Quebec City is the oldest city in Canada, with the site discovered in 1535 by Jacques
Cartier and the city founded in 1608 by Samuel Champlain. It is the only walled
city in Canada or the United States, every guidebook will inevitably call it the
'most European' city in North America and it is one of the most visited sites in
Canada. UNESCO has designated it a World Heritage Site as a good example of a
fortified colonial city. It is in fact the only fortified French colonial city in
We started our walking tour of the city outside the walls at the national
legislature building. An odd title for a provincial capital. We stayed
about a half-mile from the gates to the old city which seemed like a good
economical choice at the time. It's also a good way to discover just how
mind-numbingly cold a half-mile walk can be, at least in January.
All of the most recognizable pictures of Quebec City feature the Chateau Frontenac.
It is a very impressive building but it is sort of unusual that a city's defining
landmark happens to be a hotel. It was built in 1893 by the Canadian Pacific
Railway company who seem to be responsible for a good percentage of all the truly
recognizeable buildings in Canada.
Old Quebec is split into upper and lower town and all the connotations that go
with those two words apply here. The upper town is higher being built on a
plateau. It was also the wealthy, refined section of town, and the part that is
protected by the fortifications. From the modern downtown section (also on the
plateau), there are several gates that lead into the city. This is the Porte
The streets of the upper town are a maze of narrow alleys. With a few exceptions,
there are not all that many souvenir shops. Rue St. Jean and the area around the
Chateau are what you might expect, but it is easy to wander off into quieter areas
of the city which are still largely residential. The one exception seems to be
restaurants which are scattered randomly across the city and are a good way to get
inside a cross-section of historical homes and buildings.
Speaking of food, Quebec City is a great place for French cuisine (with a bit
of a Canadian influence). Compared to the rest of North America at least, it
is quite reasonable to eat an elaborate multi-course meal here. At lunch it
seems to be cheaper to get the three-course 'table of the day' at most
restaurants. This tended to be soup, a choice of entrees, and desert. We tried
a couple local specialities including tortiere, which is basically a meat stew
in puff pastry and maple pie which is one of the sweetest substances on the
We also spent a fair amount of time in bars and pubs. This is largely David's
fault because he doesn't drink coffee so whenever it became just too cold we
stopped in for a beer somewhere. Quebec is a goldmine for beer lovers. They
import a wide variety of Belgian beers regularly and there are a healthy number
of local Quebec varieties as well. We recommend the Pub St. Alexandre on Rue
St. Jean for the beer selection, and the first floor bar in the back of the
Chateau Frontenac for the view.
Terrasse Dufferin is a long elevated walkway on the edge of the plateau. It has
great views of the lower city, the St. Lawrence river and the eastern suburbs
of Quebec City.
The terrace area features quite a few things to do in the winter. Just to the left
of this picture is an outdoor ice-skating rink, although if you can't find a place
to ice skate in Quebec in January you aren't trying very hard. The foreground is the
end of a sledding run (more on that later) and there are various other activites going
on at any time.
For instance, one vendor pours hot maple syrup onto snow where it freezes almost
instantly. The resulting taffy-like goo is rolled up on a stick and eaten, resulting
almost certainly in a severe sugar overdose.
During our visit, the St. Lawrence was only frozen in selected bays and inlets.
Large chunks of ice did not seem to deter normal boat traffic, including ferries
to Levis, the city across the river in this photo.
The terrace runs from the Chateau Frontenac to the far side of La Citadelle.
La Citadelle is a massive star-shaped fortress which protects the eastern side of
the city. Eventually the terrace gives way to the Promenade of Governours which is
a precariously balanced elevated walkway just below the walls of La Citadelle.
Far below is a more modern section of the port of Quebec.
As mentioned, there is a rather antique looking sledding run just outside the
chateau. For a couple dollars per run (or by the hour), you can drag a heavy wooden
sled up to the top of this ramp (see stairs on the right side). There is a release
system that allows you to mount the sled in safety. Once everyone is set, they hit
the release and off you go. Kind of slow and rickety at first it eventually builds
up quite an alarming amount of speed. There's not much to hold on to and you should
definately do your best to keep arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times as those
little ice walls are hard.
Here is Melanie (and a good percentage of all the winter clothing she owns) in
front of the upper side of La Citadelle. It doesn't look too impressive from
this view because you can't see the wide and deep moat (now a service road)
between the snow drifts and the fort walls.
The area along this side of La Citadelle is known as the Plains of Abraham. This
was the site of perhaps The decisive battle in Canadian history where the English
forces defeated the French in 1759. Nearly everyone of any importance seems to
have died in the battle and has a statue somewhere in the vicinity. Nowadays it
is a sprawling park with sledding, cross-country skiing and ice skating (of course)
in the winter.
We haven't said much about the lower town yet, mostly because we didn't spend
too much time there. This was once the red light district, so to speak, of colonial
Quebec. It's a good walk down from the upper town. There's a funicular near
the Chateau once you've seen enough stairs. The lower town has some interesting
architecture but it's harder to escape the crowds here. The area around the
funicular in particular was extra dense. This is the Place Royale, the oldest
section of this oldest city. We're told there are street performers galore here
in nicer weather but only one musician was willing to brave the cold on this day.
Just a few miles up the St. Lawrence river is the suburb of Beauport, best known
as the site of Montmorency Falls. These are invariably billed as 'higher than
Niagara', which they are. They aren't nearly as impressive as Niagara of course
but they are quite scenic and most surprising is how close to the autoroute they
are. Literally you drive right past the base of these falls on your way into
Quebec City from the east. We have no doubt this is one big tourist trap in
warmer months. The parking prices are exorbitant, as are the trips on the cable
car which takes you to the top. In the winter, everything is free (everything
that isn't closed that is). The next picture is a view from the top looking
down at a section of the falls.
From the top you can hike to an overlook on either side of the falls, connected
by the footbridge you can see here. From the bottom (about a 5 minute drive
away) you can spend a really long time trying to carefully balance your camera
in the snow because you have no dexterity left in your frozen fingers. Or,
if you prefer, you can hike around the right side of the falls (as this picture
goes) up to the platforms at the top (stairs galore). If you're lazier and
wealthier you can take the cable car which is just off to the left of this picture.
Unfortunately you can't see the ice-climbers in this picture but it is quite
impressive that they hadn't either fallen or frozen yet.
Quebec City's skyline as seen from Montmorency falls. The Chateau Frontenac is
on the far left. The central section is the more modern business district.
Incidentally, we don't recommend trying to find a bank in Beauport. There are
a few zillion in Quebec City proper, so get money before you range out on side
trips or you may end up trapped in the same mall parking lot we were in.