Several times I’d heard it said that Canada’s Quebec City was more French than France. Yet being half-French, I was sceptical. I’d be the judge of that, I smugly thought.
But the smirk was soon wiped off my semi-Gallic mug. The former capital of New France did indeed seem so very French.
I wandered the labyrinthine cobblestone streets surrounded by sturdy northern French-style architecture, past restaurants with animated open-air terraces, quaint boutiques, over-enthusiastic street performers, and gaggles of dark-haired folk with expressive faces and gesticulations.
I felt thousands of miles out of place. I felt quite at home.
That said, Canada’s oldest city has evolved independently for over 250 years since the French left. First most begrudgingly under British rule, then less begrudgingly as part of Canada.
The language, culture and mentality is similar to the French, yet at the same time very different. Pluses include friendly shopkeepers and a lack of superiority complex. Minuses include bad coffee and a sad absence of cheek kissing.
Here’s my pick of what the city has to offer tourists.
Chris's top picks of the best things to see in Quebec
1. The Old Town and Citadelle
The magnificent historic centre is a Unesco World Heritage site. It’s the only walled city in Canada and the US, and is dramatically situated around the Diamant cliffs on the mighty St Lawrence River (it can only be known as mighty).
The Old Town is split between the lower Basse-Ville next to the docks, where the French first settled in 1608, and the upper Haute-Ville, where from the clifftop boardwalk you can see for miles downriver.
Wander both levels and try to remember you’re in North America. Most of the sights and museums are clustered within the fortified walls. Highlights include the oh-so elegant Château Frontenac, the city’s Neo-Gothic landmark hotel, and the star-shaped Citadelle that crowns the headland.
The Citadelle is the largest fortress built by the British on the continent, completed in 1850 in the hope of keeping the pesky Americans at bay if they invaded. (They didn’t.) It’s still in active service and surprisingly populated by bearskin hat wearing soldiers.
Guided tours in English available (Find out more at lacitadelle.qc.ca, tickets start from £9.50).
2. Plains of Abraham Museum
French defeat at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham ceded Quebec City, and ultimately Canada, to the British.
It was the final conflict of a summer-long siege in 1759, during which the British brutally laid waste to surrounding settlements and devastated the city with up to 40,000 cannonballs and nearly 10,000 bombs.
The brief battle took place on the clifftops just behind the Old City. As well as being one of the most important historic sites in the country, it's now a very pleasant park with great views over the river.
The small museum at the start of the park has an immersive video show which recounts the events of 1759, then follows it up with a bus tour around the grounds, as well as granting entrance to the British-built Martello tower overlooking the river.
Surprisingly, the plains weren’t named as a biblical reference but were just the fields of a farmer called Abraham (Find out more at lesplainesdabraham.ca – tickets start from £7.30).
3. Poutineville restaurant
Poutine is the Quebecois national dish. The original recipe consists of fries drenched in beef gravy, and sprinkled with fresh cheese curds. Some scoff that cheesy chips can be called a dish, but scoffing is what you’ll be doing after choosing from the incredible options available at Poutineville.
The popular restaurant in the trendy Saint-Roch district just below the Old Town allows you to customise your poutine with a vast range of potatoes, sauces, cheeses and toppings, catering for every taste or dietary requirement.
The red wine gravy is a must. Definitely the best poutine I’ve tried. (Find out more at Poutineville.com )
4. Ciel Bistro-Bar
At a higher-end of the culinary scale, literally, is the revolving Ciel Bistro-Bar perched atop the aesthetically-challenged Le Concorde hotel.
Take the panoramic elevator up the hotel that towers above the Plains of Abraham and sip a cocktail, or enjoy fine dining while taking in slowly rotating 360° views across the city.
Not only does the bar restaurant have one of the best views in the town, it’s the only vantage point where you can’t see the hotel itself.
Prices surprisingly not sky-high (Find out more at cielbistrobar.com).
5. Montmorency Falls
Not quite Niagara, but spectacular nonetheless. These thundering falls are where the Montmorency river tumbles into the St Lawrence.
They’re actually higher than their more famous southern counterparts, and only a short drive from town.
You can approach the falls from all angles, and cross over the top via a suspension bridge.
It’s free to access on foot, but car parking is charged – though the fee includes tickets for the cable car that runs between the top and bottom of the falls.
If that ride isn’t exciting enough, you can try cables of a different sort and zip line straight across.
That, though, seemingly pales in comparison to the muddy paths around the rocks being pounded by water way below (Find out more at sepaq.com).
The Aquarium du Québec is in the opposite direction to the waterfalls, nestled upstream next to the the giant bridges that span St Lawrence.
It’s not the biggest, nor the best, but very good nonetheless.
Not only is there a diverse selection of marine and indigenous river life to see, it’s also a great place to watch packs of local human families.
But the aquarium is a must-see due to the drive there and back. Leave from Quebec City’s industrial harbour and take the Boulevard Champlain which snakes between river and forest cliffs.
On the way back, drift through the salubrious suburban neighbourhoods above the river. There, you can see mighty fine North American wooden houses straight from a movie, and also remind yourself you’re actually in Canada (Find out more at sepaq.com).
Book the holiday
Get there: Air Canada flies from Heathrow to Quebec City via Montreal from £561.67 return. Find out more at aircanada.com.
Stay there: Rooms at the Hotel Le Concorde Quebec in Quebec City start at around £96 a night (CAD$169). Find out more at hotelleconcordequebec.com.
More info: Visit quebec-cite.com for more tourist info.
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