Most New Year’s I find myself in a new city, part of a tradition my husband and I established long ago to see how the world celebrates. A couple of years ago, we decided to give Quebec City a try. We chose the old town for its storybook charm and the opportunity it afforded to speak French with the locals. Rumor had it that the weather could be witheringly cold. But, we packed up our warmest clothes anyway, hopped on a plane and headed north.
The day we arrived a cold air mass swept southward from the Arctic, driving the temperatures down to a frigid minus 5° Fahrenheit and below. As we exited the plane, the air sliced into our faces, prompting the flight attendant to shake her head sympathetically. Turns out we were in good company. Even the Canadians were feeling the chill.
Quebec City is located on the banks of the St. Lawrence River and is one of the oldest cities in North America. Founded in 1608 by French settlers, it is the only walled city left in the Americas north of Mexico.
The older part of the city is referred to as Vieux Québec. European in flavor, it takes its cues from French architectural style. There are narrow cobblestoned streets, numerous Catholic churches and countless centuries-old stone and wood houses built in the New France Style. (An adaptation of early French home forms to Quebec’s harsh winter climate.)
The majestic Chateau Frontenac (the world’s most photographed hotel) sits atop the city’s highest point, the cliffs of Cap Diamants, from where it dominates the skyline. The wood plank Dufferin Terrace winds about the back of the hotel. From its perch on the cliff edge, the terrace provides sweeping views of the St. Lawrence River as well as easy access to the Citadelle, a fortress whose original ramparts still surround much of the city.
On our first day, we awoke to temperatures hovering around -5° Fahrenheit. So we bundled up in everything we owned (which for me included two coats) and joined the holiday throng moving at a brisk pace through the narrow winding streets of the city.
Heading downhill from Quebec’s upper town, we arrived within minutes in the Quartier Petit Champlain, North America’s oldest neighborhood and the site of Quebec’s first port. The area boasts some of the original houses constructed soon after French explorer Samuel de Champlain chose the area in 1608 as the site for New France’s first permanent settlement.
Today the quaint neighborhood streets are lined with colorful art galleries, boutiques, restaurants and bistros. We stopped briefly in front of Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, a stone church erected in 1688 atop the ruins of Champlain’s first outpost. The one-room church is so named in recognition of how the Virgin Mary, on two separate occasions, protected Quebec City from danger. It presides over the square called Place Royale.
From the Petit Champlain, we headed over to the Musée de la Civilisation, a modern, interactive museum, which includes, among other interesting exhibits, a comprehensive history of Quebec with lots of great visuals.
A few steps away from the museum, we found the Café du Monde, a spacious Parisian style brasserie located on the waterfront in the Terminal des Croisières. A grand circular stair led to a glittering, mirrored space with banks of windows overlooking the St. Lawrence. While we dined on oysters and fresh regional salads, we struck up a conversation in a mix of English and French with fellow diners, who offered us insights into what to see and do in Quebec.
After lunch we wound our way back along the cobblestoned streets and up the steep staircase known as ‘L’Escalier Casse-Cou’ (Break Neck Stairs) to the aforementioned Dufferin Terrace. The terrace is named after Lord Dufferin, the governor of Canada from 1872 to 1878, who fought against the demolition of the Citadelle. It is thanks to his efforts that the remains of the original fort can still be seen today.
That evening, we had dinner on the Rue Saint Louis at Aux Anciens Canadiens, described as a “Bastion of Canadian Country Cooking.” The tiny establishment comprises two buildings, one dating back to 1675 and the founding of the original French Regime. Specialties of the house include bison, caribou, deer and wapiti, meat pies and Grandma’s original pea soup. We ordered deer with blueberry sauce and chicken and ratatouille and capped off the evening with homemade vanilla ice cream drizzled with fresh maple syrup followed by shots of vodka and cranberry (a tradition of the house.)
We awoke to another almost unbearably frigid morning (this time the temperature read -10° F.) Since walking around outside for more than a few minutes seemed out of the question, we rented a car and headed off to Montmorency Falls, which is located just a few minutes from Quebec City.
Montmorency Falls is the largest waterfall on the Montmorency River. At 275 feet high, the falls are the highest in Quebec, measuring over 98 feet higher than those of Niagara. Champlain named them after Henri II, duc de Montmorency, who served as viceroy of New France from 1620 until 1625.
The falls pour with fury over a cliff into a basin before cascading down into the St. Lawrence River. At the time of our visit, much of the basin was frozen. Defying all logic, we took a lift up where we joined a few other brave souls surveying the falls from a suspended bridge. Here, we were rewarded with roaring jets of frothy white water spewing from enormous jigsaw-shaped pieces of ice. A series of tantalizing pathways fanned outwards from the bridge to the Montmorency Park, which we agreed would be a beautiful place to visit under more favorable conditions.
On the way back into the city we drove by the Plains of Abraham, an historic battlefield located on the Cape Diamond to the west of Chateau Frontenac. The broad grassy plain was the scene of a 1759 battle between the British and French that left control of Quebec City to the British. Today the park comprises 12 km of ski trails for cross country skiers and provides a venue for outdoor concerts and other festivals.
Up on the Grande Allée, one of the city’s most popular squares, preparations were underway for a large-scale New Years Eve party. We saw restaurants heating up their outdoor patios on the periphery as workers erected a large soundstage and dance floor. A sparkling Ferris wheel dominated one corner of the square.
We rang in the New Year with a sumptuous seven-course dinner at Le Patriarche, located adjacent to the Porte Saint-Jean, one of two surviving entrances to the old city. The restaurant is situated in a small stone home built in the early 1800’s. The menu adheres to the “Rule of Three” administered by its executive chef who concocts savory combinations of flavors in triplet for each course. Specialties of the house include game and foie gras. We dined on Calville Bay’s oysters, sea-urchin soup, foie gras on brioche, rabbit with Japanese artichoke, seabream with fennel and Waguy beef and capped off the evening with a citrus ice followed by a warm dark chocolate soufflé.
Snow was just beginning to fall as we heard the first fireworks explode up on the Grande Allée. As thick white flakes began to dust the centuries old architecture, it wasn’t hard to imagine the first settlers enjoying their own New Year’s eves, so many centuries ago.
The flakes continued to fall over night and we awoke on New Year’s Day to a snowstorm though, strangely, the temperature had risen by 20 degrees. The tiny streets were now filled with boisterous crowds in full winter gear, boots crunching on the snow-packed ground. We trudged up the hill to the Chateau Frontenac to sample the hotel’s renowned afternoon Wine and Cheese Tasting held in a beautiful circular bar with views out onto the river.
The lobby was teeming with people and in every direction we could see neat rows of illuminated trees extending down the long hotel hallways. At the cozy bar, we settled into a pair of large leather chairs by the fire. Here, we sampled a selection of local cheeses paired with red wine and coffee and sat back to savor the international flavor of the crowd.
Although we hardly had any appetite left at all, we agreed it would be a shame to miss dinner at Le Saint-Amour, considered one of the most romantic restaurants in Quebec. Chef and co-owner Jean-Luc Boulay was voted best chef in Quebec and is famous for his culinary skills with duck foie gras.
The ultra-chic restaurant shines with its beautiful and eclectic décor, including a 35’ tall main dining room embellished with glossy red woodwork, gold rococo-style mirrors and original works of art. Enormous planters filled with ferns hang from the ceiling and a large living tree occupies the dining room’s center.
The friendly staff served us an exceptional meal of scallops on Parmesan risotto and Arctic char with crispy shallots; the latter accompanied by Beluga lentils and local vegetables presented in a tiny brass pot. We capped off our final evening in Quebec with the chef’s dessert sampler consisting of miniature macaroons in all flavors, pairs of chocolate domes, mini chocolate ice cream sandwiches on sticks and small goblets of mousse with strawberries. OH, and the best mini chocolate chip cookies we had ever tasted.
There are so many great restaurants to try in Quebec City as well as cafés and bistros serving top-notch fare. My list is by no means exhaustive and was constricted only by the length of our visit and the size of my waistline. For other great suggestions when planning your next trip go to tripadvisor.com.
This article has been updated December 2018. For more information on Quebec City and its many festivals (in all seasons) check out the upcoming Winter Festival in February.
Looking for other great New Year’s ideas in Canada? Check out these top ten places to celebrate at CanadianAffair.com.