Standing under the imposing portico of our hotel, the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City, you could well be forgiven for thinking you’d just stepped back in time to 17th century Europe.
The turrets and spires of the old city cast long shadows onto the lamp-lit cobbled streets. The wheels of a horse-drawn carriage rattle in the distance, and the silhouette of the chateau roofline looms large in the cloudy night sky.
Welcome to North America’s only walled city, well on par with the fortified medieval metropolises of Europe including York, Rothenberg, Dubrovnik and Bruges. This is the very heartland of French-Canada. Quebec City is a perfectly preserved Francophile stronghold, where the oldest buildings date back to the 1600s and French is the fiercely protected first language.
This Quebec city guide is packed with ideas for things to see and do. Enjoy your visit.
Watch our video of ten top things to do in Eastern Canada:
Welcome to Top Oz Tours’ YouTube Channel! In this episode of our online travel series, we bring you ten amazing things to do on a road trip through Eastern Canada from Toronto in Ontario to Quebec City in the province of Quebec.
Quebec City for history lovers
UNESCO World Heritage-listed old Quebec City is an enchanting place.
One of the best ways to explore is just to wander the labyrinth of winding streets and narrow laneways within the old city walls, stretching from the upper old town down to the bustling Old Port along the Saint Lawrence River. There are quaint bistros and cafes, artists’ garrets, postcard-perfect churchyards and eclectic museums to enjoy.
Highlights within the old city include the promenade behind Le Chateau Frontenac, which offers stunning views across the Saint Lawrence River to the Île d’Orléans (it’s also here that you can take a short ride on the fabulous Old Quebec Funicular down to the Old Port), Rue du Trésor (also known as Artists Alley) — festooned with watercolours and sketches by local artists, the imposing Basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec with its renowned Holy Door, and Fabric Hill — home to shopping boutiques and La Maison Simons — the department store that first opened here in 1870.
Down in the Old Port you’ll find another world of historic delights to enjoy. Place Royale is the birthplace of Quebec. Most of the buildings here are reconstructions, but they certainly look the part. The Old Port is also home to the excellent and extremely popular Musée de la Civilisation, which focusses on the Quebec region’s rich cultural and historic legacy.
Top cultural activities in Quebec City
Many visitors to Quebec City never venture outside the old city walls, which means that if you do you’ll instantly escape the crowds and find a piece of the city just for you.
Here’s a suggested walking itinerary. Exit the old city through the city wall gate on Rue Saint-Jean and continue up this strip on foot as it makes its way through the bohemian suburb of Saint-Jean-Baptiste. Voila! No crowds!
You’ll pass numerous local shops and cafes. If you are in need of a caffeine-induced pick-me-up, Café Cantook at number 575 is dedicated to all things coffee and is a great spot to sit for a spell and watch the world go by. Lots of locals stop to tinkle the ivories of the sidewalk piano.
You can detour down any of the side streets and you instantly find yourself in quaint local squares ringed by quintessential Quebecois architecture. Just make your way back to Rue Saint-Jean and continue on until you reach the left hand turn onto Avenue Cartier with its distinctive lampshade street lights, small fresh produce stands, bookshops and yet more cafes.
Browse your way to the top, then turn right onto Grand Allee and head for the wonderful Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec. The fine arts museum has three buildings (one of which is an old prison), which house a fabulous collection of Quebecois art. The museum’s Pavilion Pierre Lassonde, built in 2016, is architecturally stunning. Head up the spiral staircase to the upper floors and the terrace that offers views across the two additional pavilions and the Plaines d’Abraham parklands.
Once you’re done at the museum, turn right onto Grand Allee and continue straight on all the way back to the old city. You’ll pass the grand Quebec Parliament building, constructed in the late 1800s in the distinctive Second Empire architectural style (free tours are available), and the Fontaine de Tourny.
Great places to eat in Quebec City
With temperatures plummeting to minus 20 degrees in winter, traditional Quebecois fare is understandably hearty and definitely designed to warm the cockles.
There are hundreds of restaurants in the old city to try, but one not to miss is Aux Anciennes Canadiens. Housed in the city’s oldest surviving residential building (dating back to 1675!), the restaurant is packed with memorabilia and continues to serve a traditional menu. The floors creak and the ceiling is low, but that’s part of the fun. Try the amazing game meat pie.
For fine Quebecois cuisine in Quebec City, Chez Muffy at the Auberge Saint-Antoine is a must-try. Located down in the Old Port, this superb eatery offers a menu inspired by traditional farmhouse fare, but with a modern twist. From the moment you walk into the maritime warehouse dating back to the early 1800s you know you are in for something really special. The exposed beams and stone walls set the scene beautifully. There are four sittings each evening. Try the fresh oysters and the generously sized lobster from the Gaspe Peninsula. Much of the produce served comes from the hotel’s own farm on the nearby Île d’Orléans.
It’s hard to miss the Ciel Bistro-Bar located on the 28th floor of Hôtel le Concorde — the distinctive revolving restaurant is visible from across the city. Completely remodeled in 2014, the restaurant offers guests a contemporary dining experience, served with stunning 360 degree views. It takes one and a half hours to go full circle, which is perfect timing as you enjoy the superb modern French-Canadian menu prepared by a team of chefs working in the open kitchen. Leave room for the desserts; they are out of this world!
For fast and tasty eats in the old city, you can’t go wrong at Le Chic Shack. Enjoy artisanal burgers and sensational shakes, served in a historic setting.
As food experiences go, one of the less auspicious ones you’re likely to come across in your travels through Canada is poutine: chips, gravy and cheese curd all mixed together in one gooey lump of goodness. However, as the country’s unofficial national dish, it would be remiss to come all this way and not give it a try. Poutine’s origins lie firmly in French Canada and Quebec is certainly the place to indulge. You’ll find it on menus all over town.
To experience where much of Quebec City’s fabulous cuisine originates, a day trip to the picturesque Île d’Orléans is a delicious experience. The island is located about 5km east of the city, and offers access to a plethora of gourmet food and wine producers. It’s essentially one giant market garden. The best way to see it is to book a tour or hire a car and set off to explore at your own pace.
A couple of the must-tries are Cassis Monna and Filles for black currants (make the in-house restaurant La Monaguette your lunch stop), and gorgeous vineyard Vignoble Sainte-Pétronille, which practices organic farming and performs most operations around the vineyard by hand. Les Fromages de l’isle d’Orléans at the eastern end of the island has revived the region’s traditional style of cheese making.
If you do venture out into the countryside, pay a visit to Chez Marie’s boulangerie/traditional French bakery. Housed in a stone barn built in 1652, Chez Marie bake their bread in a 150 year-old stone oven. It’s then smeared with delicious homemade maple butter. Ooh la la.
Where to shop in Quebec City
Quebec City’s markets are superb at any time of the year, but if you decide to brave the cold, the winter markets are absolutely enthralling.
Mulled wine and roasted chestnuts are the order of the day as the snowflakes gently fall. You get the idea. There are generally two or three Christmas markets staged in and around Quebec City, including the German Market (held in the square in front of City Hall) and the Jacques Cartier regional Christmas market (which is within easy reach of the city).
To sample a fabulous range of locally produced foodstuffs (including, reputedly, some of the best poutine in town), the much-loved Old Port Market (Le Marché du Vieux-Port de Québec) has relocated to the city’s north-west and is now known as Le Grand Marché de Québec. It’s open seven days a week.
For bargain hunters, Quebec’s largest flea market, Marché aux Puces Jean-Talon, is also an easy trip from the old city. It’s held indoors and operates seven days a week.
Rue du Petit-Champlain is one of the city’s most popular shopping strips, with galleries and boutiques selling Quebecois handmade products. You’ll find it right at the bottom of the Funicular in the Old Port.
Ways to relax in Quebec City
Relax and rejuvenate with a day in the magnificent countryside around Quebec City.
It’s well worth heading out along the St Lawrence River in either direction. Northeast you’ll come across Montmorency Falls, which are almost 30 metres higher than Niagara Falls down south. The view of the falls from the visitor’s centre is pretty spectacular, but if you decide you must get a little closer to the action there’s a gondola that takes you up to the top of the falls. There you’ll find a reconstruction of the original Manoir Montmorency, which was popular with Prince Edward, Duke of Kent (and father of Queen Victoria) as a summer residence. Get even closer to the falls action by ziplining across the entire expanse!
Further on is the church of Saint Anne de Beaupré, which has played host to a number of miraculous occurrences over the years. Whatever your beliefs, this neo-Roman style cathedral is spectacular and worth a visit.
You can cross the bridge to Île d’Orléans from here or double back towards Quebec City via Chez Marie’s boulangerie as mentioned.
In the opposite direction along the Saint Lawrence River is the Chemin du Roy, Canada’s oldest highway, which was built to link Quebec City and various riverside villages with Montreal. The drive is beautiful, but it’s a slow trip — one-way to Montreal will take around five hours (you can do it in under three on the freeway if you prefer).
Where to stay in Quebec City
Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac
Visible from all over Quebec City, and billed as the most photographed hotel in the world, the historic Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac dominates the old city skyline. At just over a century old, the hotel owes its heritage to the Canadian Pacific Railway, which built a string of these luxury properties across the country at the turn of the 20th century to promote domestic train travel and accommodate their passengers. The Chateau is named after the flamboyant French Governor, the Comte de Frontenac, who ruled New France (now modern-day Canada) from 1672 to 1698.
Step inside and you step back in time to a bygone era of charm and graceful elegance. The hotel has recently undergone a multimillion dollar restoration, which blends heritage touches with all the mod cons discerning travellers expect. There are 611 guest rooms and suites, many offering amazing views of the old city and Saint Lawrence River. The Junior Suites and Frontenac Suites offer plenty of extra space at 45sqm and 62sqm respectively.
The hotel has four in-house eateries. While the setting screams old world charm, Champlain Restaurant is very much about the present and offers a menu of nouveau Quebecois cuisine. After a full day of sightseeing the 1608 Wine and Cheese Bar is a superb spot to unwind over a cheeseboard and a selection from the mind-blowing wine list.
Auberge Saint-Antoine (auberge meaning small hotel or inn) offers a luxury boutique stay in the heart of Quebec City’s Old Port. During construction of the main section of the hotel in 1992, thousands of historic artifacts were uncovered by the initial site dig and many have been incorporated into the design of the hotel. You’ll find them displayed throughout the property, including at the door of each guest room or suite. Guided tours to view the collection are offered by the hotel.
Auberge Saint-Antoine is an intriguing combination of the old and the new. While parts of the hotel are modern, others, like the maritime warehouse housing Chez Muffy (the hotel’s signature restaurant), date back to the 1800s. The hotel offers a very contemporary and sophisticated feel. There are 95 rooms and suites, all of which are individually designed and faultlessly executed. Consider the Luxe rooms which offer extra space. Some have large terraces overlooking the Saint Lawrence River.
Amenities at the hotel include spa treatments, yoga and an in-house gym. The hotel is an easy walk to the cobbled laneways of Place Royale and Petit-Champlain, the Musée de la Civilisation and the Le Marché du Vieux-Port de Québec. The old city centre is just a short ride up the Funicular.
The writer travelled as a guest of Destination Canada.