Longing for a European vacation but short on vacation time? Québec City is the perfect getaway for vacation deprived Americans, especially those of us living in the Northeast. Its cobblestone streets, charming European architecture, fascinating history, French culture, world-class dining, and proximity make it the perfect destination without having to leave the North American continent.
It was summer, and I was pining for some European charm but couldn’t travel across the pond at the time, so my husband and I did the next best thing – booked a trip to Québec City. I had visited there on several occasions – a few times for work – and that had left me wanting to see more. I was keen to explore it on my own time and this was the perfect opportunity. After checking in to our small but charming hotel we hit the ground running, well, more like happily sauntering in that carefree ‘we’re on vacation’ kind of way.
The Old City (Vieux-Quebéc)
The Old City (Vieux-Quebéc), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a very walkable city and divided into two main areas: Upper Town (Haute-Ville) and Lower Town (Basse-Ville). Upper Town is surrounded by a 3 mile (5 km) long wall and includes the legendary Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, the Citadel, many historic buildings, and ubiquitous shops and restaurants. Lower Town is the oldest and quaintest part of the city, where it was first settled, and now bustling with art galleries, bistros, and boutiques.
Quebec City’s most famous landmark, Le Château Frontenac, is not an actual castle but a hotel now operated by the Fairmont brand. Although there were structures here since 1624, they were demolished and rebuilt throughout the years. Le Château Frontenac opened in 1893 and was one in a series of château-style hotels built at the time by the Canadian Pacific Railway across Canada to attract wealthy railroad travelers.
Bistro Le Sam at the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac
Stroll along Dufferin Terrace, a wide boardwalk which overlooks the St. Lawrence River and has panoramic views of the entire area including the Laurentian Mountains to the north.
Strategically sitting atop Cape Diamond (Cap Diamant), the highest point in the city, the Citadelle (La Citadelle) is the largest fortified base in North America still occupied by troops. It was built to protect the port, prevent the enemy from reaching the Plains of Abraham, and as a refuge in case of an attack.
Fun Fact: It is home to the Royal 22nd Regiment, known across Canada as the Van Doos, from the French “vingt-deux” (twenty-two).
Before going to the Citadelle we actually walked on the wall for a bit, which gave us a better perspective of how the city is laid out.
Plains of Abraham
This park was the site of the famous 1759 battle which basically determined the fate of Quebec. British troops defeated the French troops and took the city shortly thereafter. In 1763 France ceded New France to Britain.
You can take a scenic walk down from the Plains of Abraham, following the Governor’s Promenade, down to Dufferin Terrace. The Governor’s Promenade is a walkway built into the side of the cliff along the City connecting the Plains of Abraham to Dufferin Terrace.
Rue Saint-Jean, one of the main thoroughfares, is bustling with activity, shops, and restaurants. One of our favorites haunts, especially for breakfast, was Café-Boulangerie Paillard where we consumed way too many cafés and croissants! Fortunately, we got plenty of exercise wandering the streets of Old Québec.
Walk or take the funicular down to the Petit-Champlain district (Quartier Petit Champlain). I recommend walking down and taking the funicular back up.
Whichever way you decide to go just make sure you don’t slip and fall on Breakneck Steps! City architect and engineer Charles Baillairgé designed this iron stairway which was built on the site of the original 17th-century stairway that linked Upper Town to Lower Town. There are 59 steps in the present day stairway, and shops and restaurants at various levels.
The quaint Petit-Champlain district (Quartier Petit-Champlain), below the funicular, is lined with bistros and boutiques. We had lunch at Bistro Sous Le Fort so that we could take in the old world charm and people watch.
This picturesque plaza is the heart of Québec City. It is here that French explorer Samuel de Champlain, founded the settlement in 1608. It was later abandoned for the safer, better fortified area of Upper Town.
Église Notre-Dame-des-Victoires is Québec’s oldest stone church, built in 1688
Lower Town is known for its ubiquitous art galleries and antique shops. Strolling along, you never know what surprises you might find.
Ferry to Lévis
Take the ferry to Lévis, crossing the St. Lawrence River, for the beautiful view of the Québec City skyline, with the Château Frontenac towering high on the cliff.
Fun Fact: The Saint Lawrence River and Seaway System provides the primary drainage of the Great Lakes Basin. Québec City sits at the confluence of the St. Lawrence and St. Charles Rivers. Just north is Île d’Orléans where the St. Lawrence River begins to widen until spilling into the Gulf of St. Lawrence and eventually the North Atlantic Ocean.
The Old Port (Vieux Port) dates back to the 17th century when ships brought supplies and settlers to the new colony. It became a bustling port and trade center, flourishing during British rule due in part to the fur-trading (ugh), fishing, shipbuilding, and the timber industries.
Now, the Old Port is bustling with Cruise ship activity, especially during Autumn, the city’s busiest season.
The Old Port
Wander the streets of Quebec City
If you happen to forget your guidebook, smartphone or lose your map, Quebec city is a wonderful place in which to just wander around and get lost.
Yes, Québec City, I remember you and I miss you! I would like to return in the Fall for the spectacular colors, and in Winter for the famous Québec Winter Carnival (Carnaval de Québec). Until then, Au Revoir!
Places to Stay
We stayed at the Château. Well, not that Château, but at the quaint, Hôtel Château Bellevue. While the rooms were quite small, it was ideally located, only a short walk to Fairmont Le Château Frontenac. There is also a park, Governors’ Garden, in front of the hotel, and beyond it is the Dufferin Terrace.