Petit Champlain is the oldest commercial district in North America
Photo by quartierpetitchamplain.com
Standing on the edge of the Dufferin Terrace, a boardwalk promenade at the top of Québec City’s Cap Diamant, it’s hard not to feel awe inspired. The Saint Lawrence River is wide and glittering below, a towering statue of Samuel de Champlain stands impressively over his city, and the Laurentian Mountains rise up across the horizon.
It may only be a six-hour drive from the North Shore, but Québec’s Old City feels as far away as the ancient cities of Europe. As you stroll through the Quartier du Petit Champlain, where shops and cafés make up the oldest commercial district in North America, it’s hard not to be swept away by the Continental ambiance. There are charming patisseries, beautifully preserved colonial buildings, and horses pulling carriages clip-clopping down the streets. Along the colorful, pedestrian-only Rue du Petit Champlain, ferns and flowers spill from wrought-iron balconies. Québec’s Old City is even enclosed from its contemporary surroundings by large, well-preserved stone fortifications, making it the only fortified city in North America north of Mexico. In fact, the Historic District of Old Québec is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Here, you’re literally shielded from the modern world.
Despite the French language, European-style atmosphere, and abundance of macaroons, there’s something decidedly Canadian about Québec City: Its connection with the land and the earth’s abundance, from its fertile fields, to the mighty Saint Lawrence River, to the Laurentian Mountains in the distance.
Photo by iledorleans.com
In fact, Québec City owes its place in colonial history to its geography. French navigator Samuel de Champlain founded the city in 1608 as the capital of New France because of Cap Diamant, a cape and promontory jutting into the river. Québec City would find protection from that location and later from the fortifications, ramparts, and citadel that rose up around the city.
Nowhere is this connection with the land more obvious than in the cuisine. Québec is the world’s largest producer of maple syrup, and the Saint Lawrence River valley is lush with farms, wineries, and local food artisans. A great place to experience this abundance firsthand is at the Marché du Vieux-Port, or Old Port Market, located just outside the Old City walls next to the marina. At this sprawling, year-round indoor market, local farmers and artisans sell handmade candies and confections; cheeses; Québec-made wines; maple syrup and candies; foie gras and cured meats; and fruits, vegetables, and flowers.
It’s easy to stroll around for hours, sampling from all the different stalls. Stop by La Fromagére du Marché to sample cheese curds, which squeak between your teeth. Indulge in delicate, brightly hued macaroons in flavors like coconut, strawberry, and salted caramel from Pâtisserie Praline & Chocolat. Sample locally made wines and ice cider; a bit of duck foie gras on a baguette slice; or some honey right from the comb. See the rows of spring-time fiddleheads or bushels of apples in late summer.
Many of the farms and wineries that supply Marché du Vieux-Port are located on Île d’Orléans, an island in the Saint Lawrence River that’s just a 15-minute drive from downtown Québec. This pastoral cornucopia offers a glimpse into the city’s agricultural and rural heritage, with wineries, farms, farm stands, sugar shacks, cheese makers, cider houses, bakeries, restaurants, and more. And its position in the river provides uninterrupted coastal views from every part of the island.
The focus on local, traditional food is evident within the Old City’s walls, too. Le Lapin Sauté, a restaurant on Rue du Petit Champlain, serves specialty rabbit dishes in a relaxed, French country-kitchen atmosphere. Its rabbit is sourced from Besnier Farm in Beauce, about 24 miles south of Québec City, which raises its animals on a natural diet and without antibiotics or hormones. The rabbit poutine is a rich and delicious riff on Québec’s favorite snack of French fries, gravy, and cheese curds, topped with shredded rabbit. Another option is the charcuterie plank appetizer, which features smoked duck breast, rabbit rillettes, duck foie gras, salami, carrots and onions confit, pickles, and olives.
Along Rue Saint-Jean in the Old City’s Upper Town, you’ll find Les Délices de l’Érable, a shop, café, and “museum” dedicated to all things maple syrup. A stroll through the educational exhibits teaches visitors how maple syrup is harvested and made, and shares tidbits about its long history in Canada. But the highlight of a visit is certainly sampling the wide variety of maple products, from spreadable maple butter to candies and gelato to hand creams and body scrubs.
Québec City’s connection with nature isn’t simply about the food, though. It’s also about the striking scenery and natural features of the land. The city sits in a dramatic spot atop Cap Diamant at a natural bend in the Saint Lawrence River. Its Old City is dominated by hills so steep that railings are affixed to the sides of buildings and a glass-walled funicular connects its Upper and Lower districts.
A 10-minute drive from downtown Québec City is the spectacular Montmorency Falls (or Chute Montmorency, in French), a waterfall that’s actually higher than Niagara Falls. A visit here offers views of the falls from several vantage points, including from above, thanks to a suspension bridge that crosses over the falls. If you stand still, you can feel the bridge bouncing a little as the white water rushes beneath you and plunges 275 feet down. A boardwalk and a series of wooden staircases provide views of the falls from afar and all the way up to its crest.
Montmorency Falls’ location just outside the bustling city perfectly illustrates what’s so wonderful and unusual about Québec City: It mixes city and country, cul- ture and nature, all in one beautiful place.
Quartier du Petit Champlain Lower Town, quartierpetitchamplain.com/en/
Marché du Vieux-Port 160 Quai Saint-André, 418-692-2517, marchevieuxport.com
Casse-Crêpe Breton 1136 Rue Saint-Jean, 418-692-0438, cassecrepebreton.com
Le Lapin Sauté 52 Rue du Petit Champlain, 418-692-5325, lapinsaute.com
Les Délices de l’Érable 1044 Rue Saint-Jean, 418-692-3245, mapledelights.com
Île d’Orléans tourisme.iledorleans.com/en/
Parc de la Chute-Montmorency 5300 Boulevard Sainte-Anne, 418-663-3330, sepaq.com/ct/pcm/