The most romantic city in Canada won me over as soon as my plane landed in an airport that seemed to be surrounded by forest. A short drive away, I was awash in French Canadian culture in the gorgeous city of Québec. Within the walls of the only still-extant fortified city north of Mexico, I easily succumbed to its charms of alluring shops, delightful cafés, tidy parks, and beguiling views. As one of the oldest European settlements in North America, Québec City packs on the history, often told through its beautifully maintained buildings. These are my favorites.
#1 Château Frontenac
It watches you. Like Mona Lisa’s eyes, it followed me wherever I went. It showed up in my photos, whether or not it was the focus, and always seemed to be just over my shoulder. It’s a good thing it’s incredibly beautiful, because massive Château Frontenac is unavoidable when you’re in Québec City. The city’s iconic hotel sits atop a bluff and offers gorgeous vistas of the city and the St. Lawrence River, best viewed by walking along the Terrasse Dufferin astride the hotel. Québec City’s defining building dates back to 1893, when the Canadian Pacific Railway constructed it as part of its master plan to tempt people into traveling on its trains by offering luxurious accommodations along the way. Almost without exception, Château Frontenac has been welcoming guests and visitors ever since, except when it served as the site of some World War II conferences that brought together Winston Churchill, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King — and kicked out all the guests and permanent residents for a month in 1944 and again for two weeks in 1945. Constructed from bricks from Scotland that were used as ballast in ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean, Château Frontenac appears like a dreamy castle, rising above the historic Lower Town in a spectacular display of copper roofs, warm-orange bricks, and gray stone ashlar. Named after Louis de Buade de Frontenac, a French soldier, courtier, and governor general during the second half of the 1600s, the sprawling structure has thrice expanded, now containing more than 600 rooms and suites. Its design derives from the romanticism of Loire Valley châteaux from the 14th and 15th centuries. From the central fortress-like tower, the asymmetrical hotel spreads out in a riot of sharply pitched roofs, substantial towers and turrets, spiky dormer windows, tall chimneys, bands of decorative arches, and porte-cochères that lead into the hotel’s central courtyard. At its tallest, the hotel tops out at 18 floors and 260’ high; for six years, until 1930, it was the tallest building in the city. Inside, a tasteful profusion of mahogany paneling, coffered ceilings, marble staircases, crystal chandeliers, carved stone and wrought-iron decorative features, and glass rondels will impress you, whether you’re a guest, a curious visitor, or a diner at one of the restaurants or bistro. Be sure to return to the hotel at night, when you can gaze up at its illuminated façade while listening to Chilean musicians playing mellifluous music along the Terrasse Dufferin.
#2 Parliament Building (Hôtel du Parlement)
Surrounded by the inviting Parliament Gardens, filled with trees, shrubs, and plants that are native to Québec and tended to by university students, the striking Parliament Building has been the seat of the Québec government since 1886, about five years after prison inmates started digging the foundation. Atop Parliament Hill, it’s a lovely setting for such a prestigious structure. Two four-story wings, each of which is capped by a five-story tower, flank the eight-story central clock tower. A crown-like structure reflecting the province’s coat of arms tops the central tower, which is awash in beautiful sculpted finials, flowers, garlands, and coats of arms. Etched above the main entrance, the words “Je me souviens” (“I remember”), Québec’s motto seems to have influenced the ornamentation of the building. Along with two allegorical sculptures, representing poetry and history, and religion and country, 22 bronze statues along the front façade, some on plinths, others in niches, honor the illustrious men and women who made key contributions to the history of Québec and French America. Among them I found explorers Samuel de Champlain, Jacques Marquette, and Louis Jolliet; François-Xavier de Montmorency Laval, the French priest who established a Canadian Catholic church; educators Marie Guyart and Marguerite Bourgeoys; and, of course, Frontenac himself. Designated a national historic site in 1985, the Parliament Building has retained its dignity for over a century, and at night, when the bronze figures are illuminated from behind, it’s a very impressive sight.
#3 Ministry of Finance (Ministère des Finances)
Standing in good company, fronting the lovely Place d’Armes and across the street from Château Frontenac and the historic Maison Maillou, the Ministry of Finance building began its life in 1877 as a courthouse. It bears a striking resemblance to the Parliament Building, with good reason — architect Eugène-Etienne Tache designed both, and I’m clearly a fan. Representative of the Second Empire style, the stone building accommodates a fifth lower floor that follows the natural grade around it. Like the Parliament Building, it features two four-story wings with mansard roofs spreading out from a captivating avant-corps surmounted by a clock tower, this one at an angled entrance. Ornamentations on the three-arched portico include keystones, fleur-de-lis in diamond-shaped panels, the Québec coat of arms, spandrels with maple leaves, and two key years that mark the beginning and end of New France. Shortly after the building was listed as a National Historic Site of Canada, the courts moved out and it became the offices of the Ministry of Finance in 1987, an equally prestigious organization that deserved an equally prestigious home.
#4 City Hall (Hôtel de ville)
Elegant, stately, and unfussy, Québec City’s seat of local government could have very easily gone over the top, what with its tremendous size, occupying an entire block, and its combination of architectural styles — Classical, medieval, and Châteauesque. But its lack of ornamentation keeps it restrained, although hardly austere. Inaugurated in 1896 and designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1984, City Hall is approached from a sloping street via its small lawn with stone retaining walls. Steeply pitched roofs with ornately pedimented dormers and iron cresting cap the four-and-a-half stories of monochrome smooth ashlar walls and rusticated stone foundation. Lateral wings and projecting corner pavilions flow from the central entrance, and to the right you’ll find a clock tower and a rounded tower. Arched and flat-headed windows are arranged symmetrically. Combined, it provides a splendid backdrop when you’re sitting across the street in the charming Place de l’Hôtel de Ville.
#5 Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (Sanctuaire Notre-Dame du Sacre-Coeur)
Easy to miss, the Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart is tucked well off the street, crowded between the two buildings on either side that extend closer to the sidewalk. Fortunately, I happened to glance in the right direction and found this beautiful, slender, neo-Gothic church from 1910. Clad in stone, the sanctuary rises to a delicate rose window, a small quatrefoil window above it, and twin silver steeples. One of its front doors was open, allowing a shining stained-glass window to throw its colors toward me. I couldn’t resist. I stepped inside to a trove of treasures. Eleven stained-glass windows, each of which was a gift from an individual or family whose names appear at the bottom, tell the story of Mary’s life. Richly colored, the windows depict such key events her in life as the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Assumption, and her appearance at Lourdes in 1858. On the front panel of the altar, between sculpted columns, King David and the prophet Isaiah flank a sculpture of the consoling Virgin Mary. As she sits on her throne, holding the Child Jesus, suppliants come to her in their misery. She extends her arms to protect those beseeching her aid with their difficulties — lameness, blindness, and, perhaps, judging by the baby thrown onto the floor, the death of a child. The most intriguing feature is the 930 inscribed marble plaques that cover the walls, testimonies of gratitude for spiritual favors granted. Unfortunately, since I visited here, the sanctuary and two neighboring buildings have been sold to a real estate developer, which has demolished one of them. The sanctuary, now closed, hangs in the balance, but, hopefully, the developer will recognize its beauty and preserve it for future worshippers and visitors alike.
- Basilica-Cathedral of Our Lady of Québec (Basilica-Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Québec; 1843)
- Cathedral of the Holy Trinity (Cathédrale de la Sainte Trinité; 1804)
- Maillou House (Maison Maillou; 1737)
- Chevallier House (Maison Chevallier; 1752)
- Citadel of Québec (Citadelle de Québec; 1820-50)
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