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Quebec City's Château Frontenac, shown here with popular promenade Dufferin Terrace, was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1980. (Photograph by Robert Chiasson, Getty Images)

Quebec’s Grande Dame: Château Frontenac

Few hotels define an urban skyline like the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac. This grande dame, which lords over Quebec City from a cliff overlooking the St. Lawrence River, is one of the most photographed hotels in the world, and it’s easy to see why. It’s hard to take a picture of the city without the formidable property creeping into the frame.

Even if you’re not a guest, paying a visit to Dufferin Terrace—a riverside boardwalk that runs the length of the Château Frontenac, affording spectacular views of the St. Lawrence, the Lower Town district, and Île d’Orléans—is a quintessential Quebec City experience.

“We’re really proud of this hotel as Canadians,” travel advisor Wendy Davis told me.

Though the Château Frontenac has been a Quebec City icon since 1893, the high ground it occupies has been of vital strategic importance since the city was founded in 1608. In the early 17th century, Samuel de Champlain, the “father of New France,” built a fort here to defend his new settlement. Later, colonial governors from France, and later England, would reside on the site, in the Château Saint-Louis.

Interestingly, it was a railway line, Canadian Pacific, that had the foresight to open the stunning vantage point to the public in the form of a grand hotel. The company’s hopes of attracting train travelers in search of the ideal stopover were realized almost immediately. And as the decades rolled by, the Château Frontenac continued to expand to keep pace with its popularity.

However, time has its way. When I stayed here a few years back, the hotel felt tired and musty. But thanks to a recent $75-million face-lift, new life has been breathed into the property. “There is a chic style that didn’t exist before,” Davis noted. “They’ve really upped their game.”

In place of deep red velvets and chintzy golds, the lobby has been painted a blue that calls to mind the St. Lawrence River and freshened with oversize flower arrangements. The hotel’s 611 rooms and suites now preserve the Frontenac’s Old World elegance while offering guests the latest modern conveniences. “In my opinion, it’s where people should stay, especially on a first visit to Quebec City,” Davis said.

After my latest stay, I wholeheartedly agree. Though I’m well aware that a room at the grande dame comes with an equally grand rate.

Even if you can’t afford the four-star price tag, there are plenty of ways to experience this slice of Quebec City history.

Unlike most mainstay luxury hotels, which make it a point to cater to guests only, the Château Frontenac goes out of its way to be as accessible as possible. Complimentary ice water in the lobby and a street-level Starbucks invite passersby in. And three restaurants, all with stunning views of the St. Lawrence, offer memorable dining options for locals and visitors alike.

At Bistro Le Sam, what was once an outdoor terrace has been covered to create a space reminiscent of a sun-filled conservatory. It’s one of the best spots in town for lunch, but I recommend following my lead by indulging in a classic afternoon tea overlooking the river. It just feels right at a grand hotel like this one.

Besides its menu, Champlain, the Château Frontenac’s fanciest restaurant, is notable for its brilliant palette of colors and a wine wall so high that sommeliers need long ladders to reach the top. Gregarious chef Stéphane Modat—a native of southern France who also runs Le Sam—might even give you a quick tour of the cave à fromages, a cheese cave featuring varieties made just miles from the hotel.

But it was at 1608 (a nod to the year the city was founded) that I had the most fun. The wine bar is the heart of the hotel’s nightlife, with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on the St. Lawrence, a huge round bar, deep leather chairs, and fireplaces. Here, you can choose from a huge selection of Quebecois cheeses and get advice about the best pairings with local and international wines.

Of course, if you do end up overnighting at the Château Frontenac, you won’t be disappointed (plus, you’ll join the ranks of Queen Elizabeth II, Paul McCartney, Steven Spielberg, and other A-listers who have stayed at the hotel).

For a special splurge, “Fairmont Gold” rooms come complete with added privacy and staff attention, a lounge stocked with complimentary drinks and snacks, and a private reception area on the 14th floor.

I didn’t stay on the Gold level, but I loved my room, which was high enough above the city that I could see the European rooftops of the Old Town from my window. Each night I fell asleep to the lulling strains of the saxophone and each morning I awoke to the gentle, steady pace of horse hooves clopping against cobblestone streets.

I’ve always believed in the power of hotels to transport guests. At the Château Frontenac, it’s impossible not to be carried away.

Annie Fitzsimmons is Nat Geo Travel’s Urban Insider, exploring the cities of the world with style. Follow her adventures on Twitter @anniefitz and on Instagram @anniefitzsimmons.