Travel

Feast Your Eyes on Quebec City, Canada’s Endlessly Charming Sleeper Hit

How much poutine is too much poutine?

Photo by Mélanie Jean, courtesy of Destination Québec Cité
Photo by Mélanie Jean, courtesy of Destination Québec Cité
Photo by Mélanie Jean, courtesy of Destination Québec Cité

Oh, Canada-the land of wide open spaces, glimmering downtown skylines, and a multicultural makeup with roots that stretch all over the globe. Vancouver, with its lush forests and crunchy reputation, is a nature lover’s paradise; Calgary is big with the cowpokes; Toronto is the New York of the north; and Montreal’s European mindset makes it a fine contender for the continent’s most metropolitan locale. But Quebec City? Where’s that again?

The province’s eponymous capital, just north of New Hampshire, has a year-round population just shy of 500,000, but what it lacks in numbers, it more than makes up for in character. Its centuries-old, well-preserved history is evident everywhere you look, from the bell-topped churches and thundering cannons protecting the old walled city to the dive bars spilling out onto Rue Saint-Roch. Cultural experiences similarly lurk around every corner, whether you’re hoping to get schooled in modern design or walk in the footsteps of the Indigenous peoples that first called the patch of riverfront land home. And if it’s good food and stellar accommodations you’re after, you won’t have to look far-unparalleled hospitality and farm-fresh eats are two things Quebecers pride themselves on.

So next time you find yourself considering a trip-or perhaps even something more permanent-across the border, set your sights on Quebec City, a small urban enclave with the heart of a lion and the goods to back it up. Here’s everything you need to know.

Photo by Mélanie Jean, courtesy of Destination Québec Cité
Photo by Mélanie Jean, courtesy of Destination Québec Cité
Photo by Mélanie Jean, courtesy of Destination Québec Cité

Get your steps in on a walking tour of Old Quebec

The best way to get to know Quebec’s famous Historic District (a UNESCO World Heritage Site, no less) is via a guided tour. There are several organized tours to choose from, but local expert Mr. Tommy Byrne will assuredly fix you up right. He’ll start you up at the tippy top of a hill with unparalleled views of the St. Lawrence river, near the Fairmont Le ChĂąteau Frontenac, a massive hotel with deep roots in the fortified Old City. Speaking of fortification, here’s a fun fact: Spanning nearly 335 acres, the Old City is actually the most fully intact fortified town north of Mexico, a tribute to the brilliant architects behind what was once known as New France.

As you slowly make your way down the sloping sidewalk from Upper Town, you’ll be treated to a cornucopia of fairytale visuals, from sturdy rampart walls and cannons displaying coats of arms to ornate churches and leafy sidestreets. Down below, antique shops rub elbows with traditional restaurants and cafes, while museums further illuminate Quebec City’s past. All the while, Byrne is on hand to interpret the scenery enveloping you, tracing the region’s history from the First Nations through French colonialism, British rule, and, finally, the modern era.

Don’t miss the Quebec City Mural, a massive, hand-painted tribute to the city that stands just down the way from the infamously tricky Escalier Casse-Cou (AKA Breakneck Steps). Another highlight is the Funiculaire du Vieux-Quebec, an old-fashioned funicular tramway that shuttles riders from the top of the city down to the bottom-safely avoiding those treacherous stairs.

Auberge Saint-Antoine
Auberge Saint-Antoine
Auberge Saint-Antoine

Post up a luxe historic hotel

Like any metropolitan destination, you’ll find a wide assortment of places to stay in Quebec City, from familiar chains to ornate palaces fit for (and often booked by) international celebrities and politicians. For the best of both worlds, check out the Auberge Saint-Antoine, perched a few blocks back from the St. Lawrence River on the edge of the undeniably romantic Old City.

The Saint-Antoine is composed of three distinct buildings combined into one, the result of a demolition project that unearthed a vast quantity of fascinating artifacts. And it’s those artifacts that make the hotel the interesting and unique lodging it is; stashed around the grounds (many illuminated in wall-affixed shadow boxes), 17th-century crystal coupes and bits of earthenware or textiles visually weave together Quebec City’s complicated past. The decor, fittingly, is both modern and traditional, with neutral tones interrupted by bright reds, large plush beds flanked by carved wood wardrobes, and ample built-in bars. Heated bathroom floors and deep soaking tubs provide respite from the unpredictable weather, while large private balconies add a muted air of sophistication.

Onsite opportunities to eat and drink abound, from Chez Muffy’s tastefully rustic digs to Bar Artefact, the lobby-level watering hole that’s equal parts inviting and upmarket. Be sure to chat cocktails with the bar manager, Felix, who will undoubtedly set you up right.

Chez Rioux & Pettigrew
Chez Rioux & Pettigrew
Chez Rioux & Pettigrew

Load up on hyper-local cuisine at buzzy restaurants

Quebec City’s fixation on eating (and drinking, shopping, partying, and staying) local is nothing short of fanatical. And there’s no better place to experience this welcome zealotry than at one of the area’s many top restaurants.

In the Old City, Chez Rioux & Pettigrew is a fantastic place to start. The seasonal hotspot’s vintage, old-world aesthetic contrasts cheekily with the contemporary, forward-thinking menu. Treat yourself to an Espresso Acertini, a play on the uber-trendy Espresso Martini, drawing on espresso, coffee liqueur, Madagascar vanilla, and acerum, an up-and-coming regional spirit made from distilled maple syrup. As for food, the bill takes guests on a whimsical journey through area farms and other producers via coursed options that run the gamut from bread made with organic Quebec cream to a freshly caught flounder dressed with beurre blanc and locally harvested seaweed.

For something a touch more out of the ordinary, book a table at TaniĂšreÂł, the recent recipient of a 5-diamond rating from CAA-AAA. The experiential eatery literally guides guests from one room to another as they ply them with cheffy, artfully plated, and painstakingly designed treats. The blind tasting format keeps even returning crowds on their toes, from the moment they down the amuse-Arctic char flecked with spruce and activated charcoal, perhaps-to the last nibble of sweet mignardises (truffles laced with haskap berry or ginger and bee pollen).

Looking for something a little more low-key? Head to Saint-Roch, a homey hipster haven with an abundance of brewpubs, ramen shops, and other laid-back options. While there, don’t miss La Cuisine, a quirky outpost serving up comfort dishes, beer, and wine in what appears to be a converted house. The tangerine walls, cornucopia of knicknacks, and open vintage kitchen guarantee each bowl of French onion soup arrives with a hefty side of nostalgia.

As for poutine, that ever-craveable amalgamation of hot, thick-cut French fries, squishy cheese curds, and fragrant, savory gravy, Quebec City is your veritable oyster. Polished burger joint Le Chic Shack makes a mean gourmet version while Poutineville takes a DIY approach, stocking more than 40 toppings and 11 different cheeses for your mix-and-match pleasure. Back in Saint-Roch, Chez Gaston’s diner-style version packs quite the gut punch, regional chain Chez Ashton exemplifies the “if it ain’t broke” ethos in the best way possible, and Casse-CroĂ»te Pierrot keeps the poutine party going 24 hours a day. Can’t get enough? Neither can Quebecers-just about every major fast food franchise in Quebec proudly lists poutine on their menu, including McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, A&W, Dairy Queen, and PFK (that’s QuĂ©bĂ©cois for KFC).

Vignoble Isle de Bacchus
Vignoble Isle de Bacchus
Vignoble Isle de Bacchus

Drink your way around pastoral l’Île d’OrlĂ©ans

A short drive from the heart of Quebec City, along the cascading hillside and over the mighty Île d’OrlĂ©ans Bridge, lies the picturesque Île d’OrlĂ©ans in the middle of the river. The island is a food- and drink-enthusiasts’ paradise, lined with family-run wineries, cideries, orchards, cafes, farmers markets, and even a cassis producer that makes good use of the land’s penchant for growing plump black currants.

Start your day trip at Cassis Monna et Filles. The bi-level distillery and restaurant whips up an array of cassis, the black currant-based liqueur mentioned above. Sip through the full flight-each bottle boasting layers of sweet, tart, spiced, and boozy flavours-before heading upstairs to the scenic restaurant overlooking the rolling fields below. All-currant-everything tops the menu, with sandwiches, hearty entrees, and, of course, dessert showcasing the prized fruit. If you leave without trying the homemade black currant soft serve ice cream, you’ll surely regret it-no matter how brisk the weather outside.

Later, pop into the Isle of Bacchus, a pioneering Quebec winery with a substantial cellar and a friendly staff that’ll be more than happy to show you around. The enterprising operation offers locally harvested and fermented reds, whites, and rosĂ©s, alongside the region’s ever-popular ice wine, a syrupy sweet-style made from late-season grapes (they’re left out to freeze after the first frost sets in, resulting in their requisite high sugar content). Be sure to pick up a few bottles of your favourite before making your way back to the mainland.

But before you leave, stop off at the village of Sainte-PĂ©tronille on the island’s western edge. There, you can pose for a selfie against a sweeping backdrop that features the stunning Chute Montmorency (AKA Montmorency Falls), a thundering waterfall and popular hiking destination just across the St. Lawrence. Or you can simply pause to bask in its glory, sans camera phone.

Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec (MNBAQ)
Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec (MNBAQ)
Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec (MNBAQ)

Go behind the scenes at a captivating museum

Like art? Care for some culture? You’re not alone. The showstopping MusĂ©e Nationale des Beaux-arts de QuĂ©bec (or MNBAQ) is not to be overlooked, with its massive and far-reaching collection of paintings, sculptures, and other creative expressions from the province and beyond. Expect a lesson in art history, dating to Quebec’s 17th century origins and running all the way up through the modern era, with plenty of thought-provoking exhibitions-including a standout Inuit art display-along the way.

Elsewhere, the Grand ThĂ©Ăątre de QuĂ©bec is a recently renovated performing arts venue with gorgeous facilities and a star-studded roster. Constructed by Polish architect Victor Prus in his signature brutalist style, it debuted for the Confederation Centennial in 1971. The 2020 renovation kept the majority of the original details intact, wrapping the building in a shimmering glass veil that both protects the design’s historic integrity and pushes it in a futuristic direction. On any given evening across the theatre’s two main stages, you can catch the opera, symphony, ballet, or a play, in addition to big-name touring acts like legendary songstress Martha Wainwright and classic rock gods Kansas to hometown hero Celine Dion.

To dip your toes into slightly more offbeat waters, schedule a stop at the MusĂ©e de Fort. The modest Old City storefront museum houses a tiny, 400-square-foot, to-scale model of the surrounding historic district, complete with a sound and light show detailing each of the six sieges that threatened the walled metropolis. While temporarily shuttered, its highly anticipated return is well worth the wait if you’re drawn to hidden gems (just don’t forget your glasses).

Onhwa' Lumina
Onhwa’ Lumina
Onhwa’ Lumina

Learn about the Wendat Nation on a star-lit night walk

The story of Quebec’s Indigenous population is integral to the city’s labyrinthine evolution, shaping everything from its culinary heritage, early industry, and agriculture to its military endeavours and periods of European occupation. Get up close and personal with the region’s Indigenous culture with a visit to Wendake, a nearby village celebrating the ancestral life and customs of the Wendat Nation.

A living history site of sorts, Wendake’s current crown jewel is the Onwha’ Lumina, a glowing walkway stretching just shy of three quarters of a mile. A mix of glowing lights, sound, and video projections bring the illuminated footpath to life beneath the starry skies, immersing guests in the history of the Huron-Wendat people. During daylight hours, tours of traditionally constructed buildings-plus handicraft workshops, storytelling, song and dance performances, and art exhibitions-round out Wandake’s stacked bill of offerings.

St-Roch Québec
St-Roch Québec
St-Roch Québec

Shop, party, and people-watch in trendy Saint-Roch

If you brew it, they will come-at least, that’s one theory behind centrally situated Saint-Roch’s transformation from a rough-around-the-edges industrial corridor to a lively hangout for young professionals and the aging faithful alike. Located just outside the walls of the Old City, the neighbourhood buzzes with energy from the minute the sleek, third wave coffee shops like MaelstrĂžm open their doors each morning until the last remaining karaoke-belter hangs up their mic late into the night.

Like the rest of Quebec City, Saint-Roch is supremely walkable, and it’s easy to spend an afternoon wandering in and out of the breweries, specialty shops, vintage stores, and cafes set up along the broad avenues.

Here, funky eateries like the aforementioned La Cuisine, sandwich specialist Phil Smoked Meat, and humbly elevated bistro l’Affair est Ketchup rub elbows with lauded fine dining establishments like Battuto and JJacques. The wood-fired pies at Nina Pizza Napolitaine can throw down with New York’s finest, and if you’re looking for quality Japanese fare, check out Torii Izakaya.

Thirsty? Quebecers love their beer, and Saint-Roch is ground zero when it comes to the sudsy stuff. Dating to 1997, La Barberie holds court as the area’s craft elder statesmen, but despite its senior-citizen status, its innovative fleet is anything but stuck in the mud. From jet-black stouts to fruit-forward sours to crispy lagers and citrus bomb IPAs, there’s something for everyone. (During the summer months, look out for the frozen Ultraslush Raptor.)

Other worthy players include the charmingly old-school La Korrigane and the clever, cat-themed Noctem Artisans Brasseurs. For cocktails, MacFly Bar Arcade blends bargain mixed drinks with retro pinball machines, and MaelstrĂžm is caffeinated by day and boozy by night. And if you want a real-deal Quebecer experience, duck into Taverne Jos Dion, a cozy walk-through pub that has been peddling imperial quarts of beer (AKA “pintes”) and salty smoked meat since 1933.

Complexe Capitale HĂ©licoptĂšre
Complexe Capitale HĂ©licoptĂšre
Complexe Capitale HĂ©licoptĂšre

Get the lay of the land from a private helicopter

No matter the season, Quebec City’s diverse urban landscape and surrounding natural topography is best enjoyed from above-far, far above in a state of the art helicopter, that is. Book a ride with Complexe Capitale HĂ©licoptĂšre and take to the skies for a thrilling and incredibly scenic expedition. You’ll soon be gazing down at Montmorency Falls and the mighty St. Lawrence River, zooming over the Old City’s majestic architecture, and soaring past the vineyards dotting Île d’OrlĂ©ans. The launch pad shares space with the airport, so it makes for an excellent farewell tour before heading back home.

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Meredith Heil is the Editorial Director of Thrillist Travel.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome
to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree
instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s â€”lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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