Venturing up to Quebec City will surely cure you of pandemic solitude blues.
The provincial capital has had some of the highest hotel occupancy rates in Canada this summer, and our trip there during the sweltering third weekend in August felt like full immersion into pre-COVID-level tourism. Public health measures are being fully observed in public establishments (and will be more restrictive now that VaxiCode is here), but the streets are jammed with tourists from all over, judging from the languages and accents ringing out from the crowds.
The majestic Fairmont Chateau Frontenac is, of course, the ultimate place to stay. It’s the most photographed hotel in the world, due in part to the fact that it towers over the town and dominates the cityscape from so many angles, but also because it’s such an impressive structure. It’s not too shabby on the inside either, offering deluxe suites as well as refined and comfortable standard rooms, a pool with a sauna and two hot tubs (all were surprisingly open), three restaurants and the small but stately 1608 bar.
As with so much in Quebec City, history is on full display in the hotel, its lower level walls lined with photos of historical milestones like the planning of the Battle of Normandy during World War II and cultural events like the filming of the little-known Alfred Hitchcock film I Confess in 1952, a visit by Monaco’s Princess Grace in 1969 and a performance by Celine Dion in the ballroom that led to her first major label signing (hence the Alfred Hitchcok, Grace Kelly and Celine Dion suites). The Champlain restaurant offers fine dining, Place Dufferin serves deluxe breakfast and the Sam bistro covers the culinary bases in-between, offering a large menu and longer hours. Room service draws from the menus of all of the above.
Inside the hotel and around town, from fine establishments like the trio of la Taniere restaurants to the wealth of pubs and cocktail bars, reservations are a must — not just because of public health and contact tracing, but due to the glut of tourists looking for a bite and a beverage.
The low-town part of Vieux-Québec is obviously the absolute must-see for visitors. The Quartier Petit Champlain — which is like a pedestrianized Old Montreal with 10 times as many tourist shops and 100 times more cotton candy
— is accessible from on high at the Chateau Frontenac by funicular. (While it’s tempting to make comparisons to Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel, Quebec City’s hotel to low-town transport looks more like an elevator than a candy-coloured gondola.)
For the Delta-conscious looking to avoid the crowds in Petit Champlain, on St-Jean Street in the upper town or in the political protests outside the National Assembly, there are some relatively quiet neighbourhoods and stark landscapes worth exploring, depending on your taste in shopping and appetite for steep walks. For lovers of military history and green space, the Citadelle offers some immersion into the walled city’s roots as a fortress, with a small indoor museum and sprawling outdoor walkways featuring armed guards, vintage cannons and a man in traditional dress with a golden-horned goat on a leash. The Citadelle is accessible via a slight incline from the Terrasse Dufferin by the Chateau Frontenac (near a massive old toboggan tunnel that’s a big attraction in the winter), or an unending stair-climb on an elevated walkway through the trees.
Further off the beaten path (the Citadelle is a tourist attraction, after all): The neighbourhood of Saint-Roch is dotted with cool restaurants, bars and shops, like the epic toy store Benjo and vinyl record specialists le KnockOut; The small-town charm of 3rd Avenue in Limoilou, where a farmer’s market takes over part of the street on weekends, is broken up a bit by the chill alt/dive-bar vibe of le Bal du Lézard; and the Cartier Avenue restaurants and shopping that links the areas of Montcalm and SaintJean-Baptiste.
Only two to three hours away by car, bus or Via train, Quebec City is a perfect destination anytime, particularly when international travel is pretty much a no-go. So close, so familiar, and yet “so European.”