Explore Québec: top things to do, where to stay and what to eat
Surrounded by peaceful valleys and mountains juxtaposed with bustling cities, Canada’s largest province is a dream to visit. Only a seven-hour flight from London, its incredible history and culture are a huge draw, while the scenery is simply spectacular. See for yourself…
Why go to Québec?
Often overlooked in favour of its popular neighbour Ontario, Québec in eastern Canada should be high up on your travel wish-list for its olde world charm alone. Québec, at one stage called Canada, formed part of the colonial empire of New France until the Seven Years’ War, when it was conquered by Great Britain. It became isolated from the rest of the francophone world but still proudly retains its original language – around 97% of the province speak French today.
Its namesake capital Québec City, sitting on the vast sea-like St Lawrence River, is the main reason people visit – and it’s so easy to see why. The nature here is as symbolic as its European architecture, while the magical cobblestone streets boasting traditional boutiques look like they belong in a fairy-tale. Then there’s the food. And I'm not talking poutine (Canada’s version of chips, cheese and gravy). Exquisite fine dining using local produce is something the Québecois pride themselves on.
What makes this province so charming is the friendliness of everyone you'll meet. Québec offers so much in the way of landmarks to see and activities to do, and here we provide a guide to three key areas: Wendake, Charlevoix and Québec City.
One of the most fascinating places I've ever experienced is the traditional Huron-Wendat reservation of Wendake, a First Nations site just a 15-minute drive from Québec City.
The Huron-Wendats are Iroquoian Indigenous peoples of North America who first came into contact with Europeans in 1615. Having originally settled in the Great Lakes region from the Georgian Bay of Lake Huron right down to Lake Simcoe, they named the land in which they lived Wendake, meaning ‘the island’ in their language. After the French realised the Huron-Wendats controlled trade in the area, they were quick to establish ties with them. In fact, the term Huron comes from the French word for boar’s head (‘hure’) after their ebony hair was said to resemble the animal.
HOTEL MUSÉE PREMIÈRES NATIONS/Facebook
By the middle of the 17th century, when disease, famine and war had wiped out more than half of the Huron-Wendat population, the remainder were forced to escape such misfortunes and find more fertile land for farming and trading. They finally settled in Wendake, a suburb of Québec City, in 1697.
Fast-forward to 2022 and the Huron-Wendats’ ancestors live on through the 3,000+ souls that call Québec home – around half live in Wendake.
Where to stay in Wendake
Hôtel-Musée Premières Nations: situated on the banks of the St Charles River (or Akiawenrahk in Huron-Wendat), this 4-star boutique hotel captures the essence of these Indigenous peoples through its architecture, with nods to their traditions everywhere. The hotel is as stylish as it is authentic and features 55 stunning, spacious rooms, with a further 24 to be added by the end of the year in a CA$6.5 million (£4.1m) renovation. Each one is river-facing, has a king-sized bed, French balcony and every mod-con you can think of, but with native touches such as artwork, dreamcatchers adorning the walls and, wait for it.... animal skins draped over the bed and chairs.
Where to eat in Wendake
The Hôtel-Musée Premières Nations’ restaurant La Traite serves up traditional First Nations cuisine in an elegant setting. Fish and game meats smoked in-house, sauces made from berries native to the region and fresh herbs from the boreal forest dominate the evening menu. You can choose from three- to four-course set meals or go for the à la carte option.
Highlights include the veal medallions with root vegetables and mushroom beer sauce, and the Three Sisters, a traditional Sagamité broth starring corn, beans and squash – a trio of crops grown side by side by the women of the community – alongside a hunk of Bannock bread (a Native American recipe).
What to do in Wendake
Further up the road from Hôtel-Musée Premières Nations, also on the eastern banks of the St Charles River, is Site Traditionnel Huron, a complete Huron replica village. A one-hour guided tour around this charming place, which showcases the community’s unique way of life, is a must.
Site Traditionnel Huron/Facebook
Attached to the Hôtel-Musée Premières Nations is the Huron-Wendat Museum, packed with artefacts and replica canoes, weapons, clothing, headdresses and even snowshoes, complemented by in-depth stories and facts documenting this unique First Nations community. Come nightfall, a Myths and Legends activity, sat around a campfire in the Ekionkiestha’ National Longhouse, shouldn’t be missed.
In a similar way to Wendake, this UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve expresses a simple way of life, but with a real focus on natural beauty. Situated on the north shore of the St Lawrence River, nature flourishes here, where the landscape is as dramatic as its astonishing backstory – the region was created 400 million years ago when an epic meteorite came crashing down leaving a huge 31-mile (50km) crater.
The third-largest river in North America is central to many of Charlevoix’s highlights. The quaint Baie-Saint-Paul in the southeast is flanked by streets dotted with centuries-old homes, cute restaurants and bars, while the many museums and art galleries make for a creative’s paradise. This is also the birthplace of famous theatre circus show Cirque du Soleil.
Floating in the river opposite Baie-Saint-Paul is the idyllic Isle-Aux-Coudres – just 14 miles (23km) in diameter, it’s perfect for cycling around. The sunsets and sunrises here are worth the short ferry ride over alone, while locals will make you feel like long-lost family. Another area that’s rich in history and culture, what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in things to see and do.
Where to stay in Charlevoix
Auberge des 3 Canards: a traditional inn by today’s uber-modern standards, but charming nevertheless, this 48-room hotel in La Malbaie overlooking the St Lawrence, is an ideal base for exploring the Charlevoix region. Rooms and suites have queen- or king-sized beds and the usual mod-cons, complete with private balconies and a direct route to the garden and outdoor pool. Meals are fantastic here, with breakfast a particular highlight. The tomato and goats’ cheese omelette with a side of sausages and bacon, plus the auberge’s signature skewer of fruit, is pretty special.
Hotel & Spa Le Germain Charlevoix: from the outside, the former farmyard buildings take on a sort of blocky, university-campus-style architecture. But inside, prepare to be wowed. Rooms in its Clos building epitomise luxury, featuring Scandi-chi white-washed walls with chrome black touches in an open-plan room, a freestanding bathtub, drench shower, luxury products, underfloor heating and super-comfy queen-size bed with facing flatscreen TV. It’s an exceptional hotel in a unique setting between the shores of Baie-Saint-Paul and the Charlevoix mountains, and its motto of ‘The most urban of rural hotels’ describes it perfectly. The Nordic spa, outdoor heated pool and tasty food offerings are three more reasons to stay here.
Best places to eat in Charlevoix
Le Bellerive at Fairmont Le Manoir Richelieu: it might seem a bit extravagant to call into a well-known luxury hotel for lunch, but the elegant restaurant here is a must-visit, especially after playing a round of golf on its beautiful grounds. From salads, burgers, nachos and chunky sandwiches, to more filling meals such as duck poutine and Charlevoix cheese with house ratatouille, you won’t leave hungry.
Caffé Piada: this authentic Italian bistro tucked away on a charming street in Baie-Saint-Paul has only been open since January 2022 but has quickly acquired a reputation for exquisite dishes, with Sicilian-born owner and chef Antonio Russo’s creative twists on Italian classics. One such delight is the burrata with toast and marmalade, drizzled with balsamic. The fluffy gnocchi is another hit, but remember to save room for Antonio’s incredible desserts.
Boulangerie Bouchard: over on Isle-aux-Coudres, this family-run bakery has been serving its crooked pies (similar to Cornish pasties), Mediterranean rolls, breads and numerous baked sweet treats since 1945. Sit outside the quaint little spot overlooking the river and choose the delicious apple and quinoa bread topped with icing. For a savoury option, the Med bread laced with black olives, sundried tomatoes, onion, feta and chilli is super tasty.
Nöelle-Ange Harvey is the current owner, having taken over from her grandfather 18 years ago. (It was he who thought up the area’s famous crooked pie.) If you’re lucky to catch her out of her busy kitchen, she’ll gladly tell your fortune, as well as wax lyrical about her beloved island.
Auberge La Fascine Bistro Culturel: this inn-come-bar-come-restaurant screams laid-back surf shack, but actually, the roadside entertainment venue on the Isle-aux-Coudres serves up some excellent fare. Run by professional musicians Frédéric and his wife Geneviève, these guys certainly make music with their food offerings. The steak tartare is perfection, while their simple chicken wrap has been elevated to exceptional levels. The additions of apple, avocado and gherkins with salad and mayo is a real winner. There’s a festival vibe going on outside too, and if you fancy attending one of the many gigs taking place, you can stay the night in one of their seven newly-renovated rooms and suites.
What to do in Charlevoix
Musée maritime de Charlevoix: given that the St Lawrence River dominates the panorama, it would be crazy not to include some maritime adventures during a stay here. Head to the boatyard in Saint-Joseph-de-la-Rive, 13 miles (21km) from Baie-Saint-Paul, and climb onboard the Jean Yvan, one of the last schooners to navigate the coasts of the St Lawrence and the penultimate to be built in Québec.
The shipyard has built around 600 schooners in its 76-year history (some were built prior to this and repaired here in forthcoming winters), including the Marie Clarisse, who’ll be 100-years-old in 2023. Elsewhere on the site, there’s a multimedia experience and plenty of current and temporary exhibitions showcasing what life was like for the men who built and sailed these wooden wonders.
Les Moulins de l’Isle-aux-Coudres: this is the only place in the world where a windmill and watermill reside next to each other and simply cannot be missed on a trip to Isle-aux-Coudres. The site has been producing flour for nearly 200 years and its 21-foot (6.4m) watermill was built in 1825. The windmill, has vast wings which turn 12 times a minute – but not when tourists are visiting, as it’s too dangerous. Visitors can also learn how it operates plus more traditions in the museum housed in an old miller’s house, dating to 1911.
Trekking at Alpagas Charlevoix: who doesn’t want to trek with a bunch of cute and cuddly alpacas? This alpaca farm in Les Éboulements, east of Baie-Saint-Paul, is as fun as it is funny. One-hour and three-hour group treks are available, with lunch included in the latter. Don’t let the fact these hungry fellas stop every 20 seconds to eat grass put you off, they soon abide by your rules with a bit of gentle pulling and will happily smile (or grimace, you decide) for a selfie. Afterwards, don’t miss a visit to the boutique for an alpaca-fibre souvenir, crafted by the region’s artisans.
Hydromel Charlevoix: most people know bees are clever, but did you know they can also help create wine and spirits? On a tasting tour at this unique site in Baie-Saint-Paul, visitors will learn the secrets of beekeeping, wine making and distilling. There are eight apiaries, with 25 hives housed in each one. The venue sometimes adds fruit to its wine batches and everything is 100% local produce. Small batches mean each is slightly different, something the gang at Hydromel pride themselves on.
Art galleries are aplenty in the charming streets of Baie-Saint-Paul – there are 25 in total – and most showcase both national and international artists. Visit Galerie Art et Style, one of the oldest in the area, where Québec landscape artist Clarence Gagnon used to live. It has two floors of collections featuring 30 different artists. Around a 10-miute walk away is its sister gallery, L’Harmattan, which plays host to 40+ painters and sculptures all vying for a place on its many walls.
Explore Québec City
Dominated by the captivating Fairmont Le Château Frontenac hotel, peering down from its grand clifftop position, Québec City is a stunner. Drenched in history, the province’s capital is notified by (and named for) the narrowing of the St Lawrence and maintains the European flavour it was bestowed when it was founded by Samuel de Champlain in 1608.
A two-level city, the Old Town was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985 and is the only North American fortified city north of Mexico. The ancient charm of its preserved ramparts, bastions and citadel that still surround the area is connected to the urbanity of the Lower Town by a 143-year-old funicular (and steps, if you’re feeling energetic).
Beauty abounds in the romantic cobbled streets of both levels of QC, with the famous Rue du Petit-Champlain dubbed the most picturesque in the province. It’s certainly the most photographed. Dodge fellow snappers by going at dusk when the sun is dipping and stand at the top of the Escalier Casse-Cou (nicknamed ‘breakneck stairs’ for obvious reasons) for a peaceful shot of this boutique-filled thoroughfare.
Where to stay in Québec City
There are plenty of decent options to lay your head in Québec City but you can’t come here and not stay at the magnificent Fairmont Le Château Frontenac. A week in this stunning 610-room hotel wouldn’t be enough. There are 129 years of history and charming anecdotes at every corner. In fact, while you’re here, join one of the hotel’s tours to learn all about its famous past guests, from royalty to music and film stars, and don’t forget to browse the mini museum on the second floor, which keeps people lingering with a wall of fame, old artefacts and stories of events from yesteryear. Peer into the Salon Rose, also on the second floor, and see where history was created. It’s in this rouge circular room where Franklin D Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and William Lyon Mackenzie King discussed the 1944 D-Day Landings.
If all that isn’t persuasive enough, the rooms and suites are breathtaking – particularly if you stay on the floors between 11 and 17, known as Fairmont Gold rooms. This gives you access to a private lounge, plus exclusive services and amenities.
Rooms consist of queen-sized beds, flat screen TVS, mini bar, stocked fridge, coffee machine, desk, chaise long and a beautifully modern bathroom. The rooms and suites were renovated in 2014 to freshen them up while still retaining the historic character the hotel is known for.
Fairmont Le Château Frontenac/Facebook
Best places to eat in Québec City
Louise Taverne & Bar à Vin: this swanky restaurant boasts a wine selection most vineyards would be proud of. Staff are welcoming and passionate about the cuisine on offer. Think burger and fries, cooked to your liking and overflowing with bacon, Cheddar, cornichons, salad and chef’s special sauce. Or there’s steak tartare, homemade pasta, charcuteries and even oysters – if you’re feeling fancy. Save room for dessert though, the sugar pie and iced parfait with caramelised almond and raspberry jelly are sensational.
Le Clan: for fine dining with the taste to match the pomp, this new restaurant, which offers a six-course tasting menu, is crying out for a Michelin star. Fish features heavily in these courses, but if that doesn’t float your boat, there’s a delightful Aberdeen angus fillet you can devour for mains (veggie options come highly recommended too). Dessert of brownie in different guises and sensational sorbet bursting with berry flavours is the pièce de résistance.
Le Vivoir at Monastere des Augustine: a unique, holistic approach to both dinning and sleeping, a visit here in any capacity will leave you feeling blessed. That’s all thanks to the Augustinian sisters’ heritage which this restored monastery captures in bucketloads. Mindful eating is the name of the game at Le Vivoir, however you can only sample this local, seasonal produce as part of a wellness experience day pass (which includes access to the onsite museum) or if you’re staying here. Think an array of fresh salads, veggie side dishes, grilled chicken and seafood.
What to do in Québec City
Walking tour: take to the historic streets for a 2.5-hour stroll with Cicerone Tours that showcases everything this city has to offer. Visitors will learn the real reason why the statue of Champlain features the face of a French accountant, rather than his own, plus what the unique patterns on the pavements mean. You'll venture to both levels of QC and hear stories and secrets about its ancient buildings including the first Anglican cathedral outside of the British Isles, while a pitstop at the famous market square (Place Royale) will give you goosebumps – it's that exact spot where Champlain founded the city in the early 17th century.
Canyon Sainte-Anne: heading east just out of the city to Beaupré, visitors will come across one of the most breathtaking canyons in the world, and the oldest in Québec. Dug into a 12-billion-year-old rock, Canyon Sainte-Anne and its 243-foot (74m) waterfall are sights to behold. Stand on one of the three suspension bridges (the highest is at 197 feet/60m) and see if you can spot a double rainbow, said to be lucky, and only witnessed at certain times of the year. The trails at this incredible site are 60% wheelchair accessible, which is pretty impressive given the structure and different levels of the canyon.
READ MORE: 6 things to do in Québec City
Parc de la Chute Montmorency: on the approach from Charlevoix and Île d'Orléans (an island opposite Québec City), these mighty falls dominate the landscape and as you approach you can hear their roar. Taller than its more famous cousin Niagara Falls, this staggering 272-foot (83m) wall of water plunges from the mouth of the Montmorency River, over the cliff and into the St Lawrence. Head to the Baroness lookout point for the best views, or the suspension bridge – if you dare. Feeling extra brave? Take the 984-foot-long (300m) zipline across its path for a terrifying, leg dangling experience.
Fat biking: one to keep in mind for a winter visit, this unique tour on two wheels serves as a real adventure, particularly after thick snowfall. All the equipment can be hired from Tuque & Bicycle Experiences, who will take small groups (or you can travel on your own) around downtown and Old Québec, no matter what the terrain. Cameras at the ready.
A trip to Strøm Nordic Spa brings a whole new meaning to the word relaxation. Pools (including the largest infinity pool in Québec), hammocks, hanging chairs, mini waterfalls, Finnish sauna, floatation bath and open fire pits make for a tranquil space just outside of the city.
Lead image: iPIX Stock/Shutterstock
Lynne was a guest of Bonjour Québec, Tourisme Charlevoix and Destination Québec Cité.
Air Transat offers two directs flights from London Gatwick to Québec City every week, currently until September 2022.
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