It’s seven o’clock on a summer night, and you’re walking down an ancient, cobblestoned street when a horse-drawn carriage clops by. As you watch, it stops in front of a 300-year old house that’s now a hotel, and a waiter emerges with a bowl of local strawberries — a little treat for the passengers. Across the street, diners in another chic restaurant choose their wine for the evening. It sounds as if you’re somewhere in Europe. Close — you’re in Quebec City.
The capital of Quebec has long had a reputation as the most European city in North America. And it’s well deserved: with a history that stretches back to the days of the French explorers, its old town is a picture of Europe as it was several centuries ago. And with the castle-like Chateau Frontenac Hotel looking down from the heights above, the picture is truly complete.
Quebec City’s history strikes a deep chord with Canadian visitors: this is the birthplace of Canada as we know it. As with many countries, it was baptised in blood, with a fateful battle between English and French colonists. The English victory created a country dominated by English-speakers but including a nation of French speakers — Canadians and Canadiens under the same flag. And it all happened at a spot called the Plains of Abraham, where today families picnic and joggers sweat it out on paths overlooking the St. Lawrence River.
But even if you’re from another country, it’s hard not to fall under the spell of Quebec City. Its quaint streets lined with shops and art galleries, its European-style restaurants, its cafés where you can sip a cappuccino across from a church built in the 1600s – they combine to create a city like none other on this continent. Only New Orleans’ French Quarter can rival it.
You can easily spend three or four days exploring the upper and lower cities, and much of it by foot. Quebec City is small enough that it’s possible to walk to almost all its attractions — that is, if you’re in good enough shape to handle the hills.
It’s a steep climb from the lower to the upper city, and even when you reach the top, the hills seem to run in every direction. If you’re a baby boomer with tired legs, I’d advise using the Hop-on-Hop-off bus to see all the sights. And don’t be a hero — pay the $2.50 and ride the funicular up the cliff to the upper town.
That said, there’s a lot to see within a few blocks of the city centre. Here are 10 highlights you don’t want to miss.
The Lower Town
This is where Samuel de Champlain landed in 1608 and founded the settlement that later became Quebec City. And it still looks much the same as it did back then. The heart of the old city is Place-Royal (seen in the photo above), a square fronted by one of the oldest churches in North America, Notre-Dame-des-Victoires.
But the streets throughout the lower town are a living piece of history. Wander them by day and by night, when the restaurants and cafés are lit up. And don’t miss the amazing mural on Côte de la Montagne Street that weaves 15 historical figures, plus various writers and artists, into scenes from modern life.
The Old Port
The original port of Quebec city is just a few blocks from the old town proper, an easy walk. But if you’re expecting a bunch of old docks, you’ll be surprised. Today this area is full of stylish new buildings and a marina. And every night at 8:30, there’s a free open-air circus-style show. Other events take place down here, too – during my visit last week, there was a beer festival with live entertainment.
The Farmer’s Market
Just along the shoreline from the Old Port is the city’s farmer’s market (officially the Marché du Vieux Port). It’s housed in a modern building that backs onto the marina, and it’s a good place for a quick lunch on the patio if you’re running around town.
It’s also a great place to see and sample the bounty of the local food producers. In summer there are strawberries and blueberries and vegetables galore, and it’s good place to get some authentic Quebec maple products and specialties like local cheeses and the famous meat pie called tourtiere.
The Chateau Frontenac
There’s no missing the iconic Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac hotel (photo at top). If you see Quebec City from a distance — especially from the St. Lawrence River — it towers over the city, glowing beautifully by night. It also dominates the hub of the tourist area in the upper town, where the funicular arrives.
It’s great fun to stroll through the Place d’Arms in front of the hotel, amid the hustle and bustle, and watch the passing parade of tourists, buses and horse-drawn carriages. But don’t forget to go in and look around, maybe have a drink or a meal. You don’t get that many opportunities to rub shoulders with an icon.
The Dufferin Terrace
Behind the great hotel runs one of the loveliest spots in Quebec City, a long boardwalk that affords great views over the river, especially at dusk. It’s a good place for a stroll and an ice cream, just steps from the busy tourist centre. In the winter, things get more adventurous, as an old-fashioned snow slide lets thrill -seekers rocket down from hill above at breakneck speed.
This star-shaped fortification has been part of the city’s defenses for almost 100 years. (Quebec is still the only North American city above the Mexican border with a defensive wall.) The fort is still an active military base, and home to the famous “Van Doos” regiment. You can visit and take a guided tour, or just walk around the ramparts for a quick look. There’s a changing-of-the-guard ceremony every day at 10, with a military band, full uniforms and even a goat mascot. And the fort offers great views of the Lower Town.
The Quebec Parliament Building
Moving outside the city walls, Quebec’s provincial Parliament building occupies a prominent spot amid a neighbourhood of official buildings and modern hotels. From some angles it bears a resemblance to the federal Parliament building in Ottawa, so you can kill two birds with one stone here. The grounds feature a collection of sculptures and statues commemorating people like the controversial former premier René Lévesque. The building even has a vegetable garden that supplies its well-reviewed restaurant.
The Grande Allée
This broad street near the Parliament building has been called the Champs-Elysées of Quebec City. And while there’s no Arc de Triomphe, it does have a great row of trendy restaurants to suit every taste. It’s a great place to have lunch or dinner in summer, when all the patios are in full swing. A little farther along, the street is lined with beautiful old houses you’d die to live in.
Rue Jacques Cartier
This street, which runs off the Grande Allée a little past the trendy blocks, provides the same experience with an artsy twist. The street is lined with lower-priced restaurants and pubs – a good spot to have a beer at any time of day or night. And if you look up, you’ll see dozens of giant lampshades among the street lights, decorated by local artists. Lit up at night, they’re a wonderful sight.
The Museum of Fine Arts
This impressive building, a bit farther along the Grande Allée at the edge of a lovely park, has a noted collection of Quebec art, and also hosts exhibitions from around the world. It sits behind the new, ultra-modern Pavilion Pierre Lassonde, which is worth seeing just for the building itself.
In front of the art museum is a monument marking the spot where General James Wolfe, leader of the British forces, died during the decisive battle for Quebec. (The French general, the Marquis de Montcalm, died of his wounds afterward — there’s a monument to him elsewhere.)
Those are the highlights of Quebec City that you can see pretty easily in a few days — even two or three, if time is tight. But no one would blame you if you decided to just spend a few hours sipping a coffee in a café, or a glass of wine on a patio on the Grande Allée.
Quebec City has a wealth of history and culture that shouldn’t be missed. But at the same time, it’s full of that European attitude that tells you to relax and make an art of just living. It’s hard to think of a much better place to do it.
Photos taken with the Nikon COOLPIX P900 camera