The Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, regularly called simply “Château Frontenac,” was completed in 1893, and is the most famous of Canada’s grand railway hotels. Not only is it the most photographed hotel on the planet, but it’s also one of Canada’s great architectural treasures, and staying here is a bucket-list worthy Canadian travel experience. Hans Tammemagi is here to tell you everything you need to know!
Arriving in Québec City, I’m immediately overwhelmed by the fairy-tale castle with soaring turrets looming high above. Has some time warp transported me to Europe, I wonder? Cobble-stone streets lined with outdoor cafés, galleries and houses that exude history lead me toward the Château Frontenac, that commands the city skyline.
I stop at a bistro, sip an ale and ponder the Château and the stunning town surrounding it. As a traveller who’s seen a few exotic locales, I wasn’t expecting to be so impressed by Québec City. But I am.
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Stepping Foot in One of Canada’s Most Famous Hotels
Crossing Dufferin Terrace with the imposing Champlain Monument, I arrive at the courtyard entrance to the Château. A Canadian Maple Leaf flaps alongside the blue-and-white Fleur de Lis of Québec.
I enter under an arch bearing the coat-of-arms of Louis de Buade, the flamboyant Count of Frontenac, who was the governor of New France in the late 1600s, and for whom the hotel is named.
Even in the lobby, history casts a long shadow for, looking upward, I notice a 300-year-old stone bearing the Cross of Malta emblem embedded in the vaulted ceiling. Coming from western Canada where even a century is considered almost forever, I’m impressed.
The lobby is bustling, after all, the Château Frontenac is the iconic heart of Old Québec and is renowned for hosting prestigious events. In 1943 & 1944, Château held the Québec Conferences involving U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt, British prime minister Winston Churchill and Canadian prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King. In 1987, 42 heads of state assembled here for Le Sommet de la Francophonie. Prestigious events continue today.
Wait a second, is that a dog in the lobby? Yes! Jasper, a big, friendly St-Pierre-type Labernese is the new canine ambassador and greets me with a lick. I’m feeling at home already.
Appreciating the Château Frontenac’s Unique Interior and Offerings
Searching for my room, I get a feel for the immense size of the Château; it has 610 guestrooms on 18 floors and the total length of hallways is 12 kilometres.
I wonder how many of the countless famous personalities who have graced the hotel slept in my bed? But King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, Princess Grace of Monaco, Chiang-Kai-Shek, Charles de Gaulle, Ronald Reagan, François Mitterrand, Céline Dion, Leonardo DiCaprio, Paul McCartney and Alfred Hitchcock probably resided in more prestigious quarters.
We would all, however, have had the same breathtaking views of the hotel’s turrets, copper rooftops, the fortified city and, far below, the St. Lawrence River.
I head to 1608, the hotel’s bar known for its mixology and named for Québec’s founding year, to meet tour guide Yvette, with raven hair and a delightful French accent.
“From 2014 to 2021, a $75 million renovation brought the Château to the forefront of the world’s best hotels, while preserving heritage.” says Yvette, “In 2020, the Château became carbon neutral.”
We visit the spa, banquet rooms, three restaurants and more. “My favourite part of the hotel,” Says Yvette, “is the Gold Lounge on the 14th floor. The views, especially of the sunrise and sunset, are spectacular.”
Exploring the Surroundings of This Québec City Icon
We head outside. “The Château stands on the Saint-Louis Forts and Châteaux archaeological site, which was for over 200 years the official residence and seat of the French and British governors,” Yvette explains.
On the plaza, three archaeoscopes, or “windows,” in the pavement provide amazing views down into the archeological diggings and displays that lie directly below. Parks Canada has turned the archaeological site into a historical display that tourists can visit to learn of Québec’s past.
We stroll along streets with colourful shop signs hanging overhead. Horse-drawn buggies filled with tourists clip-clop past along the cobbled-stone streets. Buskers juggle and entertain.
We walk along thick stone battlements that encircle the entire Old Town extending 4.6 kilometres (2.9 mi). They bristle with long black cannons, and I can imagine the fear they brought to ships passing below. The walls were first built in 1690 in order to defend the Upper Town of Québec City, which today is the only fortified city in the United States or Canada.
La Citadelle de Québec & the Plains of Abraham
Soon we reach the southern part of the ramparts, and the Citadelle of Québec, a fortress first built in 1690, and now a home for the Governor General. The star-shaped fortress was built to fight off Americans after they attacked British Québec in 1775.
“As well as being a National Historic site, this is still an active military base,” says Yvette. “It’s home to the Royal 22 Regiment, the Van Doos, a corruption of vingt-deux.”
Yvette leads us to the grassy Plains of Abraham, a pastoral-like green space with gardens, walking and biking trails. On September 13, 1759, this peaceful place was the site of a bloody clash when British General Wolfe led his men up the nearby steep embankment for a pitched battle against the French. The British won, gaining control of the region.
Make No Mistake, Québec City is A Walking City!
Walking back into the city streets, Yvette mentions that Québec City, the former capital of Lower Canada, is more than 400 years old and still zealously guards its historical heritage and atmosphere. “However,” she adds, “it welcomes newcomers.”
In 1985, it achieved world recognition when it became the first North American urban centre acclaimed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Québec is very much a walking city, and we walk and walk, but I don’t tire at all. At the spires of the Notre-Dame de Québec Basilica, Yvette says, “It was built in 1647 and has the only Holy Door outside Europe.”
We step inside and I’m impressed by the extraordinary beauty and history revealed by the paintings, mosaics, stained glass windows, stone and wooden sculptures. It’s clear the Basilica continues to play an important role in the faith of the people.
Back to the Chateau Frontenac to Dine and Reflect
We return to the Château and before parting ways, Yvette says, “not only is the Château Frontenac the most photographed hotel in the world, but it is as iconic to Québec City as the Eiffel Tower is to Paris.”
I head for the Champlain restaurant. The waiter hands me a wine list whose length (16 pages!) is daunting. I learn Chef Gabriel Molleur-Langevin puts intriguing twists on traditional Québécois fare. I choose the Lièvre Sauvage de Saint-Jules (Shredded Hare from St-Jules) followed by the Gros Pétoncles du Golfe St-Laurent (Scallops from the St. Lawrence Gulf). Ahh, French cuisine is formidable!
As dusk falls, I take a short walk to the Parliament Buildings to view the Fontaine de Tourny, which is gorgeously lit. The seven-metre-high fountain by sculptor Mathurin Moreau stood for years in downtown Bordeaux, before being moved here. Returning to the Château Frontenac, I marvel at the fairy-tale castle in dramatic night-time lighting.
Next morning while savouring an espresso at an outdoor café overlooking the Old Port and river, I contemplate the Château Frontenac, Yvette and her historic city. I’ve been seduced by history, charm and culture.
Hans’ writing is eclectic including travel, environment, Indigenous culture and things quirky. He has penned 10 books including one national best seller. Hans writes for Canadian Geographic, Westworld, Ensemble, Zoomer, British Columbia magazine, Explore, Northwest Travel, Canada’s History, the Globe and Mail and the Vancouver Sun. A member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and former adjunct professor, he has a strong affinity for the environment around us. He lives in the Gulf Islands where he enjoys kayaking and photography.