Travel Guide: Quebec City

By

by Aaron Feigenbaum.

Located about 3 hours away from the bustling Canadian metropolis of Montreal, Quebec’s capital city offers visitors a chance to experience the Old World charm of France right in North America. Quebec City, one of North America’s oldest former European colonies, sits atop a cliff overlooking the majestic St. Lawrence river with views of the surrounding Laurentian mountains. The city’s colonial past is an integral part of its identity, a fact evidenced by the 16th century fortress walls that still surround it. Each year, an average of 9 million tourists are dazzled by the city’s cobblestone streets, colonial-era houses, military ramparts, and, especially, the awe-inspiring Chateau Frontenac, possibly North America’s most photographed hotel. Quebec City also has plenty of museums, hiking trails, and world-renowned street festivals. If you’re concerned about the language barrier, while French may be the common language in this European-esque city, non-Francophone tourists have no cause to fear as many tour guides speak English and English signs crafted especially for visitors are in abundance. The city celebrated its 400th anniversary in 2008 and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For a unique cultural experience that’s relatively close to home, there are few places that can match the grandeur and authenticity of Quebec City.

The first European explorer to settle in the area now known as Quebec City was Frenchman Jacques Cartier, who arrived there in 1534. However, his settlement quickly failed due to hostility on the part of the natives in the region. The city’s official history dates back to 1608 when the area was successfully settled by another French explorer named Samuel de Champlain, now immortalized as the “Father of New France.” The city and province’s name originally derives from Kebec, an Algonquin term meaning “where the river narrows.” Quebec City was built on an abandoned Iroquois settlement on a promontory overlooking the St. Lawrence river. The city’s original name was Canada, an Iroquois word meaning “village,” which was later adopted by the country of Canada itself. The French settlers thrived in Quebec due to the highly successful timber and fur trades. Having previously been ruled by a governor, Quebec came under the direct charge of King Louis XIV of France in 1663, thus making Quebec City the capital of New France. The fort of Saint-Louis, whose walls now surround the city, was built in 1620 and took six years to complete.

The fort proved necessary as Iroquois and British attacks constantly threatened the fledgling city. During the Seven Years War, the British gained control of Quebec after the French were routed at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham in 1759. Despite the change in ownership, the new British overseers allowed their subjects to retain their French culture of which they, and their current descendants, are fiercely proud. In 1864 Quebec City hosted the Quebec Conference in Montmorency Park which eventually led to the creation of Canada in 1867. Today, despite the strife caused by Quebec separatism, Quebec City serves as a reminder of Canada’s rich past and stands at the crossroads of British and French history.

Things to See and Do:

Chateau Frontenac: Dominating the skyline of Quebec City, this amazing hotel was built on the site of the much less impressive Chateau Haldimand which served as the residence for the British colonial governors of Quebec and Lower Canada. Chateau Frontenac was built by American architect Bruce Price for the Canadian Pacific Railway company in 1893. It was named after Louis de Buade, Count of Frontenac who was a two-term French colonial governor in the 17th century. In 1943 it hosted the Quebec Conference attended by FDR, Churchill, and Canadian premier Mackenzie King in which the three leaders discussed WWII strategy. Today it is owned by Fairmont Hotels and Resorts. Unfortunately, guided tours are no longer offered, but visitors are free to roam the luxurious public areas of the hotel including the lobby and lounges. Not surprisingly, rooms are a bit pricy; expect to spend at least $150 per night. However, the hotel’s grandeur and scenic views of the St. Lawrence river make for an unforgettable experience that’s well worth the cost. Right behind the hotel is the scenic Terrasse Dufferin boardwalk with views of the river and distant mountains. Winter visitors get the special treat of tobogganing down Les Glissades de la Terrasse.

Chateau Frontenac

Citadelle: Located right near the Chateau Frontenac is the star-shaped Citadelle, a key part of the city’s fortifications and the official residence of both the Monarch of Canada, (Queen Elizabeth II) and the Governor General of Canada, (the Queen’s official representative). Free guided tours of the Governor General/Monarch’s mansion Rideau Hall are offered daily. The Citadelle is also home to the 22nd Royal Regiment of the Canadian Army whose uniforms and daily, (except when weather doesn’t permit,) changing of the guard ceremonies are not unlike those of the guards at Buckingham Palace. The Regiment has their own museum which features the history of the Regiment and the Citadelle, as well as various Canadian military exhibits.

La Citadelle de Québec
Parliament Building: Quebec’s parliament building is a majestic piece of architecture that was built in the Second Empire style of the late 19th century. The well-appointed interior features stained-glass art and a Louis XVI-style legislative hall. You can see a general exhibit about the history of Quebec’s National Assembly as well as a more specialized one about the members of the Assembly who fought in WWI. You can even attend a parliamentary session for free. Be aware that the sessions are in French and that there are strict dress and behavior codes. On the outside, the building’s unique design is complemented by the beautiful gardens and fountains surrounding it. Free guided tours are offered.

National Assembly

Plains of Abraham Battlefield Park: As the name suggests, this is the site of the decisive battle which handed over control of Quebec to the British. The park offers plenty to do for the whole family, all at no charge. You can see the beautiful Jeanne d’Arc flower garden, engage in roller blading, take your kids to the playground, watch a rugby game, visit the arts museum, and have a relaxing picnic with a view of the river. And true to its name, the park has dozens of artillery pieces scattered throughout, as well as four Martello Towers built by the British to defend against a possible American attack. Be sure to visit the park in autumn when the colorful leaves make for an especially impressive sight.

Morrin Centre: This rather unassuming building served as the city’s first prison and then the first English language institute of higher learning. It’s now home to the city’s only English language library. A guided tour takes you down to the jail cells where you can learn about the prisoners’ lives and the conditions they lived in. Guides then inform you about the history of Morrin College, the science lab, and the haunting stories behind the Victorian library. Admission prices are $8.75 per adult, $6.50 per student, and free for children 8 and younger.

Observatoire de la Capitale: Located on the top floor of the Marie-Guyart building, the Observatory is the highest point in the entire city. You’ll get a 360-degree view of the city and areas beyond. The panoramic view is complemented by an interactive multimedia display with touch screens and holograms that take you through Quebec City’s past. Adults are $8 and kids are free.

Panorama of Quebec City's skyline
Quartier du Petit Champlain: The oldest shopping district in North America, Petit Champlain is the cultural heart of Quebec City. Wander down the cobblestone pathways and peruse the interesting artisan shops set in beautiful traditional buildings. If you want great souvenirs then this is the place to go to.

Lower town

Place Royale: This is the very spot where Samuel de Champlain founded Quebec City in 1608. A museum overlooking the square traces the history of Quebec from its founding to the present day. Admission to the museum is $7 for adults, $5 for students, and free for ages 11 and under.

Ice Hotel: For something a bit more out of the ordinary, come in the winter to visit North America’s only ice hotel (the Hotel de Glace) in Charlesbourg, just north of Quebec City. This incredible feat of engineering is made over the course of a month and a half with 30,000 tons of specialized snow and 500 tons of ice. There are 44 different rooms and theme suites, the most expensive of which has a fireplace and private spa. The hotel will be open next year from January 5 to March 22. If you’re not interested in staying overnight, the hotel is wide open to the public, averaging a million tourists a year compared to only about 40,000 guests.

Ice Hotel

Winter Carnival: The primary reason to visit Quebec City in the winter though is for the massive Winter Carnival, one of the largest of its kind in the world. Events include a masquerade ball at the Chateau Frontenac, parades, snow sculpture contests, sleigh races, ice canoe races, hockey, snowboarding, and skiing.

Quebec winter carnival

Montmorency Falls Park: Edging out the legendary Niagara Falls in height, the stunning Montmorency Falls are only some 7 miles away from the heart of Old Quebec City. Several different staircases allow visitors to view the falls from a number of different perspectives. A suspension bridge crosses the top of the falls allowing for spectacular scenic views.

Island of Orleans: For a glimpse into Quebec’s rural past, take a trip 3 miles east of downtown to this historic island in the St. Lawrence River. The island was one of the earliest French settlements and has been described as a “microcosm of traditional Quebec and as the birthplace of Francophones in North America.” Rustic scenery, fresh locally-grown produce, craft shops, and quaint bed-and-breakfasts are just some of what attract over 600,000 tourists a year to this charming locale.

Jacques Cartier River

Jacques Cartier National Park: The perfect escape for nature lovers, this huge national park has gorgeous lakes, streams, mountains, and hiking trails. Skiing and fishing are some of the most popular activities in this unspoiled wilderness.

Daven and Eat:

Congregation Beth Israel Ohev Shalom is the city’s only shul. They are located at 1251 Avenue de Merici and can be reached at +1 418-688-3277.
For kosher food go to jquebec.com where you can arrange for catering.

Getting There:

Quebec City is served by Jean Lesage International Airport, located about 7 miles southwest of downtown. Round-trip prices from LAX start in the upper $400 range. Another option is to drive there from New York, Boston, or Montreal. Driving from Los Angeles to Quebec City takes 3 to 4 days.

(Sources: Wikitravel, Lonely Planet, Trip Advisor)