Quebec City has great pastry, deep history, French speakers and an extra perk: proximity.
“Bonjour!” I said bouncily to the man working behind the pâtisserie counter, reveling in my opportunity to say one of the handful of French words I know, and ordered three delicate, brightly hued macaroons — coconut, strawberry and salted caramel, s’il vous plaît — in what was probably a very annoying and affected voice.
But I couldn’t help myself. I felt inspired inside the expansive farmers market, surrounded by bags of fresh cheese curds at La Fromagere, paper produce boxes filled with deep-green fiddlehead ferns, bottles of locally made rosé wine, and families chatting in beautiful French.
Was this the perfect picture of a Paris afternoon? Perhaps. But actually, no, it wasn’t. It was the North American version in Quebec City, Quebec.
I was made for European vacations, absolutely born for them. The history, the majesty, the pastry.
The problem? The cash. I don’t have a big enough pocketbook to jet over to Europe for the Grand Tour. Or even the Mediocre Tour.
Instead, my husband, daughter and I embarked on a trip north of the border filled with all things sort-of-French.
Usually costing more than $500, flights to Quebec City from Minneapols-St. Paul aren’t exactly tres inexpensive, but they ring up at least a grand less than most flights to Paris. That kind of savings can buy a lot of croissants — and sense of discovery.
“How does the radio speak French?” our 4-year-old daughter, Chloe, asked, incredulous when she caught a snippet of air time. I gave her an unsatisfying explanation that ended with, “Cool, huh?” Soon, I heard the radio announcer say something I understood amid a stream of incomprehensible French: “Kim Kardashian.” She was marrying Kanye West in Italy that weekend. Now that’s a family with no problem affording the Grand Tour.
Our fun started the moment we passed through the gray stone gates of the Old City and seemed to be suddenly transported to Europe.
A walled Old City
Quebec’s Old City is enclosed from its modern surroundings by large, well-preserved stone fortifications, making it the only fortified city in North America north of Mexico. In fact, the Historic District of Old Quebec is a UNESCO world heritage site.
Quebec City owes its place in colonial history to French navigator Samuel de Champlain, who founded the city in 1608 as the capital of New France because of its position on a cliff overlooking the mighty St. Lawrence River. Before long, fortifications, ramparts and a citadel were built, protecting Quebec City from potential invaders. The city eventually fell to the British during the French and Indian War, and still bears the marks of both French and British colonial architecture hundreds of years later.
As we made our way underneath the fortification’s grand St. John’s Gate, I was reminded of the only other walled city I had visited — York, England. It was the first of many times I would be reminded of Europe on this trip.
Almost everything about Old Quebec feels European, and not simply because its people speak French. The continental ambience comes from its cafes and pâtisseries, its beautifully preserved colonial buildings and the clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages. It comes from the rabbit warren of cobbled streets so long and steep that railings are affixed to the sides of buildings. It comes from the feeling that every stone, every narrow lane, every colorful shutter and awning is steeped in history and character.
After leaving our bags at the ideally located, Art Deco-style Hotel Clarendon, we walked to dinner. We paused for a few minutes along the way to marvel at a towering statue of Samuel de Champlain and the beautiful St. Lawrence River, and then boarded the funicular that connects the Old City’s upper and lower districts. The glass-walled tram slowly lowered us down over the rooftops of the Lower Town and into the Quartier du Petit Champlain, where charming shops and cafes make up the oldest commercial district in North America.
We strolled down the colorful, pedestrian-only Rue du Petit-Champlain, where ferns and flowers dripped from wrought-iron balconies, and settled on Le Lapin Sauté for dinner.
The restaurant’s specialty rabbit dishes and relaxed country-kitchen atmosphere managed to be both sophisticated for adults and welcoming to a 4-year-old. We opted for the rabbit poutine, a rich and delicious riff on Quebec’s favorite snack of french fries, gravy and cheese curds, topped with shredded rabbit. A glass of Quebec-made white wine and the charcuterie plank with smoked duck breast, rabbit rillettes, duck foie gras and carrot-and‑onion confit made for a perfect first evening in Quebec City.
“It’s just like being in Paris,” Pierre, the concierge at our hotel, enthused the next morning when we told him where we dined the night before. He nicknamed Chloe “Smiley Tornado” and gave us perfect directions and advice about wherever we wanted to visit.