Inside the longhouse, all is quiet and dark, even at midday. My husband and I are sitting on a tree stump beside a fire, relishing the contemplative atmosphere — a relief after enduring the hustle and bustle of Chicago’s O’Hare Airport just hours before.
That’s one of the nice qualities of Quebec. It’s nearby, yet the French-speaking Canadian province feels a world apart. With cobblestone streets and old churches, the capital, Quebec City, seems like an immersion in Europe. The section designated Old Quebec, which has buildings that date to the 1600s, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Quebec is also a region of First Nations people — the natives who were living here when the French and British arrived — and we wanted to understand their history. That is why we began our trip at this longhouse, a replica of a traditional communal home for the Huron-Wendat people — one of the 11 First Nations who lived in eastern Canada long before Europeans arrived. Our host is a young First Nation storyteller who keeps our tea replenished and explains how the indigenous Wendat farmed, hunted and lived together in these bark-covered homes, where platform beds are covered with otter, beaver and other animal furs and women chiefs were the decisionmakers.
This particular structure, built of sticks and bark, stands next to the First Nations Hotel and Museum in Wendake, a First Nations reserve just outside Quebec City. The hotel, spa and museum on the banks of Akiawenrahk River focuses on Huron-Wendat culture, and offers overnight stays on fur-draped bunks. It also offers tastes of First Nations cuisine at its restaurant, La Traite.
Nearby historic sites include Notre-Dame-de-Lorette church (built in 1730), Kabir Kouba Cliff and Waterfall, Tsawenhohi House (completed in 1820 and home to several Grand Chiefs), as well as the Huron Traditional Site, where First Nations guides wearing traditional clothing give tours. After touring these spots, we boarded a shuttle to Quebec City and in a half-hour, were dropped off in front of the city’s landmark building, Le Château Frontenac, to begin our immersion in the European side of things.
Much of the city, which saw battles between the British, Americans and French, sits high above the St. Lawrence River. It boasts a working fort, La Citadelle de Quebec, along with three miles of ramparts and stone gates, making it the only fortified city north of Mexico.
A walkable city
For its hills and cobbled streets, the walkability is hard to beat. Divided into the fortified Upper Town (Haute-Ville) and Lower Town (Basse-Ville), Old Quebec is filled with cafes, restaurants, museums and hotels of every type, from bed-and-breakfasts in historic residences to luxury hotels, and it’s all easily accessible.
We stayed at Hôtel 71, down a steep hill in the quieter Old Port area. Like so many buildings here, this one has historic roots. The former headquarters of the National Bank of Canada, the neoclassical building sits just across the street from the Musée de la Civilization (Museum of Civilization).
After checking in and putting on comfortable shoes (an essential for traversing this city), we walked around the Old Port area, passing art galleries, then stopping at a friendly cafe. I thrilled to saying, “bonjour,” and ordering “cafe et un croissant,” although my American accent must have been obvious. The cheerful young man behind the counter answered in his equally limited English.
We passed city-sized cruise ships docked on the St. Lawrence River and continued to Lower Town, the oldest part of the city. We stopped at Place Royale, the heart of Old Quebec and the place where French explorer Samuel de Champlain settled after arriving in 1609 to establish New France. North America’s oldest stone church, Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, built in 1688, stands on the cobblestone square.
Later, at pedestrian-only Rue du Petit-Champlain, we climbed into the city’s famed funicular for a ride up a steep cliff to iconic hotel Château Frontenac.
Near the hotel, we walked down Promenade des Gouverneurs (Governors Walk), a boardwalk that offers views of the St. Lawrence River, the town and Laurentian Mountains across the river.
A bike ride, of course
Though Quebec City is hilly, the surrounding areas are fairly flat, and Quebec has a network of well-marked bike paths that spread for miles. On our second morning in the city, we borrowed bikes, helmets and locks from our hotel and rode about eight miles on paths to Montmorency Falls Park.
There, 275-foot-tall Montmorency Falls can be viewed via cable car and a suspension bridge, from a long set of stairs — or for the very brave, via zipline that crosses in front of the falls. We walked to the base of the falls and enjoyed beautiful, close-up views — for free.
One day, we also boarded the Bus Rouge (Red Bus) for a 90-minute hop-on, hop-off city tour that let us explore neighborhoods including hip Saint Roch and artsy Montcalm area. It also brought us through the Plains of Abraham and Battlefields Park, the site of the 1759 battle where the British defeated the French. Today the park hosts concerts and other events and is filled with gardens, nature paths, cross-country ski trails and a museum.
But for a deeper understanding of the city, we signed up for a free tour on our last full day there. At the Tourny Fountain, a beauty that stands in front of the majestic 1866 Parliament Building, we met the No. 1-rated walking guide in the city, Samuel Dubois. He’s a Quebec native — with bushy beard and red-and-black wool plaid shirt — with a wonderful sense of humor. Visitors are asked to pay what they’d like and to give him something from their city (we brought him a Chicago Bulls hat).
With his insider eye, our 90-minute tour included sites such as the Morrin Centre, a cultural headquarters that served as the city’s first prison and still bears marks on stone window frames where bars once kept people in.
Sam also brought us by the house where Alfred Hitchcock filmed his 1953 movie “I Confess,” about a man who confesses a murder to a local priest, who is then accused of the crime. In heavily Catholic Quebec, the script turned out to be scandalous, angering the famous filmmaker who vowed never to return to the city.
There’s more to do in Quebec. Parc National de la Jacques-Cartier is fairly close to the city, for instance. But we’ll save that for our next trip just across the U.S. border.
Writer Anne Stein lives in Evanston, Ill.