Unless you’ve been living under a rather large rock for the past, em, 400 years, chances are you are well acquainted with one of North America’s oldest settlements. Château Frontenac is just one of the many things to do in Old Quebec, but not just: some of the suggestions below are painfully obvious — hello, we are talking about a UNESCO World Heritage Site here — and others, not quite as much.
Let’s get started, shall we?
Château Frontenac: the Most Photographed Hotel in the World
Sitting predominantly atop Quebec’s upper town, Château Frontenac is the capital’s emblem and most visited attraction. But despite its somewhat contradictory name, it was never a castle; the National Historic Site of Canada was actually built in the late 19th century as part of the series of “château” style hotels for the Canadian Pacific Railway company throughout Canada. While the now-Fairmont-owned hotel no longer offers guided tours, it is possible to step inside for a drink or a meal – check out make-your-own negronis at 1608 or enjoy the fancy, lavish brunch at Champlain Restaurant.
Can’t afford to spend the night? Don’t worry, you can easily enjoy the château and avoid the hefty Fairmont pricetag.
- Pop in the lobby for a quick peek at the art deco features
- Take a self-guided tour (free app) or escorted tour ($20 per adult)
- Stay for a while and enjoy make-your-own negronis at 1608 or the opulent brunch at Champlain Restaurant
Go on a Quebec City Food Tour
Gone are the days where Quebec City was the laughing stock of ultra foodie Montreal; in fact, Quebec has undergone a total revitalization in the past few years and is now home to numerous forward-thinking, imaginative restaurants that are well worth a visit. The 3-hours Old Quebec food tour features five culinarily and culturally significant spots showcasing the area’s historic European heritage as well as the city’s inventive streak. Bring your eating pants!
- When: 11:00 AM Almost everyday
- How much: 65$
Tour the Citadelle
As one of Canada’s most historically-significant places, the Plains of Abraham are not to be missed. This is where the French and the British armies fought on multiple occasions in the hope of keeping their respective grip on the North American continent, until the decisive 1759 conquest. The Citadelle de Québec – the largest British-built fortress in North America – is an utterly fascinating stronghold encompassing over 200 years of military history.
Did you know, for instance, that the fortifications were not in fact built to protect the British colonies from the French army? They only reinforced the already-existing structure in case the Americans colonies further south had the funny idea to invade Quebec City.
Visit the 400-year old Augustines Monastery
The historical cloisters of Hôtel-Dieu, one of the most significant landmarks in Old Quebec, have been carefully renovated over the past couple of years and turned into an unprecedented combination of museum / hotel / healthy restaurant / holistic centre.
It recounts the story of the Augustine Nuns, who were pioneers in health and science when the hospital first opened its doors in 1639 with a treaty from King Louis XIII asking them to care for the sick and to open the continent’s first hospital north of Mexico. Think of this place as history meets wellness meets modern comforts and you’ve got a pretty enticing picture.
Not unlike the Château Frontenac, you can opt to stay overnight at the monastery if the visit made you want to see more. The rooms are unadorned but incredibly comfortable and restful.
Visit Musée des Ursulines
If the aforementioned Augustines were all about health and science, the Ursulines’ mission was to educate and teach to girls in New France — both newcomers and natives — making it the oldest institution of learning for women in North America as their history begins on 1 August 1639 when the first nuns landed in Canada. The museum recounts their fascinating progress and the influence they had on educational systems throughout America.
Stand where it all started: Place Royale
Set foot in the cradle of French Canadian civilisation by visiting the very place where Quebec City was founded in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain after having opened the very first trading post. The small square is awash with history; it served as a trading post, a storehouse, and even a fort back in the early 15th century. The gabled roofs and large chimneys are very typical of the New France era and the houses found in and around Place Royale are some of the finest examples of that genre anywhere in the country.
Picnic in the Parc du Bastion de la Reine (and enjoy the view)
Grab some bread, wine, cheese & saucisson at the oldest grocery store in town – Épicerie J.A. Moisan (just outside Old Quebec) – and head over to the plains of Abraham to enjoy the beautiful weather and the stunning and most underrated views of Old Quebec and the river.
Visit the Fort St-Louis archaeological site
You may have noticed that Terrace Dufferin, right by Château Frontenac, is dotted with plexiglass domes opening onto mysterious remains? Archaeologists uncovered significant evidence proving that the governor’s official residence, and, therefore, New France’s seat of power, stood right here from 1620 to 1834. It is now possible to explore the remains of Château Saint-Louis, which includes 120 artefacts and is cleverly designed to be visited through an augmented reality tour.
Visit Morrin Centre
Formerly a prison, now Quebec City’s flagship English-language cultural hub, the Morrin Centre is a stunning 200-year old building filled with history and obscure inmate stories. It also features a Victorian-era library containing 25,000 books, an old-timey chemistry lab, and is home to Canada’s first learned societies. It’s even possible to book a traditional afternoon tea, complete with period costumes and Victorian etiquette lessons.
Additionally, it’s one of the prime locations of Louise Penny’s detective novel “Bury Your Dead” featuring the popular Officer Gamache.
Be surprised at Maison de la littérature
And while you’re at it, hop over next door to Maison de la Littérature, a completely renovated building with a Scandinavian feel to it and infinitely strong Instagram game. It is entirely dedicated to Québécois creativity, with an obvious focus on literature but also on visual arts and other mediums. Don’t be deterred by the majoritively French-speaking environment; this is truly a hidden gem and one of the most underrated things to do in Old Quebec.
Drink in a 400-year old tavern
Housed in a 1668 stone building, Pape Georges V tavern is mostly famous for its atmospheric vaulted ceilings and its rather unusual street number at “8 ¼ rue du Cul-de-Sac”. For the full experience, order a Black Velvet, which consists of half cider and half stout beer. Cheers!
Peek at Séminaire de Québec
Founded in 1663, Séminaire de Québec is, to be official, the oldest educational institution in Canada. As such, it became a National Historic Site of Canada in 1929 and continues to wow visitors to this day, with its white-washed central courtyard concealed by a wrought-iron gate that most visitors miss in the blink of an eye.
Marvel at the Fresque des Québécois
Located at the bottom of steep Côte de la Montagne street, the gigantic, almost mind-boggling fresco recounts the heritage of Quebec City while acknowledging the characters and events that contributed to its evolution. I’ve seen it a few times and I don’t think I’ve actually noticed every detail yet, as the fresco is very intricate. A work of art for all to enjoy!
Go antiquing on rue Saint-Paul
Nestled at the foot of Château Frontenac in the quieter part of the Lower Town, charming St-Paul Street is famous throughout the city for being home to the best antiquarians in the province. I’ll admit that no one goes abroad to shop for vintage armchairs but the shops are, luckily for travellers, full of old-timey trinkets that easily fit in a suitcase.
Enjoy Musée de la Civilisation
Enjoy exhibits of international calibre as well as more locals ones at this forward-thinking, trend-setting museum in the heart of Old Quebec. Musée de la Civilisation features highly interactive, modern features that also act as an homage to architect-superstar Moshe Safdie, who designed the building.
Ride the ferry across the St Lawrence River
To get the best view of Quebec City, you need to leave Quebec City – just for a few minutes! There’s a ferry service between the capital and its adjacent neighbour Lévis, which means that for a handful of change you can cross the St. Lawrence River, sit back, and enjoy the view that unfolds before your eyes.
Walk on the Ramparts
Stretching over a distance of 4,6 kilometres, the historic Quebec City walls hold so many secrets that only a guided tour could possibly reveal — along with some pretty unique viewpoints. If you’d rather go it alone, climb the stairs by Kent Gate and access the top for a self-guided visit of the only remaining fortifications north of Mexico City.
Instagram the quaint back streets
The charming streets that surround the Old Port are perfect for strolling and whiling away the hours at antiques stores, art galleries, and sidewalk cafés.
The enchanting decor is peppered with historic houses that were once home to the likes of grain merchants and wholesale grocers. At Place FAO, amid the circa 1900 architectural gems of the old financial district, lies a striking fountain sculpture that’s a favourite of passersby.
Visit Musée du Fort
Discover the military secrets behind Quebec City’s most iconic battles with Musée du Fort‘s light and sound shows featuring the impressive 400 square feet scale model of Quebec City back in 1750.
Discover local products at Marché du Vieux Port
If you’re indeed a foodie yourself, why not take some time to visit Quebec City’s busy market? Sample local products such as ice wines, terrines, fresh blueberry juice, maple syrup, and mingle with locals in this waterfront thoroughfare. If the weather is on your side, get a few of your preferred indulgences and head outside for a waterfront picnic near the marina.
Hop on the funicular to Petit-Champlain neighbourhood
The funicular linking the lower and the upper towns, more specifically Petit-Champlain to Château Frontenac, is one of the most quintessential things to do in Old Quebec – that is, if you are keen on avoiding the so-called Break Neck stairs. And no one could blame you for choosing the safe option with a name like that!
Fun fact: the funicular starts in Maison Louis-Jolliet, the one-time residence of the man who discovered the Mississippi River.
Stroll on Promenade des Gouverneurs
Imagine a giant boardwalk, minus the beach. This is exactly what the Promenade des Gouverneurs is about! The elevated promenade connects the Plains of Abraham to the Dufferin Terrace and Château Frontenac but attempting to see it from one end to another is not for the faint of heart: the cliffs are really quite steep in that area, not to mention that there are over 300 steps to get to the very top. But the unobstructed panoramas of not just Old Quebec but Island of Orleans and the river are a very worthy reward.
Festivals & Events
Despite its old age and timeless attractions, Quebec City still knows how to throw a damn good, generally-free-of-charge party. Whether you prefer musical events (Festival d’été de Québec, Envol et Macadam), historic festivities (Fêtes de la Nouvelle-France), artsy displays (Loto-Québec fireworks festival, Crépuscule circus show) or if you’re brave enough, winter celebrations (Carnaval de Québec), there’s undoubtedly a festival that will tickle your fancy in this lively, cheerful town.