Discover the charm and secrets of Old Québec, 400 years in the making
The statue of Champlain near the Champlain Monument, recognizing the city as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Jeff Frenette Photography)
As you overlook the St. Lawrence River from the fortified walls of Old Québec it's impressive to imagine the vision of French explorer Samuel de Champlain. He came ashore here on July 3, 1608 to nothing and founded a settlement that would eventually become the city of Québec, the capital of New France and the epicentre of the French Empire in the New World.
For the next 400 years Québec would be the site of countless events, which shaped North America’s destiny. Happily for visitors today much of that historical legacy is celebrated and captured by Parks Canada.
Explore the Fortifications
Explore the Fortifications of Québec National Historic Site by walking the ramparts and you will get a deeper insight into the history and rich military past of Québec City. A guided tour will also allow you to visit areas not open to the general public, such as a soldier's casemate and a powder magazine. The tours depart from the Château Frontenac Kiosk on the Dufferin Terrace, right outside of the stunning Chateau Frontenac, which dominates the skyline of Québec.
Admission to the Fortifications of Québec National Historic Site (and all Parks Canada National Historic Sites and Parks) is free in 2017 as part of Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations. (Regular fees still apply for other experiences such as guided tours.)
Explore Historic Sites
Once you finish your tour, meander over to Place Royale. It’s the actual spot where Champlain, known affectionately as the Father of New France, founded the city. The architecture of the Musée de la Place-Royale is perfect for Instagram-worthy photos to capture the moment. As you wander, look closely around the Samuel de Champlain Heritage Site; the darker paving stones indicate where he built his second “habitation.”
In 1609, Champlain made contact and formed friendly relations with many of the local First Nations people, the Huron, the Algonquin, the Montagnais and the Etchemin. He needed them to secure France's hold on this part of the New World. To understand the culture of the original inhabitants of the area, take a few hours and include a visit to the Wendake area, home to the Huron-Wendat Nation. This thriving community is 15 minutes away by car from Old Québec, and is home to artists and artisans, local galleries, arts and crafts shops. It will give you a hands-on insight into Québec’s rich indigenous heritage. Be sure to also check out the Onhoüa Chetek8e Traditional Huron Site, an authentic reconstruction of a Huron village to learn about their history and traditional way of life.
Champlain’s efforts and alliances allowed Québec to grow and thrive over 150 years, but in 1760 New France came under British rule with the end of the Siege of Québec and the famous 1759 clash between Montcalm’s French Army and General Wolfe’s English forces, known as the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. The Plains are now a wide-open space used for numerous festivals include the Québec City Summer Festival, which brings in world-class musicians from around the globe.
Visit the Citadelle & Musée Royal 22e Régiment
History buffs can continue their exploration by visiting the Citadelle, the only British-built fortress in North America.
Nicknamed the "Gibraltar of America,” this National Historic Site was constructed by the British between 1820 and 1850. It is only one of four places in the world that have a British changing of the guard ceremony in summer, alongside London and Windsor in the United Kingdom and Canada’s capital city of Ottawa. The Citadelle is the home of the Royal 22e Régiment and of the governor general, when visiting Québec. It is also part of the larger Historic District, occupying 1/5 of the Old Québec, which along with the Fortifications of Québec National Historic Site, resulted in UNESCO bestowing its World Heritage Site designation upon the old town in 1985.
Stroll Old Québec
When you are done exploring the 4.6 kilometres of walls and gates that surround the city, make sure to take time to stroll the historic streets of Old Québec. With its shops, restaurants and tiered, narrowed streets it will make you feel like you have stepped back in time. Reminiscent of a European village, the area is charming year-round, whether canopied with the leafy greens of summer or covered in a layer of powdery white snow.
The history of Québec’s founder, Samuel de Champlain, the country’s original inhabitants and the English who followed is so intricately woven through the cultural tapestry of Québec City that a visit here can only leave you with a deeper appreciation of our roots. A great reason to travel here at any time but in this, Canada’s 150th birthday year and with the Parks Canada free admission birthday gift to everyone, it is a must.
(Jeff Frenette Photography)