Québec City has been one of those cities I’ve always wanted to visit and yet somehow it never worked out. A few weeks ago I finally managed to squeeze in a short trip to Old Québec and totally fell in love with it.
It’s hard not to be enchanted by Québec City. The winding cobbled streets, French-style bistros and opulent buildings give the city a very European feel. In fact, beautiful Québec City is about as European as it gets in North America. They speak French and consider themselves French. So much so that at some point the Québec’s francophone citizens even fought for the province’s separation from Canada.
When strolling the city streets, you often have to remind yourself that you are in Canada and not in Europe. The road signs are all in French. The streets have French names. Everything posted is in French. If you are not prepared for this, you may have a culture shock when coming to Québec. Luckily, the Québecois are much nicer than their European counterparts. Once they realize that your French vocabulary requires the help of sign language, they will switch to English. Do not assume however that everybody in Québec City is an English-speaker.
A Short History
Founded by Samuel de Champlain in 1608, Old Québec is considered the cradle of French civilization in North America. The city was an important point of interest not only for the French. The fur trade in 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. In fact, the city’s name itself derives from the Indian word kébec, meaning “where the river narrows.” Its strategic position made it hard to conquer, but eventually, in 1759, the British managed to take control of the colony and the northern part of the continent. And so began the linguistic and cultural rivalry between the francophones and anglophones – two groups that left their mark on Quebec City.
Strolling Through Old Town Québec
Old Town Québec is fairly small and can be easily explored in two-three days. The town is divided in two parts – the Lower Town, located between the St. Lawrence River and the high cliffs, and the Upper Town, which is the fortified old historic quarter.
Lower Town is the site of the original French settlement, defined by narrow streets and stone buildings. Many of Quebec City’s attractions are in this area. You can start your visit in the pretty Place Royale and see the spot where Samuel de Champlain erected his first farm. One of the most beautiful buildings in Place Royale is Notre-Dame des Victoires (1688), a little church that stands testament to the French victories over the British. Next to Place Royale you can see “Fresque des Québécois,”a beautiful mural that recounts the history of the city.
Also in Lower Town is the colorful Quartier Petit-Champlain. This labyrinth of narrow streets lined with chic boutiques, artisan shops and bistros, is one of the most scenic areas in Old Quebec. In 2014, Rue du Petit-Champlain was voted Canada’s most charming street.
The Upper Town sits on the cliff of Cape Diamond, the highest point of the city. To reach it you can either climb one of the steep staircases that start in the lower town, or take the Funiculaire for a 2 minute trip to the top. The Funiculaire will drop you on the Terrasse Dufferin, a beautiful, wide promenade that overlooks the St. Lawrence River below.
The centerpiece of the historic quarter is the stunning Château Frontenac, an iconic hotel that towers above the rest of the city like a modern fairytale castle. Said to be the most photographed hotel in the world and one of Quebec City’s attractions, this imposing structure is worth visiting even if you aren’t staying there. You can wander through the hotel lobby and marvel at its dark-wood opulence.
To get a bird’s eye view of Québec City, take the elevator up to the 31st floor of Marie Guyart building, at the Observatories de la Capitale, one of Quebec City’s attractions. From up here you can see the St. Lawrence River, Île d’Orléans (famous for its great markets), the Plains of Abraham, and the star-shaped Citadel of Old Québec.
One of the most interesting buildings in the historic quarter is Morrin Center, a 200-year old building that first functioned as a prison. The Center later became home to Morrin College –Quebec City’s first English-language institute of higher education. A visit here lets you see the jail cells and learn more about the life of the prisoners and the harsh conditions they endured. Morrin Center has a very beautiful library, really worth visiting.
Also located in the Upper Town is the old Citadelle de Québec, built by the British in the 19th century. The massive fortress is still an active military installation, so visiting it inside requires a guided tour. However, you can walk around it without a guide. Part of the Citadel has been converted into a military museum. During the summer months people gather in the Citadel to watch the Changing of the Guards ceremony.
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 Chateau Frontenac, and goes to areas outside the old city wall. The double decker bus stops at different points where you can get off and explore the city at your own pace, then hop on the bus again and continue your tour.
What You Shouldn’t Miss
One of the less known attractions in Quebec City is the unique Le Monastère des Augustines. The Monastery turned hotel is 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 on-site museum of the monastery displays an extensive collection of medical instruments and artifacts that the nuns used when carrying for their patients.
Another interesting place to visit in Old Quebec 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 staying there, you can wander through the hotel lobby and admire the wealth of artifacts.
The in-house bistro-restaurant is on of the city’s best. Housed in a former warehouse, the restaurant serves delicious French-inspired food using local ingredients and some of the best dishes you have ever eaten.
Quebec City is quite beautiful. it’s pretty big, yet it can be explored on foot, it has great scenery, a beautiful old town and many interesting attractions within a short driving distance from the city center.
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.
A final note
Throughout its long and turbulent history, Quebec City managed to preserve its status as the largest French-speaking city in North America. But to understand the present-day Francophone community’s ambition to be recognized as one of Canada’s founding peoples, one must appreciate their struggle for survival since the British acquisition of New France, in 1763.
Have you ever visited Québec City? What did you think about it?