Samuel de Champlain founded Quebec in 1608. It rapidly became a major fortress, trading post, and base for exploration and trade. While Lower Town (Basse-Ville) area housed warehouses and served as the city’s commercial center, Upper Town (Haute-Ville), built on the cliff overlooking the river, was home to the city’s elite. Its clifftop fortress (The Citadel) protected Basse-Ville and the river. The two sections are surrounded by the remains of a 3-mile wall (Les Ramparts) that marks Quebec’s history as the only North American walled city outside of Mexico.
In 1736, Quebec was chartered as the Canadian mainland’s first city. In 1760, a series of British attacks disrupted the growing city’s peace and prosperity was disrupted. While the fortress and its troops fended off these raids for decades, the British finally captured the city in 1759. Quebec went on to become a major trading and ship building center through the 19th century.
Although France ceded control of the entire Quebec province (which included Quebec City) to Britain in 1763, many of the city’s English families left the city for Montreal or elsewhere, largely leaving it to the French. Quebec City retained its French language, character, and charm.
Old Quebec Sights
The heart of the city is Old Quebec (Vieux-Québec), which is divided into Upper Town (Haute-Ville, especially from Place d’Armes to Rue’ d’Auteuil) that is 300 feet above the river and Lower Town (Basse-Ville, especially around Place-Royal). The two sections are are connected by the appropriately named Breakneck Steps. Or one can take a more leg- and lung-friendly funicular.
Old Quebec is packed with 18th– and 19th-century stone buildings, with a handful of 17th-century buildings thrown in for good measure. This historic and atmospheric city core is crisscrossed by a mesh of narrow, winding, cobblestone streets. The streets are lined with hundreds of beautifully renovated, repurposed buildings that house boutiques, galleries, restaurants, and many of the city’s historic sights.
Old Quebec has many impressive and scenic sites and areas to explore.
Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac Hotel (Upper Quebec)
Canada’s railway companies built the Chateau-style hotel in 1892 to encourage tourists to ride the rails. The huge, majestic, turreted, copper-roofed building towers over Lower Town. It remains the city’s most recognizable landmark, visible from the river and multiple points in the city.
Dufferin Terrace (Upper Quebec)
Directly behind the Frontenac hotel is an 1879-built boardwalk that stretches from the Frontenac’s lovely flower gardens to the base of the Citadel. During the winter, guests can take a 800-foot toboggan slide from the Citadel down to the terrace. The terrace provides incredible views over the Lower Town and the River and often hosts street musicians and other performers. Beneath the terrace, and partially viewable from viewing points are the remains of Chateau Saint-Louis, which was the offices of the French and British governors from the 17th through the 19th centuries.
Place d’Armes (Upper Quebec)
This park is across from the pretty, cafe-lined Rue St. Anne in Upper Quebec. Two arts venues run off of it. Rue de Tresor, on which the Old Law Courts building (formerly a monastery) is located, has streets lined with art produced and being sold by local artists. Rue St. Anne is a walkway lined with more than a dozen shanties from which craftspeople sell their wares.
Palace-Royale (Lower Quebec)
The city’s most historic site is in Lower Quebec—that of Samuel de Champlain’s original 1608 trading post and the first successful New France settlement. It is now the heart of Old Town, surrounded by repurposed 17th and early 18th-century Norman-style merchant homes and the 1688 Our Lady of Victories (Notre-Dame Des Victoires) church, the oldest stone church in North America. When we visited, a number of square’s buildings had large strips of aluminum foil affixed to their facades in what initially appeared to be an almost random fashioned. But when looking up from the waterfront, the foil formed a symmetrical pattern that pull your eyes to the center of the square. The installation is part of Passages Insolates (discussed below).
Petit-Champlain (Lower Quebec)
This lovely street is located in the Quartier Petit-Champlain. It claims to be the oldest commercial street in North America. The street is located a block off Place Royal and is reminiscent of a quaint French village. But it wasn’t always so. It began a long decline in the 19th century as prosperous families moved uptown and new Irish immigrants, took their places. A series of landslides that wrecked houses and killed residents led to a virtual abandonment. The reversal came only in the 1970s and 80s when the city attracted artisans and few merchants to the block. They facilitated the development that created the current idyllic landscape.
Today the pedestrian district contains numerous restaurants, galleries, and tourist shops. Taste samples at a cider shop. Or stop at the sugar snack that pours maple syrup on bed of ice and then rolls the partially congealed syrup onto a stick from which it can be eaten (but quickly, before it melts).
Housed in a modern building, the museum portrays the history of the province and the city, from the First People through the present.
Côte de la Fabrique
The pretty, curved, shop-lined street leads from Lower to Upper Old Town. The street ends at a gate where rue St-Jean begins. This street, the main drag of Upper Old Town leads past the Parliament building and across New Town. It is lined with restaurants (from take-out joints to upscale places), bars ,and tourist shops.
Quebec Arms For Battle
Although current-day Quebec is certainly beautiful, wars and preparations of wars dominated much of its existence. When the city underwent a major renovation project during the 1870s, many citizens wanted to eliminate the vestiges of previous wars. The Marquess of Dufferin, then governor-general of Canada (after whom the scenic terrace was named), had other ideas. He convinced the city to retain and renovate these important parts of the city’s history. Time has proved him prescient. Today, many of these structures and sites are among the city’s most popular tourist attractions, not to speak of a continual reminder of the city’s past. Among the most important of these are:
The star-shaped Citadel fortress is part of the Artillery Park Heritage Site. The British began building it in 1779 in response to a number of American attacks. While construction was halted in 1783 after the Brits signed a peace treaty with the U.S., it was eventually completed in 1838. The large fort is accessible by guided tours. Today it remains a military garrison and is the home of both the Canadian Governor General and the Canadian Monarch. (The seat of the Canadian government however, remains 260 miles away in Ottawa.) The Citadel provides commanding views of the city, the river and the Fields of Abraham where the British defeated the French in 1759.
The park is the site of the late 18th-century Battle of the Plains of Abraham (French and Indian War) and Battle of Sainte-Foy (Seven Year’s War), both between the French and the British). Today it is lined with Martello Tower forts and historic artillery pieces.
The roughly 12-cannon emplacement was built on the waterfront in 1977 with cannons from the city’s original 1691 defense system.
The park contains a renovated complex of fortifications that the French originally begun building in 1712. Construction was paused when a treaty was signed with the British the following year. Subsequently, the defenses were replaced by more formidable fortifications at the top of the cliffs and the buildings were converted to barracks 30 years later.
The current site includes the foundry and arsenal that produced artillery shells and other ammunition for the French, the British, and through WW!, by the Canadians. The current building provides a history of the site.
Across the street are a reconstructed redoubt, a comfortable house occupied by the site’s commander and his wife, and several barracks buildings. One of these barracks has been converted into a historical site. In it, the basement serves as a reconstructed storehouse. The first floor has a recreation of the crowded French enlisted men’s quarters in which they cooked and ate there meals in the same room as they slept. The second floor, meanwhile, is reconstructed as the British officers’ quarters with a comfortable lounge with comfortable chairs and mahogany gaming tables, a large, formal dining room and a hearth manned by a cook who officers hired to prepare their meals. The third-floor houses the officer’s sleeping quarters and the apartment of the superintendent of the foundry. It is furnished with early 20th-century furniture and furnishings.
Old Defense System
This row of cliff-side fortifications is lined with dozens of mortars and cannons that stretches from the Frontenac and the Dufferin Terrace Gardens.
Each year Quebec has an annual public art event that features performances and temporary art works from more than 40 artists that are placed in public spaces though Lower Old Quebec. The works change each year. The physical manifestation of these works range from the massive Place-Royale aluminum foil installation to a number of small (roughly 18×12-inch) 3D representations of buildings and rooms that are embedded into building walls and some child-friendly images, such as a snowmobile embedded in a rock on which children can play.
Quebec’s Notable Buildings
In addition to the iconic, above-discussed Hotel Frontenac, Quebec has many buildings to check out.
Quebec Province Parliament Building
The Parliament Building is actually located a stone’s throw outside the one of the pretty, reconstructed St. Louis city gate. Its statue-laded architecture was based on Paris’s Louvre and was built in 1886. The building can be explored by guided or unguided tours that take you through the lovely hallways, rooms, and legislative channels of the building’s historic core. Flower beds dot the grounds of the majestic structure. In the front is another majestic structure, the Tourny Fountain. A benefactor bought the old rusted fountain in Paris and, had shipped to Quebec, beautifully renovated, and installed in front of the Parliament building.
The convent has operated on its site since 1642. It consists of a small stone building, a chapel, and a museum named in honor of Mother Marie of the Incarnation, a widow who moved to Quebec. She became a nun and founded a school for educating girls, including many First Nation girls. (It was not, however, among the many of the country’s residence schools which forcibly removed their native-born students from their families in an often brutal effort to “civilize” them).
Built in 1648, it is the city’s oldest building and is the spot at which the French formally surrendered their Canadian holdings to the British. Another 17th-century home, the Jacquet House, is located around the corner.
The house was built in 1736. It housed the military paymaster and served as the meeting place for the military council.
Beyond Old Quebec
Although Old Quebec is home to most of the city’s sights and tourists, a handful of sites are worth a trek outside Old Quebec’s walls. The most notable among these are:
Jacque Cartier camped here for the winter during his second exploratory voyage to Canada in 1535. Today it is a park with bike trails.
While much less scenic than the Old City, downtown has a few of its own interesting structures. We were particularly impressed by the city’s large, sprawling, modern glass Bus Terminus, which was designed as something of a zig-zag to fit among existing neighboring buildings. To further distinguish the structure from the traditional surrounding buildings, the front entrance of the terminus is marked by a giant glass lens hung from the façade.
Among the new city’s other attractions are:
Montmorency Falls is a tall (272-foot) ribbon of water surrounded by hiking and biking trails. It, however, requires a roughly 15 minute drive.
National Museum of Fine Arts focuses on Quebec art from the 18th century through the present.
Our excellent dinner at this 1960’s-style “expense account restaurant” consisted of classic dishes that are prepared and delivered in a personalized, professional way. Many dishes were prepared tableside including Caesar salad to filet mignon to dessert crepes. Our dinner began with the aforementioned Caesar (literally with a jar of anchovies!), preceded to Beef Wellington with seared foie gras, mushroom duxelle and Perigourdine sauce. Even though we could not finish the large portions of our two savory dishes, we couldn’t pass up on the maple syrup pie. Our wine was a 2020 Domaine de Vieux “Lazaret” Chateauneuf du Pape. A memorable meal.
Our dinner consisted of three dishes: Gaspe Atlantic char carpaccio with pumpkin seed oil and elderberry sauce; pan-seared foie gras; and Les Iles scallops with fava beans, cream bacon chowder, and herbs. Although the scallops did not have the depth of taste we had expected, the meal was generally quite good. So was the 2020 Leaning Post Niagara Peninsula Chardonnay that we had with the meal. It showed hints of its 10 months in mostly neutral French oak, but still maintained a nice crispness with tastes of pineapple and lemon. We finished the dinner with a couple complimentary cubes of maple sugar candy.
Just out of Old Town (past the Parliament), we had a less inspired dinner at this casual cafe that we none-the-less enjoyed. We began with snails in creamy tarragon sauce and caramelized scallops and shrimp in a pastry shell with nantua butter and spinach. Both were fine, despite tasty (especially for the scallops and shrimp) but rather one-dimensional sauces. The grilled Atlantic salmon with shrimp, lemon butter sauce, and risotto was similarly good but lacking a little something. We had no reservations of any type with the salted caramel crunch dessert with dark chocolate mousse, salted caramel, pecans, butter biscuit, blueberries, strawberries and chocolate chips. We devoured every crumb. Our wine, was a light 2020 Grange Cochard Gamay from the Morgan region of Beaujolais.
We broke our rule by returning to the same restaurant twice during the same trip. This by accident.
We stopped here for lunch without recalling that we had dinner reservations for the following night. Joyce had perfectly cooked, very tasty pan-seared cod with fennel salad, tabbouleh, cherry tomato, hummus, and herbal oil. Tom went for veal liver with mashed potatoes, squash salad, bacon, clos des roches cheese and balsamic reduction. While his first dish was overcooked, it was immediately (and we do mean immediately) replaced with a dish that was cooked perfectly. We were similarly impressed by appetizers that came standard with the entrées. We chose creamy vegetable soup and beet carpaccio with edamame puree and almonds. Both were quite good.
After exploring a number of alternatives, we decided to return for dinner. The dinner menu was totally different than that for lunch and was equally enjoyable. Tom had a tasty veal strip loin with marrow, apricot, Glasswort and rapini. Joyce’s trout fillet with bouillon, baby-corn, mushrooms, beets, cheese and agnolotti was equally as good. Our wine was a Le Closeau du Clos Priour Cotes-du-Rhone from Anne and Sebastian Bidauti.
We made a dessert stop at this packed creperie for a chestnut cream wheat crepe with an unusual (and quite good) coffee spiked with Sortalege, a local, maple syrup-based liqueur. Delicious.
The restaurant is located on lovely Petite Champlain. Not surprisingly, it specializes in rabbit (not to speak of duck). Tom selected a rabbit saddle with mustard sauce (with potatoes and vegetables) from among the numerous rabbit preparations. Joyce selected a seafood cassoulet with squid, mussels, clams and shrimp. While both dishes were very good, and quite large, Joyce would have preferred larger pieces of shellfish than the small bites in the cassoulet. We celebrated our final Quebec lunch with wine—a 2021 Domaine du Seminaire GSM from Cotes-du-Rhone
At this pretty eatery, we both attempted to partially compensate for a week of overindulging with a relatively healthy, refreshing seafood salad with greens, lobster, crab, Matane shrimp, coconut shrimp, coconut flakes and a little mayo. Very tasty.
Le Petit Fondue
We were in a mood for fondue for lunch. The cheese fondue was average but the accompanying bread was gummy and made an average fondue worse. Tom had expected his meat (beef, bison, deer, and elk) fondue to be in oil, but it was cooked in broth. The elk was a bit tougher and more gamey than he naively expected to be reminiscent of wonderful elk tenderloin. It is not high on our return list, despite a large selection of interesting crepes.
While an evening walk or a street-side table along the bustling Rue Saint-Jean is entertaining in its own right, we also found a few Upper Old Town spots where we could enjoy music along with a drink.
Bar Ste-Angele. This tiny Jazz Bar was packed for a Wednesday evening jam session. The music was good, the atmosphere fun, and the $10 cover and drinks were very reasonably priced.