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A guide to Quebec City, Canada's historic provincial capital

Canada’s historic crown jewel serves up high drama with 17th-century squares, turreted hotels and electric neighbourhoods, all encircled by epic wilderness.

Published 21 Jan 2022, 06:00 GMT, Updated 21 Jan 2022, 09:24 GMT
View of Fairmont Le Château Frontenac the Port of Quebec and St Lawrence River.

View of Fairmont Le Château Frontenac the Port of Quebec and St Lawrence River.

Photograph by Jeff Frenette

Chocolate-box buildings with brimming flower boxes. An imposing fortress, encircled by cannons. Soaring city walls, cobbled squares, horse-and-carriage rides. Where in the world are you? You’d probably guess France — maybe Switzerland or Germany. But this is, in fact, North America; Quebec City, one of the continent’s oldest colonial settlements. Some 400 years after its founding, it delivers 17th-century atmosphere so rich it can feel like stepping onto a film set. 

Wander the picturesque old town — divided into Upper and Lower halves, connected by steep stairways and an old funicular — and your fingers will twitch for a camera. The Lower, Quartier Petit Champlain, has artisan shops and muralled squares. The Upper, marked by a sweeping boardwalk and the landmark Fairmont Le Château Frontenac hotel, sparkles with Victorian glamour — in fact, you half-expect a bonneted lady to stroll past.

However, there’s more to Quebec City than its looks. Nearly half a millennium of history means that when you scratch beneath the surface, the stories get interesting. Think churches stuffed with paintings rescued during the French Revolution; monasteries that hosted Canada’s first hospital; and ballrooms where Roosevelt and Churchill planned D-Day.

Then, of course, there’s the culture. In so many ways, Quebec City is a slice of bygone France. And not just in the mansard roofs and Gallic signage, but in the white-tableclothed restaurants unironically dishing up retro duck à l’orange and crêpes suzette. But for every full-French moment, there’s a counterpoint. You need only step into an American-style diner for poutine — cheese curds, chips and gravy — or nibble fresh maple taffy to know Paris is more than 3,000 miles away.

Part of the city’s charm is what it offers beyond its old city walls. Here you’ll find trendy neighbourhoods punctuated with hip wine bars and breweries, offering a sense of how real life ticks along inside the tourist magnet. Then, beyond that, there’s wilderness. A 20-minute drive will take you not just out of the city, but standing by a crashing waterfall, kayaking along a river and cycling past fields full of ripening blackcurrants. And, perhaps, that’s where the European comparisons draw thin. Beautiful, diverse landscapes minutes from a cosmopolitan hub? That’s unmistakably Canadian.

People walking along the cobbled streets towards the Place Royale on Rue du Sault-au-Matelot.

Photograph by Jeff Frenette

What to see and do


Old Quebec: Ready the camera. You’ll need it in Old Quebec, the split-level historic core nudging the St Lawrence River. Start on the broad Dufferin Terrace, outside landmark hotel Château Frontenac. Studded with stripy gazebos and street musicians performing Céline Dion belters, it gives you a bird’s-eye view of the river and city. Then, hop on the funicular down to Quartier Petit Champlain, where quaint restaurants, cute squares and artisan clothes shops will help pass a afternoon. No, this isn’t a Disney film set, but it sure feels like one.

Citadelle of Quebec: You don’t have to be a military geek to enjoy a trip to North America’s largest British fortress; the views back to Old Quebec and the St Lawrence are reason enough to visit. Then there’s the daily summer ritual of the Changing of the Guard, like the soldiers do at Buckingham Palace — but in French. For military enthusiasts, though, a visit to the Citadelle isn’t complete without checking out the on-site museum, detailing the history of the still-active 22nd regiment.

Plains of Abraham: The pivotal battle site of the Seven Years’ War — where Quebec City passed from French to British hands — is now a sprawling riverside park. Go into history mode, tracing the key war moments via a route of plaques and sculptures, or just appreciate the broad lawns, manicured flower beds and bandstand. Locals love the wooded lower path, lined with dog tooth violets, for walks with their pooches. 

Musée de la Civilisation: The National Museum of Fine Arts, Quebec’s largest, gets all the attention with its ample collection of stately portraits in gilded frames. But the Musée de la Civilisation, by the adorable Place Royale square, gives insight into local life, from the 17th-century Augustinians to the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. Don’t miss the top-floor exhibit on native peoples, with traditional clothing and snowshoes. 

Modern neighbourhoods: Want to see the ‘real’ Quebec? Strike out west beyond the old centre to explore a succession of neighbourhoods with contemporary high-rises, graffitied streets and flat white-sipping millennials. Easterly Saint-Jean-Baptiste boasts a tranquil vibe with broad pavements and bistros, while gritty Saint-Roch has nightlife aplenty mixed in with cheap boutiques, cafes and a giant Scientology outpost. The once working-class but now up-and-coming area of Saint-Sauveur, meanwhile, plays host to some of the city’s hottest new restaurants.

Antipasto plate for two at Don Vegan Restaurant.

Photograph by Jeff Frenette

How to explore like a local


Try poutine: It’s practically mandatory to tuck into the local speciality, poutine. Tourists flock to Chez Ashton, but locals prefer Poutineville in Saint-Roch for cheap but customisable versions, or Le Chic Shack for gussied-up bowlfuls with braised beef and horseradish aioli. 

Explore by bike: During summer, electric bikes are available to hire via app àVélo, meaning you can travel between the Upper and Lower Town at leisure without having to rely on the funicular or the thigh-burning staircases.

Shop the market: Stocked with hand-rolled pasta, andouillette sausages and fruit from the Charlevoix region, Le Grand Marché de Québec is where locals go to stock up for dinner parties. Browse the stalls, sip beers from the onsite brewery and join family-friendly events on the upper floor. 

Check out Île d’Orléans: Visit this island in the St Lawrence River to tour its wineries — Vignoble Ste-Pétronille, with views towards Montmorency Falls, is a highlight — and stock up on blackcurrant liqueur at Cassis Monna & Filles. Maple and apple treats from Cidrerie Verger Bilodeau and an ice cream cone from Chocolaterie de l’Île d’Orléans are other essentials. 

The immense Mural of Quebecers, illustrating the history of the city.

Photograph by Jeff Frenette

What to buy


Ja Moisan: At the city’s oldest deli, founded in 1871, you’ll find a top selection of Quebec-made wines, ciders, cheeses and preserves. Like everything else around these parts, it’s pretty to look at, too — red brick walls, with a petite coffee terrace. 

Amimoc: Located in the Quartier Petit Champlain shopping district, known for its craft goods, this spot does footwear the Canadian way: think handmade leather boots and moccasins. If your size isn’t in stock, shoes can be made to order within a week. 

Beauchamp Art GalleryThis multi-location gallery showcases works by artists from Quebec province and beyond. All works can be shipped to the UK, whether you’re hankering after a watercolour of the Gaspé Peninsula or an abstract inkblot.

Boutiques Metiers D'art du Quebec: Searching for a souvenir with local flair? This gallery-cum-shop on the edge of Place Royale has everything from jewellery and pottery to pillows and hats, all made by professional artisans. 

Florent & Fils at Le Grand Marché de Québec.

Photograph by Jeff Frenette

Where to stay


Le Monastère des Augustines: A former Augustinian monastery, this wellness haven has spa treatments, yoga and an in-house chapel, where a few nuns still sing daily. Third-floor rooms, with quilts and original beams, are atmospheric if you don’t mind shared bathrooms, while the more modern fourth floor has en suites. Don’t miss the permanent exhibition dedicated to the nuns. 

Le Saint Pierre Auberge: For a characterful pad by the Quartier Petit Champlain, try this historic hotel with exposed brick walls and hardwood floors, plus free bikes for exploring the city. No need to upgrade — one of the nicest rooms (301, overlooking the water) is also one of the smallest. 

Le Capitole: Not everything in the city is old-school, as shown by this contemporary tower with river views. A rooftop pool comes with a clubby vibe, while a swish lounge is the perfect setting for a nightcap. Dinner at the onsite Bō Cuisine d’Asie restaurant is worth booking in for; try the ginger-laced mandu steamed buns and Japanese-inspired cocktails. 

Artwork by Patrick Pépin at Beauchamp Art Gallery.

Photograph by Jeff Frenette

Where to eat


Don Végane: In the land of cheese curds and duck fat, you might not expect great vegan food. But this plant-based restaurant in the Lower Town nails it. The mushroom fettuccine is so creamy, you won’t miss the dairy. 

Le Renard et le Chouette: In quaint-but-trendy Saint-Sauveur, west of the old town, this little wine bar serves characterful glasses alongside epic charcuterie plates. Order a glass of whichever red is scrawled across the specials board to wash down rib-sticking choucroute (sauerkraut) and tartiflette (potatoes, cheese, lardons and onions). 

Le Saint-Amour: A city staple since the 1970s, with its crisp tablecloths, snappy service and tome-like wine list (a roll call of Bordeaux and Burgundy), Le Saint-Amour proves that old-school French dining is alive and well in Quebec. Crafted plates are doused in truffle and caviar extravagances, while greenhouse-like windows and hanging plants lend an indoor-outdoor vibe. 

Dinner at 1608 Bar, which serves the likes of oysters and boards of local charcuterie.

Photograph by Jeff Frenette

Essentials


Getting there & around
Air Transat is set to launch a direct summer service between Gatwick and Quebec City in May 2022. Air Canada flies from Heathrow daily, via Montreal or Toronto, while WestJet flies from Gatwick to Quebec City via Toronto. British Airways flies from Heathrow to Montreal or Toronto; you can then take a connecting flight with local operators such as Porter Airlines, WestJet or Air Canada. Alternatively, from Montreal, take a four-hour connecting train journey with Via Rail from nearby Dorval station.  

Average flight time: 7h30m. 

Quebec City is pedestrian-friendly and it’s possible to explore most sights on foot, especially if you can tackle the occasional hill or stairway. If you wish to explore further afield, the Réseau de transport de la Capitale (RTC) public bus network serves most attractions. Taxis are inexpensive and readily available; any restaurant or hotel can call one to arrive within 10 minutes. 

When to go
May and late September are pleasant times to visit, with clear skies and mild temperatures. July, August and early September see temperatures of up to 24C, but they’re also peak cruise ship season, so the old town can be crowded. Winter sees heavy snow, with temperatures often plunging well below freezing.

More info
Bonjour Québec. bonjourquebec.com
Fodor’s Montreal & Quebec City. RRP: £14.99

How to do it
Cox & Kings offers a three-night stay in Quebec City from £1,199 per person, including flights and a room-only stay at Fairmont Le Château Frontenac.

Published in the Jan/Feb 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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