The Historic District of Old Québec (Vieux-Québec) is the only fortified city with preserved ramparts on the continent north of Mexico. However, a visit to Québec City introduces you not only to its history, heritage, and architecture, but also its unique European vibe, with world-class dining, accommodations, entertainment, and shopping.
Native Americans occupied the region for approximately 10,000 years prior to the arrival of the French. Stadacona, a thriving Mohawk trading village, was the scene of Jacques Cartier’s arrival in 1534. Cartier recognized both the beauty and the strategic importance of the area and called it Kebec, an Algonquian word for “where the river narrows.”
Québec City has remained the bastion of French civilization in North America for more than 400 years. The city is culturally Franco-centric: To tour it is to experience Paris without a language barrier.
Historic Québec City is divided into two distinct sections, the Upper (Haute) and Lower (Basse) towns. Basse-Ville is situated at the foot of Cap Diamant, and was the location of the first settlement in 1608 where merchants lived and ran their businesses. The area is incredibly picturesque, with cobblestone streets and historic townhouses featuring steep roofs, thick stone walls, and ladders attached to the roofs to facilitate ice removal. Upper Town, built on a ledge atop Cap-aux-Diamants, was the site of the governor’s residence and religious and administrative centers. All of the religious buildings erected in the 1680s, with the exception of one, still stand. Both areas have distinctive charm, heritage sites, eclectic eateries, and shopping opportunities.
Places to See
Les Musées de la Civilisation, the Museum of Civilization, is an internationally renowned museum confederation that consists of five distinctive structures presenting a comprehensive picture of the area’s heritage. The museum houses several permanent exhibits that feature interactive kiosks and audio and video components, as well as dioramas and artifacts. The “Nous, les Premières Nations” (“We, the First Nations”) gallery explores the culture of the 11 aboriginal nations within the Canadian border. Life-sized, fully outfitted dioramas of Amerindian habitats highlight this exhibit.
Maison Chevalier was constructed in 1752 from three types of stone in the urban French architectural style. Originally the home of a wealthy merchant, it later functioned as the London Coffee House and an inn. Today it is part of the Museum of Civilization. The house interprets the French Colonial era with displays of furnishings, textiles, and period artifacts.
For 41 years, the family-owned Croisiéres AML Company has offered 90-minute narrated tours by costumed docents in two languages. While indicating relevant locations, the narration is chronological and provides an overview of Québec’s history from the 1500s to the present.
The oldest shopping district in North America, and the oldest street in the city, is the Rue du Petit-Champlain, which originated in 1685. Shops are situated inside 17th- and 18th-century structures, which line the narrow cobblestone streets. At one end of the street is the 328-square-foot Petit-Champlain Mural that depicts the city’s history using real and fictional individuals and events.
While visiting Vieux-Québec, I highly recommend eating at Panache Restaurant. Found inside the Hotel Auberge St. Antoine, it is situated in what was a warehouse in the 1800s. Panache presents “French Canadian cuisine with a twist,” and oh what a twist it is! It has earned the CAA-AAA Four Diamond Award seven years in a row and boasts one of Canada’s top chefs, Louis Pacquelin. Dining at Panache is a total experience. The service is superior, the ambiance is outstanding, and the food is exquisite.
For affordable, luxury accommodations in the heart of the action, Chateau Laurie is comprised of a series of Victorian houses with an inner courtyard, outdoor Jacuzzis, an indoor pool, fine dining, a full menu of amenities, and world class hospitality. The hotel is marvelously located, offering easy access to both Upper and Lower Town sites and the Grande Allée entertainment district. Promotions and specials are available online.
To stay the night, or just to admire the architecture, visitors should stop by the Chateau Frontenac, one of the most famous hotels in the world. Architect Bruce Price created the hotel for the Canadian Pacific Railway. He blended the look of the chateau of the French Loire Valley with the Scottish baronial style. In 1942 and ’43, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt met here to discuss WWII.
Adjacent to the Chateau Frontenac is a peaceful oasis now known as the Governor’s Garden because it was once the garden of Chateau Saint-Louis. It contains the Wolfe-Montcalm Monument, said to be the world’s sole monument dedicated to both the victor and the vanquished. The 65.5-foot limestone obelisk honors Québec’s dual heritage by recognizing both British Major General James Wolfe and French Louis-Joseph Marquis de Montcalm in the Battle of Québec on September 13, 1759, where both men died. The monument was dedicated in 1828 with an inscription that reads, “Valor gave them a common death, History a common fame, and Posterity a common monument.”
Maison Jacquet, built circa 1675, is the oldest extant house in the city. In the 1800s, it was the home of sculptor Pierre-Noël Levasseur and, later, of Philippe-Aubert de Gaspé, author of “Les Anciens Canadiens.” Since 1966, the building has been the restaurant Aux Anciens Canadiens, serving Québécois cuisine. It should be noted that the building’s right side is original with an 1820s addition on the left.
The Ursuline Convent dates from 1642 and, because the Ursuline nuns were cloistered, was constructed around an inner courtyard. In 1902 the Ursuline Chapel was reconstructed. The chapel is comprised of interior and external sections divided by a grill so that the nuns and students could sit apart from the public. It is worth a visit to see the outstanding religious art and the altar crafted by Pierre-Noël Levasseur.
The Neo-classical Notre-Dame de Québec Basilica was founded in 1647 and, in 1674, became the first catholic cathedral north of Mexico. Notre-Dame has been destroyed several times but, in 1923, it underwent total reconstruction on its original footprint. Visitors can take a tour of the ornate interior and see the impressive golden sculpted baldachino that covers the sanctuary.
Atop an escarpment, more than 350 feet above the St. Lawrence River, stands the 37-acre, star-shaped Citadelle, the largest and most important British fortress in North America. Construction took 30 years and was completed in 1850. Known as the “Gibraltar of North America,” the Québec Citadel is a National Historic Site. The Royal 22nd Regiment, which performs the 35-minute Changing of the Guard ceremony daily from June until the first Monday of September, is housed here.
A wonderful view of the city is available from theDufferin Terrace, overlooking the St. Lawrence River and Basse-Ville. Spaced along the terrace are glass-topped viewing stations that allow visitors to look down on the archeological remains of the Saint-Louise fort. Two iconic Québec City monuments are located along Dufferin Terrace: the incomparable Chateau Frontenac and the statue of Samuel de Champlain. The bronze statue on a stone pedestal was sculpted by Paul Chevré and placed there in 1898. Champlain gazes toward the Place d’ Armes, the former military parade ground that Governor Montmagny laid out as a public square in 1640.
The Fortifications of Québec encircle Vieux-Québec for nearly three miles. Visitors can walk along a path atop walls of packed earth that date from the 1740s, 30 feet high and 60 feet wide at the base. In the 1980s, more than 50 skeletons were discovered in the walls. It is believed that they were British soldiers who died in Québec but, because they were not Catholic, could not be buried there. Walks can be either self-guided or 90-minute guided tours that leave from Dufferin Terrace.
Québec’s motto is “Je Me Souviens,” or “I Remember.” It is incredibly apropos, because the people of Québec City remember and honor their heritage in vibrant and creative ways and the city invites you to immerse yourself in its European ambiance and continental flair. If you do, I guarantee you will always “remember” Québec City.
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