Story by By Christina Fuoco-Karasinski and photos by Dave Karasinski
Simply put: Quebec City is magical.
Filled with charm, charisma and a happy spirit, the city is bustling at midnight, with revelers spilling out of bars and restaurants. They kiss each other on the cheeks, calling it a night.
The morning light unveils a beauty that rivals the rest of North America — the stone wall that cordons off the historic city, the ships that quietly cruise the St. Lawrence River, and the quiet rainfall that tickles the hotel windows.
Unitours-Tours Voir Quebec (12 Rue Sainte-Anne) is the perfect primer to the postcard-perfect Quebec City.
Helmed by comical bus drivers, the two-hour guided bus tour fills guests with fun facts, jokes and historical anecdotes about Quebec City — with a few surprise stops.
The quaint Notre-Dame-des-Victoires (Our Lady of Victories) church is considered to be the oldest church built in stone, and which still has the same walls, in Canada. It’s also the backdrop of a scene from the film “Catch Me If You Can” in which Tom Hanks’ Carl Hanratty arrests Leonardo DiCaprio’s Frank Abagnale Jr.
The jaunt — which offers suggestions of where to return when time isn’t of the essence — does offer breaks for photos and quick shopping.
The ultimate photo ops can be found on Croisières AML, which offers scenic tours along the St. Lawrence River throughout the day, night and around holidays. Based in Quai Chouinard in Old Port, Croisières AML offers snacks, and alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages. A fun gift shop with Quebec City swag is on board as well.
During the tour, a guide dressed in period costume shares interesting historical facts about the area. Guests cruise near the majestic Château Frontenac and the Montmorency Falls, the latter of which, at 272 feet, is nearly 100 feet higher than Niagara Falls. The voyage travels around water sports lovers, who windsurf.
Perched on a promontory, providing breathtaking views of the St. Lawrence River and the fortified old city, Fairmont Chateau Frontenac is worth a visit (1 Rue des Carrières). Guests and visitors can check out its boutique stores that sell items like food crayons — which are exactly what they sound like. Spices and herbs in crayon form that, when peeled, add a bit of flavor to any dish.
Quebec tins, courtesy of Leon & Lily and filled with lemon shortbread, are the perfect gifts for housesitters.
After all the walking and exploring, the new Strøm Nordic Spa (515 bd Champlain) is the perfect place to unwind. Constructed in a location rich in history and overlooking the St. Lawrence River, Strøm Nordic Spa is North America’s largest flotation bath.
Bathed in peace and quiet, the meditative indoor/outdoor spa offers an infinity pool for contemplation and a steam bath made of marble. Nord Restaurant mirrors the spa’s health-first mission, offering an eco-responsible approach to gastronomy.
The thoughtful, ever-evolving menu features chewy artisanal bread; mixed green salads; salad with roasted squash, apples and mozzarella di bufala from the Maciocia Farm; and oven-baked cheese with candied pears, onion confit with beer, gingerbread breadcrumbs and croutons, for example.
Once refreshed, head back out to the photogenic city for shopping. Cool As a Moose (1150 Rue Saint-Jean) boasts the best souvenirs, ranging from holiday ornaments to stuffed Bonhomme, the official ambassador of the pre-Lenten Quebec Winter Carnival.
Check out the year-round Christmas store La Boutique de Noel de Quebec (47 Rue de Buade). Here, items are sorted by Christmas themes: Santa’s workshop, sweets, chalet, classic gingerbread, stuffed animals, North Pole, religious products and Christmas villages. Even in June it offers a touch of holiday magic, as did the rain and cooler temperatures.
Quebec City’s architecture is breathtaking, with winding roads and small walkways that weave in and out of the city. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, but fear not, the city is easy to navigate.
Quebec City’s hotels are a blend of the new and the old.
With its floor-to-ceiling windows, the Hilton Québec (1100 Bd Rene-Levesque E) offers expansive views of the Chateau Frontenac and St. Lawrence River as well as concert venues and the fortified old city.
Modern and fresh, the Hilton is within walking distance to all the beauty the city has to offer like The Plains of Abraham and Parliament. Wishing to stay inside? The hotel is connected to Centre des Congres de Quebec, a shopping center, and claims Cabu: Boire et Manger, which serves all three meals.
Executive Chef Marie-Chantal Lepage changes the menu with each season, using fresh ingredients from local producers. A must is the onion soup, which puts to shame the same dish found in American chain restaurants. Here, onion broth is simmered with beer, chunks of duck confit, grilled country bread, and grated 1608 cheese from Charlevoix dairy factory. The flavorful result is thick and rich.
On this day, kamouraska lamb was available — featuring herb and lemon lamb loin cromesquis, one homemade oversized gnocchi with Ste-Nitouche cheese, kale chips and caramelized cipollini onion — as well as scallop and shrimp salad, pappardelle and beef tartare, among other dishes.
For those who want a touch of history, the Hotel Boutique Ophelia (640 Grande Allee E) is a beautiful choice. Blending luxury and old-world charm, the repurposed office building has only six rooms and suites. One suite is cozy, with its wood beams and slanted walls, giving it an almost cabin feel.
The reception area is tiny but bursting with information, courtesy of its employees who know the city well. In the heart of Old Quebec, the hotel is steps from the Château Frontenac, Citadel of Quebec, the Plains of Abraham, the Quartier Petit Champlain, as well as many boutiques, restaurants and coveted art galleries.
Now we’re talking. Coming from someone who had ham and cheese sandwiches from elementary through high school, this town has the best ham and Swiss croissants, naturally.
But it goes beyond this. The Italian Bello Ristorante (73 Rue St-Louis) turns up the charm factor with its friendly servers and helpful hosts.
Guests can enjoy the warmth of the sun’s rays, thanks to oversized windows. The quaint eatery specializes in fresh handmade pasta, high-quality locally sourced meat and first-class risotto.
Again, the zuppa di cipolle (French onion soup) is to die for, with its Gruyere cheese, caramelized onions and thick broth. Perhaps the best dish is the linguine alla Bolognese with its dense sauce and perfectly cooked noodles.
But one must try Casse-Crepe Breton (1136 Rue Saint-Jean). A tiny restaurant, it takes a while to be seated, but it’s worth the wait — cliché or not. Crepes perfectly showcase Quebec’s French culinary heritage; they can be served with ham and Swiss or other savory fillings, or with chocolate as a sweet dessert.
Just a few tips. Brush up on the French-Canadian language. Many of the ride share and cab drivers know little English, but it’s nevertheless easy to get around by showing business cards for hotels or other sightseeing destinations. All street signs are in French, too. However, elsewhere, piece of cake. English speakers are readily available. Don’t be afraid to try to speak French, however. The locals appreciate the effort and laugh right alongside you.
In Canada, the electrical outlets are the same voltage as the United States, so there’s no fear of blowing up cellphones or other electronics.
Keep in mind that the Québécois use the 24-hour clock, while the rest of the country uses 12.
Quebec City is a lovely destination spot for a “European” getaway without going to Europe.