Québec City – history, nature and culture combined

By | Category: Travel destinations
Quebec's old city

Quebec’s old city

The sun was bathing Québec City in gentle rays as I stepped out onto the streets to familiarise myself with this, by North American standards, very old town, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985. In 2008 Québec City celebrated 400 years of the first European settlement here, at the narrowest point of the St Lawrence River. Of course they were by no means the first people to reach these parts of Canada – Québec originally stems from the Algonquin word kébec, meaning “where the river narrows”. The 27 mostly French settlers and adventurers who arrived back in 1608 had a bit of a rough time of it to say the least, and the following spring only seven had survived the harsh winter.

Winters in Québec Province can still be harsh, and despite this being a sunny spring morning in May, I could still see remnants of old piles of snow in tucked-away corners. The summer season had yet to begin and the old town, often busy in tourist season, was pleasantly quiet and picturesque. St Lawrence River is only a kilometre wide here, compared to 20 km further upstream, and the city’s lofty location on a promontory known as Cap Diamant offers impressive, panoramic river views.

in the Place Royale

Place Royale

Many of the city’s best-known sights are located atop Cap Diamant, in Upper Town, so be prepared for some excellent exercise to get around, but all parts of the old town are stroller-friendly despite cobblestones. There is also a swift funicular railway to the top for those less willing or able to walk the uphill distance. My own walking tour started in Lower Town, closer to the river, in Place Royale, the historical heart of the city, replete with 17th and 18th century buildings. The square looks so old and quaint, I was amazed to hear many of these buildings had been reconstructed in the 1970s, following the town plan from 1700. The square is also home to Québec’s oldest church, Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, completed in 1723 and the nearby mural, Fresque des Québécois, depicting the history of the city in vivid colours, covering an entire building, is well worth a peek.

Chateau Frontenac

Chateau Frontenac seen from the St Lawrence River

While Lower Town is home to plenty of narrow, cobbled streets, cosy cubby-hole bars, restaurants, shops and boutique hotels, Upper Town, although as old as its lower sibling, has an altogether greater sense of space. Whether you choose to amble up the hill or take the funicular, be sure to take in the historical sights of the ramparts and old city walls (it’s the only walled city north of Mexico), La Citadelle fortress and of course, Québec City’s best-known landmark, Chateau Frontenac. Dating from the late 19th century, this formidable hotel, built in chateau style for the Canadian Pacific railway, towers over the city, overlooking the river and Lower Town. A hotel operated by the Fairmont group, its bars and restaurants are open to the public and highly recommended for a lovely evening out. Another option is of course to actually stay there.

Québec City has just over half a million inhabitants and retains something of a small-town feel, especially compared to southern neighbour Montreal, the province’s largest city. A few days exploring is enough to see the main Québec City sights and also venture out into nearby nature, always a great Canadian draw. One way is to take to the St Lawrence River by boat – there are plenty of river cruises to choose from, as well as the cross-river ferry to Lévis, on the opposite bank. The latter is the most economical option and offers some of the best views of Québec City itself.

Montomorency Falls walk

Montmorency Falls

Springtime, after a harsh winter, is the perfect time to view some of the best shows that nature can provide – spectacularly powerful spring waters. Montmorency Falls, the highest in the province at 84 metres (275 ft), were particularly awe-inspiring in the spring sunshine, as I made my way up to the suspension bridge spanning the falls. In fact, the waters were so wild some of the viewing platforms had had to be closed off to the public, but I still managed to get enticingly close to the falls crashing down beneath me, sending up spray in rainbow showers. Only 12 km northeast of the centre of the city, Montmorency forms part of a nature reserve with hiking trails, cycle paths and picnic areas, a lovely place for a day out. If bringing your own nosh is not your thing, Montmorency Manor, former summer residence of the Duke of Kent, among others, is home to a very good restaurant.

Wendake church

a local church in Wendake

There are numerous locations in the province, easily reached from Québec City itself, that are worth a visit, but one that really stood out as a highlight of my journey, was a visit to the First Nations Huron-Wendat Museum in Wendake, a self-governing territory northwest of the city. The museum opened up in 2008 and truly needs to be seen to be believed – it takes over a vast building, near the banks of the St Charles/Akiawenrahk River, dedicated to conserving and promoting the cultural heritage of the Wendat people (known as the Huron by the French settlers). Apart from being one of the most beautifully presented and well-laid out museums I have ever come across, the visit was also a complete eye-opener – in my ignorance I had always believed Canada to have been “nicer” to their native populations, but history here is also on the grim side.

Even if history leaves you cold, this museum should still be on your must-see list for a whole variety of reasons; a visit to the enormous wooden longhouse, a replica depicting how the Wendat lived historically; the scenic location near the Kabir Kouba waterfalls; a stay at the First Nations Museum Hotel, right next to the museum, and a meal at La Traite restaurant with home-smoked fish and game, including dishes rarely seen in restaurants elsewhere.

evening in Quebec

enjoying the hospitality of an evening in Quebec

The whole project is 60% Wendat-owned and one of the most fascinating museums I’ve ever visited. My only regret was lack of time to sample the dishes in the restaurant, as my exploratory journey was at an end. Québec City and surroundings had provided an interesting mix of history, culture and nature. And great food for thought.



For more information about Quebec, click here

For more in formation  about Wendake, click here.

Getting there:

There are no direct flights from the UK to Québec City, but Air Canada, Air Transat and British Airways fly to Montreal, a short domestic flight or a 2-3-hour train/car journey away. A number of international carriers including KLM, Lufthansa and Air France also fly to Montreal.

First UK Rights and images © Anna Maria Espsäter

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