If this is your first time in Quebec City, this guide will help you navigate the city’s unusual culture and give you all the information you need for visiting it.
Québec City is about as European as it can get in North America. When wandering through its cobblestone streets surrounded by French-style bistros and French speaking people, you’d think you are in Paris. Yet, despite its European charm, the city has a very distinct North-American atmosphere.
Table of Contents
- A Brief History of Québec City
- A First Time Visitor’s Guide to Québec City
- What to Do in Québec City
- 1. Stroll Through the Old Town Québec
- 2. Admire the City View From Château Frontenac
- 3. Visit Morrin Center
- 4. Visit the Citadelle de Québec
- 5. Head to the Top of the Observatoire de la Capitale
- 6. Take a Food Tour
- 7. Go a Day Trip to Montmorency Falls
- 8. Visit Île d’Orléans
- 9. Discover the Aboriginal Community of Québec City
- Where to Stay in Québec City as a First Time Visitor
- A Final Note
A Brief History of Québec City
Founded by Samuel de Champlain in 1608, Old Québec is considered the cradle of French civilization in North America, which is one of the many interesting things about Canada. 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.
A First Time Visitor’s Guide to Québec City
When strolling the streets of Quebec you often have to remind yourself that you are in Canada and not in Europe. The road signs are in French, the streets have French names and 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 is an English-speaker.
What to Do in Québec City
1. Stroll Through the 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.
2. Admire the City View From Château Frontenac
The centerpiece of the historic quarter is the stunning Château Frontenac. With its grandiose size and suggestive name, you may think you are in front of a French chateau, but the iconic Frontenac is actually a hotel.
Château Frontenac is said to be the most photographed hotel in the world and one of Quebec City’s attractions. It’s worth visiting this imposing structure 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.
3. Visit Morrin Center
One of the most interesting buildings in the historic quarter is the Morrin Center, a 200-year old building that first functioned as a prison. Later on, the building became home to the Morrin College – Quebec City’s first English-language institute of higher education.
A visit to the Morrin Center 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.
4. Visit the Citadelle de Québec
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.
5. Head to the Top of the Observatoire de la Capitale
To visit Québec City’s highest viewpoint, take the elevator up to the 31st floor of the Marie Guyart building. This is where you’ll find the Observatoire de la Capitale an interesting observation deck from where you’ll have a bird’s eye view of the entire Quebec City.
From up here you can see the St. Lawrence River, Île d’Orléans, the Plains of Abraham, and the fortifications surrounding Old Québec.
6. Take a Food Tour
Quebec City is a food paradise! It would be a pity to visit the city and not taste its delicacies. I had the opportunity to go on a food tour with a local guide from the Quebec City tourist board.
Michelle took me on a off-the-beaten-path culinary tour and introduced me to the local favorites that otherwise I would not have unnoticed. The tour was 3 hours long and includes 6 stops with 12 different tastings of food & drink which is enough to equal a very satisfying lunch.
One food that you should try in Quebec City is poutine. This is a nationally beloved dish made with steak, French fries, cheese curds, ranch dressing and fried onion. Fattening, but delicious! The Québecois argue that poutine was actually invented here, in Quebec City.
7. Go a Day Trip to Montmorency Falls
Just a short drive away from the city you’ll see one of Canada’s most beautiful waterfalls: the Montmorency Falls. Although not as famous and wide as Niagara Falls, Montmorency 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.
8. Visit Île d’Orléans
Not very far from the city center of Québec lies one of the most picturesque islands in the area: Île d’Orléans. The island is home to many historic homes and beautiful churches, as well as vineyards and berry 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.
9. Discover the Aboriginal Community of Québec City
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.
Where to Stay in Québec City as a First Time Visitor
In this guide I’m also going to give you a couple of lodging options for Québec City.
For Budget Minded Travelers
One of the less known hotels 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.
For Those Interested in a High-end Experience
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 fresh, local ingredients.
Trivia: Quebec is the birth place of Celine Dion. It’s also the scene where the first street performance of Cirque de Soleil happened. And last but not least, Quebec is place where author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry 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 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.
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