With its winding cobblestone streets and old European charm, it’s often said that Canada’s oldest city feels like an escape from North America, and once you visit, it’s certainly easy to convince yourself that you’ve left the continent. After all, French is the city’s official language: over 80 percent of the population speak it as a native tongue, and English is far less prominent than in Montreal. Take a stroll around the city and you’ll find croissants on every menu and statues of French military heroes lining the city squares. Yet despite the city’s French allure, Quebec City has a distinct style and rich history that’s all its own.
Founded by French explorer Samuel de Champlain in 1608—who named it “Kebec,” after an Algonquian word meaning “the river narrows here”—the city’s location above the Saint-Lawrence river made it a profitable fur trading settlement for Europe. Today, the city is considered one of the most important cultural destinations in Canada, and with its heralded food scene, stately architecture, and unique accommodations (ice hotel, anyone?) it offers something for every type of traveler. Here are the essential things to do on your next visit.
Stroll Through Quebec's Old City
Think of Quebec City and the first image that might come to mind are the streets of the Old City: a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Spending time strolling along North America’s oldest streets is an essential part of any trip to the province. Surrounded by fortified walls, this section of the city is comprised of Upper and Lower towns, and there’s plenty to see. Grab coffee and a pastry and stroll down Saint-Paul Street, as well as Place d’Armes, the city’s historic public square, for classic architecture (Canadian superstar Celine Dion famously had her wedding here). You’re bound to feel like you’re in a fairytale.
Visit the Fairmont Chateau Frontenac
Designed by American architect Bruce Price, the Chateau Frontenac is Quebec City’s most famous landmark and one of the most photographed hotels in North America. This chateau style hotel was built in 1893 as part of a development project by the Canadian Pacific Railway company, with the goal of promoting luxury tourism in the city. Today, the hotel is recognized as a National Historic Site; a commemorative stamp with the hotel’s image was issued by the Canadian Post in 1993. To make your Quebec City trip even more special, book a room: a standard one night stay will run you $200. Guests can request to visit the hotel’s cheese room, which features over 100 different cheeses from across the province.
Admire the St. Lawrence River from the Dufferin Terrace
Located right outside the Chateau Frontenac, the Dufferin Terrace is Quebec City’s most picturesque promenade and an iconic viewpoint from which to take in the city’s beauty. Expanded twice since it was first built, this popular hang out setting attracts visitors all year long, featuring live music throughout the summer and a toboggan run every winter. Grab a snack from one of the boardwalk’s many street vendors and enjoy an afternoon stroll.
See the Changing of the Guard Ceremony at Quebec's Citadel
Built in the mid-1800s with the purpose of defending the city, Quebec City’s Citadel is a National Historic Site and the largest British fortress in North America. If you’re visiting the city in the summer, be sure to wake up early to catch the traditional Changing of the Guard ceremony take place every morning at 10 a.m. Animal lovers will be pleased to learn that a goat dressed in full uniform—the mascot of the regiment—is part of the proceedings.
Go Shopping in the Petit-Champlain District
If you’re looking to shop during your visit, the Petit-Champlain district is the place to do it. Boasting narrow cobblestone streets lined with small boutiques, bistros and shops, this neighborhood is also one of the city’s most beautiful—keep your eyes peeled for some of the oldest architecture remaining from the era when the city was still a small French colony. Climb up the 59 steps of the city’s oldest stairway, the nearby Breakneck Stairs, for the best views of the district below.
Visit the Place Royale
Located in Old City’s Lower Town, this public square is the site where the city began. Samuel de Champlain built the fort that established Quebec City here after he landed ashore in 1608. Today, the square is lined with boutique shops and restaurants nestled among renovated old architecture. A walk through this square truly feels like taking a step back in time.
Ride the Old Quebec Funicular
This steep cable railway is perhaps the strangest way to get between Old City’s Upper and Lower towns. The 210-foot- (64-meter-) long dual railcar travels at a 45-degree angle, giving riders the feeling that they’re riding a slanted elevator. Originally built in 1879 as a water propulsion system, it’s now one of the most unique experiences you can have in the city and yes, it’s totally safe.
Get a History Lesson at the Plains of Abraham
History buffs should be sure to pay a visit to the Plains of Abraham, where Quebec was captured by the British in 1759, in the lead up to the end of French rule in Canada. The battle heavily influenced the creation of the “New France” and allowed the British to take control of Canada back from the French. Today, the Plains are Quebec City’s most popular urban green space, attracting over 4 million visitors annually; locals and tourists alike enjoy picnics, concerts, and community events daily.
Go Shopping at the Oldest Grocery Store in North America
Located in the bohemian Saint-Jean neighborhood, J.A. Moisan is the oldest delicatessen and grocery store in North America, officially opened in 1871. A walk inside today is a true blast from the past, with the decor and music dating back to the 1920s. The store stocks locally sourced meats and cheeses, as well as items from around the world.
The world’s largest winter festival, Quebec City’s annual Carnaval (also called the Winter Carnival), takes place every February and transforms the city each year. Grab a front row spot to witness the festival’s evening ice parade—featuring ice sculptures driven down the streets—hop in a snow bath, visit an urban ice palace, and eat frozen maple syrup while strolling down the square. Many tourists travel north around this time just to experience it, making February a pricy time to visit.
Wander Around Quebec City’s Arts District
A 10 minute walk from Boulevard Rene Levesque, Quebec City’s Montcalm neighborhood is the bohemian heartbeat of the city. Home to the Musee National de Beaux Arts, as well as a number of galleries and theaters, you’re bound to catch a performance, exhibition, or screening any night of the week. On Cartier Avenue, don’t miss the large lampshades hanging above the street lamps, decorated with reproductions of works from the Beaux Arts personal collection.
Montreal may receive most of the attention when it comes to great dining in Quebec, but this city’s food scene is no slouch. Combine the French passion for fine cuisine with Quebec City’s proximity to thriving agriculture, and you’ll find some of the most exciting farm to table menus in the country. Unmissable gems like Le Saint-Amour, Restaurant Tanière³, and Restaurant Légende prove that Quebecois cuisine offers more than the classic poutine. If you’re willing to make a 20-minute drive outside the city, head to Le Traite in Wendake to experience culinary highlights from the Huron-Wendat First Nation.
Go Bar Hopping in the Saint-Roche Neighborhood
This neighborhood has working class roots, but a recent influx of students and young tech employees have contributed to its complete transformation. Abandoned warehouses have now become hip coffee shops, and formerly empty streets are now lined with craft breweries, boutiques and distilleries. If you want to drink at some of the city’s coolest bars, this is the place to go. Head to Maelstrom Saint Roch for great cocktails, Kraken Cru for an extensive wine list, and Les Salons d’Edgar—housed in a former movie theater—for a pub with a twist.
Stay at an Ice Hotel
A stay at Quebec City’s famed Hotel de Glace, North America’s only ice hotel, is essential for any traveler not afraid to get a little chilly. Only open during the winter months, the hotel has 42 rooms comprised of over 30,000 tons of man-made snow and 500 tons of ice, with all furniture built with ice blocks as a base. 2020 marks the hotel’s 20th anniversary; to celebrate, the hotel will have 20 themed suites paying tribute to the greater province, as well as an enchanted ice forest and a snow sculpture of Quebec City’s Saint-Louis gate.