Charming and Old World with European flair, French-speaking Quebec City is a delightful place to visit. It’s a cobblestone-lined, 17th century walled city steeped in history and filled with graceful architecture, internationally acclaimed restaurants, eclectic artist studios, stylish boutiques, and bustling Parisian-style bakeries, bistros, and sidewalk cafes.
You’ll want to explore the city on foot to take it all in — just consider your tour a history lesson of the fun, lively, and vibrant kind. Here's a guide to discovering it all.
400 years of history
Oui, there’s bohemian-chic Montreal, a stylish urban center of commercial import on the global scene. But Quebec’s picturesque capital perched above the Saint Lawrence River is really the soul of this proudly French-Canadian province. The city’s walled colonial core dates back to 1608, making it one of North America’s oldest and the only fortified city north of Mexico. The commanding Citadelle of Quebec has been keeping guard since the 1800s.
Take a guided walking tour to learn about the city’s past: First a fort for a New France settlement constructed by French explorers at Place-Royale — for a region they dubbed “le Canada” — then the site of several fierce battles with the English. Three top stops include:
1. Postcard-perfect Place-Royal plaza, where it all started and where criminals were later executed, and its fresque des Quebecois mural recounting four centuries of history.
2. The imposing, star-shaped Citadelle of Quebec: An active garrison, where you can watch the changing of the guard, and discover the intact fortress, part of the impressive ramparts circling the city.
3. The Plains of Abraham in The Battlefields Park: Scene of the 1759 Conquest which played a pivotal role in North America’s future, today a grassy park and historic marker. Also informative is the Fortifications of Quebec National Historic Site, the nearly three-mile-long defensive wall network.
Quebec City’s history is stamped on its splendid architecture. Rent bikes and ride between sites, taking time to savor a cycle or stroll along the Terrase Dufferin boardwalk atop the city’s cliff called Cap Diamant overlooking the river valley. The highlight is Vieux-Quebec, or Old Quebec, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Take your time exploring the narrow cobblestone streets dotted with hand-wrought shop signs and flower baskets, and perusing the handsome stone heritage buildings and historic churches.
You’ll want to see Place-Royal’s 1688 steepled Notre-Dame-des-Victoires Church, the oldest stone church in North America, and inside, its fortress-shaped altar and artwork. Also be sure to check out 18th century Chevalier House, an inn once patronized by naval officer and merchants. Rivaling Europe’s best is neo-classical Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Quebec — it's ornate, magnificent, and accented in gold, dating back to 1647. Gare du Palais, a train and bus station, is a spired, chateau-like 1915 Canadian Pacific Railway building. The crown jewel, though, is iconic 600-room Fairmont Le Château Frontenac with its commanding position over the city like a sentry keeping watch. Built in 1893, it’s a little bit Medieval, a little bit Renaissance, and 100 percent fairy tale castle with its turrets and spires.
Shopping and strolling
Because the city is so compact, you can easily get around walking. A highlight is the riverside village in Old Quebec, Petit Champlain, home to quaint stone buildings flanked by cobblestone lanes. The inviting boutiques and bistros were once 17th century merchant homes and fur trading posts, then later Irish immigrant housing. Now, this immaculately restored shopping district is as enchanting in summer as it is dusted in snow and lit for the holidays.
Ride the funiculaire, then sample French-Canadian fare at Bistro Sous Le Fort, browse First Nations wares at Amimoc, sculpture at Boutik Art Denis Nicolas, and fashion at Atelier Le Pomme. Pick up gourmet picnic goodies at Fou du Bio. Other popular shopping areas are the trendy Saint-Roch district downtown and Old Port, for antiques, galleries, great restaurants, and a café-au-lait streetside on lively rue Saint-Paul.
Expect head-turning cuisine everywhere you go in this city. A big bonus? It's almost all seasonal, local, and rooted in French culture. Some of the best dining spots include kitschy-cozy Café St-Malo in the Old Port for traditional French and summertime terrace dining, and Chez Muffy (or one of its pop-ups) in Auberge Sainte-Antoine hotel on the St. Lawrence for farm-to-table in an elegant 19th century stone warehouse. In Old Quebec, try burger joint Le Chic Shack for an original twist on poutine (fries topped with gravy and cheese curds), and Le Saint-Armour on Rue Sainte-Ursule for fine dining and stand-out wines in the whimsical garden room.
Aside from the numerous galleries, design ateliers, and old school craftsmen studios, the two big arts institutions here are the sleek and modern Musee national des beaux-arts du Quebec and Musee de la civilisation. Near the Plains of Abraham, the fine arts museum showcases nearly 40,000 works spanning 400 years with a spotlight on Quebec talent. Spend an afternoon at Museum of Civilization near Old Quebec, which focuses on the human experience, to learn more about local history and architecture, and to see the archived artifacts.
The Quebecois love to celebrate and they love to do it outside, no matter the season. Whenever you visit, there’s sure to be something going on, whether it’s Halloween on the Plains of Abraham, New Year’s Eve in the city with fireworks, summertime music extravaganza Le Festival d’ete du Quebec starring global headliners, or the world’s largest winter festival Carnaval du Quebec.
Unless you jet all the way to Europe, there’s no French culture immersion in North America like lovely, historic Quebec City. Pack your (stylish) walking shoes and get ready to see the sights, fueled by some creamy Quebec cheese and a flaky croissant, of course.
Ready to practice your French? Prepare at the Quebec City website.