Québec City is one of the most unique cities in North America, and it has everything. History? It’s a 400-year-old fortified city, and one of only two on the entire continent with its walls still standing. Charm? You won’t find a more European experience this side of the Atlantic. Although you don’t actually have to speak French to get by, bring your phrase book because that’s what everyone else will be speaking. Beauty? Most of the city’s original architecture is still standing. It’s just one magnificent tableau after another. It’s romantic, it’s welcoming, and, if it’s your first time, a little overwhelming. Here are all the sights you don’t want to miss.
Walking through the gates into Old Québec is like stepping into a fairytale. The narrow cobblestone streets and the Old World buildings dating back hundreds of years have captured the town in a beautifully preserved time bubble. If it’s shopping you’re after, the possibilities are endless. Stroll down rue Saint Jean for artisanal shops, specialty foods, and original boutiques. The Quartier Petit Champlain is North America’s oldest shopping district and the perfect place to look for souvenirs. The Old Port is a treasure hunt of antique stores and art galleries. But step down any side street and you’ll realize how picturesque this 400-year-old town really is. Follow the walls for some spectacular views, or just wander through a labyrinth of historic homes. The streets are very narrow and parking is extremely limited, so plan to leave your car behind and enjoy the city on foot.
Montmorency Falls is a spectacular waterfall just 20 minutes by car from the center of the city. Taller than Niagara, the falls are a must-see at any time of year. In summer the high iron content gives them a golden glow. In winter, the mist freezes to create ice formations known as the Sugarloaf. Traverse the suspension bridge for some pretty epic views, and take the cable car up or down if the walk is too strenuous for you. Eat on the terrace of Le Manoir Montmorency at the top for more incredible views.
North America’s only ice hotel is redesigned and rebuilt every winter. The most recent version contained 45 bedrooms, an ice bar, an ice chapel, a spa, and outdoor hot tubs. Even the furniture is carved from ice. The whole place is obviously unheated (except for the bathrooms), so guests spend the night snuggled into nordic sleeping bags. If sleeping in subzero temperatures is not your speed, don’t worry, the hotel is open to tour during the day. And if you do want to try it, the hotel holds a backup reservation for you at a traditional hotel nearby. Just in case.
Although Québec City is well-known for its old-world European charm, it hasn’t forgotten its native roots. Wendake is a self-governing territory just 15 minutes from the city center, and home to about 2,000 members of the Huron Nation. Visitors can enjoy the thriving art community and aboriginal dishes. They can also visit a reconstruction of Heron village. Take a guided tour, row a canoe, and hear some traditional lore and learn all about this fascinating culture still surviving in modern-day Canada.
Chateau Frontenac is reputed to be the most photographed hotel in the world, and it’s easy to see why. It simply dominates the city skyline. It has been towering over the St. Lawrence River for 125 years, beginning as a railway hotel and currently a national landmark as well as a 5-star operation. It has the best location in the city, within the wall of Old Québec and overlooking the popular Dufferin Terrace. The heart of the city is just outside its doors. It’s been on stamps, in movies, and has accommodated many celebrities, including Canadian icon Celine Dion. This is the place to be if you want to see and be seen.
Take a step back in time to explore Ile d’Orleans, “the Garden of Québec.” The island was home to one of the earliest French colonies, and very little has changed since then. There is only one bridge on and off the island, and really only one main road following the entire coast. Bring your appetite with you, because the community is mostly vineyards, farm stands, and strawberry fields. The scenery is fabulous, the architecture is quaint, and the people charming. A must-see. And for those of you with a sweet tooth, hit up the Chocolaterie de l'Ile d'Orleans.
History and/or military buffs will want to check out the Citadelle, the oldest military building in Canada. It’s part of the fortifications of the city, and one of only two fortified cities in North America with the walls still standing. It is still an active military base, but guided tours run all day. The history lesson is full of French, British, American, and Canadian politics, made interesting with real-life stories.
Québec City is bursting at the seams with museums, both big and small. From history to art to maple syrup, they have a museum for everything. A major highlight is the Musée de la civilisation. It’s generally a humanities museum, and exhibits may include anything from Québec’s aboriginal culture to local literature to ancient Rome. It’s worth a visit for the modern architecture alone. Other museums to check out are the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, the Musée des Ursulines de Québec (if you visit in summer, be sure to see the hidden convent gardens), and the Plains of Abraham Museum.
It would be a shame to visit Québec and miss out on its culinary treasures. To start, get thee to a sugar shack. It’s not Canada without a little maple sugar. Maple is represented on the flag, for goodness sake! You can indulge in your maple treats all year long, but it becomes a lifestyle choice in spring when the sap starts to flow. Try La Sucrerie Blouin on Île d’Orléans or Erabliere du Lac-Beauport in the Parc national de la Jacques-Cartier. Of course, there’s more to Canadian cuisine than maple syrup. Try caribou at Aux Anciens Canadiens, tourtière at Là Là, and poutine at Frite Alors.
Ready to get out of the city? There are plenty of sights to be seen within easy distance of Québec City. The Shrine of Sainte-Anne-Beaupré has become a pilgrimage destination for almost a million visitors every year. The shrine began as a small chapel, but as its reputation for miracles grew, so did the building. It’s now a beautiful basilica, and the Catholic Church has accredited it with many miraculous healings.
To get off the beaten path, relax and enjoy the scenery along with fine dining on Le Train du Massif, from Montmorency Falls to Malbaie. Indulge your bohemian side in Baie-Saint-Paul, a small but cultural town full of art museums, galleries, and street artists. Cirque du Soleil got its start here back in the 1980s.