Quebec City’s Top Sites: Old Europe in the New World
If you can’t jet set across the pond to visit Europe, then set your compass north and travel to Quebec City instead. This historic provincial capital has the charm of a European city at a quarter of the cost. The French-speaking natives will make you feel like you’re a continent away, and the food will make you feel like you’re in heaven! Here are my top six destinations to add to your Québécois itinerary.
#6 Fallin’ for These Falls
Located just 15 minutes outside of Quebec City, Montmorency Falls are almost 100 feet (30 meters) higher than those at Niagara! The falls are located at the mouth of the Montmorency River where it breathtakingly drops over a cliff to empty into the St. Lawrence. You can climb a staircase up to the falls, but I would recommend taking the cable car instead. At the top, a suspension bridge offers access to both sides of the surrounding park and allows for some incredible views. We visited when the cable car was closed, but we still enjoyed amazing views. Before going, check the website for the hours of operation. Even if you can’t make the ascent in the cable car, seeing this natural wonder is definitely worth the short trip.
#5 One of the Best Meals of My Life
One morning, we were browsing through a gift shop in Quebec, and the friendly sales clerk asked where we were from. Hearing that we weren’t locals, she asked if we needed any advice about places of interest or restaurants. I’m always eager to hear from locals about the best places to eat. When you’re traveling, you want to dine where the locals do because the food will be better, and often cheaper, than at restaurants frequented by tourists. She raved about a restaurant located across the river that served farm to table food at reasonable prices. Need she say more?! We got in our rental car and made the 30 minute drive across the St. Lawrence River to the city of Levis, located directly opposite Quebec.
Au Grain de Folie Bistro (which roughly translates to “to the grain of madness” – how cute!) is a tiny restaurant that serves food with a huge flavor punch! The menu, which is written in chalk on the wall, changes with what is available at local farms. If you can’t speak French, don’t worry! The friendly and helpful wait staff will translate for you (as they did for us) and offer suggestions regarding courses and wines. The chef, who frequently visits with tables, is masterful and prepares food that is out of this world. We ordered several courses, and by the end of dinner, practically had to wheel ourselves out of there because we ate so much. I am not exaggerating when I stated in the title that it was one of the best meals of my life. If you’re in Quebec City and you have a car, make the short drive to this restaurant. Your taste buds will be glad that you did! As a bonus, you’ll even get a lovely view of Quebec City from the small park across the street.
#4 La Citadelle: Stormin’ the Fort & Changin’ the Guard
Quebec City is built high up on the promontory known as Cape Diamond for good reason; it needed to be protected from attack by the British and, later, those pesky Americans (he,he). The walls surrounding the Old City are the oldest in the Americas, north of Mexico, and are, in their own right, a UNESCO world heritage site. After the War of 1812, the British, who then ruled Canada, knew they needed to shore up the defenses of Quebec, and so they built a state-of-the-art fort, La Citadelle, which was completed in 1850. Today, La Citadelle is the largest fortress in North America, a functioning military installation, and a viceregal residence. The fascinating tour (available in French or English) takes you through over 300 years of the history of Quebec and introduces you to some of the traditions of the Royal 22nd Regiment, which garrisons the fort even today. For you royal watchers, you can also tour the residence of the Governor-General, Queen Elizabeth II’s representative in Canada. Even better yet, you can see the Changing of the Guard daily at 10AM, from June 24 to Labor Day, right at La Citadelle. No need to go to Buckingham Palace to see royal soldiers in crimson uniforms and bearskin hats! If you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of Batisse, a goat that is the royal mascot of the regiment. Now, that’s a photo that you’re not going to get anywhere else! Speaking of photo-ops, the ramparts of the fort provide spectacular views of Quebec City and the Chateau Frontenac. So bring your cameras for the urban and hircine views.
#3,2,1 A Shopping, History, and Food Tour of the Oldest Part of Quebec
While the Old City is beautiful, with its picturesque gateways and massive stone ramparts, it’s actually not the oldest part of Quebec. For that, you have to go to the Basse-Ville, or Lower City, and the most enjoyable way to get there is to take the funicular. Head up towards the Chateau Frontenac, and you’ll see signs for the funicular, which has been operating since 1879 (don’t worry, it was renovated in 2004!). The funicular is a type of cliff railway that takes you from the upper city to the lower city. It’s a fun trip for adults and kids alike.
Stepping off the funicular, you’ve arrived in Quartier Petit Champlain. Named after the founder of the city, this charming neighborhood of shops and restaurants is the oldest commercial district in North America. Spend some time exploring the boutiques. One of my favorites is Sculpteur Flamand, at 49 Rue du Petit-Champlain, the only shop in the city that specializes in wood sculptures. Everything there is made by hand, and you can often see the artisans at work. On our last visit, we bought several gifts, and a little something for ourselves as a souvenir of the city. If you’re hungry, and it’s breakfast time, I recommend La Cochon Dingue at 46 Boulevard Champlain.
Once you’ve shopped to your heart’s content, you should be ready for a little history. Take the short walk (see the map below) to the historic center of Quebec, the Place Royale. It was there in 1608, that Samuel de Champlain founded the city of Quebec as the capital of New France. You can learn all about the early history of the city in the Musee de la Place Royale (and dress up in period costume like I did!), visit the oldest stone church in North America (Notre-Dame-des-Victoires Church, 1688) and take some lovely photos of the picture perfect square.
The last stop on our tour of the Lower City is the Marche du Vieux-Port, or Market of the Old Port. At the market you can find a huge variety of local food products, from maple syrup to fresh produce to fine wines. Snack your way through the market, do some shopping for gifts, or pack up a French picnic lunch. A “must-eat” is a sausage from So-Cho: Le Saucissier, which makes a terrific quick lunch or tasty snack. Also, keep your eyes open for a chocolate stand that sells homemade marshmallows. They’re magnifique!
Montmorency Falls is located at 5300 Boulevard Sainte-Anne in Quebec. Click on the map for directions.
Au Grain de Folie Bistro is located at 2286 Chemin du Fleuve in Levis. Click on the map for directions.
The Quartier Petit Champlain is located at 61 Rue du Petit Champlain in Quebec. The best way to get there is to take the funicular, as described above.
The Place Royal is located at 27 Rue Notre Dame in Quebec. Click on the map for directions.
The Marche du Vieux-Port is located at 160 Quai Saint-André in Quebec. Click on the map for directions.