I feel like I’m entering a fairy tale, as I pass through the protective stone walls surrounding the old portion of Quebec City. Old Quebec, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was founded in 1608 and is the oldest and only walled city in Canada. Bumping along the cobblestone streets, I can almost see French gentlemen in plumed hats (the ghost of city founder Samuel de Champlain, perhaps?) scanning the horizon for invaders. It’s a spring day, the sky is a brilliant blue and a warm breeze lightly ruffles patrons enjoying an espresso or un verre de vin at one of the numerous outdoor cafés. This is the kind of magical place that makes me want to explore, as well as to kick back and enjoy myself.
Photos courtesy of Québec City Tourism, from left clockwise: Camirand Photo, Camirand Photo, Stephane Audet
Quebec City is steeped in history and infused with a welcoming joie de vivre. Locals know how to celebrate the past as well as the present. I’ve visited in winter when the Quebec Winter Carnival’s icy castle shimmers behind fantastical stilt walkers. The Festival d’Été de Québec in July draws crowds that revel in sounds from the biggest names in pop music. And during August’s New France Festival, tourists suit up in wigs, tri-cornered hats, gowns and buckled shoes to celebrate the first Europeans who came to North America. Fall is the time to savour dishes made from the harvest of ancestral farms on nearby Ile d’Orléans. Every visit to Quebec City really come with a new experience. Taking a trip to the provincial capital is all about exploring a deep culture, basking in warm hospitality and, not least of all, indulging in mouth-watering cuisine. Let the adventure begin.
Drop off your Bags
I’ve stayed at a few different hotels in Vieux-Québec’s Upper Town, but my latest fave is Le Germain, a funky yet elegant abode that’s close to great shopping, outdoor cafés and the funicular (the most fun way to descend to Lower Town). It’s also close to the imposing Citadelle of Quebec and the towering Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac. There’s usually good people-watching around the statue of explorer Samuel de Champlain who claimed this spot for France in 1608. I love to peer down from this elevated height and get an eagle’s eye view of Lower Town’s narrow streets, produce market and the majestic St. Lawrence River.
After a few hours of boutique browsing, there’s nothing nicer than staking a spot on a couch in Le Germain’s lounge to check email and nibble on one of the ever-present crisp apples. In the morning, the hotel also offers a complimentary continental breakfast of coffee, tea, cheese, fruit, and pastries.
Start with Brunch
For a heavenly start to the day, treat yourself to the buffet at Place Dufferin, on Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac’s Dufferin Terrace. The sumptuous buffet features hot and cold items including crepes, eggs of the day, smoked salmon, sausages, charcuterie, Quebec cheeses, fruit, and something I cannot resist – a gooey, chocolate bread pudding to die for. Sit beside the windows and you’ll get a gorgeous view of the St. Lawrence River. One savvy tip to keep in mind: when you dine in any of the Chateau’s restaurants, valet parking is free.
Nothing pleases friends better than gifts of Quebec maple products – the province is the biggest producer worldwide of the liquid gold. Délices Érable & Cie offers 60 maple products. The syrup is my number one choice, but for those hard-to-buy-for pals, pick up some maple pork seasoning, maple butter, maple cookies, candy or even maple coffee.
Quebecois whose ancestry is purely French-Canadian like to call themselves “pure laine,” meaning pure wool. This probably comes from the fact that farmers in the 1700s used to raise sheep for wool. Charlevoix Pure Laine is a wonderful shop bulging with handmade wool hats, socks, and sweaters from the Charlevoix region northeast of Quebec City. If you are a knitter, they also sell lovely skeins of wool.
No trip to Quebec City is complete without a trip to Simons, a department store in Upper Town that has unique designs for men and women (and fantastic sales!). There are now locations out West, in Ontario and across Quebec, but the Quebec City location is the original with its doors first opening in 1870.
Take a Break
In the excitement of shopping, I can forget to give my feet a break. But when they start to throb, it’s time kick back and refuel with caffeine. Cantook has a warm, wood exterior and offers many fair-trade coffee varieties. The beans are roasted in-house and custom ground for your cup. One of my favourites is the smooth, rich Ethiopian pour-over. Another appealing java stop is Maelstrom, famous for its high octane, nitro cold brewed coffee. Located in trendy Saint-Roch borough, the café’s decor has an industrial vibe and after the sun goes down the menu switches from caffeine to cocktails.
Massages, saunas, and a hot-cold-rest thermal experience can put me on cloud nine, especially when on vacation. Exploring a little off the beaten tourist path, I discovered SKYSPA on the 17th floor of a building on Boulevard Laurier, minutes from downtown. It was an urban oasis, with an outdoor hot tub, Nordic (i.e. cold) waterfall, sauna and steam room. After sweating out toxins in the sauna, plunge briefly under the chilly waterfall, then lay on a lounge chair to recover. Then do it all over again. Although it seems a bit challenging, the results are worth it – relaxing and revitalizing. If you need a pick-me-up, there are healthy snacks – fruit, nuts and cheese (as well as wine and beer) in the spa’s little bistro.
For a last-minute manicure in Vieux-Québec before a big night out, pop into the posh Moment Spa at Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac (but be warned, they can get busy). What better place to get the royal mani-treatment, with skin-softening hot wax, than at the city’s “Castle on the Hill”?
Wrap it Up
Feeling a tad peckish and thirsty? Time to check out L’Atelier’s crafted cocktails, tartares and tapas. The Emoji, with ruby red Absolut vodka, lime, aloe, white raisins and basil, really put a smile on my face, although I was tempted to try the Desert Eagle #2 with tequila, brand, agave, lime, lemonade cucumber, coriander and habanero chilli. Of all the tartares, from bison to tuna, the salmon was a real winner and I had to stop myself from ordering another. Homemade terrine and six oysters completed the snack.
Time for Dinner
Picking a place for the main meal event can be difficult in this gastro-intense city. My vote goes to L’affaire est Ketchup. This place is tiny, only eight tables, so you need a reservation, especially since it got the nod from Anthony Bourdain a few years ago. The menu changes nightly and dishes could include duck breast, braised beef cheek or tourtière (traditional French Canadian meat pie). The service was super friendly and there was nothing formal about it. My server, dressed in a t-shirt and baseball cap, read out the menu and I chose the Magret de Canard. The duck breast was juicy, medium rare, and with a thin, crispy layer of skin on top. Melt-in-your-mouth perfection.
On another night, I tried Toast!, a tasty spot located in Hotel Le Priori. The seared foie gras appetizer was heavenly and rich, while the main of veal sirloin with mushroom, sage and truffle veal jus was pure comfort food. I ended the adventure with a plate of outstanding Quebec cheeses, including slices of soft, buttery La Sauvagine, Le Cendrillon, an ash-covered goat cheese, and firm, nutty Pacific Rock.
For me, rich food calories are fuel for the dance floor. Dagobert nightclub, with a turreted, castle-like exterior, draws a youthful crowd and rocks with three floors of music. The first floor had a loud local band and the second and third featured celebrity DJs. Flashy light shows, TVs and video games helped amp up the energy.
Go to Le Drague Cabaret Club and you’ll find a gay dance club with loads of heart and ample servings of delicious camp. Drag queens reign supreme during the cabaret shows, DJs get the crowd dancing and on karaoke night you can try out that Beyoncé tune you’ve been practicing.
At the end of the night, Bistrot le Pape Georges (in a house built in 1668) is a good choice. Stick-to-the-ribs stew, soups, charcuterie and Québec cheeses are served until 3 a.m. Another option is Chez Ashton, because what visit to Quebec is complete without poutine? The variations to choose from include combos that pair classic fries, cheese curds and gravy with sausage, minced meat, or peas and chicken, all served until 4 a.m. on weekends.
Featured photo courtesy of Québec City Tourism, captured by Jeff Frenette Photography