Few tourists stray from the heart of Vieux-Quebec, and why should they? The narrow cobbled streets of the 400-year-old walled city reveal historic architecture, fine dining, museums and even a battlefield. But there is always something to be said for getting off the main tourist track, and Quebec City is no exception. Not far from the walls are the neighbourhoods where the city’s residents venture out to eat, shop and play.
This creative, trendy neighbourhood is a riches-to-rags-to-riches again urban success story. Originally inhabited at the beginning of the 17th century by French missionaries, the area eventually developed into a prosperous commercial centre up untill the 1960’s, when suburban sprawl and shopping malls took people away from downtown. In an attempt to revive it, a covered outdoor mall was built, but instead of attracting shoppers, it drew crime and the neighbourhood fell further into disrepair.
“Twenty years ago there was basically nothing here,” says Claude Tremblay, a local resident. Change began with the Saint-Roch Garden. Built in 1992 on a vacant lot, its flowers, sculptures, water fountain and shaded benches became a symbol of the intended transformation. Over time, the buildings were restored and businesses moved in, and by 2006 the neighbourhood was vibrant once again.
But the reincarnated district is an even more stylish version of its former self, with creative types and IT innovators living and doing business here. In fact, in order to open an establishment in Saint-Roch you have to prove that nothing of its type exists elsewhere. And so it’s easy to stumble across particularly innovative places like Le Cercle, a former garage that is now part restaurant, part gallery, and part concert venue. “It really represents the creative movement here,” says manager Ã‰douard Garneau.
The restaurant prides itself on its extensive collection of privately-imported wines and locally-sourced food, partnering with Cercle MaraÃ®cher, a human-scale farm on the nearby ÃŽle d’Orléans. “We also put a big emphasis on culture,” says Garneau. So you’ll find projections on the wall, rotating exhibits of emerging artists and over 250 annual concerts.
Other foodie hot spots in the district include BruÌ‚lerie St-Roch for coffee and pastries, Clocher PencheÌ for upmarket bistro fare and La Barberie for craft beers brewed on the premises. Shoppers can browse at Boutique Philippe Dubuc, a Quebec designer boutique for men, or try Benjo an impressive independent toy store, and then there’s Signatures – a co-op of local designers who sell their Ã¡ lÃ¡ mode clothing and accessories in the basement of the gothic-style Saint-Roch Church.
Whereas locals describe Saint-Roch as trendy and creative, they use rather different adjectives to describe the much-loved Saint-Jean district – folksy, bohemian, charming, laid-back and friendly are more commonly bandied around here. Like nearby Saint-Roch, the neighbourhoods are connected by the Faubourg elevator, which is filled with boutiques and restaurants. As you stroll down Rue Saint-Jean Street, keep an eye out for J.A. Moisan Epicier, one of the oldest grocers in North America and Choco-Musée Ã‰rico’s, a chocolate maker, museum and shop (and yes, they have samples you can try too). When you’re tired of walking, relax at St. Matthew’s Cemetery – the oldest remaining cemetery in the city, which is also a park.
Limoilou, an up-and-coming district with working-class roots, is another worthwhile beyond-the-walls destination. This former shipyard located along the Saint-Charles River has original restaurants and shops that are frequented by locals rather than tourists. Like Saint-Roch and Saint-Jean, if you venture into this community you’ll hear more French, see fewer cameras, and experience Quebec’s thriving cultural and culinary scenes.
Header image: Rue St.Louis © John Vetterli
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Written by Jennifer Merrick