In this Canadian province’s capital city, one is never far from the past.
By Kathryn Lemmon
Founded in 1608, Quebec City, Quebec, is one of the oldest cities in Canada. The narrow streets provide evidence of its age.
“Paris without the jet lag” sums up Quebec City. It boasts cobblestone streets, the smell of fresh bread, and more bistros than fast-food spots. It feels as though Europe has landed in Canada.
Although the town has a French heritage, English is spoken here, at least in the tourist areas. But this is a city with a tug-of-war history, and the evidence is all around. A strategic location on the St. Lawrence River contributed to its unique past. Some aspects are British, and others are clearly French. Larger vehicles must make a careful progression through the old town, keeping ever-present bicyclists and pedestrians in view. Likewise, parking can be a challenge. It’s truly best to leave your RV, and even your towed car, at the campground when you visit.
Quebec City is a popular vacation destination among a wide range of nationalities. We quickly lost count of all the languages we heard spoken as we strolled around town.
The Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac is the uncontested grande dame of the city. An overnight at this hotel was on my bucket list for quite a long time. The castle, as the locals call it, is the city’s most famous landmark. Its design, combined with its location, does make it resemble one.
Frontenac is named for the French colonial governor Louis de Buade, Count of Frontenac, born in 1622. The flamboyant count is still legendary. His ghost is said to haunt the building. If I were him, I’d become a permanent resident, too.
The 1893 hotel was built by the Canadian Pacific Railway, which hired American architect Bruce Price; Price happened to be the father of a young lady who would grow up to be etiquette expert Emily (Price) Post. Could the architect or the railroad have known their efforts would produce one of the most photographed hotels in the world?
Whether you stay at the Frontenac or not, you may take a guided tour of the building and learn about its architecture, history, and the famous people and events that have been associated with it. For more info, visit the hotel website at www.fairmont.com/Frontenac-quebec or call Quebec Cicerone Tours at (418) 977-8977. An app that offers a 15-minute self-guided virtual tour is also available from the hotel website.
The Quebec City visitors center sits across the square from the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac entrance. There, you can get currency converted and arrange any tours or activities you desire. At this center, all bases are covered; it has clean rest rooms in the lower level, and offers extra-large maps. Due to the layout of Quebec City, especially the Old Town, travel is easy. You can never get lost if you walk toward the tall tower of the Frontenac.
Around the famous hotel is a well-trod wooden boardwalk called the Terrasse Dufferin, which overlooks the St. Lawrence River. We never tired of catching the river breeze and of river-watching. All manner of watercraft ply the waters, including cruise ships. From this port the Empress of Ireland departed in 1914 and collided with another vessel, causing Canada’s own version of the Titanic disaster. Quebec City manages to convey a strong sense of monumental events.
Should you feel the urge to have your photo taken while astride a cannon, the Terrasse Dufferin has its own collection. However, you’ll be competing with the under-10 set who adore climbing on cannons.
Glass prisms built into the boardwalk offer a view of what’s beneath the architectural remains of forts and chateaus that once were residences for French and British governors of Quebec. The best way to see Saint-Louis Forts and Chateaux National Historic Site is to descend a flight of stairs and take a guided tour. It reveals a place that served as the last home of Samuel de Champlain, French explorer and Quebec’s founder. Items from daily life, original room spaces, and more can be seen.
Champlain is the reigning monarch of the boardwalk, and rightly so. A statue depicts him for the ages, wearing the fancy bloomers so popular during his time. He looks like a dashing character out of The Three Musketeers! Clothing for Frenchmen has become so mundane these days.
Street artists have a tradition of performing near the statue of Champlain. Funny acrobats and gifted musical entertainers make a living from the tourists. Bleachers are provided if you care to stay for the long haul. Remember to bring your loonies — the Canadian nickname for the $1 coin. We noticed a black chalkboard that listed the day’s entertainment lineup.
This part of town is the hub for practically everything a visitor requires. Need a bite? Bistros are on every side street. Our first meal was savory crepes with mushrooms and cheese; very tasty. Relaxing meals all the time. What a concept!
Directly behind the likeness of Champlain on the boardwalk is the entrance to the beloved Old Quebec Funicular, a type of cable railway that runs up and down the hill between the Upper Town area, called Haute-Ville, and Lower Town (downhill), known as Basse-Ville. We rode the funicular daily and only climbed the hill once, during an evening ghost tour. All ages love the funicular’s glass box, which provides lovely views. My advice is to try the funicular; you won’t regret it. There is a small fee, but the wait lines were never long, even in the busy month of August.
The lower station of the funicular sits in the former home of Louis Jolliet, known for his explorations of the Mississippi River. At Basse-Ville itself, you’ll find narrow, European-style streets filled with shops, historic sites, and pleasing ambience, collectively called the Place Royale. The area can be crowded if a cruise ship is in port for the day, but don’t let that deter you.
Place Royale is historically significant as the location of the first fortified house and trading post. The Jade Museum of Quebec, full of items made from the precious substance, is open seasonally (mid-May to end of October). Not dependent on seasons is the amazing Notre-Dame-des-Victoires Church, the construction of which began in 1687.
Old architecture blends seamlessly with new design at the Museum of Civilization. As you can tell from the name, the museum encompasses a broad range of subjects, and artifacts are “artfully” displayed. It provides a chance to see North American history from a Canadian perspective. A café is also available.
Back up on the top of the hill are both the Citadelle (La Citadelle de Quebec) and the Plains of Abraham. They occupy higher terrain, a notch above the Terrasse Dufferin.
The Citadelle was constructed between 1820 and 1850 and is considered the most important British fortification ever built in North America. It’s currently home of the Royal 22nd Regiment, nicknamed the Van Doos, a linguistic variation of vingt-deux, which is French for 22. From June 24 until the first Monday in September, the changing of the guard at the Citadelle is well-attended by visitors and has been a tradition since 1928.
The ceremony includes the regimental mascot Batisse the goat. Perfectly coifed Batisse will pose for pictures, wearing his spiffy blue cape. For added flair, his horns are gold. You don’t see that every day.
We arrived toward the end of the program and joined an organized tour of the grounds. Because it is an active garrison, tourists are generally not allowed to wander. However, inside the museum, you can learn the 103-year-old history of the Royal 22 Regiment. It is Canada’s only French-language Regular Force infantry group, and it continues to serve the country.
The Plains of Abraham have a special meaning for all citizens of Quebec. There in 1759, the British defeated the French in a battle that determined Canada’s future and British domination of this part of the world. Today the space is a beautiful, open park.
Ghost tours of Quebec City are popular evening activities. The guides tell stories you likely won’t hear anywhere else. On the night we took the tour, three groups of about 20 people each set out on foot from a park in the Petit-Champlain district. The young guide carried a lantern and sported a black top hat. We enjoyed the tour immensely, but it does require some uphill walking.
Frequent ferries cross a narrow section to the St. Lawrence River town of Levis, which is sometimes mistaken for an island. It’s not an island; it’s simply in Quebec, but on the other side of the river. The 20-minute ride (each way) provides an inexpensive way to view the city skyline after dark.
You can even go farther on out to the ocean on an all-day whale-watching excursion. These depart from Quebec City generally from late May to early October, and essentially involve three hours by bus, three hours of whale watching, and three hours back to town, with one or two other stops.
Because of our personal interest in pilgrimage sites, we made our way up the coast to the Shrine of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre. One of the oldest pilgrimage sites in North America, it has been welcoming people for 350 years.
The first chapel dates to 1658, although the present structure is much newer, constructed between 1926 and 1946. The sun shone on the white exterior during our visit, causing the structure to practically gleam against the blue sky backdrop. For a thorough overview, allow at least an hour to visit.
Montmorency Falls is a short, 7-mile drive from the city. The dramatic falls are nearly 100 feet higher than Niagara Falls. A walkway reaches so close to the base, you’ll get a thorough misting. Feeling courageous? Take the gondola to the top where you can walk across the falls on a suspension bridge.
Tours of Quebec City by hop-on, hop-off bus, known as the Red Bus, are available, too. On a sunny day, the open-air top is enjoyable. We typically do the full circuit first thing to get our bearings.
Seeing Quebec City and its environs can easily fill a week. Give yourself ample time for relaxation and leisurely meals, and be sure to take it all in.
Quebec City Tourism
The following is not a complete list. Please check your camping directory or the RV Marketplace, found online at FMCA.com and in the January issue of FMC. Campgrounds are also listed on www.campingquebec.com.
Camping de la Joie
640 Rue Georges-Muir
Quebec, QC G2N 2H3
Camping La Relache
1355 Guillaume-Couture Blvd.
Levis, QC G6W 5M6
3457 chemin Royal
QC G0A 3S0
7000 Boulevard Ste-Anne
Chateau-Richer, QC G0A 1N0
Coop Camping Saint-Esprit
200 rue des Trois-Saults
Quebec, QC G1B OE3
Quebec City KOA
684 Chemin Olivier
St. Nicolas, QC G7A 2N6
(800) 562-3644 (reservations)
(418) 831-1813 (information)
Relais Camping de la Montagne
1274 Ave. de la Montagne Ouest
Quebec, QC G3K 1V9