Quebec City is the oldest fortified city in North America. It is a pleasant mix of the old and the new, with the Old Town full of historic ramparts, churches, narrow lanes and former battlefields, and new districts with museums, cafes and other modern structures.
Quebec City’s Old Town is the only North American fortified city north of Mexico whose walls still exist and it was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
Unlike most tourist destinations that are best visited during certain times of the year, Quebec City attracts visitors from all over the world, all the year round with a myriad of activities. Even in the middle of winter, it is bustling with ski enthusiasts, and it is also the time for classical delights like opera and ballet. Quebec City is internationally known for its Winter Carnival. The crowds however, are at their peak through the summer months of June through August, although rainfall is at its highest. Mid-March, when school is on vacation, is also quite crowded.
English and French are the country’s two official languages.
The name Quebec comes from a local tribe word meaning strait, and originally referred to the area around Quebec City, where the Saint Lawrence River narrows to a cliff-lined gap.
Before European settlers began to move in, the area was occupied by Algonquian, Iroquoian and Inuit people. The Algonquian groups lived a nomadic life, hunting and fishing in the rugged terrain of the Canadian Shield and Appalachian Mountains, whereas the Iroquoians were more settled, planting squash and maize. The Inuit depended much on the sea as they fished along the coasts of Hudson and Ungava Bay.
1534: Jacques Cartier becomes the first French explorer to reach Quebec. He plants a cross either in Gaspe or at Old Fort Bay and sails into the St. Lawrence River where he establishes a colony near present-day Quebec City.
1608: Samuel de Champlain comes with an exploration party and founds Quebec City intending to make it part of the French colonial empire. He also builds a permanent fur trading outpost, where he traded and later formed a military alliance with the Algonquin and Huron nations.
1758: British mount an attack on New France by sea and take the French fort at Louisbourg.
1763: After France cedes its North American possessions to Great Britain through the Treaty of Paris, the Province of Quebec is founded by a Royal Proclamation restricting the province to an area along the banks of the Saint Lawrence River.
1774: British Parliament passes the Quebec Act giving recognition to French law, Catholic religion and French language in the colony and expands the territory to include the Great Lakes and the Ohio River Valley.
1783: Through the Treaty of Versailles, territories south of the Great Lakes ceded to the United States.
1791: Constitutional Act divides the territory between Lower Canada (present day Quebec) and Upper Canada (present day Ontario).
1840: The territories become Canada East and Canada West after the unification of Upper and Lower Canada into the Province of Canada. This is later divided again into the Provinces of Quebec and Ontario in 1867.
1870: Canada purchases Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company. Over the years, the Parliament of Canada transfers portions of this territory to Quebec tripling its size.
1898: The first Quebec Boundary Extension Act extends the provincial boundaries to include the lands of the aboriginal Cree.
1977: Newly elected Parti Quebecois government introduces the Charter of the French Language defining French as the only official language of Quebec in areas of provincial jurisdiction.
Sights around town:
Chateau Frontenac: The beautiful, romantic castle-like hotel overlooking the river and the historic Plains of Abraham started in 1893 for railroad passengers and has gone to become the city’s emblem. The hotel is situated at a commanding location atop Cap Diamant and can be seen from almost everywhere in the city.
Notre-Dame Basilica: The oldest Christian parish north of Mexico. It has undergone bombardment, reconstruction, and restoration over the years and parts of the existing basilica, such as the bell tower and portions of the walls, date from the original 1647 structure. The interiors were recreated after a fire in 1922. Paintings and ecclesiastical treasures from the time of the French regime, including a chancel lamp given by Louis XIV, are still around to be admired. In summer, a sound-and-light show called Feux Sacres (Acts of Faith) is held here recalling five centuries of the city’s history. It is the first church in the New World to be raised to a basilica.
Chapelle des Ursulines: The chapel is known for the sculptures in its pulpit and two richly decorated altarpieces created between 1726 and 1736. The tomb of the founder of the Ursulines teaching order, Marie de l’Incarnation, is kept to the right of the entry. A museum on the premises displays some paraphernalia of the daily and spiritual life of the Ursulines. There are also musical instruments and Amerindian crafts on display. One of them is the fleche, or arrow sash, which is still worn during the Winter Carnival. The Ursuline convent, built originally as a girls’ school in 1642, is the oldest in North America.
Centre d’Interpretation du Vieux-Port: The exhibits take you to the Port of Quebec as it was during its maritime zenith in the 19th century. The shipbuilding and lumbering companies are showcased using animated figures. If you want to compare, the modern port and city can be viewed from the top level.
La Citadelle: this partially star-shaped fortress was ordered by the duke of Wellington in anticipation of renewed American attacks after the War of 1812. Remnants of earlier French military structures were incorporated into the Citadel, including a 1750 magazine. Dug into the Plains of Abraham, the fort is barely visible in the landscape. It has never exchanged fire with an invader, and continues its vigil from the tip of Cap Diamant. It is now home to Quebec’s Royal 22e Regiment, the only fully Francophone unit in Canada’s armed forces. That makes it the largest fortified group of buildings still occupied by troops in North America.
You can visit the 25 buildings, including the small regimental museums in the former powder house and prison and even witness the ceremonies of the changing of the guard or beating the retreat.
Maison Chevalier: Built in 1752 for ship owner Jean-Baptiste Chevalier, the original structure dates back from 1675 and 1695. It was used as an inn during the 19th century till it was restored in 1960, and now houses a museum. The exhibits, that are changed often, reflect Quebec’s history and civilization, focusing especially on the 17th and 18th centuries.
Musee de l’Amerique Francaise: The Museum of French America focuses on the French culture and civilization in North America. It features paintings by European and Canadian artists, engravings and parchments from the early French regime, old and rare books, coins, early scientific instruments, and even mounted animals and an Egyptian mummy.
Musee de la Civilisation: Opened in 1988, the museum has a dramatic atrium-lobby with a representation of the St. Lawrence with an ancient ship beached on the shore. The galleries display treasures on a variety of themes and is considered one of the best attractions in the city.
Musee des Beaux-Arts du Quebec: The art museum occupies two buildings, one a former prison, linked together by a soaring glass-roofed Grand Hall. The Gerard-Morisset Pavilion houses the largest collection of Quebecois art in North America. The Charles-Baillairge Pavilion, a former prison, was connected to the original museum. One cell block has been left intact as an exhibit. The tower contains a provocative sculpture called Le Plongeur (The Diver) by the Irish artist David Moore.
Parc des Champs-de-Bataille: 264 acres of grassy hills, gardens, monuments, fountains, and trees, the Battlefields Park stretches over the Plains of Abraham, where the short but crucial battle in 1759 resulting in the British defeat of the French troops took place. It is a great place for a stroll or a picnic. Free concerts are often held here. The statue of Joan of Arc that stands here was a gift from anonymous Americans, and it was here that the country’s national anthem was sung for the first time. Two Martello towers also grace the park. They are cylindrical stone defensive structures built between 1808 and 1812, when Quebec feared an invasion from the United States.
The Battlefields Park Interpretation Centre gives you information about the significance of the Plains of Abraham and visitors are taken through several chambers, which are actually corridors and cells in what was once a prison to see dramatic episodes of Quebec’s history.
Place Royale: A picturesque square, it was the town marketplace and the center of business and industry in the 17th and 18th centuries. It is dominated by the impressive 1688 structure Eglise Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, the oldest stone church in Quebec.