What to see and do in Quebec City: My top 10 list, plus where to eat and sleep

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Since I live in Maine, I tend to consider Quebec City as my backyard. This 400+ year old walled city is Paris without jetlag, Europe without the Euro, and I adore it.

In summer, musicians, jugglers, bands, acrobats, and other entertainers are on nearly every street in the Old City; cafe tables overflow on the streets; flowers are everywhere. It’s lively, energetic, fun, and festive every day. If that’s not enough add Quebec City’s renowned summer festivals, with nonstop music and French flair.

But don’t rule out a visit in winter, especially for Carnival — nobody does a winter carnival any better than QC. Plus, the city makes a fine base for skiing at Stoneham, Mont Sainte-Anne, and Le Massif; there are shuttle services for all, and a gourmet excursion train that travels along the shoreline of the St. Lawrence to Le Massif (if you can swing this, don’t miss it).

Thinking of visiting? Here are my Top 10 musts, none of which require a car as long as you’re willing to hoof around the city’s steep streets and up and down even steeper stairs:

• Walk, walk, walk: The best way to discover Quebec City is to don walking shoes and go. Walk the city walls (this is the only fortified city north of Mexico); up and around the Plains of Abraham (named for an early settler),  along the Promenade des Gouvernors and Dufferin Terrace (views! views! views! That’s where I saw the jump-roper pictured). In winter, don’t miss the toboggan chute; it’s a blast.

Next, head down the Breakneck stairs and through Petit Champlain, Place Royale, and out St. Paul Street to the Vieux Port, perhaps continuing on to Nouveau St. Roch, then up-up-up the stairs (pictured) and onward and upward to St. Jean Street, and returning through the St. Jean gate to the upper section of the old city. Along the way eat, enjoy street performers, eat some more, shop the boutiques, galleries, and antiques shops, visit museums, and simply feast on the city. If you get tired, hop aboard the Ecolobus ($1—a Loonie), which circulates on a 20-minute route through the upper section of the Old City and the Old Port.

• Eat, eat, eat: Nibble your way through the Vieux Marche, in the Vieux Port area. It’s filled with vendors selling their farm-produced goods from fresh fruit to smoked meats, ciders to face lotions. It’s a sensual experience, rich in sights, scents, sounds, and textures. The frommagerie (that’s cheese, folks) is one of the best in Quebec, if not Canada, and stocks all manner of cheeses not available in the states, and don’t miss the market in the back that’s filled with spices and teas.

That’s not the only foodie must. Visit Brynd for a smoked meat sandwich and Chez Ashton for poutine; locals all pointed me to these two spots as musts. Stroll along St. Jean Street, both inside and outside the gates. If you’re  tea fan, David’s Teas is a wonder (I left with all  manner of teas and am thrilled it ships, too). Outside the gate, the finds continue. Don’t miss Moissan Market, the oldest in Quebec City: narrow aisles filled with all kinds of specialty foods and treats, cheeses and pates; Errico Chocolate, a museum and choclaterie where you can buy the most fabulous hot chocolates (try the Tanzanian, mmmmm);  Tutto Gelato, the owner came from Italy and imports most of his ingredients from there, delicious, authentic, wow; or Le Billig, for authentic Belgian crepes. And there are bakeries and meat markets and so much more.

Museum of Civilization: Down in the lower section of the Old City, facing Dalhousie Boulevard. It’s an excellent introduction to Quebec’s history, heritage, and culture with three permanent and seven changing, multimedia/interactive exhibits. Nice blend of old and new, historic and cutting edge, which carries into its architectural design and location.

Fairmont Chateau Frontenac: It’s a city icon, and so rich in history. It’s currently undergoing a $70 million restoration and will reopen in June. If you’ve visited previously, you’ll find old favorites have undergone complete changes. The Champlain Restaurant and Bar St. Laurent have been gutted and completely renovated. Champlain will be less formal and focus on Quebec cuisine. Bar St. Laurent becomes the 1608 Wine & Cheese Bar, with a dedicated cheese room and a library décor; the adjacent lounge will be rechristened as Le Sam, a bistro-style restaurant with a mixologist. When it reopens, go to experience an important piece the city’s history.

Auberge Ste. Antoine: Adjacent to the Museum of Civilization in the lower city, the auberge houses one of my all-time-fave boutique hotels as well as one of the city’s best restaurants, Panache, and a great bar/cafe, Artefact. Go for a drink and light fare in the cafe or go for breakfast in Panache if you can’t afford to  stay or splurge on dinner, but do check the exhibits. It tops a 400-year-old archeological site, and artifacts found during excavations are displayed throughout the hotel. Artefact Lounge has a window to the underground; tres cool!

Musee des Beaux Arts: Translation, the Quebec Art Museum, and it’s a gem. Located on Battlefields Park on the Plains of Abraham, the museum houses the largest existing collection of Québec art, with nearly 35,000 works representing 4,000 artists, dating from the 17th century to the present. The original museum was housed in the ornate Neoclassical Gerard-Morisset building, opened in 1933. The museum expanded in 1991 to include the renovated  Charles-Baillairage building, the former city prison (kids love the old cells). The two are connected by the Grand Hall, an expanse of glass and granite. Note: Although I haven’t dined here, locals kept telling me the cafe is fabulous.

Ferry: For the best photos of the city, walk on the ferry that connects Quebec City to  Levis, across the St. Lawrence River. Better yet, rent a bicycle and pedal the bike paths on both sides of the river. It’s an inexpensive way to enjoy a brief cruise—1 km, 10 minutes each way—on the St. Lawrence.

Notre Dame de Quebec: The first Catholic parish north of Mexico and the Spanish colonies is celebrating its 350th anniversary this year and has opened a new museum focused on its history. This year  (2014), you can step through the only Holy Door in North America; it close at the end of the year not to be reopened for 25 years or unless the Pope allows it to be for a special occasion. It’s the seventh Holy Door in the world (four in Rome, one in France, and one in Spain). The Holy Door is rooted in a ritual that dates back to Rome in the 1400s. The door is special, yes, but this church is spectacular inside. If you’re a fan of European cathedrals, don’t miss it.

• Touristy Treasures: Yes, toursity, but worth taking the time to see and do. Rue du Trésor, the artists’ open-air gallery; the Funiculair (see image) the funky, cliff-climbing glass-walled elevator linking Dufferin Terrace to Petit Champlain; the murals–one facing Cote de la Montagne steet near Place Royale, another at the end of Rue Petit Champlain (the latter is my favorite; I think it has more personality and attitude). I also love the poetry chairs, anart installation designed by Michel Goulet and located near the Via Rail Station in the Vieux Port area. It was a gift from Montreal for the city’s 400th anniversary in 2008. Makes me just want to plunk down and relax. And the nearby fountain is a fine place for a picnic (perhaps with a smoked meat sandwich from nearby Brynd?).

• I have two faves tied for to round out my top 10: Montmorency Falls or Isle d’Orleans. Both are great bicycling trips, thanks to the city’s biking paths. both worth visiting. The 273-foot falls, departure part for the Charlevoix gourmet excursion train, is a frozen confection in winter, a torrent in summer. The bridge-connected islands is rife with farmstands, artisan’s shops, boutiques, wineries, a chocolatier, and a smashing summer restaurant overlooking a vineyard from the folks at Panache.

And really, I could go on and on about Quebec’s calling cards. Just go, and discover them for yourself. You won’t be sorry.

LODGING SUGGESTIONS: Where to stay in Quebec City, my faves.

• You often can find good packages at the Fairmont Chateau Frontenac. The Chateau has just completed a $70 million renovation that included all rooms. Some retain historical decor, others are more contemporary in style;  are tiny, others palatial, some have to-die-for views over the river and old city. Parking fees are very expensive, around $40 self park, per day. The public lot below on Dalhousie Street is far less expensive (when I checked, it was $18 per day), as is the garage off Cote du Palais (about $51 for three days). Still, it’s the Frontenac, and it’s a Fairmont, and it’s humongous! Look for Santol, the hotel’s canine ambassador lounging near the bell desk. $$$$

Manoir Victoria: I stayed there this time courtesy of Quebec City tourism. Really liked it. Great location just off Rue St. Jean in the upper section of the Old City and B&B rates include a nice hot-and-cold buffet breakfast. It’s an especially good choice for families. Rooms are quite large. There’s an indoor pool and a small spa. Excellent moderate choice. Parking in its garage is $20 per day. $$$

Auberge St. Antoine: Wow, just wow! Stayed here first a couple of years back while researching an arts story, and fell in love with the hotel. It’s chic and sophisticated in the modern rooms, elegant and traditional in the historic-themed suites. See above for info on the lounge and restaurant. It now has a small, but lovely spa; the fitness room is a hoot, with aerobic machines arranged around an indoor birch tree. Definitely a splurge—this is a Relais & Chateau property—but rates drop in the off season.

Hotel Terrace Dufferin: I popped into this B&B tucked behind the Chateau Frontenac but facing the boardwalk and river, and I also chatted with some guests. For budget-minded travelers, this is a find. Rooms are nice, but not fussy; some have kitchens. A continental breakfast is available (but you’d do better elsewhere on that). Some rooms have balconies overlooking the river and Terrace Dufferin boardwalk.

Hotel Champlain: Stayed here during a winter visit in 2011 and loved it! So convenient. It’s on a quiet street in the upper section of the old city, and everything is at your fingertips. Hotel has a hip decor, with  funky undertone, yet is quite comfy/cozy. The continental breakfast buffet includes hot eggs (nice!). Parking is available (reserve in advance, $15). Pricier rooms (like the junior suite, pictured) have views; some have fireplaces and whirlpool tubs; all rooms have free Wi-fi and a fridge.

Ice Hotel: Swaddle yourself in layers and chill out at the ice hotel, a seasonal accommodation created from snow and ice. There are rooms, suites, even rooms with fireplaces, as well as a sauna and hot tub, and, of course, an ice bar. Definitely an adventure, and a brag-worthy one at that.

WHERE TO EAT: Some of my favorite restaurants in Quebec City

Truly, it’s hard to get a bad meal. Do a little research, ask locals; everyone has some place to recommend. Here are a three, one in each price range.

• Cafe Le St. Malo: Located on Rue St. Paul, amidst the arts and antiques shops, this little gem is so cozy, so comfy, so romantic, so tres French! It’s tiny, so you’ll likely want to make reservations during peak seasons or on weekends. In winter, ask for a table by the fireplace. The food is hearty and delicious: try the cassoulet, or the duck confit, or the mussels with frites. Prices are moderate.

• Buffet de L’Antiquaire: Practically next door to Cafe Le St. Malo and a budget find. Expect humongous portions of good, hearty, Quebecois fare: meat pies are a specialty. Unless you have a huge appetite, consider splitting a main plate and pairing it with a soup, which comes with a plastic-wrapped roll (I’ll forgive them, this place isn’t about fine dining, it’s more of a dinner). My lunch could have served a family of four. There’s seating downstairs, at a counter, and upstairs, too). Expect it to be busy; it’s a local favorite, but isn’t really on the tourist radar screen. Serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

• Panache/Cafe Artefact: Panache, in the Auberge St. Antoine, adjacent to the Museum of Civilization, is one of the city’s top tables, and well worth the splurge, not only for the food but also for the ambiance and service. Restaurant is in a 400-year-old building. Go for breakfast or lunch, if dinner is out of the budget. Still too pricey? Then consider light fare in the Cafe Artefact, which has a more contemporary decor; hint: in winter, especially, try to score one of the alcoves, with cozy seating by a fireplace.

DETAILS, DETAILS: Everything you need to know is on Quebec City’s tourism site.

18 COMMENTS

  1. Great article! I’ll be in QC City later this month, and I’m definitely checking out the free Cirque du Soleil show, thanks for the heads up 🙂

    Vivian is Virtual
    VIA Rail’s tour guide

  2. I need to travel (by bus or air perhaps) in September from Camden, Maine to Quebec City for a writers’ conference. I do not want to driver What are my options with public transportation?

  3. The drive is easy, public transportation is not, but if you must, your best bet is to take the train or bus to Boston and then fly to Quebec City (not sure if direct). I’m pretty sure there are no direct flights from Portland–you’ll likely have to go to Toronto first. In either case, it’s far faster and cheaper to drive.

  4. Your article was very helpful and interesting. I am planning a trip to Quebec in August, 2013.
    Two questions:
    1. Do you know if all your suggestions/recommendations are still relevant or available?
    2. Is a completely non-French speaker able to communicate and get around easily?
    Thanks!

  5. I need to check on both the Image Mill and Cirque du Soleil shows, but otherwise, yes, all available (ice hotel, of course, is winter only). You can get around without speaking French, but it helps to always greet people with a bonjour or bonsoir, and throw in a merci (thank you) when appropriate. A big smile and a lot of hand gestures help, as does having a pen and pad of paper, so you can write down the name of the place you’re trying to get to or the address and offering it someone for a map/directions. Most folks in Quebec have at least some English and will try to communicate with you, but move on to the next if you’re getting nowhere. And remember, speaking more loudly never helps get the point across, it just makes everyone more frustrated. Will you be frustrated at times? Yes, but stumbling around lost in QC is how I found many of the places I’ve grown to treasure.

  6. Hi, I am visiting Quebec City in the Fall and wanting to cross the border to spend a couple of nights in Maine on my way down to Boston. I cannot find any trains/buses which stop in Maine – I am happy to drive, but can’t seem to find many car hire options which allow crossing the border? Some offer it but say there may be extra fees/charges (on top of the quote given) to cross the border or be an international driver (we’re from Australia) so would prefer getting across the border by public transport and then picking up a car from there.. Any help muchly appreciated!

  7. I’m afraid it’s the punchline to the Maine joke: Yah can’t get there from here. When you cross the border heading south from Quebec City, you’re pretty much in the boondocks, no car rentals likely until at least Waterville or Augusta, maybe SKowhegan, but it’s still a long way. Unfortunately, there are no direct flights to Maine, either. You’re only choice is to find a cross-border car rental, but I’m thinking you’ll likely pay dearly for that. Good luck.

  8. Hello Hilary.

    I realize that this post is years old, but I wanted to thank you for writing it. We just got back from a week long trip to Quebec City today and had a ball. We especially wanted to thank you for the Cafe Le St. Malo recommendation! It was not one of the recommendations from the concierge at the hotel (St. Antoine), so we would not have found it otherwise – and it was our best dinner of the week! Thank you so much!

  9. Hilary,

    Thinking of celebrating our 40th anniversary in Quebec City. Good idea?
    If so, is late August early September a good time or would October be better?

    Where to stay, eat, see besides above. How much time is needed to see the best sites? A week, four days?

    If transportation is difficult, would it be good to rent a car?

    Thanks for any help.

    Nancy

  10. Lovely place for an anniversary celebration, and yes, late August/early September should be lovely. In October, you’ll likely also get some nice autumn foliage. If you’re going to spend your time in Quebec City, then as long as you’re avid walkers, you won’t need a car. You will need one, however, to reach some of the outlying sights, although bicycle trails do connect quite a few. You can fly into Quebec City’s airport and taxi into the city. A train operates between Montreal and Quebec City, so that’s another option. If you want to mosey beyond the city, say over to Isle d’Orleans (although you could bike there) or along the north bank of the St. Lawrence up to the Charlevoix region (wonderful for artisanal cheeses and meats), then a car is necessary. Enjoy!

  11. Hi Hilary
    Great Article and some wonderful suggestions! We travelled to QC from Portland via Portsmouth and Montreal in Summer 2012. We are back in Portland this coming December and would like to go back up to QC and experience it in the winter, possibly for xmas. Just wondering your thoughts in driving there from Portland, considering snow etc at that time of year? We drove back to Portland direct from QC in about 6 hours but i’m not keen to take the same road if there’s snow and thinking we should allow at least double the amount of travelling time? Would be interesting to hear your thoughts if you have any.
    Thanks

  12. The route you took previously is the best and most direct road to QC. Another route, although far more rural, is to connect from Route 27 in northwestern Maine (north of Stratton) and then cut over to St. Georges to pick up the main highway; gorgeous route, but it will take longer and could be in winter conditions. In either case, I would allow 6-8 hours, although if the roads are clear, it will take less time.

    QC is wonderful in winter. Far quieter, and if you’re fortunate enough that it snows, it’s simply magical.

  13. Hello, great site, thanks! Traveling from Quebec to Portland Maine in early August- any good places to stop & break up the trip (have two small kids). thanks!

  14. If you’re heading south from Quebec City, Pere Nature, in St. Georges, about 45 minutes north of the border, is a great stop for a lunch or ice cream break (When you see the Burger King and/or Canadian Tire, turn west toward the river at the light and you’ll find it about a block and half down, on the left).

    Note: All of these below are detailed in my Moon Maine book.

    From Parlin south through The Forks, you’ll see a lot of rafting company bases, most with food options, all family friendly. There’s a small park on the south side of the bridge in The Forks. Depending upon the timing, it’s a great place to watch rafters and kayakers paddle by.

    Just south of Augusta, the L.C. Bates Museum, in Hinckley, is a fun cabinet of curiosities–very retro, with a cool and eclectic collection with plentiful kid-friendly exhibits. It’s right on 27, so an easy stop. Trails behind it for running off steam.

    In Augusta, the Maine State Museum is a great and it’s near the capitol, across from a huge park with plentiful lawn for running, and from there, you can access a riverfront trail. Also in Augusta is Old Fort Western, dating from 1754.

    If you want to swing out of your way, the D.E.W. Animal Kingdom, in Mount Vernon, is a nonprofit zoo with rescues.

  15. Hillary I thank you for your info. My husband is working a job in Rumford , ME and it is our 43 anniversary and Canada is on the bucket list. We got our passports so we could take a week and see some of Canada. I went to Quebec City with a school group in Jan. 2000 (I went back to finish my college in my mid forties) and fell in love with the city. With only a week I have planned a trip leaving Rumford an going to Quebec City then on to Montreal then Oshawa then Toronto and Niagara Falls. We love driving and looking. Do you think this is doable in a week. Also, we rented a car to drive to Maine from Lucedale, MS and plan on driving it to Canada, Do we need any special thing license or permits to drive it across the border? Looking forward to Canada and Maine

  16. Check with the car rental company before you book. Different ones have different rules. As for the itinerary, well, I could easily spend a week in Quebec City and/or Montreal alone. I haven’t been to Oshawa and haven’t spend anywhere near enough time in Toronto, sorry.

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