Cobbled streets and outdoor patios beckon visitors to sit and enjoy a café, daring them to immerse themselves in the city’s ambiance; a combination of history, European charm, and delicious food.
The oldest city in Canada, Québec City was originally known as New France, a settlement established by cartographer and explorer, Samuel de Champlain in the beginning of the 17th century — long before the British showed up, throwing their weight around like they owned the place.
Of course the British eventually got their way. Soon the French places were occupied by the British, who established their own places, and although the British ruled over Québec for quite some time, French Québec eventually took control back. Sure, it got ugly for a little while, but tempers cooled down, tourism increased, and the Québec of today is a very different place.
Your first visit to Québec City can be a little overwhelming; what should you see and do? Is it just an old city or is there more?
Visiting the old city is a must for everyone, this is the essence of Québec, where everything started.
On rue Notre-Dame is the site of the first settlement in 1608 and home to one of the oldest churches in North America, Notre-Dame-des-Victories. In the summer the church is open to visitors, and worth a little visit. If you’re looking for a café, hit up La Maison Smith for some café au lait and a croissant. If you’re looking for a beer then try out Pub l’Oncle Antoine – which is housed in a very old building with walls so thick that it’s unlikely you’ll have cell service once you’re inside.
This is a small section of streets next to Place Royale filled with boutiques, and restaurants. Wander the cobbled streets, do a little shopping, then take the funiculaire up to the top of Cap Diamant. This is the neighbourhood of Vieux Québec (old Québec). Before you venture up top you’ll want to pop into Pape George for a pint or maybe stop by Petite Cabane à Sucre for a maple snack.
The number one ‘hood for those visiting the city for the first time, it’s the home of Château Frontenac, and some of the oldest houses in Québec City. You don’t have to stay at the château to wander around, so if you’re up to it, check out the royal blue and gold decor inside — it’s very Great Gatsby-eque. Walk to Terasse Pierre-Duga-des-Mons and then up the hill for a postcard shot of the château and Vieux Québec. And of course you’ll need to wander along the old city walls. For drinks, hit up Pub Alexandre or Pub Saint-Patrick along rue Saint-Jean.
Outside the city walls, this is a popular street at night with lose looking to do a little bar hopping, and possibly some dancing as well. Maurice Nightclub is bar far one of the more popular spots, and when you finally crawl out of the bars then it’s time to hit up Chez Ashton for some late night/early morning poutine. It is magical.
A section of town that is more popular with locals than visitors. It’s about a 20 min walk from old Québec and a great neighbourhood for foodies, craft beer lovers, and those seeking live music. Check out La Korrigane for local brew, then go to Le Cercle for live music — they have a night club area on the main floor, as well as an underground music scene in the basement. Good times to be had!
I highly recommend taking the one with Cicerone Walking Tours; it’s affordable, entertaining, and gives a good overview of the city.
There are not a lot of food tours in Québec (which is a shame), but there are a couple. I recommend the food tour by Tours Voir. The price is good and you’ll get a good mix of gourmet and comfort foods. Another option is to take a cooking class at Atiliers et Saveurs.
Rent a Bike
When the snow is gone, rent a bike and explore the city. Ride the path along the St. Lawrence river and venture out to Montmorency Falls or into the neighbourhood of Limoilou.
If you’re an instagram lover, Québec is the perfect city. It’s full of delightful details, you just need a camera and an eye for detail. Wander on your own, or take one that has already been set up. Either way it can be a fun way to pass the time.
They look cheesy, but double-decker bus tours can be fun, and it is generally a good way to get a lay-of-the-land. Use the tour to figure out where you want to explore more fully, and which areas that are not of interest to you.
French or English, What should you speak?
Is Québec French or English? The city is about 90% French, but as a popular tourist destination (more with Americans and the French than with Canadians), there are enough people in the old city who speak English that you can get by. Some tips to make things easier:
Never assume someone speaks English, the locals don’t like that, especially if you’re an ass about it. In fact I know some anglophones who live in the city that pretend to be francophone when approached by an asshole tourist. Don’t be the asshole.
In areas like Saint-Roch and Limoilou English can be found, but these areas are mostly French. Say Bonjour, make an effort. The locals will figure things out very quickly and if they speak English, most will answer in English.
If I’m not sure I’ll say “Je parle un peu français”, which means I speak a little French. This helps. If a local speaks a little English, they’ll tell you. If not, then you’re both resorting to charades or using your google translate app.
The food in Québec City is simply delicious. It’s a food haven in my opinion. The one reason Montréal is more well known is because 1) there are more restaurants per capita and 2) there are more celebrity chefs.
The food scene in Québec is filled with micro-restaurants run by passionate chefs, gourmet dining spaces, and sinfully delicious comfort food corners that are a heart-attack waiting to happen. You may go to Québec City to experience the history and the ambiance, but you’ll end up gaining ten pounds while you’re there.
There are a few foodie suggestions for your first time in the city:
Chez Ashton – Started in the 1950s, Chez Ashton is a MUST for your first bite of poutine. They are open late, and sell hot dogs as well. Perfect for 2am cravings.
Snack-Bar Saint-Jean – A cheap eats joint with yummy poutine, burgers, and hot dogs. Another late night/early morning favourite.
Le Chic Shack – One of my personal favourites. In the summer they make a mean lobster burger — which I crave all year long. They also serve other gourmet burgers and poutines and I’m trying to convince them to serve up a lobster poutine, which hasn’t worked yet.
Matto 71 – A perfect choice if you want to splurge and have traditional Italian food that tastes like it came from a Nona’s kitchen.
La Buche – Decorated like a sugar shack, this place serves Québécois food with a slightly modern twist.
Food in Québec deserve’s it’s own mini guide. Eat poutine. When looking for restaurants, go to ‘hoods like Saint-Roch, Avenue Cartier, Saint-Jean-Baptiste, and Limoilou.
There are an insane amount of guesthouses and hotels in Québec City. The old city has two hostels: An HI hostel on rue Saint-Ursule, and Auberge de la Paix on rue Couillard. There are plenty of B&B type places with rates under $100 per night. Boutique hotels are generally in the neighbourhood of Vieux Port (although there are some in old Québec as well).
No matter the budget, there are plenty of places to stay.
Something to keep in mind is that Québec has a lot of festivals throughout the year, so be mindful of those and book accommodations early — especially in the summer when the city is at it’s peak.
If you want to stay for a week or more and don’t want to deal with hostels, try an AirBnB rental instead.
Québec is a walking city. You can get just about anywhere on your feet and it the spring, summer, and autumn, most people get around this way. Another option is to rent a bike.
If you want to see some of the neighbourhoods outside the main tourist areas, and you don’t feel like walking, take a public bus. The city has an app, RTC mobile, that is really useful. Note: the app is in French.
Québec City is quite possibly one of my favourite places in the world. I love the vibe, the people, the culture, the history, the food. I’m an anglophone who speaks little to no French, and I’ve lived in the city with little difficulty. Don’t let the language barrier keep you from exploring the city. Come with an open mind and be ready to be blown away. Once you visit Québec, you’ll want to come back.