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Quebec City: A European City in North America

Updated on September 12, 2014

Before Europeans settlers arrived on Québécois soil, the province's vast tracts of land were the domain of aboriginal cultures. The Huron-Wendat people built a village called Stadacona on the site of present-day Québec City. In 1535, the French explorer Jacques Cartier arrived at Stadacona and spent a year in the area, giving every geographical feature in sight a French name and planting crosses in the name of the King of France. He returned six years later and tried to establish a permanent base further upstream, but failed despite a lot of effort. It wasn't until 1608 that the French finally managed to lay the groundwork for today's city, when Samuel de Champlain got the aboriginal people heavily interested in the fur trade, established a garrison at Cape Diamond and declared the settlement of Kebec, an Algonquin word meaning 'where the river narrows', open for business.

The fur trade got so big that it inspired an entrepreneurial cardinal back home to start shipping hundreds of Roman Catholic settlers to Quebec City each year to help harvest pelts and exploit the other natural resources at hand. The English snatched control of the burgeoning city in 1629 but a few years later signed a treaty and returned it to the French. During the French and Indian War on September 13th, 1759, the British won a decisive victory over the French on the Plains of Abraham outside the walls of Quebec City. Both the English general Wolfe and the French general Montcalm died in that battle. English sovereignty over all of Canada was formalized in the 1763 Treaty of Paris.

British trade soon caused Quebec City to prosper because of the success of the fishing, fur-trading, shipbuilding, and timber industries. In 1791 the territory was divided into Upper and Lower Canada, with the vast majority of French speakers living in the latter. At the beginning of the 19th century, Lower Canada became Quebec and Quebec City was named its capital. The city was later decreed the capital of the United Provinces of Canada, created when the Lower and Upper parts of the country were joined in 1841, but this mantle passed to Ottawa when the Canadian Confederation - joining the provinces of Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia under a central government - was established in 1867.

Quebec City established its real tourist potential with the opening of the first Winter Carnival in 1954. The city has been effectively building on this ever since. In 1995, all of Quebec province voted in a referendum to decide whether it should separate from the rest of Canada and become an independent republic. The 'No' vote won by less than one percentage point. For now, French speaking Quebec remains part of Canada.

The Plains of Abraham

The site of the battle that decided the fate of Canada is now a park where people ski during the winter and roller skate in the summer. It was named after river pilot Abraham Martin. During the summer, there is a bus tour of the area with a guide depicting Martin. The park also contains the Jeanne d'Arc Garden, with a combination of classical French and English styles.

Basilque Notre Dame de Quebec

This basilica has the oldest parish in North America, dating from 1647. It was designated as a cathedral in 1674. It's been rebuilt three times. The first time was in the early 1700s, when François de Montmorency Laval was the first bishop. The second time was in 1759, during the English conquest, after cannons fired on it during the siege of Quebec. It was last rebuilt in 1922 after a fire. The basilica's solemn, ornate interior includes a canopy dais over the Episcopal throne, a ceiling of painted clouds decorated with gold leaf, richly colored stained-glass windows, and a chancel lamp that was a gift of Louis XIV. The large and famous crypt was Quebec City's first cemetery; more than 900 bodies are buried here, including 20 bishops and four governors of New France. Samuel de Champlain may be buried near the basilica. Archaeologists have been searching for his tomb since 1950.

La Citadelle

La Citadelle of Québec is the most important formidable fortification built in Canada under British rules. It was designed according to a defense system developed by a French military engineer named Vauban. It was built under the supervision of Lieutenant-colonel Elias Walker Durnford. The construction of the outer walls began in 1820 and took 30 years to finish. La Citadelle is in the shape of a four-pointed polygon, with each point forming a bastion and covers 37 acres. The Citadelle also contains two buildings constructed by the French and numerous other very well preserved structures. The Citadelle also contains a museum dedicated to the 22nd Royal Regiment, with a collection of medals, insignia, weapons, uniforms, and art. During the summer, the 22nd performs the changing of the guard ceremony, with soldiers decked out in scarlet, a military band, and the regimental mascot, a goat named Batisse.

Musée d'Art Inuit

This museum contains one of the largest collections of Native American art in North America. The permanent collection of more than 450 sculptures is supplemented by occasional temporary, thematic exhibitions. In addition to carvings in stone and tusk, there are examples of fishing and hunting gear and clothing.

Musée de la Civilization

This museum is located in the Vieux-Port area of the city. It's permanent exhibitions include People of Quebec…Then and Now, which traces the history of the region from its time as New France to the present day and Encounters with the First Nations, which depict the lives and cultures of Quebec's native peoples. The museum also has a number of interesting temporary exhibitions and some hands one, interactive exhibits.

Musée des Beaux Arts du Quebec

This museum contains over 22,000 pieces of traditional and fine Quebecois art, the largest in the world. It contains works by Jean-Paul Riopelle , Jean-Paul Lemieux , and Horatio Walker. The museum is located in a dignified building in Parc des Champs-de-Bataille that was erected in 1933 to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the founding of Québec. Incorporated within is part of an abandoned prison dating from 1867. A hallway of cells, with the iron bars and courtyard still intact, has been preserved as part of a permanent exhibition of the prison's history.

Musée de l'Amérique Francaise

This is the oldest museum in Canada, having had its first exhibition in 1806. Its permanent exhibitions include Colors and Rituals, depicting the objects used to decorate Roman Catholic Churches and used in religious rites, the Settlement of French America, which includes not only Quebec but other regions such as Arcadia and Louisiana. There is also a large collection of diverse objects, including scientific instruments and Native American art acquired over the years by the Séminaire de Quebec.

Visiting Quebec City

Jean Lesage International Airport is about six miles west of the city and is the hub for several international flights, including from Newark and Boston. Bus and train service are available via Montreal. Ferries navigate the breadth of the St Lawrence River between Québec City on the north shore and Lévis on the south, a trip that takes only a few minutes.

The taxi is the only mode of transportation between the airport and the city. There is a good, efficient bus service within the city. For a more romantic and also more expensive mode of transportation, try a horse drawn carriage.


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