Three Days in Quebec City – Old and New

By Saul Schwartz

            My wife Fern and I planned to take the train from Montreal to Quebec City.  When our flights were cancelled from Washington, D.C. to Montreal, we drove to Montreal, had a car with us and, therefore, drove the two- and one-half hours from Montreal to Quebec City instead.  This rural drive along Highway 20 allowed us to take the four-lane highway without much traffic and we had many stopping points with rest areas with picnic tables for our packed lunches. 

            Quebec City is located on the Saint Lawrence River, as the capital of Canada’s French speaking Quebec province.  With a population of approximately 530,000 residents, it is the second largest city in Quebec.  The walled historic district was surprising crowded during our July visit.  The weather was very pleasant, around 70 degrees Fahrenheit, as we strolled through the walled old city’s quaint streets in its Upper Town and Lower Town.   

Old Quebec:

Quebec City Walking Tour:  We booked our two-hour guided walking tour through Viator.  Our tour began in the New Town at the Visitor’s Center, 12 rue Sainte Anne.  Our tour ended in the Lower Town by the Funicular.  Accompanied by a professional local guide, our tour took us through the streets of Quebec City, passing by the important sites of Old Quebec. The cost is $27.  The tour operator was Tours Voir Quebec.  The Grand Tour | Tours Voir Quebec.  Because the streets of the walled fortified city are a little confusing, this tour was a great orientation for us. 

Notre-Dame Basilica: 

One of the highlights of the old city was touring the inside of the Notre-Dame de Quebec Basilica, with its lovely stained-glass windows, colorful decorative ceiling, and massive organ.  The Basilica was getting ready for a visit by the Pope later in July.  Located at 16, rue de Buade in the Upper Town, it is the oldest church in Canada.  Donations are accepted; there is no cost for entry.

Notre-Dame de Québec Church was built in 1647.  It was the first church to be made of stone in the city. In 1664, it became the first parochial church north of Mexico and was dedicated to Notre Dame of the Immaculate Conception. When the Québec City Diocese was constituted in 1674, it became the Cathedral of its first Bishop, Saint François de Laval.  Inside the church, there is a large exhibit about Laval coming to Quebec and his life.  Two hundred years later, Pope Pius IX declared it a basilica because of the important number of pilgrimages it draws.  The church’s main features are its neo classical facade with its two asymmetrical towers, its stained-glass windows, its three organs, as well as the golden sculptures. 

Quebec City Mural: 

In the Lower Town, this immense outdoor mural illustrates the history of Québec City and pays homage to several notable figures.  Completed in 1999 and painted by 12 French and Québec artists over a 9-week period, the detailed realism of the fresco is absolutely riveting. Noteworthy historical figures from different periods of Québec City’s past are juxtaposed with elements associated with architecture, geography, the seasons, and Quebec’s cultural communities.  The mural is in the Lower Town, next to the Place Royale square, is impossible to miss. 

Tour of the Chateau Frontenac:  We arranged our one-hour tour through Cicerone Tours, listed on the Fairmont Chateau Frontenac’s website.  The cost was $24 per person.  The European style Chateau figures prominently in the Quebec City skyline.  Its multiple towers and turrets are impressive!  We were excited to learn more about the Chateau through the tour.

The tour began at the kiosk 1884 just outside the Chateau in the Upper Town, opposite the Place d’Armes.  For the first 15 minutes we were outside and the tour focused on the history of the building of the Chateau, which took place in different stages.  The tour guide focused on the famous people and historical events that have shaped the identity of Fairmont Le Château Frontenac over the years, as well as its architectural development and facelift undergone in recent years, including the latest expansion in 1993.  The tour was led by a costumed Count Frontenac, Governor of New France (now Quebec) in the late seventeenth century.  He pointed out the suite where the Queen stayed, as well as celebrities of the screen and music. 

Most of the tour took us inside through the lobby with its elegant chandelier, up to the floor with an outdoor garden, through the restaurants, ballroom, and other important rooms.  Frontenac’s coat-of-arms can be seen on the hotel’s entry arch as well as at other points within the building.  We went into the room where President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill planned the invasion of Normandy.

Opened in 1893, the hotel was built by the Canadian Pacific Railway Company.  The central fortress-like tower design is derived from medieval chateaux found throughout France’s Loire Valley.  Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Chateau now contains 610 guestrooms and suites on 18 floors.  The hotel is located at 1 rue des Carrières within the walled city, overlooking the Saint Lawrence River.  “Fairmont Le Château Frontenac” – Luxury Hotel in “Québec City” – Fairmont, Hotels & Resorts,

Outside of the Walled City: 

Advanced on-line reservations are required for the two free tours offered of the Parliament. 

Guided tour of the Parliament:  Located in the heart of downtown, a stone’s throw from Old Quebec, the National Assembly offers a unique experience thanks to its free guided tour.  Our tour guide Matthew was exceptionally knowledgeable about the Quebec government, and he did not hesitate to answer our questions.  The tour began in the new (2019) underground visitor center.  Parliament – National Assembly of Québec (assnat.qc.ca).

The one-hour tour highlights the history of Québec, its parliamentary institutions, and their important contribution to Québec society. The Parliament tour is one of Quebec City’s main tourist attractions!  The address is 1045 rue des Parlementaires.

The Parliament Building is an eight-floor structure with two side wings, each with a small tower.  Our tour guide told us that the Parliament Building was built between 1877 and 1886, with stops and starts due to budgetary issues.  The design was inspired by the Louvre in Paris. 

Guided tour of the Gardens:  The free-one hour gardens tour focuses on the statues, monuments, and impressive façade of the Parliament Building, internationally renowned for its rich iconographic history. The front wall of the parliament building has houses a total of 26 statues.  Two of the statues represent allegorical themes (Religion and Country and History and Poetry) and are located on either side of the tower; another two represent the indigenous people of Quebec while the rest honors important people in Quebec’s history.  Guided tour of the garden – National Assembly of Québec (assnat.qc.ca).

The outdoor promenade also led us into the gardens.  We admired the different species of trees, shrubs and plants, all representative of the variety of Quebec flora.  Our student guide answered questions about the Quebec government and life in Quebec today. 

Hilton Quebec:  Located at 1100 Rene Levesque East, this hotel is directly across from the Old City.  Our room on floor 20 provided us with a tremendous view of the Chateau and other buildings within the fortified walls.  Currently the hotel restaurant CABU is open only for a breakfast buffet.  As Hilton Honor members, we were able to stop by the Executive Lounge throughout the day for light meals, drinks, and snacks.  The Executive Lounge is on floor 23, with amazing views of the Parliament and the Old City.  The fitness center has plenty of cardio equipment, weights, and machines.  We left our car in the hotel parking lot and walked to sites each day.  The hotel staff provided us with local maps, directions, and meal recommendations. 

Tips:

Make sure your book your tours in English if you are not fluent in French!

The Old City is very hilly, so considered using the Funicular (cable car) to go from the Upper Town to the Lower Town.  The funicular provides a direct link between Dufferin Terrace in the Upper Town and Quartier Petit-Champlain, Place-Royale, and the Old Port in the Lower Town.  The cost is $4 per ride.  The alternative is to walk up a steep series of steps.  One portion is so steep that it is known as the “breakneck steps!”    

There are many quiet squares in the Old City that made us feel like we were in France.  Our favorite was Place Royale. This is the precise location where Samuel de Champlain built the first permanent French settlement in the Americas. Erected in 1608, his buildings were a fort, store, trading post, and residence all rolled into one. That’s why Place Royal is considered the cradle of French North America.  In 2022, it was a great spot to people watch and have a drink at a café.  On our tour, we learned that the square has been used as a French setting in at least one movie.

The changing of the guards at the fort La Citadelle was not taking place due to COVID 19 issues.

There were plenty of food markets near our hotel.  Intermarche at 850 Rue Saint Jean had a good variety of food options.  We ate at one Italian restaurant in the Old City, but we found the food disappointing. 

Prices in this article are in Canadian dollars, which are currently valued at about eighty percent of the U.S. dollar.

Three days seemed the right amount of time to cover the main attractions.