Last week, I jetted off to Québec City on an impromptu vacation. Looking for a getaway within driving distance, my boyfriend and I decided to drive up to French-speaking Canada and spend three days. Québec City has a rich culture and heritage as well as a fantastic food scene. Thanks to all who followed the trip on my Instagram! This is my first long-form travel post, I hope you enjoy my guide to 3 days in Québec City.
Day 1: Anthony’s Perfect Day
In my research preparing for the trip, I stumbled across Anthony Bourdain’s Perfect Day in Quebec. I am a huge fan of Anthony, may he rest in peace, and we decided to pay tribute to him by replicating his “perfect day” as closely as possible.
Stop 1: Bügel, the bagel factory
The moment we stepped in the shop, I felt my pace slow down considerably. There were empty tables here, with space to spare! Drink your coffee, enjoy the morning, and breakfast will be ready when it’s ready. You might have to wait longer, but oh it is so worth it.
I’ve lived in NYC for the past 7 years, suffice to say that my bagel standards are pretty high. I ordered “Le Poussin végétarien au chèvre”: a crispy sesame seed bagel topped with locally-sourced ingredients including vegetable spread, goat and Swiss cheeses, red onions, and a runny-yolked fried egg on top, with a side of fresh fruit, real butter, and homemade jam. Bügel’s bagels were thinner and crispier than their New York counterparts, and the toppings were fresh, savory, herby, and cheesy. Needless to say, we left Bügel’s feeling very satisfied and very full.
Stop 2: The Plains of Abraham
Maybe it was the word “plain” that fooled me, but I imagined Québec’s largest park to be flat. Instead, we were greeted with rolling hills and winding paths, providing excellent views of the St. Lawrence river. The numerous hiking trails were still covered with slow-melting patches of snow and while this did not deter the locals, it was more than my gym sneakers could handle. I did enjoy seeing the old cannons and towers that commemorate the battle lost here against the British. Unfortunately spring might be the worst time to visit this park – it was too cold with just enough snow remaining on the ground to hinder a comfortable walk, but not enough snow for fun winter activities like skiing or skating.
Stop 3: Upper Town (Dufferin Terrace, Chateau Frontenac, Notre Dame de Québec)
Exiting the plains, we crossed the grey stone wall that separates Old Québec from the rest of the city, making Québec the only fortified city north of Mexico with its walls intact. Everything inside the wall is a UNESCO heritage site, which means that the outside building architecture can’t be changed. In this sense, the old city is like walking through living history (even if that history now houses a McDonalds).
A stop at the imposing Chateau Frontenac is a must, and you can’t miss it – the chateau is definitely the architectural piece that defines this city, dwarfing all other buildings with its conical brick towers and green-gabled roofs. It used to be the governor’s house and a center for the Allies to strategize during WWII; today it is credited as the most photographed hotel in the world. Outside on the wooden Dufferin Terrace you can see the river and lower town, or ride the funicular and even toboggan down the hill (in the winter only, sadly). Visitors can enter the chateau and see the first floor, so we stopped in to warm up with a beverage but, to my dismay, found that the only coffee shop inside was a Starbucks.
We next wandered the narrow, twisting streets of the Upper Town for a bit, taking in the brick buildings with multi-colored roofs (apparently color was used to indicate where the snow ended and the roof began). We made a stop at the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre Dame, the oldest church in Canada (1647), which has a stunning interior.
Stop 4: Buffet L’Antiquaire
This mellow diner serves breakfast all day alongside traditional Québecois food, with some daily specials. I still wasn’t too hungry after the enormous breakfast – guess I can’t eat like Anthony yet – but I ordered a cream of mushroom soup anyway.
My expectations for the soup were not particularly high – it’s just soup after all, a filler between larger breakfast and dinner. Really, I was only here because it was on the itinerary. But with the first spoonful, I realized that this was not Campbell’s cream of mushroom – it was so rich, so creamy, so far above my expectations. Would it be too much to say that it was the best mushroom soup I’ve tasted? I don’t think so.
Stop 5: Lower Town (Place Royal, Le Petit Champlain)
Veering from the itinerary a bit, we took a post-lunch walk around Québec’s Lower Town, passing through the historic Place Royal. This square was the site of the first French settlement in North America, founded by Samuel Champlain himself. It makes you wonder what could have been if the French hadn’t lost Canada to the British…
The Lower Town is a great place to appreciate art, buy local products, view surprisingly realistic frescoes, and pick up touristy souvenirs. Rue du Petit-Champlain is an utterly charming row of boutiques, restaurants, and shops decorated year-round as though Christmas were coming tomorrow. We passed through several galleries with a range of work both serious and whimsical, and stopped by stores selling maple and apple products. The street is geared towards tourists, but it’s hard to resist its appeal nevertheless.
Stop 6: Transport Break (Ferry to Lévis & Funicular)
The itinerary next recommended taking the commuter ferry to Lévis, the town directly across the way, for views of the Québec “skyline” and the river. The gray overcast sky and chilled wind whipping across the top deck made it hard to enjoy the 12-minute trip across (we were the only fools out there, with the more savvy tourists and locals comfortably inside the warm boat). From this view, the Chateau Frontenac looks especially grand and you can see why, with stark cliffs above the wide river, this area was of strategic importance.
Upon returning to Lower Town, this time wisely within the warm confines of the boat, we took the funicular up the cliffside. This 60-second ride lifts you through gabled rooftops, providing another perspective of the city. The ride is best as a way to get to the Upper Town without having to trudge up the hill, but don’t go out of your way for it.
Stop 7: Maison de la Littérature
The Roman Catholic influence is strong here, where it seems as though there’s a church on every corner. The city can no longer sustain all the churches though, so it’s a recent trend that closed churches are renovated and turned into libraries. One of these is the Maison de la Littérature, a cultural center for all things francophone. The tall Gothic windows and whitewashed walls make the space a bright and relaxing place to read French language books, or simply use the internet.
Stop 8: Chez Boulay
Chez Boulay Bistro celebrates Québécois and Nordic traditions by leveraging locally-sourced foods. All of the ingredients used are gathered, hunted, or farmed in Québec provinces, which means their menu is graced with many ingredients I’d never heard of, like cattail hearts, chokeberries, pine forest spikenard, hemp oil, and birch syrup.
After starting with a local cheese platter served with corn bread and honey, I opted for the spelt risotto croquettes, lightly fried, served on a bed of roasted leek, smothered in smoked hollandaise sauce, and accompanied by tender, juicy, out-of-this-world mushroom nougatine. The mushrooms were, hands down, the best food I ate all trip.
It was a meal that makes you wonder what we could accomplish if, instead of shipping products around the world in a scramble to have everything at our fingertips year-round, we tapped our creativity and ate the bounty in our backyard. Would our food be better? Our health? Our planet?
Thank you Anthony, for leaving behind this legacy that we can continue to enjoy.
Day 2: Saint-Roch & Food Tour
Québec embraces its French roots for more than just language – it’s also home to numerous patisseries and bakeries. Le Croquembouche, located in the trendy Saint-Roche neighborhood, boasted a dessert display that looked like how I imagined the “French patisserie window” they’re always talking about on the Great British Baking Show, except with notably more products that include maple syrup.
Day 2 was off to a great start with a flaky, gooey chocolate-almond croissant while David tried a sticky-sweet maple pecan pastry. After breakfast, we strolled down Rue Saint-Joseph-Est, the heart of Saint-Roch, longingly taking in the number of eye-catching restaurants and bars that I wouldn’t have time to visit.
The big event was to take a food tour, hosted by Tours Voir Québec. The 2.5 excursion brought us to the following stops:
La Buche, or “The Log”, a cabin-esque restaurant serving maple-smoked salmon and a shot of Kariboo, a sweet mix of liquor, wine, and spices. And the name? Apparently it was once a common drink for fur trappers and hunters, who would mix alcohol with caribou blood to stay warm! Luckily they’ve ditched the caribou blood…
Tournebroche Bistro (tournebroche = rotisserie), a farm-to-table restaurant that grows produce on the roof and makes everything from scratch, including bread and honey. There’s an immense quantity of bees in Québec, so the rooftop also functions as an apiary. We were treated to honey straight out of the comb, along with wild boar paté (decidedly NOT my thing), a glass of wine, and maple fudge, a melt-in-your-mouth sugar and cream explosion.
Snack Bar, serving poutine, the ultimate Canadian comfort food: French fries smothered in gravy (this one was veg!) and squeaky-fresh cheese curds. This was the dish I was the most excited about, but I found it average. Maybe if it was colder outside, or I was really hungry, or grew up eating it, but it was only ok.
Le Moine Échanson (the drunk monk), a restaurant that specializes in locally produced wines and ciders. We sampled a white wine that used pine needles in the fermentation process. It felt a bit like I was drinking a Christmas tree, but points for uniqueness!
Crêperie-Bistro Le Billig, where we tasted buckwheat crêpes, the wheat crêpe’s savory cousin. They also had sweet, crisp hard cider from apples grown in the area.
Érico, chocolate shop and museum to finish the trip. My favorite thing about this confectionary was some of the unique flavors, especially chocolates filled with – you guessed it – maple!
I can’t recommend the tour enough – it was an afternoon well-spent, and left us with stiff competition to decide where to return for dinner. And the winner was…La Tournebroche! The second time around lived up to expectations: breaded organic cheese fondant (a fancy name for fried cheese) and a chevrotière salad with mixed greens and homemade balsamic vinaigrette. And if that wasn’t enough, we ended the night with a full platter of maple fudge and Pouding Chômeur (poor man’s pudding), a classic dessert made with low-cost ingredients: flour, baking powder, water, maple syrup, and butter.
We ended the day with a well-deserved walk around at night, taking in now-familiar sights of the old city all lit up at night.
Day 3: Outside Québec City
We wanted to start our day with pastry again, selecting Paillard as our bakery of choice. I noticed there was a location en route, even though it was outside the city center, so we decided to go there to save time. Turns out…it was in a mall food court! A little embarrassed and quite a bit hungry, I consumed my pain au chocolate so quickly that I forgot to take a photo.
Our accidental detour did lead us to a bit of serendipity, because as we searched for the bakery, we came across an amusement park inside the mall. Carousel, ice skating rink, roller coaster, teacups, bumper cars, drop tower, and even a ferris wheel…Mega Parc was cool!
My mom recommended that I visit the church in Saint-Anne-de-Beaupré, about 35 minutes outside the city, because it plays a large part in our family history. The land on which the church was donated by my direct ancestor. I expected a regular-sized town church, not having Googled it in advance, but was greeted by an enormous, stunning basilica. It had two floors of intricately decorated chapels and sacristies, with everything from frescoes to mosaics to two levels of stain glass windows, even a rose window. St. Anne is known for healing the sick, and there are piles of crutches and canes at the entrance for those who were healed. It turns out the basilica is one of 5 national shrines in Canada and receives 500,000+ pilgrims each year! If you walk around the grounds, you can see the original stone church, the stations of the cross, and a gift shop. This site was unmentioned in most of the itineraries and guides I read, but this is an oversight – you will not be disappointed if you make a stop here.
You can see Montmorency Falls right from the highway, gushing in all its glory next to the side of the road. We drove to the upper section, where you can walk directly over the point where the water meets the cliff on a slightly wobbly wooden suspension bridge. Modern construction cannot surpass human instinct, and by the time I crossed the bridge, my legs were shaking from anxiety. Continuing on, there’s a nice lookout where you can take some great shots of the falls. There’s also a cable car ride and a parking lot on the lower falls, but we skipped it due to time.
Everyone recommended Île d’Orleans. This 21-mile-long island is farm country, where the region’s major agricultural production occurs, and is spattered with small-scale producers’ shops. I had eagerly compiled a list of interesting places to visit, including specialty shops, cideries, cheesemongers, and lunch spots, culminating in a traditional Québecois dinner at a sugar shack. The plan was simple: drive the perimeter of the island, sample food and drink, and enjoy the scenery before the big dinner.
The afternoon started well enough, with a first stop at Cassis Monna et Filles. Jams, jellies, marmalades, wine, liquor, syrup, vinaigrette, confit…if you can make it with fruit, it’s likely you’ll find it here made out of black currant. You can do a tasting of their black currant wines and if the season is right (it wasn’t), sample some black currant ice cream at the dairy bar.
Driving further, we found Domaine Steinbach, which sells a range of apple-based goods. There’s an orchard right out back, and they make several types of hard cider including ice cider, a fermented beverage made from frozen apples. There are free samples of the many jams, jellies, and confit options, and for a few dollars you can taste samples of five different ciders.
Next was the designated lunch spot, and I could not wait because my stomach was growling. To my dismay, the snack shop was closed. The fromagerie across the street? Also closed. No worries, I consulted the handy tourist map that I had snatched from the ciderie, and saw that we’d pass many more options if we continued our perimeter drive rather than doubling back.
I was wrong. As we headed northeast, the island became increasingly rural and everything was closed. Les Saveurs de l’Isle d’Orleans? Closed. Chocolate shop? Closed. Everything was closed! As we drove frantically and our hunger grew, the charming nature of small-town Canada was lost on us as we could only think about our stomachs. Clearly, it was not late enough in the year to make it worthwhile to open the shops.
Finally, we found an open grocery store and concocted a makeshift lunch from whatever was available: bread, cheese, onion confit. With a bit of substance in our stomachs, we continued onwards, completing the full perimeter of the island and arriving at the final destination of the day: a sugar shack, L’en Tailleur.
Expectation: We’d get an explanation of how maple sugaring works, maybe even tap a tree, then be served a tasty Québecois meal where the dishes and their significance would be explained to us, all to the background of traditional music. Reality: We joined 50 middle-school-aged children on their field trip to be served uninspired, mass-produced camp food while a nice older gentlemen played the accordion and showed us how to play with wooden dolls. We had walked into a tourist trap. The one thing that made it worthwhile was tire sur la neige, or maple taffy on snow: pouring fresh maple syrup onto a clean bed of snow, letting it set, then rolling it onto a wooden palette. The texture was gooey, sticky, sweet, delicious and almost made the rest of the night worth it.
Despite a rough end to the trip, Québec City charmed us: there’s history, fantastic food, and plenty to do. The French-inspired culture makes you feel as though you’re much farther away from the US than you actually are! Thanks for reading!
Which food should I make from the trip? Vote in the comments!
- Buckwheat crêpes
- Crème de cassis fruit cup
- Poor man’s pudding
- Maple fudge
Resources to plan your trip: