By Tim Johnson
Four centuries ago this summer, French explorer Samuel de Champlain founded a settlement along the St. Lawrence at a place known as Kébec, an Algonquin word for “place where the river narrows.” Since then, millions of families have embarked on their own journeys of discovery, by visiting a city chock-full of Old World charm and the friendliness of a small town (locals describe Quebec, which has a population of more than 600,000, as an overgrown village). As you amble down the curving cobblestone streets, dine at sidewalk cafés, and speak a little franÃ§ais (perhaps not particularly well), Quebec feels like a major European destination, sans the need for a passport or long trans-Atlantic flight.
They’ve got a whole summer of family-friendly 400th anniversary celebrations lined up — from a sound and light show projected on a screen more than half a kilometre wide, to festivals which feature giants marching through town and carnival rides. So, even if you’ve been before, now is a great time for a visit to the capital of La Belle Province (again).
Quebec’s old city is divided by a sharp escarpment into Upper and Lower Towns, and connected by 28 staircases and the famous funiculaire (funiculaire-quebec.com), which shuttles people up and down along a steeply inclined track. Upper Town is ringed by ramparts that date back to the 17th century, making Quebec the only fortified city north of Mexico. Begin your visit in Lower Town and follow the footsteps of Champlain to Place-Royal, site of the original settlement, now a charming square in Lower Town and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Every part of Upper Town has also been designated as such.) Visit the Place-Royal Interpretation Centre (mcq.org/en/cipr) to get a sense of the settlement’s evolution — on the lower level, there’s a sort of 17th-century model home, complete with four-poster canopy bed that kids can lie on, a table they can set with old-school dishes, and, to top it off, a selection of period costumes to don. The hands-on fun continues a few blocks down the road at the Museum of Civilization (mcq.org), where there are more historical costumes and immersive exhibits, plus a room filled with facts about our world complemented by spinnable globes, a wave-making contraption and an earthquake simulator that your kids will love.
Then head beyond the walls to Canada’s most famous battlefield, the Plains of Abraham (ccbn-nbc.gc.ca) — where, as we all learned in Grade 6, Wolfe defeated Montcalm, forever altering the course of Canadian history. Today, it’s a grassy 264-acre riverside park. Hop aboard Abraham’s Bus for a 35-minute tour (ccbn-nbc.gc.ca/_en/busabraham.php), a fun, relaxing and inexpensive (kids under 12 pay just three bucks) way to take it all in, guided by an actor playing the gregarious Abraham Martin (a river pilot and friend of Samuel de Champlain). And no historical tour of Quebec would be complete without a walk along the top of the walls, past black cannons and soaring turrets, which can be had at the Fortifications of Quebec National Historic Site (pc.gc.ca/lhn-nhs/qc/fortifications).
Just for the occasion, well-known theatre director and producer Robert Lepage (who has done work for Cirque du Soleil, among others) has created The Image Mill (myquebec2008.com), an animated sound and light show projected on the 81 grain elevators that sit along the Bassin Louise, right next to Lower Town. Running every night from June 20 to July 29, the show will paint a portrait of the city’s past, present and future on a canvas 600 metres across and 40 metres high. Nearby, Espace 400e (myquebec2008.com) welcomes visitors all summer long. The glassy complex, created especially for the anniversary, includes three piers that jut out onto the water, 11 Ephemeral Gardens created by international artists, and will host a constantly changing array of shows, music and workshops for the whole family.
If your kids would enjoy an afternoon at the art gallery (doubtful, but hey, we know a few who would), France is coming to the city’s Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Quebec (www.mnba.qc.ca), which, in an exhibit called The Louvre in Quebec City, will display more than 270 works on loan from that famed Parisian museum (unfortunately, the Mona Lisa is not included). And a steady parade of outdoor events will take place, from a mass picnic on July 6 to a free Céline Dion concert on August 22, both on the Plains of Abraham (myquebec2008.com). Visit between the 5th and 10th of August for the New France Festival (nouvellefrance.qc.ca), which will feature, among other things, parades with dozens
of mythical giants and an opportunity for the family to strut about town in 17th-century costumes; or visit during the following couple of weeks for Expo Quebec (www.expocite.com), which will include international pavilions, a sand-sculpture competition and an old-fashioned midway.
The old city has a souvenir shop on every corner vending your typical cheesy Ts and key chains, but for browsing of a higher order, take the steep Breakneck Staircase (Escalier Casse-Cou) down to Quartier Petit Champlain (quartierpetitchamplain.com), a narrow, picturesque Lower Town street lined with galleries and boutiques, many featuring the work of local artisans and designers. Head up the Funiculaire to Upper Town and Rue du Trésor (ruedutresor.qc.ca) — literally “Treasure Street” — an open-air gallery on a small lane where you can buy your obligatory pencil sketch of the ChÃ¢teau Frontenac (watercolours and oil paintings are also on display). If the heat’s getting to you or rain threatens, spend an afternoon in the cool, covered environs of the 1.5-million-square-foot Galeries de la Capitale (galeriesdelacapitale.com), one of the province’s largest malls. Get Dad to watch the kids at the amusement park while you browse the 280 stores.
When you tire of pounding the pavement, this city offers plenty of opportunities to relax in the fresh air. Within the walls, Parc de l’Esplanade abuts the battlements, and offers green space, playground equipment and easy access to the horse and buggy operators (calÃ¨ches) who park next door. Little ones will love the marching beats, bright uniforms and the dressed-up billy goat at the Changing of the Guard, held daily at 10 a.m. from the end of June to the beginning of September at the famous star-shaped Citadel (lacitadelle.qc.ca). Get a new perspective on the city, and take in some nautical breezes aboard the ferry (traversiers.gouv.qc.ca) that connects Quebec with the town of Lévis, on the opposite bank of the St. Lawrence. The ride is quick (10 minutes each way) and cheap ($2.70 each way for adults, $1.90 for kids five to 11, children under five free), and the ferry terminal is easily accessed from Lower Town.
When it comes to accommodations, this is a city with options — more than 12,000 in fact. For a boutique hotel that welcomes kids, check into Le Saint Pierre (auberge.qc.ca). Housed in a building that is nearly two centuries old, Le Saint Pierre offers high-end touches and features in a family-friendly format, with guest rooms large enough to bring the little ones, suites that include a stereo, a flat-screen TV, and a full, hot breakfast included in the room price. If you’re looking for a full-service hotel, the Hilton Quebec (hiltonquebec.com) is just steps from Upper Town. Kids under 18 stay free with at least one paying adult, there’s a rooftop pool with beautiful views of the spires of surrounding churches and the Laurentians beyond, a babysitting service, and an adorable kids-only check-in, with tiny steps leading up to the counter, where a book of available toys, organized by age, awaits your child’s expert choice. And for the ultimate Quebec experience, there’s no better place to bed down than the world-famous Fairmont Le ChÃ¢teau Frontenac (fairmont.com/Frontenac). While the exterior remains a historic icon, the interior includes all the comforts of the 21st century, from an indoor pool, whirlpool and toddler-size splash pool, to spa treatments and rooms that are spacious enough for the whole gang (junior suites are an especially good choice, with a separate living room and two flat-screen TVs). And make some time to meet Santol, the hotel’s resident guide dog, who greets guests in the lobby and is available for family walks.
Quebec is a gastronomical paradise, and there are plenty of places where parents and kids can savour delicious fare together. Les FrÃ¨res de la CÃ´te on Upper Town’s main drag (1190 Rue Saint Jean) has jovial waiters and fun decor, and a menu with European pizzas and a Mediterranean flavour; they’re more than happy to make up half-portions of pizza or pasta for smaller appetites. Try the Swiss and French dining experience known as raclette at Le Petit Coin Latin (8Â½ Rue Sainte Ursule), which feels like a small Parisian brasserie. They will bring you a tabletop contraption (called, naturally enough, a raclette machine), with a fryer on top and a cheese-melting area on the bottom; cook up potatoes, prosciutto, ham, onions, and mushrooms, then spread melted cheese all over it. And for a big splurge with an even bigger view, ride the elevator up to L’Astral (loewsleconcorde.com), which sits atop Loews Le Concorde Hotel, and rotates 360 degrees every hour and a half, providing stunning views of all parts of the city. The buffet and Sunday brunch are great options for picky eaters.
Contributing editor Tim Johnson tucked into a steaming bowl of Poutine Italienne while in Quebec City doing research for this story. It maintained a heavy presence in the pit of his stomach for the remainer of the evening. He vows never to do it again.
Great vacations are all about the memories and stories you take home and share, again and again, as a family. Here are a few quirky, fun activities that can help you make sure that you have lots to talk about.
More than 50 years ago, a hungry trucker named Eddy Lanaisse strode into a small town restaurant in Warwick, Que., and asked the owner, Fernand Lachance, to mix his fries with the cheese curds that sat nearby on the counter. Lachance complied, gravy was later added to the mix, the concoction was dubbed poutine — slang for mess — and the rest is scrumptious, artery-clogging history. While you’re here in the capital of the Quebecois nation, take a break from your calorie-counting to sample this quintessential French-Canadian dish.
Chez Ashton, Quebec’s answer to McDonald’s, makes a great poutine — squeaky curds, a gravy that manages to be satisfying without being too heavy, and tasty hot fries, all served up in an insulating foil tray.
On the high end, have your midday meal at Laurie Raphael, where the lunch menu features a version laced with foie gras-emulsified sauce for $17.
Various restaurants offer something called poutine Italienne, including Buffet de L’Antiquaire (95 Rue Saint-Paul), a real Quebecois diner, complete with mismatched vinyl stools. It’s served looking (and tasting) as if someone accidentally dropped a few fries and some cheese into a big batch of tasty meat sauce.