More than four centuries ago, French colonists founded Québec City as the center of New France, and the region retained its French character, culture and language even after the British took over 150 years later. The city also kept the fortifications that surround Old Québec, making it the only existing walled city north of Mexico. While the Old City received UNESCO World Heritage honors in 1985, the real facelift came in anticipation of its 400th anniversary in 2008.
Similar to many restored old towns in Europe, Québec City has farm-to-fork restaurants and modern art galleries sharing the same cobblestone streets as antique shops, historic buildings and centuries-old architecture. Though French remains the predominant language, a largely bilingual younger generation puts a friendlier face on tourism that contrasts the classic French amiability of its elder class. For a taste of Europe in the Americas, the crown jewel of French Canada awaits.
Old Québec is the star attraction on any visit to the provincial capital, but head out early before the camera-toting tourist hordes overrun the streets. Begin the day at the French bakery Paillard on Rue Saint-Jean with a chocolate croissant, éclair or cronut (a croissant-doughnut hybrid), which cost between three and four Canadian dollars (at 1.16 CAD to the U.S. Dollar). From there, head south and stroll down Rue Saint-Louis for European charm reminiscent of a Hollywood movie set. Boutique shopping abounds on streets like Côte de la Fabrique and Rue de Buade, and the antiques district is on Rue Saint-Paul just outside the walls. If checking out antiques, visit the wildly eclectic Machin Chouette, which also sells repurposed items like a cupboard made from an old henhouse. Art galleries can be found throughout the entire city, but explore the narrow Rue du Trésor for open-air art displays born of enterprising young artists in the 1960s. For lunch, grab a French-style sandwich or quiche at Chez Temporel, a classic café that opened on Rue Couillard more than 40 years ago.
A large part of Québec City is split between Upper Town and Lower Town. The terms reference the difference between elevations, and, in years past, income brackets. Nearly 30 grueling sets of stairs separate the two. One such set, the 59-step Breakneck Stairs near the Dufferin Terrace, dates back to 1635. Descend the steep stairway to arrive at Petit-Champlain, the oldest shopping district in North America. For a taste of the old neighborhood, step back in time at the Place Royale from which Samuel de Champlain founded the city in 1608, and then check out the massive Petit-Champlain mural that recounts key neighborhood events in trompe-l’œil style. After exploring Québec’s birthplace, take the funicular back up the cliffside and head southwest to explore the star-shaped Citadelle. Finish the afternoon by ascending the stairs at Rue Saint-Louis and Côte de la Citadelle for a stroll along the fortress walls.
Just outside the walls on Côte d’Abraham grab a table at La Grolla, a romantic French-Swiss restaurant. For dinner, resist the temptation to order fondue and indulge with a bottle of wine from the extensive list of European labels and wallow in the melted-cheese goodness of the raclette, which few restaurants in North America do better. After, walk 10 minutes down Rue Saint-Jean for draft beers and live jazz at the offbeat Fou-Bar. If it is warm out, continue a block down the same street to enjoy the quirky outdoor terrace at Le Sacrilege, a bar defiantly positioned across from a small church. For your nightcap, head south toward the river to find Grande Allée, a popular restaurant-and-nightlife street whose options include the Maurice Nightclub in a century-old building.
Montcalm, an Upper Town neighborhood west of the Old City, is the newly christened Arts District of Québec. Start the day here at the Les Halles du Petit food hall on Rue Cartier. Order a coffee and muffin at Brulerie Rousseau, and stock up for lunch with items from its many gourmet vendors. Buy a baguette from Eric Borderon, arguably the best baker in the city, and charcuterie and cheese (ideally Canada’s award-winning baluchon cheese) at Aux Petits Délices. For dessert, find artisanal chocolates and pastries at Anna Pierrot. Following this tastebud-tingling trip to Les Halles, explore the many Montcalm markets, galleries and boutique shops. Do not skip the innovative home store Zone at Rue Cartier and Boulevard René Lévesque for quirky items like polar bear candles and squirrel-shaped clocks.
From most anywhere in Montcalm, head south toward the river to find the massive Plains of Abraham park. For the city’s 400th anniversary, the park hosted concerts by Paul McCartney and Céline Dion, but New France also ended on this field 250 years prior. In 1759, Generals James Wolfe of England and Louis-Joseph de Montcalm of New France faced off in a battle the Brits quickly won. The urban park is home to cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter months, but after the snow melts, the rush of activity recalls Central Park in New York.
With elevated views of the St. Lawrence River, eat the packed lunch from Les Halles, and feel free to drink wine or beer, which the park usually allows if part of a picnic. The Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, home to more than 25,000 works by Québec artists, is also in the park for those who are interested. Lastly, visitors might think Québec is French for “stairs” after tackling the city’s longest staircase—the 19th-century Cap-Blanc connects the park to the river via 398 wooden steps. Local joggers take pride in running up Cap-Blanc, which makes the Rocky Steps at the Philadelphia Museum of Art seem like amateur hour.
Colorful lights, horse-drawn carriages and a romantic atmosphere give Old Québec a different feel in the evening, and it is a good time to experience the city at its culinary best. Middle-of-the-road tourist spots are common in the Old City, and some openly lift ideas from NYC restaurants (e.g., the Shake ShakeChic Shack). Nevertheless, only six Canadian restaurants claim a prestigious five-diamond rating from AAA, and two—L’Initiale and Le Patriarche in Old Québec. L’Initiale serves progressive contemporary dishes like calf sweetbreads and scallops in lobster and sea urchin cream, while the French-born chef at Le Patriache specializes in local game (such as venison, caribou and wild boar) served in combinations of three. Likewise, Paris-born Louis Pacquelin spent time in France’s Michelin-starred kitchens before opening Panache, which uses produce from its own garden in nearby Île d’Orléans.
If you wish to pass on French-inspired cuisine, head to Rue Saint-Louis for Il Bello, a classic Italian restaurant whose dining terrace offers city views. After the culinary splurge, complete the weekend with a pint or three at St. Alexandre on Rue Saint-Jean or the cavernous L’Oncle Antoine on Rue Saint Pierre, both of which serve local microbrew drafts.
Air Canada is the traditional airline for Québec City, but budget carriers like WestJet and Porter now offer favorable price points from a limited number of U.S. cities. The national Via Rail also connects Québec City with Montreal and Toronto.
The 611-room Fairmont Le Château Frontenac is reportedly the most-photographed hotel in the world, and Canada declared it a National Historic Site in 1981. Staying at the 19th-century hotel comes with bragging rights, though the guest rooms are often underwhelming. Rooms start at $329 CAD.
The 95-room Auberge Saint-Antoine in Old Port is a top choice for young jetsetters. Formerly a maritime warehouse, the rustic-chic boutique hotel has river views, quirky decorations and the aforementioned Panache restaurant. Rooms start at $189 CAD.
Fresh off an $8 million renovation, Hotel Manoir Victoria is an affordable four-star option in the heart of Old Québec. The hotel has 156 rooms with a mix of traditional and contemporary decorations. Rooms start at $139 CAD.
David Jenison is a Los Angeles native. He has covered entertainment, restaurants and travel for more than 20 years as a writer and editor.