Quebec City is one of Canada’s best places to visit. Travellers can easily spend a week exploring its historic buildings and cobblestone streets without getting into a car even once. But it’s absolutely worth hitting the road and taking a Quebec City day trip during your stay. The countryside surrounding the city is just as impressive and connected with history.
With a car, you can take an easy loop through the surrounding regions of Charlevoix and the St. Lawrence River’s southern shore. By following this route, you’ll truly get a glimpse into what life is like in this beautiful part of the world. You’ll even cross the river on one of the many ferries that serve residents in this area. Ferry crossings are a unique and scenic experience, and an essential service for people who call this area home!
This drive can be completed over a leisurely weekend, or even in a single day if you’re short on time. If you have more time, you could extend your stay at a couple of points along this route. You could also extend the loop toward the village of Tadoussac to go whale watching at the Saguenay Fjord. We’ll cover the details of that loop in a future article.
Read on to find out how to visit Charlevoix and the south shore of the St. Lawrence River from Quebec City.
2024 Chevrolet Trax
On our most recent drive through this loop, we tested the all-new 2024 Chevrolet Trax. Just like the road trip we’re exploring, this entry-level subcompact SUV is designed for urban life but ready to tackle longer journeys on demand. With longer and wider proportions than the previous generation, the Trax fits two adults comfortably. It could even fit two more and bring enough luggage for a weekend getaway.
It was bold of Chevrolet Canada to send us into the rolling hills of Charlevoix to test the Trax’s new 1.2-litre turbocharged three-cylinder engine. But the strategy paid off: this engine handled the region’s steep grades with grace and poise. As a front-wheel-drive-only entry-level model designed for first-time buyers, empty nesters, and drivers on a budget, the 2024 Trax delivers.
Île d’Orléans and Montmorency Falls
To depart from Old Quebec City, you’ll pass through the historic city walls and drive onto Autoroute 440. It’s a short drive from there to reach Route 368, which begins at the bridge to Île d’Orléans. This route completes a circuit around the island, which is sometimes called the farm of Quebec.
If you choose to follow the route, you’ll pass the island’s many farms, wineries, cideries, and the cheese producer, among other sights. It’s possible to spend an entire day or weekend exploring the island alone. For our itinerary, we headed west off the bridge to stop at the Chocolaterie de l’Île-d’Orléans. It’s a popular spot on the island’s western tip with chocolate-dipped soft-serve ice cream and shelves piled high with Belgian chocolate shaped and flavoured in-house. Grab a cone and take a walk to the shore to catch a unique view across the river back into Quebec City!
As you come back across the bridge, continue straight instead of rejoining Autoroute 440 to visit Parc de la Chute-Montmorency. Montmorency Falls is a beautiful waterfall located a short drive from downtown Quebec City. This is part of the SEPAQ system of Quebec provincial parks. You’ll pay a small fee to enter, which gives you access to the boardwalks with amazing views of the falls. Depending on the season, you can also take a cable car, zipline, or via ferrata to see the falls up close.
Into the hills of Charlevoix
As you rejoin the highway, Autoroute 440 ends and joins Quebec Route 138. If you had time, you could follow the north shore of the St. Lawrence River for more than 1,000 kilometres to the road’s end in the village of Kegashka, deep in the Côte-Nord region. We’ll write about that experience in a future article.
Route 138 provides a rewarding drive, even for shorter trips. In the winter, the stretch from Montmorency Falls to Baie-Saint-Paul is packed with skiers seeking out the region’s hills. In the warmer months, it provides a leisurely and scenic drive.
When you reach Baie-Saint-Paul, Route 138 takes a short excursion inland. To stay on the shore, turn onto Route 362 instead. This section of highway provides some of the most postcard-perfect vistas anywhere along the route.
If you’ve decided to make a weekend out of your trip, check out Répère Boréal. This modern take on glamping was created by two brothers. They inherited this piece of land from their father, who dreamed of building a campground on the site. You’ll stay deep in the forest in one of the unique cabins, each with electricity and fully equipped kitchens. All overnight stays include access to the on-side outdoor Nordic spa. You may even be greeted by the friendly cat, chickens, or goats!
A ferry across the St. Lawrence River
Whether you make a day or a weekend of it, a ferry trip across the St. Lawrence River is a unique experience. When heading east from Quebec City, your first opportunity to try it is in the village of Saint-Simeon.
On the way, stop in at the Fromagerie Saint-Fidèle if it’s open when you pass by. This is one of Charlevoix’s most iconic cheese producers. You’ll find a variety of wines, cheeses, and other treats and snacks to purchase. For a true Quebec experience, pick up some fresh cheese curds and eat them warm straight out of the bag. This is a cheese lover’s dream!
The ferry ride from Saint-Simeon to Rivière-du-Loup takes just over an hour. Depending on the season, there are two to four crossings per day between April and December. Be sure to check the schedule carefully. If you’re making this a day trip, it’s best to plan for the 4 PM or 6 PM departures as available. This will give you most of the day to reach Saint-Simeon with enough time to drive back to Quebec City in the evening.
Here’s one important tip: reservations are not accepted, so arrive for your chosen crossing as early as you can. We arrived 90 minutes before our scheduled boarding time, and it wasn’t long afterward the line-up was closed. If you miss the ferry, it will take just as long to wait for the next one as it would to drive all the way around to Rivière-du-Loup. You don’t want to miss your chance at experiencing this during your visit!
You’ll leave your car parked on the decks below and ascend to the passenger area. On board, there are washrooms, a snack bar, and a small gift shop. There are indoor areas with plenty of seating, and there are some outdoor decks that offer better views. It gets chilly out on the water, so be sure to dress in layers if you’d like to get some photos from the outdoor viewing platforms.
After a little more than an hour, you’ll arrive in Rivière-du-Loup. From here, it’s easy to continue southbound into New Brunswick or eastbound toward the Gaspé Peninsula. For our short loop, we’ll head west to return to Quebec City.
Along the St. Lawrence south shore
If you’re short on time at this stage, you can get on the Trans-Canada Highway and take it straight back to Quebec City. This would take just over two hours. Ideally, though, you can take your time and explore the towns and villages on the river by following Quebec Route 132.
The village of Kamouraska has a beach, a pier, and a scenic main street. We continued on and had a fresh poké bowl for lunch at La Marina, a waterfront restaurant and bar in Saint-Jean-Port-Joli.
The city of Montmagny has a very nice waterfall visible from several parks just off Route 132. And if you have time, a ferry departs from the village of Berthier-sur-Mer during the summer months to Grosse Île and the Irish Memorial National Historic Site. This day trip to an isolated island in the St. Lawrence River is a fascinating way to learn about how immigrants arrived to Canada in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
As you return to greater Quebec City, there’s another opportunity to take in some history on the south side of the river. Lévis Forts National Historic Site is in the city of Lévis, right off Route 132. It was the last British fort built on Canadian soil, established in the late 19th century to protect Quebec City from American invasion. You can explore in great detail, climbing the walls and descending into the tunnels.
To get back to Old Quebec, you have two options. The standard option is to drive across the Pierre-Laporte Bridge on Autoroute 73. This can be very busy, though, especially during rush hour. Locals who work in the city and live in Lévis prefer to take the ferry, which vehicles can board as well. For a small fee, you’ll skip the bridge traffic and be dropped off directly in lower Quebec City.