I grew up just south of the Canadian (Quebec) border. I’ve visited Montreal many times but only visited Quebec City for the first time in 2017. It’s a four and a half hour drive from my home in central Vermont. That’s a fairly long way through rural, Quebec farmland, along twisty, crooked, dark, two lane roads. But as we crested over the final hill before descending down into Quebec City and saw the city’s evening lights sparking in the valley ahead, I knew we were in for a treat. And I was not wrong.
Whether or not you choose to lay your head here while in town, you should, without a doubt, pay a visit. It’s the large, unmistakable building at the top of the hill. It’s beautiful. And it deserves your time. Access to the lobby space is completely open and free. There is a hallway off that lobby with a number of shops along with an art gallery which has a selection of Andy Warhol’s just hanging about (they’re for sale, should your pockets reach that deep).
At the end of that hallway are the bars and restaurants. There are three options: Bistro Le Sam, a restaurant which accepts reservations and does not have a dress code; Champlain Restaurant, which also accepts reservations but has a smart casual dress code; and 1608 – wine & cheese bar which neither accepts reservations nor has a dress code. That’s where I ended up. There is a line up for a table or spot at the bar, and if you leave the line, you forfeit your seat. I arrived with a friend (party of 2) on a Saturday evening around 7:00 PM and we waited about 20 minutes before being seated at the bar. It is a big space and tables turn over fairly quickly so don’t be discouraged by a queue, you’ll be with drink in hand and cheese in belly in absolutely no time.
Look past the large Chateau and see three toboggans zipping down the hill at speeds of up to 45 miles per hour! The runs are open from approximately mid-December to mid-March but that can vary depending on weather conditions. The system is pretty loose and the toboggans just hang out waiting for a taker at the bottom of the hill. I actually climbed up before buying a ticket which was not what I was meant to do, whoops! Luckily, the Canadians are as kind as you think and the man at the top lets my friend and I sled down and pay once we returned to the bottom, with no guarantee we actually would. (We did. Of course.)
Try not to follow my example. At the end of the run you (might) see a man selling tickets, give him your $3.00 per person in exchange for a ticket which you’ll present once you make your way to the top. Then, get your camera ready for a slightly terrifying, but absolutely exhilarating, ride down the hill!
From mid-November through December 23rd you’ll find the enchanting and romantic Christmas markets around the place de l’Hôtel-de-Ville (town hall). A number of temporary wooden stalls, modeled after the German markets, take up the square. The air is filled with the smell of warm, spiced wine, roasting sausages and fried dough. Fairy lights twinkle as the sun sets and the entire scene is set to be your next Instagram backdrop.
Approximately a 15-minute drive from the center of Quebec City, north along the substantial St. Lawrence River, spilling down a small side river, you’ll find Montmerency Falls. The easiest access point in winter is a small drive at the spot where Boulevard des Chutes becomes Avenue Royale, there you’ll see a gatehouse (unmanned during my visit). Pull into the parking lot and follow the trail for less than a 10-minute walk to two look out points over the falls.
With 83 meters of height, Montmorency falls are higher than Niagara by a whopping 30 meters. Winter provides a fascinating scene in which you are surrounded by nothing but ice and snow, the riverbanks, the mountains, the ground you’re standing on, everything, is frozen. And yet the powerful falls roar on, oblivious of the cold.
Quebec City lit up around Christmas timeChateau Frontenac from the top of the toboggan runTwinkle lights create a dreamy Quebec CityBasilique Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré from the frontThere are a number of options around the falls come spring and summer, including a zip line and hiking, but with my visit falling in December I wasn’t able to experience those elements.
Thirty minutes from downtown, continuing on from Montmorency Falls, just off the main road (138) and tucked neatly beneath the mountains is the stone stunner, Basilique Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré. If all you ever did was a drive by, your time would not be wasted. But, since you’ve driven out here, go on and park and pop your head in. You will not regret it. The main nave is only a sampling of what lies beneath, quite literally. Head downstairs and wander from chapel to chapel. There are a number of them, some smaller, some bigger, all beautifully thought out, painted and detailed. Whatever your beliefs and relationship with God may be, you cannot deny that the efforts other humans have put into their own relationships with religion are monumental
Smack dab in the middle of downtown is the angelic cathedral of Notre-Dame where, no matter the weather outside, you’ll always be transported to a land of glowing sunshine. Look up as you step in to the cathedral and behold the pastel blue sky above your head, dotted with fluffy white clouds. Allow yourself a moment of respite between the white walls. Admission, as it should be, is free of charge.
Those other Canadians cities that claim poutine as a universal Canadian dish are just trying to claim the fame that belongs purely to Quebec. There is no better place in this world to clog your arteries with a towering pile of french fries topped with squeaky cheese curds and brown gravy. If that sounds disgusting, you’re wrong. If you think you’d need to be drunk to eat it, you’re only half wrong. Poutine is delicious day and night, hungover, drunk, or sober.
I could spend all day listing the little spots you ought to stop at in Quebec City, but I like to discover those nooks and crannies on my own terms, and I don’t want to take that fun away from you. Quebec City is a very walkable city, it’s compact and each street provides a new chance to shop, dine, or just meander. The only downside to Quebec is that it is quite hilly, there are lots of stairs and steep hills that need to be traversed so for the less able traveler taxis are key.