Canada: the history and must see sights of Quebec City

Kieran Meeke / 13 January 2017

Celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2017, Canada is a fascinating country full of history and intrigue. The third installment in a series of articles, we look at capital of the Quebec Province, Quebec City.



Cool mountain peaks and even ‘cooler’ cities, Canada offers a world of experiences Find out more here.

History

Quebec City is the capital of Quebec Province, Canada’s second most populous and the only one with French as its official language. 

The name of both city and province comes from an Algonquin word kébec meaning “where the river narrows”, referring to a cliff-lined gap in the Saint Lawrence River near where the city was founded in 1608 by French explorer Samuel de Champlain.

Quebec City eventually became the capital of the French colonies of “New France”, which were ceded to British rule in 1763 soon after the city fell to General James Wolfe.

The intimidating fortifications were built by the British and make it the only surviving walled city in the Americas north of Mexico. Cobbled streets add to the distinct European feel from this long colonial history. 

More than 95 per cent of the population of Quebec is French speaking but most people in Quebec City speak both English and French.

In winter, temperatures can plunge towards the record 1923 low of −54.4C but the city is built to cope with, and enjoy, these sub-zero temperatures. 

There are a number of skate rinks and a Nordic ski trail alongside the St Charles River and the Quebec Winter Carnival (see below) is a major event for tourism.

Getting Around

Quebec City is compact enough to walk around and interesting when you do, with the city walls ensuring you do not get too lost. 

The steep, narrow streets are another reason not to drive, and a good reason to bring comfortable shoes. There are good taxi and bus services and rental bikes are another good option (except in winter). 

For exploring the rest of Quebec, a rental car is essential and also the only way other than taxis to get in from the airport.

Major Sights

City Walls

Quebec walls are recognised as a Unesco World Heritage Site, being “one of the best examples of a fortified colonial city”. 

There are almost three miles of walls, with four surviving gates, and a Vauban-style Citadel where a Changing of the Guard ceremony takes place during the summer months. 

It features the Royal 22e Régiment, the only Francophone infantry regiment in the Canadian forces. The walls are not continuous and a tour takes about an hour, with some steep inclines. 

Look out for the cannon cast at the Carron Works in Falkirk, Scotland.

Must-do: Spend time with a good guide for the history lesson which will give you a better understanding of the French story in Canada.

Vieux-Québec

Old Quebec lies mostly within the walls and is split into Haute-Ville (Upper Town), on the strategic heights where Château Frontenac now dominates, and Basse-Ville (Lower Town), built around the harbour. 

The names give a hint of the gradients that face walkers, although a funicular takes away much of the strain.

Must-see: Escalier casse-cou, which translates as “The Breakneck Stairs”, dates to 1635 and connects the upper and lower towns.

Quartier Petit Champlain

This portside area of a few cobbled streets in the Basse-Ville was once the centre of the fur trade and is the oldest commercial district in North America. 

Now pedestrianized and lined with boutiques, galleries and bistros, it looks especially picturesque in winter.

Must-see: The trompe-l’œil wall fresco at 102 rue du Petit-Champlain – one of a number in the city – shows a glimpse of working class life here in the 18th century.

Château Frontenac

Supposedly the most-photographed hotel in the world, this fairy-tale castle was built in 1893 by the Canadian Pacific Railway as part of its plan to encourage rail travel (and tourism). 

The photography claim is impossible to prove or disprove but the Frontenac dominates the skyline and draws the eye from almost everywhere in the city. 

Must-do: The expansive breakfast here is a better way to sample the Frontenac experience than the expensive afternoon tea.

Terrasse Dufferin

This ultra-wide wooden promenade starts outside Château Frontenac and overlooks the Old City and port, offering excellent views of the St Lawrence River. 

Street performers entertain in summer while a large toboggan slide is a highlight of winter.

Must-see: The 50-foot-high Samuel de Champlain Monument is a tribute to the founder of Quebec.

J.A. Moisan Epicier

With a history dating back to 1871, this is oldest grocery store in North America. It’s the place to find French-style cheeses and other local produce, or pick up a good bottle of wine.

Must-do: Order a freshly made sandwich for a picnic in one of the city parks, perhaps the historic nearby parc St-Matthew.

Plains of Abraham

Now a popular 250-acre park, this is the site of the 1759 battle between the British Army under Wolfe and the French under Montcalm. 

An onsite museum tells the story of the siege and battle, which saw the death of both generals. The Parc des Champs-de-Bataille is now also a major venue for concerts, including the one for Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day (see below). 

Explore it by bike in summer, or cross-country ski in winter.

Must-do: In winter, the skating rink is the place to see a nation passionate about ice hockey display their skills.

Saint Lawrence River

The 750-mile Saint Lawrence River connects to the Atlantic Ocean from Lake Ontario, with a further system of locks and canals connecting the other Great Lakes. 

This 370-mile Saint Lawrence Seaway between the USA and Canada is one of the world’s great waterways. 

There are a number of ways to see it, either from viewpoints in the city itself, or by cruises or sunset kayak tours. At the Baie de Beauport, you can also windsurf, sail or even kite-surf on the river.

Must-do: The one-hour return Québec-Lévis ferry is a very cheap way to experience a river cruise, even more so in winter when you sail through ice.

Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré

This shrine, about 20 miles from Quebec City, is North America’s oldest pilgrimage site. 

The pillars inside are hung with hundreds of crutches and canes left behind by those claiming or seeking a miracle cure. 

There is also a life-size marble copy of Michelangelo’s Pietà. Some 86 per cent of the population of Quebec are Catholics, a legacy of colonial times when only Roman Catholics were permitted to settle in “New France”.

Must-see: Canyon Sainte-Anne is a nearby beauty spot with waterfalls, suspension bridges, via ferrata, ziplines and walking trails.

Montmorency Falls Park

Higher than Niagara Falls, although a fraction of the width, these falls are seen at their best in winter when the spray at their foot freezes into a “Sugar Loaf”.

 In summer the park offers a double zipline and other outdoor activities and is a pleasant half-day outing from Quebec City.

Must-do: Take the tramway to the top and cross the suspension bridge to enjoy the best view.

Chemin du Roy

The King’s Road (Highway 138) is Canada’s oldest highway, linking Québec City and Montréal since the 1700s and now passing through some of the country’s most historic and beautiful small towns and villages. 

While most visitors drive it, it is also a cycle route, with plenty of places to stop off as it meanders alongside the St. Lawrence River.

Must-do: Trois-Rivières is Quebec’s second-oldest city after Quebec City and noted for its farm-to-table restaurants.

Discover Quebec and Atlantic Canada on a 14 night tour Find out more here.

Major Events

Carnival de Québec

Held in February, with a history as a pre-Lent celebration going back to 1894, this is now the world’s biggest winter carnival. 

North America’s only Ice Hotel, winter sports, including canoe races and dogsled races, giant ice slides, snow sculptures and night parades are some of the highlights but the main appeal is indulging in the best of Quebecois food and drink. 

Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day

Celebrated on June 24, the feast day of St. John the Baptist, this province-wide public holiday has roots in midsummer festivals. 

Thousands gather on the Plains of Abraham to watch concerts by top local bands, new and old, in a fun celebration of Quebec nationalism that owes much to St Patrick’s Day.

Traditional costumes, flags, folk music and dance, and French food and drink are in plentiful display, all paying tribute to Quebec’s own patron saint.

Festival d’été de Québec

This summer Festival starts on the first Thursday of July and last ten days, with more than 300 shows of blues, folk and traditional music from local and international artists. 

Celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2017, past headliners have included The Rolling Stones, Boston, Deep Purple and The Alan Parsons Live Project. 

A badge and wristband, bought online or from street vendors, allows entry to all shows. 

Les Fêtes de la Nouvelle-France

The New France Festival runs from the first Wednesday of August to the next Sunday and celebrates the history and gastronomy of Old Quebec

Each year has a specific theme but dressing up in period costume remains a popular constant (costumes can be hired). 

There are a number of parades and music events as well as craft and food stalls, the whole highlighting the local love of life. 

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