Québec: North America’s European City

From its historical sites and enclosing wall to its French-influenced culture and cuisine, Québec City offers enticing options for all ages.


Québec City may be close to the U.S. border, but this Canadian city feels more like a bit of Europe. From first sight, its steep rooflines, massive city walls and imposing gates make you feel as though you’d crossed an ocean. Throw in the French-speaking locals, and the illusion deepens. Then there’s the food—ooh-la-la!

But all the time, you’re in friendly Canada, where things work pretty much as they do at home (if you’re from the United States, that is), and where most people also speak English. And in 2008, Québec City celebrates its 400th anniversary with a yearlong blowout birthday party. If you’ve never been here, now is the time to see it. And if you’ve visited before, it’s high time to go back, see what’s new and join the celebration.

The city is widely known for its Winter Carnival, which features Bonhomme, the snowman, as its host. Each year, the festivities include snow sculptures, sleigh rides, ice skating, snow slides, parades and winter sports such as canoe and dogsled races. But Québec is full of surprises to span all four seasons, so if you miss the Carnival, there are many reasons to keep the city on your calendar the rest of the year.

Québec is a romantic city, with narrow, winding streets, sidewalk cafés, and music in the air. Horses clop along the stone-paved streets, pulling open carriages filled with couples soaking up the atmosphere. Québec is also an ideal destination for the entire family, with plenty of activities geared to children, especially during the birthday celebration. There are plenty of forts and interactive museums to entertain all ages, but the city’s lively street scene is the best show of all. Plus, older children will enjoy practicing a little French.

Getting Around

One of the beauties of Québec is its compact arrangement. Most sights are within walking distance—and walking is the best way to get around this old city, vertically assisted by the funicular, which kids love and weary adults welcome.

The place to begin is on the Terrasse Dufferin, a wide promenade between the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac and the steep drop-off to the old port city bordering the river below. In the winter there’s a slide set up here—the long line moves fast and the ride is fun. In better weather, the terrace is a popular place for outdoor entertainers—mimes, magicians, musicians of all sorts. It’s also a good place to get an overview of how the city lies. From this vantage you’ll see that it’s in layers, with a riverside park, the old town with the port, and the walled city at the top of the bluff. Even though the city is pretty small, it has distinct neighborhoods, and people will refer to them when giving you directions.


Quartier Petit Champlain

The narrow strip between the river and the palisades, directly below Terrasse Dufferin, boasts narrow streets and historic squares filled with cafés, boutiques and craftsmen’s studios. The Québec Funicular or long stairs ascend to the terrace.


The old port is bordered by the docks of Bassin Louise—a large manmade lake that is a focal point of the city, just north of the Quartier Petit Champlain and extending all the way to the train station. The city market is here, a good place to buy picnic provisions.

Vieux Québec

The upper city enclosed by the walls and the top of the bluff, includes the Citadel. Many of the most important historic sites are crowded into its narrow streets.

The Plains of Abraham

A vast park along the top of the palisades, where you’ll find walking paths, gardens, the Musée National des Beaux-Arts and various historic sites related to the battle that ended French control of Canada.

Parliament Hill

The area around the impressive Parliament Building, bordering the Plains of Abraham.


Part of the Upper Town outside the walls, at the other side of Parliament Hill.

From History to Amusement Parks

Soak up the European atmosphere, and don’t try to see all the sites. Visit a few—Artillery Park with its costumed interpreters and the Citadel for the changing of the guard (skip the tour unless kids are older and intrigued by all things military). A walk along the top of the ramparts gives an overview of the city and its history.

Take in enough of these sights to get a sense of the 400 years since Samuel de Champlain first landed in 1608 and established a settlement here. A visit to the Plains of Abraham (take a picnic to enjoy while you savor the views from atop the palisades) will tell the story of how the French and English played tug-of-war with Québec until the battle in 1759 where both generals were killed and the British finally prevailed. Our 7-year-old’s eyes glazed over at the battle re-enactment itself, but she was delighted by the high-tech presentation.

Other sites throughout the city will fill in the details, especially those set up to celebrate the anniversary. You’ll have no trouble remembering when Québec was founded—you’ll hear and see “400” everywhere in the city during the 2008 festivities. The Urban Life Interpretation Centre (43 Côte de la Fabrique) is a multilingual, multimedia show that brings the city’s past to life. Children under 12 are admitted free.

It’s not all history, of course. Québec is all about what’s new and different, and nowhere have they embraced cutting edge technology more than in the museum and multimedia exhibits created for the 400th anniversary celebrations. We had trouble getting any of the kids out of the Musée de la Civilisation (86 Rue Dalhousie), where they take interaction to its outer limits, especially in the workshop exhibit The Earth’s Unveiled. Everyone liked it, even though it’s designed for ages 11-14. Who wouldn’t be drawn into exhibits that simulate an earthquake (quite realistically) and a tsunami? Also in the riverside neighborhood is the Place Royale, where there is always something going on—an historical re-enactment or street performers. The nearby park has an excellent playground.

When the kids are ready for something with no educational merit at all, head for
Village Vacances Valcartier (1860 Blvd. Valcartier). This outdoor adventure park, about 20 minutes north of the center by car, is a water park in the summer, with slides, wave pool and water shows. When the season turns cold, it offers tubing, sledding, skating (rentals available) and other winter activities.

There’s another amusement park with rides (including a roller coaster and bumper cars) and entertainment inside the super-mall Les Galeries. Of course, Les Galeries is packed with shops of all stripes, and although it’s not as charming as browsing the boutiques of the old town, it’s easier to push a stroller here, and one of the few places in the city with excellent baby-changing facilities in the restrooms.

If your children are older, get them in on making the plans, before you even get to Québec. Ask them to search out places on the Web and when you get there remember to add in a few tastes of adult life, too—maybe a fine-dining dinner (let them choose by browsing menus as you wander or search online).  

Without Kids

Abandon yourself to the romance of this old city and revel in its European ambiance. Take a carriage ride, stroll the promenade, linger in sidewalk cafés (or steamy cozy coffee houses in the Quartier Petit Champlain in the winter). Go on a gourmet tour along Rue Saint-Jean, stopping in the food shops and to sample chocolates at the Choco-Musée Érico (634 Rue Saint-Jean). Romantic dining is an art in Québec, so book a table at L’Échaudé (tel. 418-692-1299) in the old port area, and savor the fish and mussels in lobster broth. La Crémallière (tel. 418-692-2216), located in an old mansion inside the city walls, specializes in escargot wrapped in paper-thin pastry.

Lodging and Dining 

Fairmont Le Château Frontenac. Québec City’s best hotel is also its most iconic landmark. As romantic as your dreams, the Château also caters to a child’s every whim, with cookies-and-milk turndown, daily drawing contests, lively tours by costumed guides impersonating characters from the hotel’s history, and even a big friendly dog to pat and take for walks. The concierge will find you a reliable baby sitter for an evening out au deux. Our 7-year-old loved the afternoon tea for kids, where she got a chance to put on her frilly dress and Mary-Janes and told us she’d learned “how ladies behave at a proper tea party.” We liked the fact that all kids under 18 years stay free, under 6 years dine free, and ages 6-12 dine at 50% off. 1 Rue des Carrières, tel. 418-692-3861,

Auberge Louis Hebert. Less pricey and very cozy, this boutique hotel is near the Plains of Abraham, the city’s largest park. The location is especially good during the Winter Carnival, handy to the outdoor festivities when small children need an afternoon warm-up or nap. The bright dining room is a good place to take teens who are ready for a little taste of class, but a menu that’s not overwhelming. 668 Grande-Allée East, tel. 418-525-6449,

Auberge Le Vincent. This small and modern hotel in the old city is family-friendly and welcoming. Its central location is convenient to transportation and historic sites. 295 Rue Saint-Vallier East, tel. 418-523-5000,

Auberge Saint-Antoine. Nearly as old as the city itself, this luxurious boutique hotel is a good choice if you’re sans enfants and looking for a romantic getaway. 10 Rue Saint-Antoine, Address, tel. 418-692-2211,  

Food is close to the heart of Québec residents, and you’ll find them mingling with the tourists in all the restaurants and cafés in the old town.

With small children, try the very informal bistro, Le Cochon Dingue in the Quartier Petit Champlain. The hot chocolate is outstanding and it’s noisy enough that no one will notice if little kids don’t speak in hushed tones. The sugar pie is a sure kid-pleaser. 46 Blvd. Champlain, tel. 418-692-2013,

Mid-aged children old enough to appreciate its old-time feel will be comfortable in
Aux Anciens Canadiens, inside the walls. It’s a chance to try some authentic dishes with flavors they won’t find too exotic—meat pie is a good bet. 34 Rue Saint-Louis, tel. 418-692-1627,

Teens ready for a little taste of class will be well-fed in the bright dining room at Auberge Louis Hebert

For more family-friendly dining, please read our Québec dining article.

Getting There and Around 

Québec City is about a two-hour drive from the northern borders of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, and connected by frequent flights on Air Canada, Northwest, Continental and Delta. Jean-Lesage International Airport is a $30 cab ride from the city center, or an easy drive on Route 40. Most of the sights are within walking distance, and the best way to enjoy the city is on foot.

Destinations: Québec, Canada

Themes: Family Travel, Historical Vacations

Activities: Eat, Museums, Sightseeing, Sleep

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