Written in the cobblestone streets of Quebec City are stories about what life used to be like in the capital founded by French explorer Samuel de Champlain in 1608. Former prisons, castles and war zones have since transformed into the region’s most impressive and well-known attractions, bringing the region’s ancient history back to vibrant life. In partnership with Quebec City Tourism, we spoke with Marc Duchesne from Cicérone Tours to give us an insider’s look at some of the untold stories in the city that’s just hours away from Boston and New York.
Plains Of Abraham/Plaines d'Abraham
Like Central Park in New York City, the Plains of Abraham is a huge expanse of urban parkland where musicians like Bruno Mars, Lady Gaga and Bryan Adams perform. Situated within Battlefields Park, it’s enjoyed by millions of visitors and locals alike.
But this beautiful green oasis in the heart of the city was also the site of the Battle of Quebec in 1759, where a small but pivotal fight between the British and French went down as part of the Seven Years War.
“It took all of 20 minutes and both Generals died during the battle, but it determined the fate of Quebec,” says Duchesne. The British victory at the Plains of Abraham set the stage for Great Britain to claim much of the territory that would become Canada, and most of the colonized area that was then known as New France.
“Today, this is the city’s number one destination to jog, to relax and take in the sun, to picnic, or to cross-country ski and skate in the winter,” Duchesne says.
Arguably the most iconic building in Quebec City, the Château Frontenac is one of the most-photographed hotels in the world. It’s an unforgettable site that dominates the city skyline and has housed guests since it was built in 1893. Designated a national historic site of Canada in 1980, the hotel sees its share of visitors and guests, but few get to see its hidden treasures.
“Three months ago we started giving historic tours of the hotel, which allow visitors to enter some routinely off-limits spaces to tourists, like the ballroom and the chef’s rooftop garden, and get a better feel of the historic spirit of the place,” explains Duchesne. “After all, this is a place Princess Grace Kelly visited and where famous director Alfred Hitchcock shot ‘I Confess’ in 1952. There’s a lot of history here.”
One of the least known historical landmarks in the city, and one definitely worth visiting, is the Morrin Centre. Situated in Quebec City’s Anglo cultural centre, it’s the home of the English-language library of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec.
But the building wasn’t always dedicated to such lofty intellectual pursuits. If you were to descend into the basement, you’d discover that in its early years, it was Quebec’s first prison.
“Visitors can visit the jail cells and see where the prisoners were chained to the wall,” explains Duchesne. “Up until 1868 you could still see the gallows out front where they used to hang people, but they took them down eventually.”
The site later became Morrin College, Quebec City’s first English-language post-secondary school, which was affiliated with McGill University.
Maison Jacquet/Aux Anciens Canadiens
Since 1966, Aux Anciens Canadiens has been one of the most well-known restaurants in Quebec City, and perhaps Canada. The menu, boasting a decidedly Quebecois flair, is highlighted by items such as a grilled stag, Quebec meat pie or bison bourguignon with blueberry wine sauce. Presented to diners by servers in traditional garb, Aux Anciens Canadiens is a one-of-a-kind experience you can only have in Quebec City.
The iconic red-roofed building that Aux Anciens Canadiens calls home is the historic Jacquet House, a pre-Victorian structure and the oldest building in Quebec. Built in 1675 on a site given to Francois Jacquet by nuns of the Ursuline Convent, the house is actually quite small by today’s standards, but at the time was known as one of the largest built in “uppertown” Quebec.
“Some say General Montcalm actually died here, but there’s nothing really substantiating that claim,” Duchesne tells us. “Regardless, it’s well worth visiting.”
This is by no means is an exhaustive list of Québec City’s hidden treasures. To truly discover this region you’ll have to visit again. Cicérone Tours offers guided tours of the region’s most impressive and well-known attractions, with guides dressed as characters from New France. Québec City. So Europe. So close.