College Tourist Student Guide to Quebec City
Cute, quaint, and kind of like France: how Quebec City will win your heart
Remember hearing about that guy Samuel de Champlain in high school history class?
In case you weren’t paying attention, he was a French explorer who founded Quebec City in 1608 (and now stands as a grand statue in the city). This makes Quebec City one of the oldest cities in North America, which isn’t surprising once you see the city’s architecture and cobblestone roads.
Situated along the Saint Lawrence River, QC is split into the Old City and the New City; around the Old City are the original fortifications, a system of large stone walls that were built to protect the city. The New City is the area just outside of the fortifications. The Old City is further divided into Haute-Ville (Upper Town) and Basse-Ville (Lower Town).
Although it is quite small, lacking skyscrapers and a typical city feel, Quebec City will win you over with its charm, its quaint stone architecture, and its friendly, French-speaking inhabitants.
Top 5 Must Sees:
1. Le Chateau Frontenac:
In the heart of Old City, overlooking the Saint Lawrence River, this is the most picturesque building in all of Quebec. Le Chateau Frontenac is a classy, renowned 4-star hotel, and stands as one of the most representative icons of Quebec City. Built in 1893 (and later expanded in 1924), it is not nearly as old as some of QC’s other buildings, but is designed in the same charming, old world style as the rest of the city.
2. L’éscalier casse-cou (Break-Neck Stairs):
It’s a bit of a mouthful in French, but “Break-Neck Stairs” is the name for the large, steep set of 59 steps that connects Lower Town (Basse-Ville) to Upper Town (Haute-Ville). Going down is not so bad, but going up is certainly a bit of a workout–luckily, there are shops and restaurants at various levels along the way to make the climb more bearable!
3. La Chute de Montmorency (Montmorency Falls):
This breathtaking waterfall is located just 7 miles north of the city (about a 15 minute drive). Make sure you walk across the suspension bridge, which hangs right over the waterfall. It provides an amazing view! The falls are surrounded by a grassy park, so it’s the ideal spot for a picnic lunch, too.
4. La Fresque des Québécois:
This must-see is a gigantic mural on the side of a tall building. If you look closely, you’ll be able to find several historical figures hidden throughout. The mural is truly astounding, and extremely realistic; it almost feels like you’re staring at a real 3-D city landscape rather than a flat stone wall!
5. Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec:
No, it’s not the same as the Notre-Dame in Paris, but it’s still a beautiful building! This astounding church is a National Historic Site of Canada, and is well worth a visit. Make sure you go during its operating hours so that you can see the inside.
Fun For Free:
A vast majority of Quebec’s best attractions fall under the “sight-seeing” category, so there’s a lot to do and see for free! Buy sandwiches (on fresh baguette, of course) to go, and have a picnic lunch on Les Plaines d’Abraham (the Plains of Abraham), which is a vast field where the British, much to France’s dismay, conquered Quebec in 1759. The park is a great place to take a walk and enjoy the landscape, and if you happen to be in Quebec during the winter, there is a free ice skating rink, too.
You also definitely have to take a stroll down Rue St. Jean, the most exciting street in the city. Lined with shops, restaurants, bars, and clubs, Rue St. Jean is always busy. Window shopping and browsing are excellent ways to spend an afternoon.
Where to Eat:
A devout foodie myself, I was sure to hunt down the best places to grab a bite on both of my visits to Quebec City.
When in French Canada, you can’t leave without trying the local specialty: poutine. Poutine is a traditional French Canadian dish consisting of French fries, gravy, and cheese curds. It is literally everywhere in Quebec–from greasy fast food joints (it’s a popular “drunk food”) to expensive, gourmet places, basically every restaurant has their own version. The best poutine I had was at Le Chic Shack, a classy-casual mid-level restaurant just across the street from Le Chateau Frontenac. Instead of fries, this dish was made with potato wedges.
Not far from Le Chic Shack, on Rue St. Louis, is Le Petit Chateau, an adorable restaurant specializing in crêpes, fondues, and raclette. Make sure you sit out on their beautiful terrace, especially when there is live music. The asparagus, ham, and cheese crêpes were some of the best I’ve ever had.
Finally, try Paillard, a cute café on Rue St. Jean, for lunch. Comparable to Panera here in the US, Paillard operates on the same soup-sandwich-salad system, and is affordable, too.
QC is a very small city, but there are still some hidden gems. Venture outside the large stone walls and try the local shops in New City. Follow Rue St. Jean past the stone gate and explore the outskirts of Quebec City–there are independent bookstores, organic markets, and more.
There are also always interesting street performers in cobblestone alleyways around the city.
Don’t be fooled by Quebec’s tame daytime appearance–the city has a hip, young vibe with excellent nightlife when the sun goes down. Since the drinking age in the province of Quebec is 18, I was able to sample the local bars and clubs the second time I visited.
Right off of Rue St. Jean is Bar Ste. Angèle, a small, somewhat hidden jazz bar with a really cool atmosphere and awesome staff. Drinks are affordable, and there’s a live jazz band on Friday and Saturday nights. Be sure to ask the bartender for a Canadian maple whiskey shot. The best part though? The sweet antique cash register behind the bar!
A bit farther away, just outside of the Old City walls (still within walking distance though!), is Pub Nelligan’s, an Irish-style pub. Nelligan’s has a really nice patio in the back, and a small balcony, too, both of which are great on cool summer nights. They’re stocked with plenty of Unibroue (a Quebecois brewery) beers–try their Éphémère Cherry ale.
Across the street from Nelligan’s, you’ll find the popular two-story club, La Ninkasi, which has a bar on each floor, an upstairs lounge area, a stage that often hosts karaoke nights, and an outdoor patio on the second floor. Karaoke and dancing are a must when you’re at La Ninkasi.
Try to visit Quebec on June 23rd and 24th, when festivities for La Fete de la Sainte-Jean-Baptiste, Quebec’s national holiday, are going down. Everyone celebrates all day and all night with drinks, fireworks, and general shenanigans.
Because QC is so small, traveling on foot is your best bet. Everything you could want to see is within walking distance, whether you are staying in Old City or in New City.
However, if you do want to take public transportation, Quebec City has a great electric bus called the Écolobus, which mostly runs throughout Old City and is super cheap. There is also the RTC bus, that takes you out through New City and beyond into surrounding towns.
Additionally, if you want to avoid those aforementioned Break-Neck Stairs, you can take the illustrious Funicular from Upper Town to Lower Town and back. The Funicular is a cool “cable railway,” similar to an elevator that moves at a 45 degree angle up and down between the two levels.
Language is something to consider when traveling to Quebec City, as French is the official language. Heads up: most signs and labels are in French, though many also show English translations. Plus, almost everyone is bilingual and can also speak English (most can speak fluently), so there’s no need to worry if you don’t know any French! In public places, most people will begin speaking to you in French–just say “I’m sorry, can you say that in English please?” or show off and say “En anglais, s’il-vous-plait?”
Remember, too, that their currency is different, so be sure to exchange your money ahead of time, or at a bank in the city. Most places will accept American dollars though, so don’t fret if you need to pay that way!
Canada may not be every American’s idea of a great getaway, but Quebec City is sure to deliver. Don’t miss out on all that this lovely French-Canadian “ville” has to offer!