As we flew overhead of a white compact car while descending into Jean Lesage International Airport, I immediately felt as if I were touching down in western Europe. The skies, filled to the north and west with gray rain clouds that had just wrapped up a refreshing drizzle onto the streets of Old Quebec, were on their way out, giving way to the late summer sun. But as we touched down, the runway was still slick with moisture that skirted around the wheels of the plane.
In the Canadian province of Quebec, 97% of the population speaks French. Compare that with only 40% who speak fluent English, and it’s easy to separate this province- the 2nd most populous in Canada- from its western counterparts. Provincial law maintains that all commercial signage must be in French. Even KFC goes by the moniker PFK in Quebec.
Montreal gets most of the attention, being much larger and serving as the commercial and technological hub of the province. But Quebec City is the provincial capital and is more approachable for visitors- perhaps the reason why the city sees nearly 6 million of them per year. The architecture inside the 4.6 kilometers of castle-like stone walls that surround the old city founded by Samuel De Champlain in 1608 is as timeless as the streets of Paris itself.
With a population of just over a half-million, this little Paris in North America is as aesthetically pleasing and personally welcoming as anywhere I’ve ever been.
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Sure it’s nice there, but can we get outside?
I asked the same question and being a Colorado boy, my standards are high. A 20-minute walk on a well-manicured trail by the freeway doesn’t count as a hike in my book. I want to know what I can do in the places I travel. If you’re like me, it takes a lot more than a craft brewery and a few filtered Instagram food shots to make a place worth visiting.
Quebec stands strong for those who prefer to pass their time outside. There’s a legit ski hill (Mont Sainte Anne) twenty minutes outside of town that also serves up some of the region’s best mountain biking during summer. There’s Canyon Sainte-Anne- where shit got real (have you ever been on a Via Ferrata?). I’m going to walk through the city and the ‘green belt’ surrounding it, breaking down what I experienced and what I took away from 72 hours in ‘La Vielle Capitale.’
Walking Old Quebec- the charm of Europe in North America
Far from the sprawl of larger urban areas, the entirety of Old Quebec and surrounding areas are doable on bike or foot. I recommend walking because it provides the opportunity to take in the surroundings- the classic 17th-century architecture is worth a visit all in itself. I stayed at the Delta Hotel just outside the gates and when entering Old Quebec for the first time, came in through St. John’s Gate- one of six castle-worthy gates connecting the walled-off portion of the city to the rest of the metro area.
In the late 1800s, city officials planned to tear down the walls to accommodate expansion- but were dissuaded by Lord Dufferin, who now enjoys legendary status among residents.
The entirety of Old Quebec is a UNESCO World Heritage Site- a mark of strong pride among locals. 400-year-old buildings line the tight passageways, their bright colors popping at the eye like an oil painting. The café culture is strong here. Walking through town, we passed numerous pubs and cafes with patios full of people chatting over drinks. It is hard to say you’ve been to Quebec without stopping for a coffee or local beer on a patio overlooking the grey-bricked streets.
A split-leveled city, Old Quebec is separated into two parts- upper and lower- connected by the Funiculaire- a gondola car on rails that raises or lowers pedestrians and saves them a couple of hundred stairs for $2.50 CAD. Just beside the Funiculaire is Little Champlain Street (aptly named, of course), the oldest commercial street in the city and home to a number of shops and cafes serving locally made products. The entire area is full of great stores and restaurants (we’ll get into the food here shortly- as you might expect when being colonized by the French, the food culture is off the hook).
When shopping, I particularly recommend Fucklamode (Fuck Fashion, in English), a local fashion line clearly not afraid of offending the more sensitive types.
Food and Drink
Remember, this place is not just European influenced but French- so don’t expect to spend any less than two or three hours at dinner. Of the roughly 72 hours I spent here, at least ten of them were spent in a total of three restaurants. The wine flows freely and by the end of a meal, your server will be like a close friend. Be sure to get a photo with them, that’s Instagram gold.
For classic French fare, which one should not visit Quebec City without, hit up Le Café Du Monde on the waterfront at 84 rue Dalhousie. I’ve been to Paris, and the onion soup here is just as good. Also, check out this photo of the fresh-caught fish and chips.
Le 47e Parallele serves Executive Chef Joseph Sarrazin’s take on a modern continental fare with a French twist. The ceviche is hands down the best I’ve had outside of the Caribbean, I tasted the freshness of the fish and honestly would have been fine with another serving. But that wasn’t in the cards. It’s all good, though- the crispy duck confit is amazing as well.
If you find yourself leaving Old Quebec and thirsting for nightlife, exit through the St. Louis Gate and walk a few minutes to rue Grande-Allee Est- plenty of pubs and hip restaurants. I recommend going Italian at Savini Resto-Bar, a multi-level modern joint that swaps out Dean Martin and Louis Prima for a trendy soundtrack of light electronic music accentuated by burlesque dancers. The antipasto here is to die for, hands down the best I’ve ever had.
A full spread of cheeses, meats, bread, homemade chips, and salad that honestly doesn’t leave much room for the main course. Add some calamari and couple it with a glass or two of Ungava herbal dry gin, and you’ll be feeling as tipsy and satisfied as I was when I walked out the door three hours later.
Looking for a nightcap? Head across the street to Bar Les Voutes Napoleon. The place is basically underground, so the live music reverberates through the room very easily and the drinks are reasonably priced. Also, no cover- a big plus.
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Getting Outdoors- beyond the tourist-filled streets
Walking Old Quebec is a great way to spend a morning. But that’s light exercise, right? Let’s get to the good stuff, and the ‘Green Belt’ surrounding the city offers plenty. The Grand Prix Cycliste de Quebec took over the streets during my stay and inspired us to get on a bike and do some riding.
Cyclo Services, at 289 rue Saint-Paul (across from the Marche de Vieux farmer’s market- definitely worth a stop for local produce, wine, and cheese) set us up with bicycles and we pushed our way along a winding, scenic urban trail that weaves through the city out to Parc de la chute Montmorency, about an hour ride.
This waterfall is visible from the highway but to really get the experience it’s important to get up close. We rode right up to the gate, parked our bikes, and jumped on the gondola up to a suspension bridge that put us right over the falls. At 83 meters (272 feet) the water tumbles over a ledge 30 meters higher than Niagara Falls, although it isn’t quite a large in circumference.
The real crown jewel of organized summer activities in Quebec is Canyon Sainte-Anne. I heard our guide talking about Via Ferrata on the way out there, and foolishly assumed it is just another activity aimed at middle-aged tourists that might, at best, provide a couple of decent photo opportunities. I was wrong.
As we strapped on our climbing harnesses provided by Project Vertical and buckled onto the fixed steel rope, my attitude shifted- this might get good. Via Ferrata is an Italian term meaning “iron road,” and this sport uses the term loosely.
The steel rope is anchored on rocks down into the canyon and back up again on the other side- picture a rock climbing course with a built-in line. For hardcore climbers, it may seem a bit tame but it can be quite challenging for those not in decent shape. Right off the bat, we walked across the canyon on the line (with support lines for our hands and secured by a climbing grade carabiner, of course).
As we descended down into the canyon, I was reminded of outings to Red Rocks with friends in high school, where we would climb the massive red formations, barely finding footholds to keep from tumbling to certain death. Luckily, Via Ferrata provides insurance against that fate in the form of the steel rope that also kept us on the path. I can best describe the experience as a cross between bouldering, rock climbing, and tightrope walking. It definitely served as the highlight of my trip to Quebec.
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Project Vertical also offers a zip line at 74 meters above the canyon floor, on which the guide persuaded me to ride upside down.
Other ways to enjoy the outdoors of Quebec:
Mont Sainte Anne – Year-round ski resort, in summer providing lift-accessed mountain biking for beginners to experts and numerous hiking trails. We saw several paragliders take off from near the top of the gondola and float down to the base. (20 minutes northeast of town on Highway 138.)
Parc national de la Jacques Cartier – National park with great mountain biking, canoeing, and hiking. Also, contains multiple wildlife reserves and is a great spot to relax and observe nature. (50 minutes north of town on Highway 73.)
Station Touristique Duchesnay – Canoeing, climbing, cycling, and a resort atmosphere. (45 minutes outside of town on Highway 367)