Imagine a centuries-old citadel perched on a cliff. Inside the medieval rampart, you find winding cobblestone streets. At each corner, a new vista presents itself. Suddenly, you turn a corner and in front of you lies a stunning castle. “Wow,” you say to yourself “Tuscany is great.” Or is it Provence? ...the Basque country?
No – you're not in Europe. This is North America. Welcome to Québec City, Canada.
Québec City (French: Ville de Québec) is one of the oldest New World colonies, first explored in 1535 by Jacques Cartier and officially founded in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain. The name for both the city and the province in which it lies, “Québec” comes from the Algonquin word Kébec, meaning “where the river narrows,” as the city sits on the St. Lawrence River.
While often overshadowed by its larger counterpart, Montreal, we believe Quebec City to be the perfect balance of big-city liveliness (think late-night cabernet sipping on an outdoor terrace with heaters keeping you toasty) and small-city charm (waiters that know the locals and all of their childrens’ names) with proximity to stunning landscapes for enjoying beautiful fall weather (whale watching, anyone?).
As an added bonus, proximity to the water tempers the wild weather swings of interior Canada. This week’s crisp temperatures had us begging to visit this lively francophone city. Pack your most fashionable French scarves -- here we go!
3 full days in Québec City will give you ample time to explore and enjoy this small city’s old-world charm! If you have longer to spend, we strongly encourage adding on two days for a short excursion exploring the charms of rural Quebec.
Québec City has one of the lowest crime rates in all of Canada. While normal travel safety precautions should always be taken, you can feel comfortable walking to all parts of the city both night and day.
Quebec’s Jean Lesage airport offers a surprising number of flights to cities such as New York, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Toronto -- even non-stop to Paris. You may find that fares are quite high, however, as this is a small airport and a considerable tourist destination. It is also possible to fly into Montreal’s Trudeau airport and arrive three hours later in Quebec by train, bus, or auto.
If you’re not in a hurry, Canadian VIA Rail offers service from Montreal, Toronto, and Windsor, Ontario.
For those readers in the northeastern United States or eastern Canada, you may choose to access Quebec City by auto. Although seemingly a world apart from these English-speaking cities, Quebec is about 8 hours from New York, 6 hours from Boston, and 4 hours from Ottawa.
You’ll find that walking is by far the easiest way to see Quebec City, so make sure you pack a pair of walking shoes along with that scarf and sweater! The narrow cobblestone streets make Quebec City a poor place to drive your car, and the numerous steep hills will make you wish you left your bike at home.
There is no streetcar or metro system in Quebec City. There does exist an adequate bus system, but we feel that the weather and scenery is so conducive to foot travel that you’ll want to do just that.
In the event you need to traverse the city quickly, Uber is available here, as are taxis. Quebec does not have Lyft.
Where To Stay
Nearly all of your sightseeing will take place in Vieux Quebec, the old city. We highly recommend staying in the heart of it all. Within the city walls lies the fabulous, famous Fairmont Château Frontenac. For several hundred dollars a night, you can feel like Samuel de Champlain overlooking his empire of New France, perched high above the city, dripping in gilded grandeur.
If that isn’t in your budget, don’t fret. The old city has plenty of lodging options, from smaller, to family-owned hotels to apartment rentals, to AirBnb’s and hostels. Just outside the city gates lie some of the larger chains - Sheraton, Marriott, and Hilton, to name a few - all of which easily walkable to everywhere you want to be.
For a more “local” experience, look for accommodations in the Nouvo St. Roch neighborhood. It can be much less expensive and equally lively. The two tradeoffs we see: the neighborhood is more modern and exudes less charm and it’s about a mile walk to the old city (all uphill, unfortunately…).
The old city is divided into two, unequal-sized parts: the Haute Ville (Upper City) and Basse Ville(Lower City).
The haute ville is a roughly diamond-shaped patch of land majestically perched 200 feet above the St. Lawrence River making up about three-fourths of the land mass in the old city.
The other quarter of the land belongs to the basse ville lying along the river. Both are equally charming and have a lot to offer. They are connected by many grueling staircases, a couple of very steep streets, and one lifesaving funicular to whisk you between the two neighborhoods in easy, breezy comfort.
Be sure not to miss Haute Ville. This is the stuff that dreams are made of. The old city is surrounded by massive medieval-style rampart walls that were built starting in 1608.
The city was constantly changing hands between the French and British, with each power increasing the fortifications over the course of over 200 years until 1871. Within these walls lies the Citadel, the largest British fortress in North America.
The rampart walls of Vieux Québec UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The other thing that is quite literally impossible to miss while visiting the haute ville - thanks to it towering over the city at 177 ft - is the Château Frontenac. All streets seem to somehow funnel into the plaza located directly in front of the hulking castle. Louis de Buade, Count of Frontenac and governor of New France from 1672 to 1698, lends his name to this world-famous hotel.
The basse ville is where the explorers first set foot in Quebec after their long voyage across the Atlantic. It is here that you’ll find the ferries across the river, the old port, several shopping streets, and sidewalk French bistros.
Worth checking out is the Musée de la Civilisation (Museum of Civilization). After a walk through the museum, you can meander over to the Place Royale to see the church Notre-Dame-des-Victoires (built in 1687).
One of the principal shopping streets in the city is rue du Petit Champlain. From souvenirs to haute couture, local products, and wine stores, you’ll find it here. If you’re looking for some antique treasures, the rue Saint-Paul will be kind to you. Several antiques dealers line both sides of the street purveying kitschy finds from the 1960s to fine French furniture right out of the 17th Century (and all at prices more affordable than in Montreal or Paris).
While strolling, you may encounter a local delicacy -- maple syrup lollipops. Made by slathering a band of warm maple syrup over crushed ice until it hardens, then rolling it up into a solid ball of natural, Canadian, sugary magnificence, this treat will have you feeling fall in no time.
Small piece of advice: start in the Haute Ville and then walk down to explore the boutiques and narrow winding streets of Basse Ville next (your legs will thank us later). Later on, consider taking the funicular back up the hill, or at least stopping for an espresso to energize your legs before the arduous climb.
Nouvo St. Roch
Québec City’s coolest neighborhood is Nouvo St. Roch. This youthful, artsy neighborhood is filled with trendy cafes, hip nightlife, and offbeat shops.
For those fellow caffeine-addicts, Rue St. Joseph here is coffee Mecca. Among the best on the street is Nektar, grinding up fair-trade beans from all over the world. Also worthwhile, on neighboring rue Saint-Vallier, is Maelstrom, a hipster bar/cafe serving cold brew and craft cocktails.
After you grab a cortado à emporter (to go), take advantage of that Canadian dollar exchange rate at one of the many independent bookshops as well.
Parks & Gardens
Fun fact: when the defensive towers that dot the landscape of Battlefields Park were originally built in the early 1800’s, they had removal roofs to prevent the heavy Canadian snowfalls from crushing them!
The Plaines d’Abraham hug the edge of the Haute Ville, starting in Vieux Québec at The Citadel and running for almost 2 miles down the southeast edge of the city. Being situated on the falaise (cliff) of the upper city, walking along the park offers second-to-none views of the St. Lawrence River and quaint neighboring town of Lévis (pronounced Lay-vee).
Grands Feux Loto-Québec
The music dims and the crowd’s chatter dissolves into anticipatory whispers. As you gaze across the calm water to the towering Château Frontenac, it happens - the sky comes alive! You wrap your scarf tighter as the cool evening air wafts off the St. Lawrence River.
Every Wednesday and Saturday evening in August, the Grands Feux Loto-Québec’s musically-themed fireworks show lights up the sky. We chose to go for “Traditional” night, with ancestral Iroquois and Montagnais music flooding the city as tribal dance groups performed.
We recommend watching the firework show from neighboring Lévis. Although taking the ferry (Traverse Québec Lévis) takes a bit more time than staying put in Québec City, experiencing this world-class spectacle with the Château Frontenac and glistening 17th century buildingsin the background is second-to-none.
Music and dancing begin at 9pm. Fireworks are 10-10:30pm.
*Wednesday - last ferry before the fireworks is at 8:30pm; Saturdays - last ferry before the fireworks is at 9pm.
$7.10 per person for round trip ferry ride
Fêtes de la Nouvelle France
1st Wednesday of August through the following Sunday
This island in the St. Lawrence river lies directly downstream (east-northeast) from downtown Quebec City. Despite its proximity to the bustling city, it has resisted development for decades and is a favorite destination for locals who wish to find fresh produce, especially in fall.
August is actually strawberry season due to the short growing season in the region. Strawberries plus autumnal weather?? Who would’ve thought it possible - only in magical Quebec. Later on, towards September, you’ll find apples, pumpkins, and other delights!
Even if we can’t tout Québec-grown wine as the best thing in the world, there’s no denying the old-world charm of the sloped vineyards the hug the craggy edge of Île d’Orléans. With a view of the Montmorency Waterfall, you must stop at Vignoble Ste-Pétronille for a wine tasting before walking through the vineyard with a deliciously fresh lobster roll in hand.
You will most likely need a car to adequately explore the Ile d’Orleans. If you are more athletically inclined, many choose to bike the island. We’ll warn you, however, the ride to the island is about 20 miles and crosses a large bridge... to circle the island is nearly 50 miles more!
Food & Drink
The food scene in Quebec City is one of the most delightful in all of North America. For the purists among us, there are several traditional French bistros to enjoy some boeuf bourguignonne or coq au vin.
But Quebeckers are not afraid to color outside the lines! Far more adventuresome than their ancestral French relatives, they love taking traditional French recipes and reinventing perfection. Think foie gras with maple syrup and elk tartare.
And it was none other than the québécois, of course, who dared to desecrate the french fry by adding cheese and gravy to make their famous - you guessed it - poutine!
We strongly suggest making reservations for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
For excursions around Québec City, check out last week's post on Parc National de la Jacques-Cartier!
If France has the strongest culture in the world, Québec is a close second; people from here are fiercely proud of their identity. Heck, in the 80’s and 90’s they even tried to become their own country!
But throw out all the ideas in your head about the snobby, upturned-nose French!
While the Québécois originally came over from France, 400 years in North America has made them a kind, quirky people (or maybe it’s all that poutine they consume).
Everyone in Québec is down-to-earth and happy to lend a hand. Don’t be afraid to ask a stranger for help or strike up a conversation – even if you can’t dust off your French to throw in a ‘bonjour’ and ‘merci’ here and there (Québec City is 98% French-speaking) people are very open to visitors!
🍁 Following Fall 🍁
August - October
Fall is a feeling as much as it is the sight of trees dripping in burnt-orange beauty, rich-colored scarves swathed over your shoulders, tan suede boots crunching leaves as you walk, rustic bonfires under a clear starry sky, or sipping morning coffee swaddled in a soft blanket.
So while some days got up to 75°, the ambiance and activities of Québec City tickled our fall fantasies through and through!
Don’t worry though - the majority of the time, Québec City was a refreshing 65° with the Parc National de la Jacques-Cartier making us want to throw up a sweater and pull up our wool socks at 57°!
Just as the first snowfall of the year beckons winter’s impending approach, talk to Quebeckers and they will tell you that these August activities and festivals mark Summer’s demise and Autumn’s anticipated arrival.
While the leaves don’t normally begin changing until the later weeks of September, if you can peel your eyes away from the rustic Second Empire architecture that characterizes Québec City, you might be lucky enough to notice some delicate yellowing leaves being blown across the ground.