Text and photos submitted by Cheryl Levitan

As Canada’s largest province (four times the size of California), Québec’s fertile lowlands, northern tundra, vast forests and innumerable lakes are a huge area to explore. But it’s this province’s small capital and namesake city that best showcase the region’s rich culture and history. And as the sole Canadian province in which French is the official language, it’s the easiest (and friendliest) way to experience Europe without crossing the Atlantic.

With just 500,000 residents, Québec City is as vibrant as any large municipality, yet compact enough to be a walker’s dream – as long as that dream includes cobblestones, hills and stairs. French explorer Samuel de Champlain founded that country’s first permanent New World settlement, built on a steep bluff where the St. Lawrence River narrows, in 1608. As one of the oldest cities in North America and the only one with complete ramparts (city walls), Québec is a living history lesson. But old-world charm alone isn’t what attracts 5 million visitors annually; it’s the perfect balance between old and new that makes this city so inviting. World-class dining, contemporary shops and modern conveniences – Québec has them in abundance. But here they’re surrounded by magnificent 17th-century spires, 18th-century mansard-roofed stone buildings and trompe l’oeil murals. 

Historic Québec City lies within the rampart walls and is divided into two distinct sections: the Upper (Haute-Ville) and Lower (Basse-Ville) towns. Upper Old Town is the original governmental, religious and administrative center built on the steep bluffs of the promontory. Lower Old Town was the site for merchants and trade at the foot of that same promontory. Travel between these adjacent city centers was laborious until a funicular connected them in 1879. This dual-car system’s steep, 45-degree angle gives passengers quite a view as it descends into the lower terminal (which was once the home of explorer and fur trader Louis Jolliet).

Upper Old Town Highlights:

Chateau Frontenac – Built as one of the Canadian Pacific Railways’ resorts, its opulent architecture is part medieval castle and part French Renaissance châteaux. The crown jewel sitting atop the city, the Frontenac holds the Guinness World Record for the most photographed hotel in the world. Despite its age (opened in 1893), this beauty has all the modern amenities that one could want. It sports a long list of distinguished visitors, including Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, who met there to discuss World War II.

Dufferin Terrace – A scenic outlook next to the Frontenac, its wide wooden boardwalk provides magnificent views of the lower city, river and surrounding landscape. Spaced along the terrace are glass-topped stations to view the archeological remains of the original Saint-Louise fort. The bronze statue of Samuel de Champlain faces the former military parade grounds, which the first governor built as a public square in 1640.

Citadel – On a steep slope 350 feet above the St. Lawrence River, the 37-acre, star-shaped Citadel walls extend for 3 miles. The largest and most significant British fortress in North America, it was built in 1850 to defend against American invasion and local uprisings. The Royal 22nd Regiment performs a daily, 35-minute Changing of the Guard ceremony, a tradition since 1938. Soldiers wear red ceremonial coats and black bearskin hats inspired by the attire of Buckingham Palace’s guards. We were unaware that a cannon was also fired at noon and so felt quite fortunate to be so close as a soldier marched toward us, appearing to light a cannon. We assumed that it was for show. No, it was for blow! Feeling the blast more than hearing it, I jumped and let out a yell (at least I think I did since I couldn’t hear) and afterward felt as if I had walked into a wall. Many towns have chimes or bells to mark the hour; my hometown had the fire station’s whistle sound daily (no doubt jarring to unsuspecting passersby). Hearing that blast again on a subsequent visit (now from a distance!), we shared a smile. Clearly being “blasted” is a rite of passage in Québec best appreciated with time.

Basilica Cathedral Notre-Dame – Rebuilt many times because of fire, this is the most famous of Québec’s 150 churches. Occupying the same site since 1647, it has one of only eight Holy Doors in the world (a designation bestowed by the pope) and the only one in North America. Visitors can take a tour of the ornate interior and see the impressive golden-sculpted baldachin (canopy) in the sanctuary.

Lower Old Town highlights:

Ride the funicular or walk down the Breakneck Stairs to the lower town. Built in 1635 as the first staircase between upper and lower Québec, they’ve been renovated since and aren’t the death trap that their name implies. Steep, but with handrails, the landings along the way have shops, restaurants and picture-perfect views. Highlights include:

Place Royale – This is the original market square of this fur-trading village (known as Petit Champlain); restoration has filled the old merchant’s quarters with unique boutiques and bistros. It’s one of the most popular areas of the city; visitors are drawn by these quaint 17th- to 18th-century plastered stone buildings with their dormer windows, gabled roofs, large chimneys and shared exterior walls (called party walls), which extend above the rooftop to serve as firewalls. Notre-Dame des Victoires, the oldest stone church in North America, is also located here.

Fresque des Québécois – Québec’s first and largest trompe l’oeil mural is located just outside the square. More than 4,500 square feet in size, it looks more like an extension of the street than a painting on the side of a five-story building. Tourists often take pictures in front of it as if they are chatting or posing with the wall’s characters (all pivotal in Québec’s history) or as they pretend to walk into the painting.

Rue du Petit-Champlain – The oldest commercial thoroughfare in North America, it was voted Canada’s most beautiful street. The Petit Quebec Champlain mural, on a building at the western end of the road (near the funicular), portrays scenes of daily life and events in Petit Champlain. It was painted as if portions of the exterior wall have been removed; passersby become voyeurs as they watch, unseen by the painted figures within.

Rue du Tresor – A narrow street that has become an open-air gallery for local artists.

Rue St. Jean – Filled with any and every shop and dining venue, this street is always busy. Stop by tiny Le Paingrüel bakery for amazing croissants and spiral orange pastries, and make sure to note the rampart gate, the oldest of the five large gates that were the city’s protected entrances. In summer, the street closes to traffic and becomes a festive pedestrian walkway.

Highlights Just Outside Old Town:

Hotel du Parliament – Not a hotel, this is the province’s legislature, a design inspired by the Louvre Museum in Paris and completed in 1866. The lavish Fountain de Tourny in front was created for the 1855 Paris World Fair and presented to Québec on its 400th birthday. Inevitably drawing the gaze of passersby with its 43 water jets and sculpted figures, the fountain is stunning when lit at night.

Battlefields Park – The 1759 Battle of the Plains of Abraham was the defining confrontation between the French and British empires for control of Québec. Now the grassy expanse of this national park is a recreational paradise, with the surviving Martello Towers (rounded to deflect artillery fire) and educational Discovery Pavillion there to mark the conflict. The fine arts museum here is a bit like a mullet; it’s business-like neoclassical front and funky plant-covered and sky-lighted building in back merit a visit if only for the architecture.

Grande Allée – This is next to Battlefields Park. This was where the wealthy and well-connected built homes in the early 1900s; now it’s filled with sidewalk restaurants and nightlife.

The Port – A promenade of art galleries, antiques and cafes, Québec’s port is a frequent stop for New England and Maritime Island cruises. To admire the city from the river without packing your bags, the Québec City-Lévis ferry departs every 20 minutes for the 15- to 20-minute trip each way.

If you have time to venture further, consider:

Montmorency Falls – This waterfall is only 20 minutes away and an awe-inspiring 272 feet high, 90 feet higher than Niagara Falls. Visitors can walk over the falls on a suspension bridge (you will get wet), ride over in a cable car, “fly” past on a zip line, climb up the promontory stairs alongside or take it all in from the deck of elegant Manoir Montmorency Restaurant. Freezing in winter, the falls form an impressive cone of ice called      a sugarloaf.

Gaspé Peninsula and Percé – A frequent cruise stop in the province, time and the sea have sculpted Percé Rock on Bonaventure Island into a must-see. Now designated a migratory bird sanctuary, it’s a frequent source of inspiration for writers and painters, and home to one of the largest colonies of northern gannets in the world.

No trip to Québec would be complete without trying poutine, a beloved Québec snack. Having suffered much joking and eye-rolling about my own comfort food from Maryland (where my taste buds matured), I’m always open to sampling destination specialties. Since my fondness for lumpy creamed-chip beef is probably due to the childhood memories it evokes more than its gastronomic fine points, I’m not always a fan of local treats. So while I won’t be craving another helping of Québec’s French fries covered in beef gravy and fresh, un-aged cheese curds,

I will keep the eye rolling and jokes to myself.