By Beth D’Addono
It’s high time Quebec City stepped out of Montreal’s shadow as a tourist destination of international proportion.
While Montreal deserves its share of glory — its jazz festival is world class, its restaurants sublime, Quebec City is no lightweight.
Located 155 miles east of Montreal on the picturesque St. Lawrence River, Quebec is intimate and romantic, home to gracious architecture, a proud French culture and international cuisine. A few of its other features may surprise you.
* Quebec is the only walled city north of Mexico.
* It’s a safe city, boasting one of the lowest crime rates in North America.
* It is a city resplendent with parks and green space, from Battlefields Park in the city, to Jacques-Cartier Park, a gorgeous valley of protected Laurentian flora and fauna.
* Montmorency, a waterfall 98 feet higher than Niagara is just outside of town.
* The city’s historic district is so well preserved it was recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site — one of only two such designations in North America.
Quebec City is situated on a natural citadel, a fact that Samuel de Champlain took note of when he founded the city by opening a fur trading post on the site in 1608. Originally called “Kebec,” which means “where the river narrows” in the Algonquin language, the town was the object of desire of both France and England, who fought over it constantly in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The English, who wrested control in 1759, contributed the walled fortifications which today are such a part of Quebec City’s charm. Over time, the city grew into two quarters, the Upper Town within the fortification of the walls, and the Lower Town, alongside the river. Capital of New France and then of the English colony, Quebec City became the capital of the Province of Quebec in 1867. Today, there are about 600,000 people living in the greater Quebec City area.
Inside The Walls
Vieux-Quebec (Old Quebec) is small and dense, steeped in four centuries of history and French tradition. What looks like a castle high on a hill is actually the Chateau Frontenac, the most photographed hotel in the world. With its green turrets and slanting copper roof, this landmark stands on the site of what was once the military headquarters of New France.
Dating back to 1893, the hotel has attracted the rich and famous of the 20th century, including Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, who convened at the Chateau for two war-time conferences.
The Upper Town’s 17th and 18th century architecture, picturesque, narrow streets and numerous parks and monuments are separated from the Lower Town by a wall of steep rock, against which are built the city’s more than 25 escaliers, or staircases. Brush up on your French if you can — 95 percent of the city’s population are French speaking, although most also speak English.
Dozens of small inns, cafes and souvenir shops selling all things Canadian and maple line the streets. Public art is everywhere, as are street performers in most of the town’s squares and parks. Saint Louis is one of the central avenues, along with Saint Paul, and Petit Champlain, the oldest commercial street in the city, lined with some 50 boutiques. Quebec City is wonderfully walkable, so be sure to bring comfortable shoes. The hills and cobblestone streets will give you a work out.
Don’t miss a visit to the Notre-Dame de Quebec Basilica-Cathedral, the oldest parish on the continent north of Mexico. The church is beautiful in itself, but it is also the site of a multi media sound and light show called Act of Faith, which traces the history of the church and Quebec City in a 45-minute presentation in French and English.
The annual du Maurier Quebec City Summer Festival, which takes place every year around the first two weeks of July, gathers musical talent from throughout the Province and around the globe to perform on 12 stages in and around the old city.
Performers including Ani DiFranco, Los Lobos, Cesaria Evora, The Chieftains and Celine Dion have appeared over the years, with the emphasis on world beat and joie de vivre. A cheap button gets you into some 400 shows — a great deal especially when you consider that we’re talking Canadian dollars.
Out and About
There is much to see outside of Quebec City’s ramparts. Musee Quebec (Quebec Museum) is a neoclassical showplace for more than 18,000 traditional and contemporary pieces of Quebec art.
The building incorporates what was the city prison, dating back to 1867. City guides like to say that there is so little crime in Quebec that prisons are turned into museums. A hallway of cells, with the iron bars and courtyard still intact, is part of a spooky exhibit about the prison’s history.
Strolling the avenues, including the cosmopolitan Grand Allee, lined on both sides with cafes and night spots, is a favorite pastime for locals and visitors alike. Check out Cartier street, known for its concentration of antique shops and unusual boutiques.
There are numerous excursions worth making outside of town, the closest being a trip to Montmorency Falls, and a visit to the beautifully preserved Manoir Montmorency. You can walk over the narrow bridge that stretches over the 272-foot high falls and hike in the park, or simply enjoy lunch on the terrace, with a panoramic view of the falls below.
A three-hour dinner cruise along the Saint Lawrence is an ideal way to close the chapter on a first visit to Quebec City, offering views of the old town that are bathed in perfect sunset lighting. Croisiers AML (800-563-4663) operates a fleet of ships, including the M.V. Louis-Jolliet, which can accommodate up to 1000 passengers. Prices for dinner and the cruise are around $45 Canadian, or $27 U.S.– the view of the city is free.
The Details: From Philadelphia, Air Canada (800-776-3000, aircanada.ca, flies to Quebec City via Toronto. Fares start at about $300. For more information about Quebec City tourism, contact Greater Quebec Area Tourism Bureau, quebecregion.com.
Also in Ottawa…
Canada’s capital city is notable both for its concentration of cultural institutions – some 29 museums in all — and for its spectacular access to parks and wilderness just minutes from the downtown city center. Straddling two provinces, Ontario and Quebec, the city is a blend of English and French cultures, with almost half of its residents being bilingual.
Added to this mix is a growing ethnic diversity inspired by the city’s German, Lebanese, Italian, Polish, Dutch, Portuguese and Asian populations. The result is a truly cosmopolitan city that is a surprise to most Americans, who tend to head for Canada’s more familiar tourist cities, Toronto and Montreal. Ottawa is an ideal weekend destination, located 440 miles from New York.
What to Do: Parliament Hill is the center of Ottawa’s architecturally striking cluster of government buildings, distinguished by their historic cut stone exterior, copper rooftops and charming setting overlooking the Ottawa River. The complex is home to the Senate, House of Commons, Library of Parliament, Hall of Honor and the Peace Tower. Tours are offered daily, a booklet with self-guided walking tours is available from the Capital Infocentre at 90 Wellington St. 613-239-5000.
National Gallery of Canada: This comprehensive museum, with its glass exterior and sunlit entranceway, houses some 1,900 permanent works by Canadian, North American and European artists, and includes a reconstructed interior of the Rideau St. Chapel 613 990-1985
Canada Aviation Museum: includes 118 aircraft, interactive exhibits, workshops, and films, with special events for kids. 613-993-2010.
Canadian Museum of Civilization: includes an Imax theater and extensive cultural collections delving into the history of Canada’s native peoples, Indian and Inuit art and Canadian history. 613-776-7010
Gatineau Park: Situated just outside of the city center, Gatineau’s rolling hills provides breathtaking views, abundant wildlife, hiking trails and opportunities for camping, canoeing, rock climbing, swimming and more. www.canadascapital.gc.ca, 613-827-2020, 1-800-465-1867.
The Rideau Canal, at 4.5 miles, the Canal is becomes the world’s longest outdoor skating rink in winter, leading directly into the heart of downtown Ottawa. In summer it is the place for kayaking and canoeing and is lined with biking and walking trails.
Casino de Hull, located just minutes from downtown over the Quebec border, offers gaming, entertainment, golf, restaurants and more. Take a free shuttle from your hotel, STO bus route #21 — ask the concierge for details 1-888-278-7777. .
Where to Shop: By Ward Market (613-562-3325), a colorful fruit, vegetable and flower market, has been operating continuously since the 1840s. The complex includes a gourmet food court, and surrounding restaurants, boutiques, along with a lively nightlife after dark.
Bank Street Promenade: One of the city’s oldest shopping districts, Bank Street runs 15 blocks from Wellington St. downtown to Gladstone Ave. More than 500 shops and services are along this strip, including several department stores and all kinds of specialty shops and restaurants.
Wellington West: Bargain hunters and those in search of the eclectic head to this neighborhood, which starts where Somerset becomes Wellington St. and continues east to Island Park Drive. Come here for second hand goods, antiques, collectibles and one-of-a-kind items
Where to Eat: Maxwell’s Bistro, for fresh oysters, pizza, grilled fare and 35 wines by the glass.. 613-232-5771
Le Baccara, in the Casino de Hull, one of the only 5-diamond casino restaurants in North America, 819-772-62310
La Terrasse offers casual, outdoor dining overlooking the buildings of Parliament. Located in the Chateau Laurier, 613-241-1414.
Bravo Bravo Ristorante, on lively Elgin Street, cooks up innovative Italian and Mediterranean fare in a casual, spirited atmosphere. 613-233-7525
Mamma Teresa Ristorante cooks up authentic Northern Italian dishes n the Ottawa’s Little Italy. 613- 236-3023.
The Fish Market is a popular choice for fresh seafood and an extensive wine list. Located in the By Ward market area. 613-241-4954.
Where to Stay: There are many hotels in Ottawa’s city center. Among them, one well recommended is Fairmont Chateau Laurier, the Gustav Klimt exhibit’s official hotel sponsor, located just east of Parliament Hill. A luxury property built in 1912 in the style of a French chateau, the Laurier was named after Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier.
Built by American-born Charles Melville Hayes, general manager of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway in Canada, the hotel’s opening was delayed by tragedy –Hayes went on a shopping expedition to Europe, returning with luxury hotel furnishings on the ill-fated Titanic. The hotel currently offers a Klimt package from $179 CDN for one night’s accommodations, two tickets to the
Klimt exhibit and a commemorative poster. Call 1-800-441-1414.
Ottawa is serviced by some 20 flights daily from both Newark and La Guardia, on airlines including Air Canada, US Airways, Northwest and Delta. For more information about Ottawa tourism, call 1-800-465-1867 or click onto ottawa.com.
Beth D’Addono is a freelance writer who lives in Pennsylvania.