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Enjoying the sounds of surrounding French chatter, we considered dipping in to another creperie when the sound of clicking of hooves on the cobblestone street distracts us and we swivel around to get a shot of the horse-drawn carriage as it comes into sight. The symphony of sounds on the streets are so classically French it is hard to believe we are actually in Canada.
While a city 400 years old might not be much in Europe, it makes Quebec City just about the oldest city in North America. The French influence here is as much in the architecture as the language, with the gray brick houses that line the streets harking back to a village in Normandy.
To remind ourselves that we are indeed in Canada, we stop for the classic (French) Canadian dish, Poutine, at Chez Ashton, and make sure ours is loaded with cheese curds and gravy from the best poutine makers in town.
After the quick carb overload, we walk it off with a hike up to Parliament, passing through the only intact city walls north of Mexico. The Parliament building itself is a testament to the French settlers who founded Quebec in 1608, and several snap-happy tourists (yes, us included) line up to take pictures of the intricate sculptures and frescoes on the building.
From here we walk over to La Citadelle, the city’s former fort which protected Quebec from the Americans in the 19th century (Quebec was actually taken at that time by the British). Today, looking out here over the views of the mighty St. Lawrence river, the imposing canons placed all around the fort remind the relaxing teens and tourists of a time when Canada was at odds with its neighbor to the south. If you happen to be in Quebec between June and September, make sure to get to the Citadelle just before 10a.m. to witness the traditional changing of the guard ceremony in the capital of French-speaking Canada.
Château Frontenac might make it on every ‘Must-See List’ written on Quebec, but witnessing the building close up, it is impossible to consider it any other way. Towering over all the buildings of Quebec and visible from far out of town, the castle hotel is the center point of Quebec’s skyline and featured on every postcard of the city. The hotel makes for a great stop to indulge in a glass of champagne and to take in the views over the city.
Next stop is the Terrace Dufferin, a large boardwalk promenade high over the river, as we leave Haute-Ville, the Upper Town, and make our way down the hill to Place Royale in ‘Basse-Ville’, the Lower Town. Some take the 2 minute, $2 ride down the steep hill in the Funiculaire du Vieux-Québec, but we prefer snake through alleyways and scale staircases on foot down to Place Royale. The story goes that Place Royale is the actual square where French explorer Samuel de Champlain began the settlement of Quebec.
In the calm before the storm we are touched at how charming this area of Quebec is, until we are suddenly constricted within these narrow alleyways, surrounded by masses of cruise ship passengers in full on group-think mode who pass by in waves, following their tour guide from place to place. The city is definitely sweeter earlier in the morning and after dark, when many of the big tour groups have left the city.
Although the Place Royale is probably the most picturesque part of the town, this army of determined tourists is hard on our exploratory spirit, and we take a seat at a typically French cafe to rest. I couldn’t be happier with my French style Café au Lait, and Jess loved her super strong espresso shot.
Back up to the Haute-Ville again for dinner, we scope out several locals’ eateries on Rue Saint-Jean towards the university, far away from the overpriced tourist traps around Place Royale. As we poke our heads in and out of shops on this road, we are now reminded of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile rather than France.
After powering up on veggie sushi (what could be more French, after all, than sushi) we just make it over to the free outdoor Cirque de Soleil show, held under an unusued underpass in the center of town. Called Les Chemins Invisibles, the quality of this free show is top standard Cirque de Soleil at its best.
The perfect way to end a perfect day in Quebec City…
Travel Tips for Quebec in the summer
The Cirque du Soleil show: Les Chemins Invisibles
As we mentioned, we couldn’t get enough of this one hour show, so if you do visit Quebec during the summer months, you can visit the free Cirque du Soleil show Les Chemins invisibles (Invisible Paths). This urban renewal project was created for the city’s 400th anniversary celebrations in 2008, but has been maintained ever since due to its extraordinary popularity.
The Summer Festival
During Quebec’s summer festival at the beginning of July, hundreds of musical acts at various indoor and outdoor venues play to over 1 million visitors, making it the largest festival in Canada.
Travel Tips for Quebec in the winter
The Ice Hotel
Quebec City is home to one of only two ice hotels in the world. From January to March visitors are able to stay in beds completely made of ice and quipped with deer furs and Arctic sleeping bags. Even if you don’t dare spend the night, stop in for a visit, and make sure to grab and ice-cold drink in a glass made of ice!
The Winter Carnival
Held every year in February, the winter carnival is a big outdoor festival in the Plains of Abraham, where you can pursue winter activities such as skiing or snow rafting, ride in snow sled-slides, see some fantastic ice sculptures and outdoor shows or ice skate on the giant ice rink.
Have you been to Quebec City? We would love you to share other must-see or must-do tips in the comments below.