For North Americans, when you get a hankering for old European charm but don’t want to cross the Atlantic Ocean, Québec awaits.
The city of Québec, founded by French explorers in 1608 along the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, has a kind of charm that otherwise you find only in the old capitals of Europe: city walls; cobble-stoned narrow streets; and two distinct old clusters of buildings, one along the river’s edge, and the second high up on the cliff behind.
Along with Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Québec is the other Canadian urban area designated as one of Canada’s 18 UNESCO heritage districts — the other 16 are natural areas or ruins of past settlements. Says UNESCO: Québec “is the only North American city to have preserved its ramparts, together with the numerous bastions, gates and defensive works which still surround Old Québec. The Upper Town, built on the cliff, has remained the religious and administrative centre, with its churches, convents and other monuments like the Dauphine Redoubt, the Citadel and Château Frontenac. Together with the Lower Town and its ancient districts, it forms an urban ensemble which is one of the best examples of a fortified colonial city.”
My first trip to Quebec City — so named in English to distinguish it from the province of Quebec — was in high school, when our French class went on the (province of) Quebec whirlwind tour: first Montreal, then (city of) Quebec, including the requisite side trips to Montmorency Falls and the shrine of Saint Anne de Beaupré, which I remember freaked out Protestant classmates who thought this saint business was pretty woo-woo.
But it was in Québec (the city) where I felt furthest from home: not long after this I was on a band trip to Germany and Austria, and Quebec City shared the feel of the small European cities, at least the ones not damaged by wars and bombings.
Over the years, I’ve been back to Québec many times. There’s the pleasure of wandering around the Lower Town, near the river, now filled with art galleries and restaurants specializing in steak frites. The Upper Town walls and gates join to a boardwalk and walking paths, with the Château Frontenac jutting first into view like a nautical figurehead. It’s a great city for history buffs, who can explore the Plains of Abraham and the Citadel along with four museums run under the umbrella Musées de la Civilisation ; another interesting small museum is Musée des Ursulines du Québec, which tells the story of founder of this religious order of teaching nuns, Mary of the Incarnation, and of the first school for girls founded in 1639, in what was then known as “New France”. While there are many restaurants catering to busloads of tourists, you can check reviews, asks locals, and find smaller places specializing in French cuisine and wines, including my favourite Saint-Amour.
Québec has a life and purpose beyond being a pretty place. It is the provincial capital and there are modern developments and businesses around the historic town. Simons, the beloved Quebec department store that recently has started expanding elsewhere in Canada, has a modern store tucked into an Old Quebec storefront on Côte de la Fabrique. (As an aside, for years I thought I was being oh-so-appropriately French-sensitive and I called this place “Sea-MOAN”. Uh, uh, corrected my dear Québec-raised friend Elaine. The store was founded by an English family. It’s firmly SIGH-muns.
Québec is stunning to see from the water, particularly at the first light of day, when the sun rises in the east and shines on the old town, which is situated on a southwest jut of land. Pro tip: pay around $7 per person and take the Québec-Lévis ferry, a 12-minute trip across the river, and then 12 minutes back. Plan to get there as the sun is rising; the ferry starts operating shortly after 6 a.m. It’s also magical to walk afterward through the old-town streets before the shops are open and the tour crowds flood in. I am decidedly not a morning person, but this early alarm is worth it, even on vacation.
Main photo: Kelley looking at Château Frontenac. Photo by John Lederman.