There is nothing like a 400th birthday as an excuse for a party. That's why Québec City, the capital of Canada's largest province, is also the fun capital of Canada this year.
Once Samuel de Champlain claimed the land for France in 1608, French settlers followed. They built the Norman-looking homes, paved the streets with stone and built massive fortifications. This olde worlde look is matched by another link with France – a love of good food that is reflected in restaurants, bistros and cafes.
Yet despite being the heart of francophone Canada, most residents cheerfully switch from French to English without pausing for breath. It all makes Québec City one of North America’s most attractive destinations. And this month, the celebrations really get in gear.
Let the good times roll
The world’s biggest winter festival is Carnaval (website: www.carnaval.qc.ca/en); from 1 to 17 February; and this year’s jamboree is also the first major event of Québec’s 400th anniversary celebrations (website: www.myquebec2008.com and www.bonjourquebec.com). It’s a huge outdoor party, where locals toot on big red plastic trumpets, tuck into maple syrup-smothered pancakes and drink caribou, the local cocktail of wine and brandy, or port. They cheer wild events on ice and snow, from husky racing to canoeing across the partially frozen St Lawrence River.
The Carnaval mascot, Bonhomme, is everywhere. He is easy to spot – a jolly white giant wearing a bright red hat and a traditional rainbow-striped sash. Must-sees are the two celebratory night parades (9 and 16 February), inspired by a Cirque du Soleil choreographer: giant marionettes, specially written music, 20 floats and jazzy projections on the ancient walls.
Life at the top
For great views over the rooftops of the Old Port and the river, take the funicular up the cliff to the Haute-Ville (Upper Town). The massive building that dominates the city is not a castle but a hotel: the century-old Fairmont Chateau Frontenac (website: www.fairmont.com/Frontenac). Even if you don’t stay here, the restaurant and famous St-Laurent Bar have terrific vistas. Or, walk over to the Citadelle (website: www.lacitadelle.qc.ca) and enjoy the panorama during the one-hour tour of the star-shaped fort, with its Changing of the Guard (daily, 24 June to early September).
Beyond the Citadelle are the Plains of Abraham. Once a bloody battlefield for French and British encounters, this green parkland hosts the 400th birthday concerts, including Céline Dion’s free outdoor show on 22 August. Just outside the city, the impressive Montmorency waterfalls provide a backdrop for another summer highlight, the 14th International Fireworks Competition (website: www.lesgrandsfeux.com) (19 July-6 August), with nations from around the world putting on shows of fireworks and music.
Québec old and new
The oldest part of this UNESCO World Heritage city is the Place-Royale. Edged with solid stone houses and a church, this square measures barely 50m (164 feet) across, but it was the foundation of French Canada. Explore side streets and you step back in time. In the Quartier Petit Champlain (website: www.quartierpetitchamplain.com/eng), perhaps the oldest shopping area in North America, artisans and craftspeople blow glass and make jewellery.
To understand the past, visit the modern Museum of Civilisation (website: www.mcq.org/index_en.html), whose exhibits range from a real First Nations’ birch bark canoe to audio-visuals that demystify 20th-century politics.
But Québec is no living museum. Along the waterfront, warehouses have been converted to boutique hotels, art galleries and restaurants. The latest neighbourhood to be revitalised is Saint-Roch (pronounced San-Rock). Along St Joseph Street, the artistic crowd hangs out in cool lounges and cafes, such as the Largo Resto-Club (website: www.largorestoclub.com), an art gallery-cum-restaurant that turns into a jazz club from Thursday to Saturday.
Many of the 400th anniversary celebrations will take place in the Old Port, with three months of entertainment from street shows to concerts (from 3 June). Espace 400e, a brand new hall, hosts Passengers, an interactive exhibition, where you grab an ‘electronic suitcase’ to follow one of the millions of immigrants who have passed through the city over the past four centuries.
The French tradition of son et lumière also goes high-tech with Image Mill (20 June to 29 July). The brainchild of Québécois director and writer Robert Lepage, this fantastic multimedia show turns a complex of grain silos into a 600m (1,969 feet)-wide screen (website: www.lacaserne.net).
Food, glorious food
Setting Québec apart from the rest of North America is the passion for food based on local produce: seafood and fish, cheeses, ciders and wines. Start the day with a classic café au lait (milky coffee), served in a traditional china bowl; succumb to temptation at French-style bakeries; and dine in any number of affordable restaurants.
Always crowded is L’échaudé (website: www.echaude.com), a typically French bistro in the Old Port; nearby at Toast! (website: www.restauranttoast.com), the menu is contemporary. In Saint-Roch, east meets west at the Yuzu Sushi Bar (website: www.yuzu.ca) with sake, oyster and cardamom soup as well as tempura dishes. Or splash out at the romantic Restaurant Panache (website: www.saint-antoine.com), with its brick walls and beams, where award-winning chef François Blais creates some of the finest dishes in Canada.