Quebec City is the heart of the province of Quebec and its capital city. It is a romantic mixture of historic buildings, cobblestone streets, a turreted castle, all surrounded by thick stone walls. As North America’s only fortified city, it is fitting that it is North America’s only UNESCO designated “world heritage treasure”. The city has a European feeling to it intensified by the cozy candle-lit restaurants where food is taken seriously in the true spirit of French gourmets.
Perched atop a cliff that is 360 feet high and overlooking the St. Lawrence River, Quebec City is not only one of the most beautiful cities in North America, it is the most French of any of the cities in the world – even the ones in France! Its walled, cliff-top stance with its 17th and 18th century stone buildings, lively bistros and outdoor cafes, magnificent churches, and historic resonance is simply an unforgettable sight and experience for visitors. And although the city has an official population of about 600,000, it always has more people in it because its attractions lure thousands visitors from all over the country and continent.
Neighborhoods and Districts
Quebec City, once dubbed the “Gibraltar of America” by Winston Churchill, is actually made up of the newer part of the city and the old city known as Vieux Quebec (Old Quebec), the latter being the core and heart of Quebec City. The old city itself is divided into an upper and lower portion – Haute Ville is the upper part of town elevation-wise but geographically in the south, and Basse Ville is the lower part of town elevation-wise but geographically in the north. There are stairways known as the “Breakneck Stairs” or Escalier Casse-Cou and a funicular that brings you up or down the escarpment.
Outside of Vieux Quebec, the newer portion of the city sprawls for miles. In total, there are eight boroughs: La Cité, Les Rivières, Sainte-Foy-Sillery, Charlesbourg, Beauport, Limoilou, La Haute-Saint-Charles, and Laurentien. Within the eight boroughs, excluding the district of Vieux Quebec, there are a total of 33 districts that make up Quebec City.
Almost all of the tourist attractions in Quebec City are located in Vieux Quebec in both Haute Ville (see travel guide for Haute Ville) and Basse Ville (see travel guide for Basse Ville). There is definitely a lot to see within this small area, which is comforting news for the visitor as narrow and sometimes pedestrianized streets make walking by far the best way of getting around. The main attractions of Haute Ville include the Château Frontenac, Place d’Armes, Jardin des Gouverneurs, Basilique Notre-Dame-de-Québec, Musée de Séminaire de Québec, Musée des Augustines, Couvent des Ursulines, Musée des Ursulines, Chapelle des Ursulines, Terrasse Dufferin, the Fortifications, Citadelle, Parc de l’Artillerie, Parc des Champs de Bataille (National Battlefields Park), Plains of Abraham, Musée de Québec, Grande Allée, Assemblée Nationale, and the Cartier-Brébeuf National Historic Park (see travel guide for Haute Ville). The main attractions of Basse Ville include Place Royale, Notre Dame des Victoires, Musée de la Civilisation, and the Old Port (see travel guide for Basse Ville).
Vieux Quebec is definitely a gem, and a view of this district can be had by climbing to the top of the cliff overlooking the St. Lawrence River, where you’ll see below the narrow streets revealing beautifully preserved 18th and 19th century houses built of stone and topped with copper roofs standing amidst pleasant squares and parks. Many of the old buildings have been converted into restaurants, shops, and massive churches, whose austere facades now predominantly house museums inside.
The setting and atmosphere of another era in Vieux Quebec is the main attraction of Quebec City. And the best way to capture this old world charm is by walking or taking a caleche or horse-drawn carriage ride through the cobbled streets. Alternatively, you can take a St. Lawrence River Cruise and stream pass Vieux Quebec along the river. You can see things from a different perspective by taking the cruise. Excursions leave from Chouinard Pier, 10 rue Dalhousie. Some excursions include dinner. There's a variety of cruises available and the tourist office in the Place d'Armes or the one in the Place Royale area, by the funicular, where you can get information on what's available.
Make sure you allocate some time if you can for a trip to the Île d'Orléans in the St. Lawrence, and you’ll get a sense of what life was like in early Quebec. This St. Lawrence island is a haven of 17th and 18th century churches, houses, and rural farms. There are about six villages on the island. All of them are accessible via Route 368, which makes a circular 40-mile (64 kilometers) run around the island. The island itself is connected to the mainland by the Pont de l’Île bridge. The main attraction of the island besides the villages are the wineries and the stands selling local produce such as apples, strawberries, potatoes, and maple syrup.
Events and Festivals
Every July, Quebec City holds the annual Québec Festival d'Eté, a cultural celebration of jazz, folk music, theatre, and dancing through concerts and productions all over town. This is a big even that gets the city all noisy and riled up.
Another rambunctious affair is the Carnaval d’Hiver at the end of February, which is held in the Parc de L’Esplanade. During this 10-day celebration, the city “really lets its hair down” and gets flooded as well by revelers from all over. The event features activities involving ice and snow. All the festivities are centered around a 7-foot snowman. Children and adults alike participate in ice and snow-sculpting contests, ice-skating, skiing, dances, and parades. There are also concerts performed and an awful lot of food and alcohol consumed, the Caribou drink being a particular favorite (mixture of wine and alcohol).
Quebec City has 18 golf courses within 20 miles of its city limits. The best golf course is in Beaupre in the Parc du Mont Sainte Anne, which can be reached by heading north on Route 360. In the summer, the golf courses get crowded, so it is recommended that you make advanced reservations if you hope to play. Tennis players have a number of indoor and outdoor courts to choose from. Montcalm Tennis Club at 901 blvd Champlain has both kinds. Tennis-port, which is located at 4230 blvd Hammel, Ancienne Lorett, has six indoor courts. For jogging, strolling, cycling, and picnicking, Battlefields Park is a good venue. It is located outside the city walls.
The city’s most popular sport is, of course, ice skating. Everybody laces on their pair of skates during skating season, which is from December until March. The Parc d’Esplanade is the best natural outdoor skating area; it stretches along the frozen rivière St-Charles between the Marie L’Incarnation and Samson bridges. Locals also enjoy skating and tobogganing through the woods of the Village des Sports at Valcartier, which is north of the city.
As for skiing, there are many options. Battlefields Park and some nearby parks offer cross-country skiing. Mont Ste. Anne has some 40 downhill skiing trails, 14 chairlifts, and more than 160 kilometers of cross-country trails. It is located northeast of town at C.P. 400 Beaupré. Outside of town, you’ll find three other alpine ski resorts within easy access by car. Some of the downtown hotels offer Skibus service to these resorts.
Fishing in Quebec requires a permit, which can be obtained at a sports shop or at the Ministry of Recreation, Hunting, and Fishing. Most of the great fishing spots are found in the lakes north of the city such as the Reserve Faunique des Laurentides.
Quebec City has a number of shopping areas. None of the shops are concentrated in any one place. For unusual and fun odds-and-ends such as arts and crafts, the rue Petit-Champlain in Basse Ville (Lower Town) is the best place to go. The street is also lined with trendy restaurants and cafes. Lower Town also has an antiques shopping district in the Old Port area along rue St. Paul.
In Haute Ville (Upper Town), Place Quebec is the biggest shopping complex. Located outside the city walls at 5 Place Quebec near the Assemblée Nationale, this mall boasts more than 70 stores, dozens of restaurants, and two movie cinemas.
For shopping outside of the city, the suburb of Ste. Foy has a number of malls. The largest is Place Laurier, which has over 300 stores. It is located at 2700 blvd Laurier.
The shopping hours in Quebec City are not as lengthy as in other big cities in Canada, such as Toronto or Montreal. Stores usually open from 9:30 to about 5:30 during weekdays. Some stores have extended hour shopping until 9PM on Thursdays and Fridays. Shops are usually only open till 5PM on Saturdays and few open on Sundays. In the summer, however, Saturday and Sunday hours are extended.
Quebec has a decent nightlife. Most of the hot digs are in or just outside the Old City. Most of the clubs and bars are located along rue St. Jean. This street is closed to cars in the summer, making it a great promenade to stroll and browse. The older crowd enjoy the lively bars and clubs in the Grande Allée and Old Port area more.
Quebec City is not particularly known for its performing arts, but it isn’t altogether non-existent either. The Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph has all the current arts and entertainment listings. Theatre plays as well as symphonies by L’Orchestre Symphonique (Symphony Orchestra) are performed at the Grand Théâtre de Quebec, located at 269 blvd St. Cyrille E. New and classic plays are also shown at Le Théâtre du Trident. The Agora at 160 rue Dalhousie in the Old Port is an open air theatre that stages shows and plays in the summer. The Théâtre Petit-Champlain at 70 rue Petit Champlain offers a more casual café-style atmosphere. All productions are in French.
The first European to arrive in Quebec City was Jacques Cartier in 1535. He named the cliff “Diamond Cape” in honor of the great mineral wealth he was looking to find there, but it didn’t pan out as he had hoped. His compatriot, Samuel de Champlain arrived in 1608 and took a much more realistic view of the site’s potential importance. He recognized its strategic location and established a trading post at the foot of the cliff, and then in 1620 built a fort at the summit. It was captured in 1629 by the British Admiral, David Kirke, but regained by the French three years later. For the next century or so, the city was repeatedly besieged by either the Iroquois Indians or the British, finally falling in 1759 to General Wolfe and his troops who surprised the French on the Plains of Abraham during the Seven Years’ War. After losing the war, the French signed the Treaty of Paris in 1763 and turned over the heart and soul of New France to the British, who promptly made Quebec the capital of the new British colony.
In 1775, the Americans upset over the special privileges and advantages given to Quebec City by the British attacked the city; they were rebuffed. Afterwards, the British decided to strengthen the fortifications and built the Citadelle. Although the city continued to prosper in the 19th century thanks to its fur trading, timber, and shipbuilding industries, it was gradually overtaken by Toronto and Montreal as an economic center of colonial Canada. Quebec City is today principally a political and administrative center.
How to Get There
Air Canada and a few other airlines have direct flights arriving and departing from Quebec City’s airport. However, most visitors usually fly into Montreal or Toronto and then take a regional flight into Quebec.
If you are arriving by car, the Trans-Canada Highway is the route to take from the Maritime Provinces. From Montreal, both Route 40 and the Trans-Canada Highway (Route 20) lead to Quebec City. If you are coming from the U.S. Atlantic coast, I-91 passes through Vermont and then becomes Route 55 at the border. Route 55 then merges with Route 10, becomes Route 51, and then merges with the Trans-Canada Highway at Drummondville about 96 miles southwest of Quebec City.
Carroll, Donald. Insider’s Guide Canada. Edison: Hunter Publishing, Inc, 1996. ISBN: 1556507100.
“Introduction to Quebec City.” < http://www.frommers.com/destinations/quebeccity/0142010001.html>
“Quebec City.” < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quebec_city>
“Quebec City City Guide – Overview.” < http://www.worldtravelguide.net/city/99/city_guide/North-America/Quebec-City.html>
“The Unique Experience of a Quebec Summer Festival.” < http://www.infofestival.com/Html/en-ca/index.html>
Simpkins, Mary Ann. Canada. New York: Prentice Hall Travel, 1994. ISBN: 0671882783.
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