Québec City: The Small French-Canadian City That's Big on European Charm
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The steep and sometimes unforgiving hills of Québec City, the capital of the Canadian province of the same name, can capture your breath as easily as its atmospheric cobblestoned streets and mix of British and French architecture.
The tendrils of French North America reside here in one of the oldest cities in Canada, and the only remaining walled city in North America north of Mexico.
Beyond the fortification walls, however, large green spaces are year-round gathering places, and joie de vivre can be found in festivals centered around music, history, and culture.
In summer, Old Québec is buzzing with activity. Street performers entertain on the public squares and promenades, the narrow streets feel as though they may burst at the seams with people, and patios are full. In autumn, the fall foliage is the main attraction. Winters are crisp and Carnaval de Québec is a welcome distraction from the frigid temperatures. Spring is a time for visiting sugar shacks and enjoying the peacefulness of the city.
A city of living history
Stretching along the edge of Cap Diamant, a cliff top overlooking the even-tempered waters of the Saint-Lawrence River, Dufferin Terrace is a boardwalk and popular gathering place which holds its own secrets. It was built in 1620 for its strategic views of the river, but today it offers a glimpse into the past. Below its wooden planks rests the remnants of the Saint-Louis Forts and Châteaux, home of the first French Governor of New France.
New France began where the small neighborhoods of Place-Royale and Petit-Champlain now stand. It’s home to the site of the first woman-owned business in New France (now Pub l’Oncle Antoine), one of the oldest shopping streets in North America, and a small military battery, complete with cannons. Notre-Dame des victoiries, a 17th-century church, was almost destroyed in the battle of 1759 and had a cameo at the end of Catch Me If You Can.
In Upper Town, the streets are filled with military and religious sights, monuments, and small parks. Once an army barracks, the Morrin Centre was also a jail and the site of the last public hanging, and later a college. Today, it’s home to a Victorian library—the only English library in the city.
Indigenous culture, food, and history
Québec City resides on the traditional and unceded territory of the Huron-Wendat people—and their stories are woven through and around the stories of the city. In the early days of the colony, some Indigenous peoples worked closely with fur traders and early inhabitants, some were enslaved (known as Panis) by rich merchants, and others fought against colonization.
As of 2016, over 11,500 Indigenous people reside in the Québec City area. A 10.6-mile (17-kilometer) drive from Old Québec, Wendake, the urban reserve of the Huron-Wendat Nation, offers immersive Indigenous experiences.
Hôtel-Musée Premières Nations is a beautiful hotel and home to the Huron-Wendat Museum, which expertly guides visitors through the history and culture of the nation. A few steps away, inside the Ekionkiestha’ National Longhouse, a traditional abode that housed four or five families, an Indigenous storyteller shares myths and legends.
A visit to Traditional Huron Onhoüa Chetek8e Site provides an introduction to traditional arts and crafts, and glimpse into daily life of the Huron-Wendat people in the early days of colonization. An on-site restaurant has a menu filled with Indigenous dishes, and elevated versions can be found at La Traite. In June, the Wendake International PowWow is an unforgettable experience, and in Québec City the KWE! Festival highlights the 11 Indigenous Nations residing in the province. In Old Québec, traditional Indigenous foods can be enjoyed at Restaurant Sagamité, and Musée de la Civilisation has a fascinating permanent exhibit on the First Nations and Indigenous Peoples.
Lobster rolls, wine, and strawberries, oh my!
Chunks of butter-soaked lobster practically burst from the confines of a fresh sausage-style bun at Chez Mag, a casse-croûte (snack shack/bar) on Île d’Orléans, a short drive from Québec City.
This small island is around 41 miles in circumference, and an integral part of Québec City’s food scene. While the lobster rolls are a big draw, the island is a culinary tour de force begging to be devoured.
A vast majority of the province’s strawberries are grown here each summer, and the north side of the island is filled with wineries and cideries. Farms provide produce to several restaurants in the city and decadent chocolate-dipped ice cream is a can’t-miss treat.
Famous Québécois folk singer, Félix Leclerc (born in the city of La Tuque) chose to live the last years of his life on the island and there is a museum dedicated to his life and work. Take a guided tour from Québec City or rent a scooter (or bike) on the island and do a deep dive on your own.
Public art with a message
Murals and monuments can be found throughout Québec City, but the city’s crowning jewel is its annual public art exhibits; pieces range from touching to quirky.
The art pieces of Passages Insolites (16 in total) snake through Old Québec, Vieux-Port, and to the edges of Saint-Roch. In 2022, Ai Weiwei, the most prominent artist to participate in the event since its inception in 2014, made a powerful statement on the Syrian refugee crisis, covering the stone façade of the Batterie Royale with life jackets recovered from the Greek island of Lesbos in 2016.
A small square inlaid in the courtyard at Séminaire de Québec marks where the home of Louis Hebért and Marie Rollet, the first farmers in New France, once stood. Unfortunately, little is spoken of another resident here, Olivier le Jeune, thought to be the first Black person enslaved in Québec.
There were once around 3,000-4,000 enslaved people in the Province of Québec. While slavery was more prevalent in Montreal, Black and Panis (Indigenous) people were also enslaved in Québec City and Trois-Rivières. One of the best ways to learn more about Black history is through a walking tour with QC History X.
Québécois cuisine has boréal roots, which consists of wild game and fish, root vegetables, and berries. It was also influenced by traditional French cuisine which was adapted based on foodstuffs readily available. Waves of immigrants from the British Isles have also added their influence, introducing hearty foods such as potatoes and meat pies.
Shepherd’s pie, known by its racist name, pâté chinois (Chinese pie), is an example of dishes created through immigration, though its exact origins are unclear. Some believe Chinese laborers working on the railway were given ground beef, and mashed potatoes to eat and they combined those dishes into one. Others believe the dish was created in South China, Maine; French Canadian workers who worked there during the Industrial Revolution adopted the dish.
Other traditional dishes include tourtière, a meat pie. It’s often made with ground beef; however, the best ones are from Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean and made with cubes of pork and wild game such as deer and moose. It’s a long-standing traditional Christmas Eve dish. Pouding Chômuer, which came about during the Great Depression, is a sweet dense cake sometimes served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
For traditional Québécois food, go to Aux Anciens Canadiens, La Buche, Buffet de l’Antiquaire. Restaurants such as Le Clan, Champlain, and Chez Boulay serve elevated dishes utilizing boréal ingredients such as roots vegetables, sturgeon, berries, duck, and wild game like deer, and elk. In spring, sugar shacks are ideal places for trying tourtière, pea soup, beans, and French omelets (with a healthy dose of maple syrup) while enjoying traditional folk music.
Festivals worth traveling for
Some of the best festivals in Canada take place in Québec City, and they happen all year-round.
In summer, Festival d’été de Québec (FEQ) takes over the city for 11 days and features an eclectic mix of Québec performers and world-famous artists (think Snoop Dogg, Lady Gaga, Deadmau5, Metallica) each year. When the wind blows towards the south, the music from the main stage on the Plains of Abraham can be heard clearly 2 miles away in Petit-Champlain.
In August, Les Fêtes de la Nouvelle-France gives visitors a peek at life in the early days of the colony, from costumed characters and vignettes showcasing daily chores to food and live music performances. Pride celebration, known as Fête Arc-en-Ciel de Québec, is a 10-day event in September. Towards the end of November, the German Christmas Market opens in Old Québec, and New Year’s is a four-day party with outdoor concerts and bars.
In January and February, when the air threatens to steal your breath with its icy fingers, Carnaval de Québec is a welcome distraction. It’s a time to wear all your winter gear and enjoy the outdoors, from watching ice canoe racing across the chunky waters of the Saint-Lawrence River to snow sculpture competitions and drinking copious amounts of caribou (a drink made with whiskey, fortified wine, and a hint of maple syrup).
Be sure to book hotels early as they fill up quickly and become more expensive as festival time approaches. Planning to attend a winter festival? Snag yourself a piece of cardboard to stand on during the outdoor concerts, it will help you stay warm longer.
EAT: Fries with crispy edges, briney squeaky cheese curds, and hot brown sauce (often a mix of beef and chicken gravies) come together to form one of Québec’s most famous dishes, poutine. In Québec City, Chez Gaston serves one of the best poutines in the city.
DO: In January each year, the Hôtel de Glace (Ice Hotel) opens its doors. Its walls are made entirely of snow and ice, carved with images matching a different theme each year. Explore this stunning hotel during the day, then fly down snowy hills in an inner tube.
STAY: Fairmont Le Château Frontenac silently mesmerizes all who look upon it. Québec City’s photogenic protagonist, the château is a jumping-off point for delving into the living history of Old Québec. Its foyer and restaurants are filled with elegant flourishes, and comfortable rooms offer views of the city or Saint-Lawrence River.
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Published October 18, 2023
Last updated December 21, 2023
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