aerial view of montreal
Say bonjour to Old Quebec. | Photo by Mélanie Jean, courtesy of Destination Québec Cité
Say bonjour to Old Quebec. | Photo by Mélanie Jean, courtesy of Destination Québec Cité

Feast Your Eyes on Quebec City, Canada's Endlessly Charming Sleeper Hit

How much poutine is too much poutine?

Oh, Canada—the land of wide open spaces, glimmering downtown skylines, and a multicultural makeup with roots that stretch all over the globe. Vancouver, with its lush forests and crunchy reputation, is a nature lover’s paradise; Calgary is big with the cowpokes; Toronto is the New York of the north; and Montreal’s European mindset makes it a fine contender for the continent’s most metropolitan locale. But Quebec City? Where’s that again?

The province’s eponymous capital, just north of New Hampshire, has a year-round population just shy of 500,000, but what it lacks in numbers, it more than makes up for in character. Its centuries-old, well-preserved history is evident everywhere you look, from the bell-topped churches and thundering cannons protecting the old walled city to the dive bars spilling out onto Rue Saint-Roch. Cultural experiences similarly lurk around every corner, whether you’re hoping to get schooled in modern design or walk in the footsteps of the Indigenous peoples that first called the patch of riverfront land home. And if it’s good food and stellar accommodations you’re after, you won’t have to look far—unparalleled hospitality and farm-fresh eats are two things Quebecers pride themselves on.

So next time you find yourself considering a trip—or perhaps even something more permanent—across the border, set your sights on Quebec City, a small urban enclave with the heart of a lion and the goods to back it up. Here’s everything you need to know.

Hundreds of years of history lurk around every corner. | Photo by Mélanie Jean, courtesy of Destination Québec Cité

Get your steps in on a walking tour of Old Quebec

The best way to get to know Quebec’s famous Historic District (a UNESCO World Heritage Site, no less) is via a guided tour. There are several organized tours to choose from, but local expert Mr. Tommy Byrne will assuredly fix you up right. He’ll start you up at the tippy top of a hill with unparalleled views of the St. Lawrence river, near the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, a massive hotel with deep roots in the fortified Old City. Speaking of fortification, here’s a fun fact: Spanning nearly 335 acres, the Old City is actually the most fully intact fortified town north of Mexico, a tribute to the brilliant architects behind what was once known as New France.

As you slowly make your way down the sloping sidewalk from Upper Town, you’ll be treated to a cornucopia of fairytale visuals, from sturdy rampart walls and cannons displaying coats of arms to ornate churches and leafy sidestreets. Down below, antique shops rub elbows with traditional restaurants and cafes, while museums further illuminate Quebec City’s past. All the while, Byrne is on hand to interpret the scenery enveloping you, tracing the region’s history from the First Nations through French colonialism, British rule, and, finally, the modern era. 

Don’t miss the Quebec City Mural, a massive, hand-painted tribute to the city that stands just down the way from the infamously tricky Escalier Casse-Cou (AKA Breakneck Steps). Another highlight is the Funiculaire du Vieux-Quebec, an old-fashioned funicular tramway that shuttles riders from the top of the city down to the bottom—safely avoiding those treacherous stairs.

Auberge Saint-Antoine hotel entrance
Old meets new at Auberge Saint-Antoine. | Auberge Saint-Antoine

Post up a luxe historic hotel

Like any metropolitan destination, you’ll find a wide assortment of places to stay in Quebec City, from familiar chains to ornate palaces fit for (and often booked by) international celebrities and politicians. For the best of both worlds, check out the Auberge Saint-Antoine, perched a few blocks back from the St. Lawrence River on the edge of the undeniably romantic Old City. 

The Saint-Antoine is composed of three distinct buildings combined into one, the result of a demolition project that unearthed a vast quantity of fascinating artifacts. And it’s those artifacts that make the hotel the interesting and unique lodging it is; stashed around the grounds (many illuminated in wall-affixed shadow boxes), 17th-century crystal coupes and bits of earthenware or textiles visually weave together Quebec City’s complicated past. The decor, fittingly, is both modern and traditional, with neutral tones interrupted by bright reds, large plush beds flanked by carved wood wardrobes, and ample built-in bars. Heated bathroom floors and deep soaking tubs provide respite from the unpredictable weather, while large private balconies add a muted air of sophistication.

Onsite opportunities to eat and drink abound, from Chez Muffy’s tastefully rustic digs to Bar Artefact, the lobby-level watering hole that’s equal parts inviting and upmarket. Be sure to chat cocktails with the bar manager, Felix, who will undoubtedly set you up right.

person holding platter
You almost need tweezers just to eat it. | Chez Rioux & Pettigrew

Load up on hyper-local cuisine at buzzy restaurants

Quebec City’s fixation on eating (and drinking, shopping, partying, and staying) local is nothing short of fanatical. And there’s no better place to experience this welcome zealotry than at one of the area’s many top restaurants. 

In the Old City, Chez Rioux & Pettigrew is a fantastic place to start. The seasonal hotspot’s vintage, old-world aesthetic contrasts cheekily with the contemporary, forward-thinking menu. Treat yourself to an Espresso Acertini, a play on the uber-trendy Espresso Martini, drawing on espresso, coffee liqueur, Madagascar vanilla, and acerum, an up-and-coming regional spirit made from distilled maple syrup. As for food, the bill takes guests on a whimsical journey through area farms and other producers via coursed options that run the gamut from bread made with organic Quebec cream to a freshly caught flounder dressed with beurre blanc and locally harvested seaweed.

For something a touch more out of the ordinary, book a table at Tanière³, the recent recipient of a 5-diamond rating from CAA-AAA. The experiential eatery literally guides guests from one room to another as they ply them with cheffy, artfully plated, and painstakingly designed treats. The blind tasting format keeps even returning crowds on their toes, from the moment they down the amuse—Arctic char flecked with spruce and activated charcoal, perhaps—to the last nibble of sweet mignardises (truffles laced with haskap berry or ginger and bee pollen).

Looking for something a little more low-key? Head to Saint-Roch, a homey hipster haven with an abundance of brewpubs, ramen shops, and other laid-back options. While there, don’t miss La Cuisine, a quirky outpost serving up comfort dishes, beer, and wine in what appears to be a converted house. The tangerine walls, cornucopia of knicknacks, and open vintage kitchen guarantee each bowl of French onion soup arrives with a hefty side of nostalgia. 

As for poutine, that ever-craveable amalgamation of hot, thick-cut French fries, squishy cheese curds, and fragrant, savory gravy, Quebec City is your veritable oyster. Polished burger joint Le Chic Shack makes a mean gourmet version while Poutineville takes a DIY approach, stocking more than 40 toppings and 11 different cheeses for your mix-and-match pleasure. Back in Saint-Roch, Chez Gaston’s diner-style version packs quite the gut punch, regional chain Chez Ashton exemplifies the “if it ain’t broke” ethos in the best way possible, and Casse-Croûte Pierrot keeps the poutine party going 24 hours a day. Can’t get enough? Neither can Quebecers—just about every major fast food franchise in Quebec proudly lists poutine on their menu, including McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, A&W, Dairy Queen, and PFK (that’s Québécois for KFC).

people sitting on grass
Smell some flowers, frolic in fields, get a little tipsy… | Vignoble Isle de Bacchus

Drink your way around pastoral l'Île d'Orléans

A short drive from the heart of Quebec City, along the cascading hillside and over the mighty Île d'Orléans Bridge, lies the picturesque Île d'Orléans in the middle of the river. The island is a food- and drink-enthusiasts’ paradise, lined with family-run wineries, cideries, orchards, cafes, farmers markets, and even a cassis producer that makes good use of the land’s penchant for growing plump black currants. 

Start your day trip at Cassis Monna et Filles. The bi-level distillery and restaurant whips up an array of cassis, the black currant-based liqueur mentioned above. Sip through the full flight—each bottle boasting layers of sweet, tart, spiced, and boozy flavors—before heading upstairs to the scenic restaurant overlooking the rolling fields below. All-currant-everything tops the menu, with sandwiches, hearty entrees, and, of course, dessert showcasing the prized fruit. If you leave without trying the homemade black currant soft serve ice cream, you’ll surely regret it—no matter how brisk the weather outside.

Later, pop into the Isle of Bacchus, a pioneering Quebec winery with a substantial cellar and a friendly staff that’ll be more than happy to show you around. The enterprising operation offers locally harvested and fermented reds, whites, and rosés, alongside the region’s ever-popular ice wine, a syrupy sweet-style made from late-season grapes (they’re left out to freeze after the first frost sets in, resulting in their requisite high sugar content). Be sure to pick up a few bottles of your favorite before making your way back to the mainland.

But before you leave, stop off at the village of Sainte-Pétronille on the island’s western edge. There, you can pose for a selfie against a sweeping backdrop that features the stunning Chute Montmorency (AKA Montmorency Falls), a thundering waterfall and popular hiking destination just across the St. Lawrence. Or you can simply pause to bask in its glory, sans camera phone.

museum interior
Forget what you thought you knew about curation. | Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec (MNBAQ)

Go behind the scenes at a captivating museum

Like art? Care for some culture? You’re not alone. The showstopping Musée Nationale des Beaux-arts de Québec (or MNBAQ) is not to be overlooked, with its massive and far-reaching collection of paintings, sculptures, and other creative expressions from the province and beyond. Expect a lesson in art history, dating to Quebec’s 17th century origins and running all the way up through the modern era, with plenty of thought-provoking exhibitions—including a standout Inuit art display—along the way.

Elsewhere, the Grand Théâtre de Québec is a recently renovated performing arts venue with gorgeous facilities and a star-studded roster. Constructed by Polish architect Victor Prus in his signature brutalist style, it debuted for the Confederation Centennial in 1971. The 2020 renovation kept the majority of the original details intact, wrapping the building in a shimmering glass veil that both protects the design’s historic integrity and pushes it in a futuristic direction. On any given evening across the theater’s two main stages, you can catch the opera, symphony, ballet, or a play, in addition to big-name touring acts like legendary songstress Martha Wainwright and classic rock gods Kansas to hometown hero Celine Dion.

To dip your toes into slightly more offbeat waters, schedule a stop at the Musée de Fort. The modest Old City storefront museum houses a tiny, 400-square-foot, to-scale model of the surrounding historic district, complete with a sound and light show detailing each of the six sieges that threatened the walled metropolis. While temporarily shuttered, its highly anticipated return is well worth the wait if you’re drawn to hidden gems (just don’t forget your glasses).

people sitting around fire
Shine a light on some knowledge. | Onhwa' Lumina

Learn about the Wendat Nation on a star-lit night walk

The story of Quebec’s Indigenous population is integral to the city’s labyrinthine evolution, shaping everything from its culinary heritage, early industry, and agriculture to its military endeavors and periods of European occupation. Get up close and personal with the region’s Indigenous culture with a visit to Wendake, a nearby village celebrating the ancestral life and customs of the Wendat Nation. 

A living history site of sorts, Wendake’s current crown jewel is the Onwha’ Lumina, a glowing walkway stretching just shy of three quarters of a mile. A mix of glowing lights, sound, and video projections bring the illuminated footpath to life beneath the starry skies, immersing guests in the history of the Huron-Wendat people. During daylight hours, tours of traditionally constructed buildings—plus handicraft workshops, storytelling, song and dance performances, and art exhibitions—round out Wandake’s stacked bill of offerings.

people cheersing glasses
Saint-Roch is the neighborhood for cheersing. | St-Roch Québec

Shop, party, and people-watch in trendy Saint-Roch

If you brew it, they will come—at least, that’s one theory behind centrally situated Saint-Roch’s transformation from a rough-around-the-edges industrial corridor to a lively hangout for young professionals and the aging faithful alike. Located just outside the walls of the Old City, the neighborhood buzzes with energy from the minute the sleek, third wave coffee shops like Maelstrøm open their doors each morning until the last remaining karaoke-belter hangs up their mic late into the night. 

Like the rest of Quebec City, Saint-Roch is supremely walkable, and it’s easy to spend an afternoon wandering in and out of the breweries, specialty shops, vintage stores, and cafes set up along the broad avenues. 

Here, funky eateries like the aforementioned La Cuisine, sandwich specialist Phil Smoked Meat, and humbly elevated bistro l’Affair est Ketchup rub elbows with lauded fine dining establishments like Battuto and JJacques. The wood-fired pies at Nina Pizza Napolitaine can throw down with New York’s finest, and if you’re looking for quality Japanese fare, check out Torii Izakaya

Thirsty? Quebecers love their beer, and Saint-Roch is ground zero when it comes to the sudsy stuff. Dating to 1997, La Barberie holds court as the area’s craft elder statesmen, but despite its senior-citizen status, its innovative fleet is anything but stuck in the mud. From jet-black stouts to fruit-forward sours to crispy lagers and citrus bomb IPAs, there’s something for everyone. (During the summer months, look out for the frozen Ultraslush Raptor.) 

Other worthy players include the charmingly old-school La Korrigane and the clever, cat-themed Noctem Artisans Brasseurs. For cocktails, MacFly Bar Arcade blends bargain mixed drinks with retro pinball machines, and Maelstrøm is caffeinated by day and boozy by night. And if you want a real-deal Quebecer experience, duck into Taverne Jos Dion, a cozy walk-through pub that has been peddling imperial quarts of beer (AKA “pintes”) and salty smoked meat since 1933.

helicopter over city
It’s like getting mountain views without the sweaty hiking. | Complexe Capitale Hélicoptère

Get the lay of the land from a private helicopter

No matter the season, Quebec City’s diverse urban landscape and surrounding natural topography is best enjoyed from above—far, far above in a state of the art helicopter, that is. Book a ride with Complexe Capitale Hélicoptère and take to the skies for a thrilling and incredibly scenic expedition. You’ll soon be gazing down at Montmorency Falls and the mighty St. Lawrence River, zooming over the Old City’s majestic architecture, and soaring past the vineyards dotting Île d’Orléans. The launch pad shares space with the airport, so it makes for an excellent farewell tour before heading back home.

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Meredith Heil is the Editorial Director of Thrillist Travel.