Overview

Quebec City looks, at first glance, much like one of France's Atlantic coastal cities. A UNESCO-designated World Heritage site, Quebec City has gabled buildings dating from the 1600s and narrow, winding streets made of cobblestones. You can amble through airy plazas—past fountains and statues—as you make your way to Terrasse Dufferin, a wide promenade straddling the clifftop with fantastic views of the St. Lawrence River below. Presiding over it all is the Chateau Frontenac, a grand hotel reminiscent of a French castle.

Stone fortifications, built by the French and improved upon by the British, circle the old center of Vieux Quebec and set it apart from any other city in Canada or the U.S. The walls divide Basse Ville (lower town) from Haute Ville (upper town), and are a testament to military conflicts involving the Iroquois, French, English and Americans.

Beyond its deep history, Quebec City offers other enticements: The city's culture revolves around wining, dining and dancing (and more wining and dining). You will eat and drink well there.

Cultural events by the likes of Cirque du Soleil, music festivals with free performances, and caleche horse-and-carriage rides take over the city in the warm-weather months. The capital of the province of Quebec, Quebec City has a bon-vivant temperament that sets it apart from Canada's English-speaking cities.

Which leads us to the language question. Almost all Quebec City residents speak French as their primary tongue, but most who work in the tourist areas also speak some English—and they are friendly and helpful to visitors.

Geography

Quebec City is divided into old and new sections. Most of Vieux Quebec (Old Quebec) sits at the top of the cliff in an area that is called Haute Ville (Upper Town). The other part of the old city is crammed between the base of the cliff and the river—it's known as Basse Ville (Lower Town). It has some memorable old structures, as well as shops and restaurants. Quartier Petit Champlain is just below the Chateau Frontenac. Vieux Port (Old Port) lies just north of this district. Most of the city's interesting sites are situated in the upper and lower parts of Vieux Quebec.

The more modern side of Quebec City (parks, office buildings, shopping malls and urban sprawl) is found on the high bluff beyond the walls of Vieux Quebec. The newer section of the city, just west of the old walled city, is the Haute Ville district of Faubourg Saint Jean. The borough of Sainte-Foy is southwest of Quebec City.

History

The Iroquois are thought to have been the first people to paddle through the area. The First Nations called the place Kebec, which in Algonquin means "place where the river narrows." (Quebec City is located on the north shore at the narrowest point of the St. Lawrence River.) Although historians are unsure of the precise location, they know that the Iroquois established a village named Stadacona within what is now Quebec City. French explorer Jacques Cartier landed there in 1535, and in 1608 Samuel de Champlain founded a fur-trading post there.

A steady supply of animal pelts transformed Quebec City into a major port, and it was highly sought after by both the British and the French in the wars of the 17th and 18th centuries. In 1759, the city finally fell under English control after a short, decisive battle on the Plains of Abraham (just outside the city walls). French Canada became a British colony and later the province of Quebec in an independent Canada.

Although many Quebecois continue to advocate Quebec independence from Canada, the issue has lost steam in recent years. A 1995 referendum on sovereignty failed narrowly and has not been repeated. Still, the issue has not been put to rest—particularly in Quebec City, where nationalist sentiments traditionally run high.

But whether an independentist or a federalist, francophone, anglophone or allophone, all residents of the city (and indeed the entire province) are alike in their fierce pride of Quebec's capital: The year-long, feverish and spectacular celebration of the city's 400th anniversary that took place in 2008 is a case in point.

Sightseeing

Explore Quebec City by starting in the upper portion of Vieux Quebec, where the fortification wall still surrounds the old city. The best way to get your bearings is to take a caleche (horse-drawn carriage) tour. It's pricey (Can$90 for a 45-minute tour), but the drivers are interesting and knowledgeable. Afterward, stop by the visitors center on Rue Ste. Anne, grab a walking-tour map and hit the cobblestones. Take your time, because there's plenty to see and do along the worn streets.

The gabled and turreted Chateau Frontenac is one of the most photographed hotels in the world. In 2012, the hotel finished a brand-new copper roof, which is slowly gaining a green patina. The hotel no longer offers guided tours, so just look around the lobby and shops to get a taste of the royal design. In front of the hotel is a wide pedestrian promenade called Terrasse Dufferin, which affords spectacular views of the St. Lawrence River. At Parc de l'Artillerie (Artillery Park), a complex of military buildings spanning several centuries, you can get a feel for what it was like to be a soldier in New France defending the city from English invaders. Get the whole story at Musee du Fort, where a sound-and-light show re-creates the city's military history.

Northwest of Musee du Fort is the ornate Notre Dame de Quebec. Gilded furnishings and golden light lend this cathedral a warm glow—it's a peaceful place to rest and recuperate.

You have two choices when it comes to moving between Haute Ville and Basse Ville: stairs or the funicular. We like to take the funicular up—for the views of the river, the narrow streets of Petit Champlain, the opposite shore and Ile d'Orleans—and the stairs down. The stairs near the funicular (below the Chateau Frontenac on Rue Petit Champlain) are known as Escalier Casse-Cou (Breakneck Stairs)—a slight exaggeration, though they are steep.

Basse Ville, down next to the river, is the oldest quarter in Quebec City, filled with buildings from the 1600s and 1700s. It was there, at Place Royale, that Champlain built his fortified habitation in 1608. Stop by the Centre d'Interpretation (interpretation center) in Place Royale before you begin your walk through Basse Ville. In addition to information about attractions in the area, it has exhibits about the district's history. The Musee de la Civilisation on the waterfront will give you a crash course in French Canadian culture—and make it fun. You'll leave with a greater appreciation of why the Quebecois guard their heritage so zealously. For a more in-depth study of Quebecois heritage, visit the Musee de l'Amerique Francaise located in the Vieux Seminaire in Haute Ville.

Immediately beyond the walls in Haute Ville is Grande Allee, a boulevard dominated by Victorian mansions from the late 1800s and early 1900s. The street holds a large concentration of cafes, bistros and restaurants, as well as some of Quebec City's best pubs and nightspots. It's a great place to have a glass of wine in an outdoor cafe while you people-watch.

Watch the Changing of the Guard (June-September) at the Citadelle, a fortress still occupied by French-Canadian troops. Just west of the Citadelle is the Parc des Champs de Bataille (Battlefields Park). It preserves the famous Plains of Abraham, where the British defeated the French in 1759. Today the park is the city's premier green space. At the western end of the Plains of Abraham stands the stunning Musee National des Beaux-Arts du Quebec, one of the province's most important museums. It contains an extensive collection of Quebecois art and historical documents.

If time permits, visit the Lieu Historique National Cartier-Brebeuf (Cartier-Brebeuf National Historic Site), a park that commemorates the meeting in Quebec of two cultures, one French-European and one Amerindian. Included is an exhibit on the three voyages of explorer Jacques Cartier.

Nightlife

Quebec City can't compete with Montreal's exuberant nightlife, but it manages to hold its own. There are casual bars and cafes throughout Vieux Quebec, where you'll find locals out strolling and holding hands or engaged in lively exchanges. Street musicians, singers and acrobats also wander through the streets of the old town, providing plenty of sidewalk entertainment.

Two of the most exuberant areas to begin an evening in Quebec City are along Grande Allee Est and on Rue St. Jean. Bars and dance clubs generally get going around 10 pm, and most stay open until 3 am.

Note: The province of Quebec prohibits smoking in restaurants, bars, private clubs, bingo halls and casinos, and any other facility open to the public. Smoking is still permitted on some patios in Quebec.

Dining

Baked beans, poutine, pea soup, meat pies and maple syrup: These are some of the staples of traditional Quebec cookery. You'll also find some of the most sophisticated cuisine on the continent in Quebec City—prepare to eat well and often.

You should also try as many different French Canadian dishes as possible—in particular, cipaille (a pie containing wild fowl, game or beef with vegetables), poutine (french fries with cheese curds and gravy), trempette (bread doused with maple syrup and topped with creme fraiche or whipped cream), Brome Lake duck (cooked in Calvados and stuffed with apples), tourtiere (meat pie) and pot-en-pot (a seafood-and-potato dish).

Traditional French restaurants are abundant. Seafood bisque, consomme and cream sauces over seafood are common, as are quiche, crepes and croissants.

If you have a sweet tooth, check the menu for tarte au sucre, or maple sugar pie. This unbelievably sweet concoction is delicious, but it sets some people's teeth on edge. Do make a point of experiencing a sidewalk cafe: A frothy bowl of cafe au lait accompanied by a buttery croissant is mandatory.

Restaurants tend to be expensive, so take advantage of the table d'hote menus—three or four courses at a fixed price. Many expensive restaurants offer great deals at lunch. General dining times are 7-11 am for breakfast, noon-1:30 pm for lunch and 6-10 pm for dinner. Restaurants, cafes and bars in Quebec are smoke-free.

Expect to pay within these guidelines for a meal for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than Can$15; $$ = Can$16-$25; $$$ = Can$26-$40; $$$$ = more than Can$40.

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