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Quebec City celebrates its 400th birthday

On July 3, 1608, French explorer Samuel de Champlain founded a fur-trading post on the banks of the St. Lawrence River. That fur-trading post is now one of the oldest cities in North America.
Image: Quebec City 400th anniversary
A crowd cheering summer festival entertainers in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.Yves Tessier / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

On July 3, 1608, French explorer Samuel de Champlain founded a fur-trading post on the banks of the St. Lawrence River.

That fur-trading post is now one of the oldest cities in North America. And this summer, Quebec City celebrates four centuries of French heritage with a series of exhibits, festivals and performances.

Events include a fireworks extravaganza that is being called the biggest ever in Canada, to be held at midnight on July 3 on the St. Lawrence; and a free outdoor concert for 100,000 people on Aug. 22 in the city's biggest park, Plains of Abraham, headlined by French-Canadian superstar Celine Dion.

Also on the 400th anniversary schedule this summer:

  • Image Mill: Images from Quebec's history will be projected nightly on a giant screen in the Old Port, June 20-Aug. 24. Organizers say they hope to earn a spot in the record books for creating the largest multimedia projection ever.
  • Rencontres: A musical about Champlain and the founding of Quebec will be presented outside the Parliament of Quebec July 3, 4 and 5. (Note that while English is widely spoken in Quebec, lyrics and dialogue in anniversary shows like this will be in French.)
  • Street performers: Acrobats, jugglers, stilt-walkers and others will perform at Cartier-Brebeuf Park and on Parliament Hill.
  • Film and song: A film created for the anniversary, "Infiniment Quebec," premieres July 2 at the Agora, an outdoor amphitheater in the Old Port. Quebec's Symphony Orchestra plays music from the film before a second showing July 3. A public sing-along of 20 popular Quebecois songs, with lyrics projected on giant screens, will be held July 15.
  • The Walking Road: A nighttime show under a full moon in Baie de Beauport, Aug. 15, includes acrobatics, performances with fire and water, multimedia projections, electronic and world beat music.
  • Le Cirque du Soleil: A special show created for the 400th anniversary will be held Oct. 17, 18 and 19.

Quebec City's anniversary headquarters, Espace 400e (pronounced quatre-centieme, meaning 400th), will be open at the Louise Basin in the Old Port, June 3-Sept. 28. In the main pavilion, "Passagers/Passengers," a multimedia exhibition, celebrates the 5 million immigrants who passed through or settled in Quebec City since its founding. Espace 400e will also host the Ephemeral Gardens, 11 original gardens by designers from Canada, France, the United Kingdom and the U.S.

Many annual events have added programs in honor of the anniversary, including the Summer Festival, which will feature Linkin Park among others, and the Musee de la civilisation de Quebec, which has added exhibits on "Gold in the Americas," "Urbanopolis" and an outdoor participatory environmental installation, "The Visionaries Garden."

The Musee National des Beaux-Arts du Quebec is hosting "The Louvre in Quebec - The Arts and Life," with 271 pieces from the Paris museum beginning June 5. The Opera de Quebec will host "Operalia," an international singing competition directed by Placido Domingo, and a new version of the musical "Les Miserables" will run at the Theatre Capitole.

Indian culture and history will be interpreted in programs offered by the First Nations of Quebec and Canada, including an outdoor drama, "Kiugwe: The Great Meeting," presented in Wendake, July 18-Sept. 7. (Wendake is a section of Quebec City where the Huron-Wendat tribes live.)

Special events aside, if you're visiting Quebec City this summer, be sure to spend an afternoon exploring the narrow cobblestone streets of Vieux Quebec, or Old Quebec, which today is crowded with cafes, open-air boutiques, and small stone houses with brightly painted shutters. Most buildings in the historic district are from the 19th century, but older architecture includes an Ursuline convent founded in 1639, and the Restaurant Aux Anciens Canadiens at 34 rue Saint-Louis, located in a house built in the 1670s.

The city is still surrounded by fortification walls dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, with cannons along the ramparts. UNESCO declared the area a World Heritage site in 1985, citing it as a good example of a "fortified colonial city" and "the only North American city to have preserved its ramparts, together with the numerous bastions, gates and defensive works."

The name Quebec comes from an Algonquin Indian word that means "where the river narrows." A statue of Champlain is located on a terraced promenade that offers spectacular views of the St. Lawrence.

The streetscapes of the old city are dominated by the Chateau Frontenac, which looks like a medieval castle with stone turrets and gables. It's actually a luxury hotel, now part of the Fairmont chain. It opened its doors in 1893 near where Champlain's fort (later the governor's mansion) was erected in 1620. Archaeological work is under way at the site, and this summer the public can observe the excavation underground.

If you have an extra day, nearby places worth visiting include Montmorency Falls Park and the charming island of Ile d'Orleans. Take a cable-car ride up to the top of the waterfalls, then walk down a scenic route that includes a suspension bridge above the falls. On Ile d'Orleans, drive the Chemin Royal road and enjoy the scenery. You'll find picturesque harbors, old-fashioned farmhouses and historic churches. Stop for lunch or a treat at a bakery or sweets shop, and don't miss the strawberries sold from roadside stands a little later in the season.