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explore quebec city, canada

Explore Quebec city, Canada

Explore Quebec City the capital of the Canadian province of Quebec. Located at a commanding position on cliffs overlooking the St. Lawrence Seaway, Quebec City’s Old Town is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and the only city in North America (outside Mexico and the Caribbean) with its original city walls. Quebec is a city of about 700,000 residents.

Quebec City is the capital city of the province of Quebec. Much of the business here is of the administrative and bureaucratic nature, which would normally make a city quite dull. Fortunately, the city has a remarkable history, as the fortress capital of New France since the 17th century. Although the town’s day-to-day life leaves things a little yawny at times, the vibrant historical centre makes for an incredible visit.

Quebec was first settled by Europeans in 1608 in an “habitation” led by Samuel de Champlain and celebrated its 400th anniversary in 2008. The generally accepted dates of Champlain’s arrival in the city are July 3rd and 4th and were marked with major celebrations. The area was also inhabited by Native peoples for many centuries before the arrival of the Europeans, and their ongoing presence has been notable since then.

French is the official language of the province of Quebec though in the tourist areas of Quebec City English is widely spoken as a second language by almost all of the staff. It is also not unusual to find Spanish, German and Japanese spoken in many establishments in Vieux Quebec. Outside of the tourist areas, some knowledge of French is advisable and perhaps necessary, depending on how rural the area is you are visiting. It should be noted that while older locals will struggle when attempting to sustain a discussion in English, most youths under 35 should be able to speak conversational English. Less than a third of the overall population is bilingual French/English.

Orientation

Orienting yourself in Quebec is fairly easy. Many sights of interest are in the Old Town (Vieux-Québec), which constitutes the walled city on top of the hill. Many surrounding neighborhoods, either in Haute-Ville (“Upper Town”) or in Basse-Ville (“Lower Town”), are of great interest : Saint-Roch, Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Montcalm, Vieux-Port and Limoilou. Haute-Ville and Basse-Ville are connected by many staircases, all of which are unique, such as the aptly-named Escalier Casse-Cou (“Breakneck Stairs”) and the more easily climbable “Funiculaire”.

The city spreads westward from the St. Lawrence River, for the most part extending from the original old city. The true downtown core of Quebec City is located just west of the old city. Across the river from Quebec City is the town of Lévis. Frequent ferry service connects the two sides of the river.

Quebec’s climate is classified as continental with a very large amount of precipitation (around 1,200 milimeters or 47 inches). Winters are very cold, windy, cloudy and really snowy. An average of 3 meters (119,4 inches) of snow fall in Quebec each year and the city can be covered with up to 40cm of snow occasionally.

Jean Lesage International Airport (about 20 min from downtown Quebec), offers regular flights from cities such as Montreal, Toronto, New York, Chicago, Detroit, Ottawa, Philadelphia, and Paris and also provides charters to remote areas of the province such as Kuujjuaq, Gaspé and Baie-Comeau.

Please note that there is no public transit or hotel shuttles to the airport, except an RTC public bus that goes to and from the airport only a few times a day.

Walking is a great way to get around the Old Town, as the compact layout makes distances short. You will see beautiful old buildings and little vistas around every corner. You will get exercise. Do be careful of uneven cobblestones and narrow streets, though.

Many intersections are set up with separate traffic signals and cycles for cars and for pedestrians.

The bicycle network of Quebec City has been growing slowly but steadily for the last decade. Although small compared to the extensive utilitarian network of Montreal, it now offers a few recreational bike paths called Corridors with complete bidirectional and segregated bike lanes beginning downtown and ending in the countryside, generally giving splendid views of the area on the way. Most of them are part of the Route Verte system of provincial bike paths.

The city offers maps of its bicycle paths online. They are open from April to October.

Driving in the Old Town can be tricky, since the cobblestone streets were designed for narrow 17th-century horse carts rather than 21st-century SUVs. One way streets abound throughout the Old Town, and parking is difficult to find. Be aware of parking signs and ask locals to ensure parking regulation is understood. Parking patrols are effective and unforgiving.

Outside of the Old Town, the use of a car is recommended. Right turns on red are allowed unless otherwise indicated.

The RTC, Quebec’s public transportation system, is a system of buses and express shuttles that cover the whole city.

Quebec City’s main sight is the Old Town, the upper part of which is surrounded by a stone wall built by both French and British armies. It is now a tourist district with many small boutiques and hundreds of historical and photographic points of interest. Some of the buildings are original structures, while others are built in the same style and architecture as former buildings.

Haute-Ville

Chateau Frontenac. Quebec City icon. Claimed to be the most photographed hotel in North America. Guided tours are available.

Dufferin Terrace (Terrasse Dufferin). Boardwalk situated alongside (east of) the Chateau Frontenac, and offers a grand view of the St. Lawrence River.

Hôtel du Parlement (Parliament Building), 1045, rue des Parlementaires. Beautiful building, with a nice garden around. It provides free English and French guided tours, in which one can get into the audience rooms, if they are not being used. free.

Morrin Centre, 44 chaussée des Écossais. Built over 200 years ago as the city’s first prison, it now houses the only English library in the city. The main attraction is a visit to the jail cells, but don’t overlook the library. Guided tours of the building are offered from May 16 to Labor Day weekend. Please consult their website for tour times. During the off-season, booking one week in advance is required, as there’s no guide on duty.

Musée national des Beaux-arts du Québec. Located on the Battlefields Park, the mission of this art museum is to promote and preserve Québec art of all periods and to ensure a place for international art through temporary exhibitions. You can also visit the old prison of Quebec City, which is now one of the two main pavilions of the Museum. An annex designed by renowned architectural firm OMA is currently being built. Permanent exhibits and temporary exhibits.

The Citadel (La Citadelle). This fortification at the juncture of the Old City wall and Grande Allée holds a changing of the guard ceremony mornings at 10AM complete with traditional bearskin hats, weather permitting.

Plains of Abraham Battlefield Park, (Outside the Old City walls). Site of the 1759 battle that saw the British conquer Quebec, now used for public events, sports, and leisure activities.

Observatoire de la Capitale, (Outside the Old City walls). One of the tallest buildings in Quebec, offering a panoramic view of the whole city. It also has an exhibition on the history of the city, highlighting the main dates and important persons.

Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec, 16 Rue De Buade. Founded in 1647, the oldest see in the Americas north of Mexico. The cathedral is celebrating its 350th anniversary in 2014 and the cathedral’s holy door, the only holy door outside Europe, is open through December. Free. 

Place-Royale. The spot where Samuel de Champlain landed in 1608 and founded the first French settlement in North America, now converted into a postcard-pretty public square. Do not miss the huge trompe-l’œil mural covering the entire side of a nearby building; the figure with a hat standing at the base of the ‘street’ is Champlain.

Petit Champlain Centered on Rue du Petit Champlain and Rue Sous le Fort, this small neighborhood is considered to be one of the oldest commercial districts in North America. The narrow streets are packed with shops and cafes. It is also where you’ll find the funicular and the Breakneck Stairs. Don’t miss the trompe-l’œil mural covering the side of #102 Rue du Petit Champlain.

Musée de la civilisation (Museum of Civilization), 85 rue Dalhousie. Tu-Su 10AM-5PM. Museum devoted to the world’s peoples, with a well-done if still somewhat dull permanent exhibit on the history of Quebec. Combination ticket available with the Musée de l’Amérique Française and Centre d’interprétation de Place-Royale.

Parc du Bois-de-Coulonge, 1215 Grande Allée. Residence of past lieutenant-governors from 1870-1966 and spread over 24 hectares, this garden features heritage buildings, wooded areas and gardens.

What to do in Quebec city, Canada

Horse-drawn carriages. A one-hour tour of the Old City.

Ferry to Lévis. Beautiful views of the Chateau Frontenac and the Lower Old Town, and the other side of the river. Quite cheap and only one ticket is required for round trip if you stay aboard.

AML Cruises. Offers short three-hour cruises on the St-Lawrence River leaving from the docks nearby the ferry. One of the cruises leaves as the sun is setting and comes back when the sun is down for a stunning view of Quebec city by night.

Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing on Plains of Abraham. Treat yourself to nature in the city and ski free of charge in one of the most accessible, enchanting sites there is, as you enjoy a breathtaking view of the St. Lawrence River.

Villages Vacances Valcartier. Water park and go-carts open during the summer season. Tubing and ice skating offered in the winter. 

Mont-Sainte-Anne. Ski and snow during the cold season. Camping, biking and hiking at summertime.

Station touristique Stoneham. Ski and snow during the winter and an animated summer camp from June to August every summer.

Choco-musee Erico. A small museum of chocolate, talks about the history and making of chocolate. Free admission. 

Ice Hotel, (Ten minutes North of Quebec City, in Charlesbourg). One of only two ice hotels in the world, from January to early April the Ice Hotel is a must-see. For a fee you will get a full tour during the day, after 8PM access to the guest rooms is restricted to guests only. Planning the visit so that you arrive just before dusk is a great way to see the hotel both in natural light and artificial light is recommended if it fits your schedule. Each room is themed and decorated with exquisite ice sculptures. There is an ice bar where you can get a drink served in an ice glass. For the romantics, there is a wedding chapel complete with snow pews.

Governeur’s Walk. Scenic walk starting at the top of the Funiculare, continuing along the wall overlooking the old city. The many staircases lead to overlooks offering scenic views of the St. Lawrence. The walk ends at the gazebo on the Plains of Abraham.

Ice Slide at Terrasse Dufferin. During the winter you can slide down an ice slide on a toboggan, quite fast and great view.

Patinoire de la place d’Youville. Ice skating rink located right in the middle of Old Quebec. Skating is free to those with their own skates, and rentals are available to those who need them. Rink is small in size but the location can’t be beat.

Québec is a great city for going out to dance traditional and nuevo-Argentinian Tango. You can find out about classes, practicas, milongas and events at the local association or at L’Avenue Tango.

Events

Winter Carnival, city-wide, first two weeks of February and spanning 3 weekends. A truly spectacular event, the Winter Carnival is a hundred-year tradition in Quebec City. Each year, a giant ice palace is built in the Place Jacques-Cartier as the headquarters of the festivities, but there’s activities all during the week. The International Ice Sculpture Competition sees teams from around the world build monumental sculptures. There are 3 parades during the event in different quarters of the city, and other winter-defying competitions including a canoe race across the St. Lawrence and a group snow bath. The festival’s mascot, Bonhomme Carnaval, a sashed snowman, is the city’s most famous logo.

Saint-Jean Baptiste Celebration. Every year, June 23. Without a doubt the biggest party of the year in the entire province. Join over 200,000 Québécois of all ages on Plaine d’Abraham while they celebrate Quebec’s National Day throughout the night. Various Québécois musical performances, bonfire, fireworks, and a lot of drinking.

Festival d’été. Beginning to mid-July, a lot of cheap music shows (you buy a button and it gives you access to all the shows, for the 11 days of the festival) in and around the Old Town, with international and local artists.

Edwin-Bélanger Bandstand. A musical experience in the open. Jazz, blues, Worlbeat. June to 1st week of August. Thursday to Sunday.

Festival of New France, first weekend in August.

Quebec City International Festival of Military Bands: Spectacular performances are offered by Military Bands from all around the world. The Festival takes place at the end of August.

What to buy

Quebec City’s Old Town, especially Basse-Ville, is riddled with shops for tourists. Watch for leather goods and various handmade crafts made by Canada‘s First Nations Peoples.

Marché du Vieux-Port, 160 Quai Saint-André. Open daily 8 AM-8 PM. Farmers’ market just north of Basse-Ville, offering cheap and tasty local produce.

Place Laurier, Place de la Cité, Place Ste-Foy, 2700 boulevard Laurier (located in the Ste-Foy district, to the west of the downtown). Three large shopping malls right next to each other. Place Laurier boasts being the largest shopping mall in eastern Canada.

Galeries de la Capitale, 5401, boulevard des Galeries (Located in the Lebourgneuf neighborhood of Les Rivieres borough). Large shopping mall towards the north of the city which boasts 280 stores and 35 restaurants. Also contains an IMAX theater and an indoor amusement park which includes a Ferris wheel, roller coaster and a skating rink for hockey games.

What to eat

All restaurants in the Old City will post menus out front in French and in English. Look for the table d’hote specials for a full course fixed price meal. On the cheaper (but very satisfying) side, have a traditional tourtière québecoise (meat pie), or a poutine (fries, gravy, and cheese curds).

The café culture is very much a part of Quebec City as in most of Europe. It should be very easy to find a quaint cafe around Marche Champlain, and around the Chateau. Food is fairly expensive in Quebec, and even a simpler café or bar may be costly.

Most Quebec City delicatessens and markets offer a large variety of Quebec cheese from farms in the surrounding countryside. Specialty of the region include brie or camembert style cheeses made with raw milk (lait cru), which endows the cheese with superior flavors and textures not usually found in North American cheeses of the same type.

What to drink

There is a place for nearly every visitor, from the wild nightlife to the cozy corner.

Drinking age is 18 though enforcement is hazy. Visitors from outside the province may be informed by staff of restaurants and bars that tipping for food and drinks is required by law in Quebec. This is not true. Tips are often around 15% but it is left to the discretion of the customer. A tip may be aggressively demanded for as little as a beer so do not be caught off-guard.

Quality wine and liquor can only be purchased at SAQ shops, most of which are open until 6PM Sunday – Wednesday and 8 or 9PM on weekends; the smaller SAQ Express outlets are open daily from 11AM to 10PM, but the selection is restricted to the SAQ’s most popular items. Beer and a small selection of lower-quality wine are also sold at convenience stores (dépanneurs) and grocery stores (not what you would usually bring to a dinner party but sometimes drinkable-—it has been imported in bulk and bottled and sometimes blended in Quebec and known as “piquette” by the locals). All retail alcohol sales stop at 11PM and bars and clubs stop serving at 3AM.

There is only one SAQ within the walls of the old city, a SAQ “Selection” inside the Chateau Frontenac. It has high-end wines and liquors, a small selection of other liquors and no beer. A SAQ “Classique” with better (though still small) selection is located just outside of the walls on Rue St-Jean on the south side of the street.

During the frigid Carnaval, a local specialty known as caribou is available to warm you up (did you know that those canes they sell are hollow?). Though the mixture varies with what is available, it tends to be port or red wine with a hodge-podge of liquors, normally vodka, brandy and perhaps even some sherry.

The Grande Allée has most of the city’s clubs & youth-oriented bars and spots.

Stay safe

The level of violent crime and homicides in Quebec is far lower than almost all other large cities in Canada or the USA.

During the day, you should have no fear about traveling around the city; but at night, there might be the usual drunk bar patrons and those who prey on people unfamiliar with where they are. Take the usual precautions to protect yourself and you should be fine. However, the city is very safe for solitary female travellers.

Contact

The organization ZAP Québec provides free wireless Internet in cafes and other locations throughout the city.

Get out

Basilica of Saint Anne de Beaupré (Basilique de Sainte-Anne de Beaupre), 10018 Avenue Royale, Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, an enormous church which is reputed to have healing powers similar to those of Lourdes. 

Montmorency Falls (Chute Montmorency). At 83 meters, it stands 30 meters taller than Niagara Falls. Also, unlike the Niagara Falls, you experience walking right over the fall and looking down upon it, from a pedestrian bridge. Nice spot to visit if you are driving outside the city or have some spare time.

Île d’Orléans. Beautiful biking or driving excursions. Many pick-your-own strawberry farms. Visit a sugar shack (cabane à sucre). The maple season typically runs from March to April. 

Official tourism websites of Quebec

For more information please visit the official government website: 

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