Weekend: Quebec City
In winter, a bobsled run at the foot of the Frontenac lets you feel the burn while dragging your sled to the top of the hill, shriek your head off plummeting to the bottom, and reward yourself with a calorie-soaked maple-sugar-on-ice treat. If you haven’t been seduced by the city yet, catch a nearby horse-drawn carriage, pull up the heavy fur blanket, and take a ride through snowy streets past the Provincial Parliament building.
There’s more than enough here to easily fill a weekend–and that’s without breaching the walls to explore the modern parts of the city, or investigating the clubby, restaurant-packed Grande-Allée that leads into Old Quebec. Designed for meandering, here are a few places to start; you’ll want to make your own discoveries.
Wrapped in its 18th-century fortified walls, the main streets of the old Upper Town are chock-full of eating, shopping, and general diversion. Rue St-Louis, with its mix of clever shops, offers a straight shot to the Frontenac past one of the city’s earliest houses, now the restaurant institution Aux Anciens Canadiens. In the shadow of the Frontenac, don’t miss the touristy but completely adorable “Painter’s Alley” (Rue de Tresor), with artists braving the cold to sell some decent and affordable prints. “It’s our little Montmartre,” says one of the locals.
Parallel to St-Louis, bustling Rue St-Jean is a major artery loaded with shops and restaurants, including the lively Pub Saint-Alexandre and the family-oriented Casse-Crêpe Breton, with its range of sweet and savory crepes. Since a number of the boutique hotels in town have in-room CD players, it’s a fun stop at music/bookstore Archambault for the latest releases and an entire section devoted to French Canadian music.
Just off St-Jean on Rue St-Stanislas is culinary gem Le Patriarche, specializing in wild game, where we have a transcendental experience in five courses. The meal unfolds like haiku, each course told in triplicate (sanglier, that’s wild boar, presented in three tiny, exquisitely different versions). Midway through the meal, a palate-cleansing cranberry granita is, thankfully, limited to a thimbleful, because its crunchy tang is addictive.
Finally, tucked away down on Rue Couillard is my favorite Québecois café–Chez Temporel. I stumbled onto this student-soaked haven years ago, with its steamy windows and generous bowls of café au lait. “Any revolution starts at the Temporel,” says our knowledgeable guide, and God knows I’d sign just about any petition if I could sink my teeth into another gooey croissant-and-cheese sandwich.
Gliding down into Lower Town via funicular is like descending into the soul of a little French village. Take a sharp right onto one of the oldest and prettiest streets in North America, Rue du Petit-Champlain, or go straight onto Rue Sous-le-Fort, a postcard-perfect street with several high-end shops. At Atelier la Pomme, dueling designers refashion recycled clothing and get crazy with fur. If your inner Daniel Boone needs a boost, La Chasse-Galerie offers serious knives, fur hats, leather jackets, and slingshots with little carved bear heads.
Just around the corner, Rue Notre-Dame takes you along to Place-Royale, a French-medieval-style stone square (rebuilt from the original plans) lifted straight from central casting. From here, heading north, you can visit the offbeat Museum of Civilization, which on any given day may have an exhibit on, say, space aliens, in addition to a very thorough permanent display on the history of the city.
Or stroll along Rue St-Paul, a densely packed “antiques corridor,” and home to Le Café St-Malo, where a crazed French chef will cook you a “bouillabaisse to remember.” Farther down the street is my favorite upscale T-shirt shop, Le Roquet, where tight-fitting tees feature bandito cats and philosophical carrots.
Heading south again, a midday stop at Le Petit Cochon Dingue lets you check out the Christmas decorations (rolling pins), sample country-style soup with a slice of quiche, and take a gander at the fresh gateaux and tartlettes, including the tempting Québécois specialty, tarte au sucre (sugar pie).