Jet lag. Long, expensive flights. Limited vacation time. There are many reasons that a trip to Europe seems daunting with kids. Having been on more than a dozen trips around Europe with my own young children, I can sympathize. But a magical place exists right here in North America that eliminates many of these challenges and makes for a great entry point into more ambitious European travel: Quebec! In as little as a few nights (but ideally a full week or more), families can get a great mix of the historical city vibe and outstanding natural beauty in Quebec City and its surrounding environs.
Quebec City is the big draw for most tourists coming to the Quebec provence, and with good reason. This compact, walkable city sits along the St. Lawrence River, offering cool breezes throughout the summer and charm galore. For families with school-age children and up, this is a great city to book a 2- to 3-hour walking tour to orient yourself on the first day. My family combined a historical walking tour with a food tour, arranged by Tours Voir Quebec. It was great to nibble some of the region’s local treats (who can resist a maple syrup tasting?) while also learning about its fascinating history. If attention spans aren’t quite up for that, do a carriage ride instead.
The old town (referred to as “Vieux Quebec”) is divided into two sections: upper and lower. Strategize your sightseeing around these two areas.
Le Chateau Frontenac
Visitors never have to ask for directions to this incredibly regal-looking, Fairmont-branded hotel, as it can be spotted from everywhere in the city due to its soaring height. It makes a stay in town truly spectacular, but even if you can’t splurge on accommodations, be sure to saunter through the ground floor just to take in the atmosphere. Rooms start at $469 CAD per night here in the summer for a family of four.
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Just outside the footprint of Le Chateau Frontenac is a large, open square where crowds congregate throughout the summer to see street performers. These artists are vetted and invited by the city, and the quality is fantastic. Kids will be delighted, plus it gives everyone a chance to rest their legs (there are typically bleachers set up for seating). Be sure to have some cash on hand to compensate the performers for the entertainment.
Walking the Walls
The ancient walls are one of the main elements that give Quebec City its distinctively European flair. In fact, it’s the only walled city still in existence in North America. In the upper town, you can climb on top of several sections of the wall for more great views. Children will love the various cannons they spot around the city.
You might think you’ve crossed the Atlantic to watch the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace if you time a visit to La Citadelle to coincide with this regiment’s Changing of the Guard. It’s really mesmerizing, even for children. Note that this is still an active military base, so families can’t wander the grounds on their own — though that just made it seem even cooler to my sons.
Quebec City would be a nightmare to explore by bike, given the steep climb and the narrow roads. But there’s a fantastic pathway that runs along the river in the lower part of town, and you can ride for miles on beautiful, paved, traffic-free paths. It’s a great way to get a bit of fresh air.
Take the ferry to the town of Levis, where younger children will delight in the dozens of fountains in which they can play throughout the summer. It’s an ideal spot to pack a picnic, and parents will love the view (and photo ops) of the city from this vantage point.
Musee de la Civilisation
If the weather turns unfavorable, or if everyone just needs a change of scenery, this museum will please all members of the family. There’s a nice mix of global exhibits and areas focused on the Quebec region. And much of it is very hands-on and geared toward children.
Montmorency Falls and Ile d’Orleans make great day trips from the city. There are organized bus tours to both for those who don’t want to rent a car.
To extend your time in the region, tack on a few extra nights in the countryside to enjoy the rugged natural beauty of this part of Canada. Families can find national parks and country resort towns that offer everything from rolling green hills and beautiful lakes to dramatic cliffs, and hiking galore. Two areas to consider would be Mont Tremblant and Tadoussac, both situated in close proximity to large national parks.
If you’re more drawn to cities than rural areas, Montreal and Quebec City pair nicely together and are only about 3 hours apart by car or train.
• Remember that Quebecois will all speak French and signs will all be in French, as will most restaurant menus. This gives families a great introduction to a Francophone environment. Conveniently for American visitors, people are very willing to speak English.
• To get from the lower town back to the upper town in Quebec City, you can ride the funicular for just a few dollars.
• You’ll need your passports. Be sure to check expiration dates! If driving into Quebec from the United States (very doable for New Englanders), check wait times at the various border crossings online and familiarize yourself with what you can and can’t bring across the border to avoid a time-consuming search of your vehicle.
Editor’s Note: Photos by Nicole Wiltrout.
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