Thousands of visitors flock to Quebec City each year to experience one of the best sub-zero celebrations anywhere in the world: Winter Carnival. For two frosty weeks spanning into mid-February, rose-cheeked participants are treated to everything from giant snow murals and igloo disco domes to obstacle courses and glittering ice castles. While such an experience is well worth the trip to cure your post-Christmas blahs, many might not consider Quebec City a summer locale.
As the only fortified continental city North of Mexico, Quebec City’s ramparts form a three mile wall around Old Town. While built in the 17th century to keep intruders out, today’s Quebec City maintains a permanent open door.
Such a feeling may begin while passing streets named after Einstein, Pascal and Watt—a salute to a body of thinkers that are not even Canadian let alone Quebecois. While approaching Saint Louis Gate, one of four ports into the original city, statues of Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt reveal a worldliness not expected in such an esoteric destination, a place some might avoid for fear of butchering the language or offending the locals.
This welcome attitude is further sustained by the Information Touristique located across the square from Chateau Frontenac. A well-cued hub of knowledgeable staff will pleasantly direct visitors to a host of activities and suggested excursions all in exchange for one minor detail—where are you from—that will help compile stats on just how many out-of-towners use the service. Such guides, wearing question-marked vests, can often be found throughout the city, eager to respond to visitors and make the quest even more rewarding. For instance, on overhearing that Champlain’s house was nearby, a helpful young woman radioed my request to discover that his house was torn down to make way for the church Notre Dame Des Victoires erected in 1688.
And ask them about the must sees, you’ll find there are many. If history is your thing, the underground Saint Louis Forts and Chateau which housed the French Governor of New France, the Governor-General of British North America and the Lieutenant Governor of Lower Canada were recently discovered, excavated and primed for self tours. The most interesting of the uncovered relics might just be the meat “freezer”, a large hole in the ground where an enormous block of ice was placed, removed from the neighbouring St. Lawrence River at winter’s thaw, which would last until fall—albeit by then, the meat may be floating in cold water rather than simply laid on the oversized cube.
If art shopping is on your list, rue de Tresor is an open air gallery featuring amateur local art at reasonable prices, a tradition that began in the 1960s. Translated literally as “Treasure Street”, you can be sure to haggle in French or English for that perfect piece for your wall.
When travelling with children, the Museum of Civilization provides many kid-friendly exhibits if you need to step inside on those hot summer days. For instance, Game Story is a permanent interactive journey through the evolution of video games. With more than eighty-eight classic game systems to play, as well as those representing each era since, you might just find that you have to set a limit on how much your family can play on vacation—adults included.
Yearning for that French-European experience? Nestled at the base of the Chateau Frontenac cliff, Quarter Petit Champlain offers exquisite boutiques, bistros and sweet shops on streets preserved for hundreds of years. One of the most beautiful places in all of Quebec, its central marvel is the nine hundred square foot mural that captures life through the ages in this part of the world, the tragedies and challenges of a formidable people.
If needing to unwind, the Plains of Abraham aren’t as stoic as they sound. Bring a picnic lunch and Frisbee, and enjoy the cool breeze of this large urban park. If there for Canada Day, don’t miss the fireworks that launch over the mighty St. Lawrence, picturesquely dotted with sailboats and the cruise ships. However, planning early enough could get you a front row ticket to Festival d’été de Québec . This eleven day music festival every July sees up to one hundred thousand concert-goers on the historic plains, and entertains throughout the city on dozens of stages featuring hundreds of performances.
For a pleasant dining experience, this city has atmosphere aplenty. To start your day right, visit the outdoor creperie located at the Maison Maillou, built and named eponymously by the architect in 1736. Of course, bragging rights will be all yours if you finish the day with a warm goat cheese salad or guinea-fowl breast entree at the restaurant Aux Anciens Canadiens in the Maison Jacquet, the oldest house in Quebec City erected in 1675.
But perhaps the most interesting find can be located amid what many pedestrians fail to notice as they wander down a bustling St. Louis Street. As my son was waiting outside a trinket emporium, he wandered over to a tree and found a cannonball firmly lodged in the trunk—possibly a shot launched long ago by a British warship when tensions were high and ramparts were necessary in a new world under constant threat. After caressing the steel, we mused how something could feel so remarkably cold while the temperature was so hot. But possibly, fittingly, this artifact is a subtle reminder that even in the midst of raging summer heat, the spirit of fun and adventure of the best “partie dans la neige” on earth exists in Quebec City all year round.