Chocolate-box buildings with brimming flower boxes. An imposing fortress, encircled by cannons. Soaring city walls, cobbled squares, horse-and-carriage rides. Where in the world are you? You’d probably guess France — maybe Switzerland or Germany. But this is, in fact, North America; Quebec City, one of the continent’s oldest colonial settlements. Some 400 years after its founding, it delivers 17th-century atmosphere so rich it can feel like stepping onto a film set.
Wander the picturesque old town — divided into Upper and Lower halves, connected by steep stairways and an old funicular — and your fingers will twitch for a camera. The Lower, Quartier Petit Champlain, has artisan shops and muralled squares. The Upper, marked by a sweeping boardwalk and the landmark Fairmont Le Château Frontenac hotel, sparkles with Victorian glamour — in fact, you half-expect a bonneted lady to stroll past.
However, there’s more to Quebec City than its looks. Nearly half a millennium of history means that when you scratch beneath the surface, the stories get interesting. Think churches stuffed with paintings rescued during the French Revolution; monasteries that hosted Canada’s first hospital; and ballrooms where Roosevelt and Churchill planned D-Day.
Then, of course, there’s the culture. In so many ways, Quebec City is a slice of bygone France. And not just in the mansard roofs and Gallic signage, but in the white table clothed restaurants unironically dishing up retro duck à l’orange and crêpes suzette. But for every full french moment, there’s a counterpoint. You need only step into an American-style diner for poutine — cheese curds, chips and gravy — or nibble fresh maple taffy to know Paris is more than 3,000 miles away.
Part of the city’s charm is what it offers beyond its old city walls. Here you’ll find trendy neighbourhoods punctuated with hip wine bars and breweries, offering a sense of how real life ticks along inside the tourist magnet. Then, beyond that, there’s wilderness. A 20-minute drive will take you not just out of the city, but standing by a crashing waterfall, kayaking along a river and cycling past fields full of ripening blackcurrants. And, perhaps, that’s where the European comparisons draw thin. Beautiful, diverse landscapes minutes from a cosmopolitan hub? That’s unmistakably Canadian.
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