’Esplanade is a small, homey boutique hotel within walking distance of everything in the Old City, but removed just enough from the hustle and bustle to be relatively quiet. The staff is friendly and helpful, and the rooms, while on the small side, are artfully decorated and clean. We didn’t have a car, but there are some spaces for guests to park behind the hotel. A nice buffet breakfast was included – always a perk!
- Chateau Frontenac: This is THE place to stay in Quebec City. Perched at the top of haute-ville, this majestic chateau is one of the most photographed sites in the world and has received such distinctive guests as Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, King George VI, and Queen Elizabeth. Obviously you’ll pay for the privilege of staying in the city’s most coveted accommodation, but many would argue it’s worth the splurge. If you don’t stay at the Chateau, consider going for afternoon “high tea” – yes it’ll be one of the most expensive cups of tea you’ll have, but remember you’re on vacation!
- The Hilton: The Hilton was recommended by a friend who has visited Quebec City many times. It’s right outside the old city walls on Parliament Hill, but still close enough to walk to pretty much everything. Like most chain hotels, the rooms are relatively spacious with two double beds, so this would be a good value for larger families that need the space, and the price is reasonable.