Picture of the Lower Vieux Quebec

Lower Vieux-Quebec, also known as Quartier Petit Champlain, Quebec City, Canada

Photograph by Susan Seubert

By Heather Greenwood Davis

Winters in Canada are intense and eastern Canada often gets a good wallop right through March. So when spring arrives, Quebecers are among the first to hit the streets to dance in the sunshine at festivals and relax on patios. Join them and it won’t be long before you too develop a love of the French-Canadian culture, an addiction to cobblestone streets, and an infectious desire to kiss on both cheeks. Throughout the spring, summer, and fall you’ll find plenty of activities to keep you busy. From walking on walls to boating the St. Lawrence, from dimly lit bars to posh restaurants; whether by foot, bike, or horse-drawn carriage; whether you’re carrying la backpack, pushing a stroller, or wandering hand in hand with the one you love, you won’t help but be intrigued by this laid-back city with a spectacular history. This three-day itinerary offers you an introduction to the best of Quebec City.

Day One: History and Art

Spending time in Quebec City is like walking through a living museum. No place in the city exemplifies the synergy between old and new better than Battlefields Park. The 254-acre grounds are home to both the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Quebec (which celebrates Quebec’s fine art) and the Plains of Abraham (the site of the 1759 battle between the French and British). Both offer intimate views of Quebec history through the eyes of historians and recreationists. Self and guided tours are available.

Architecture of varying design awaits around every corner. The biggest mistake you could make would be not to walk slowly and take it all in. Head toward the Victorian buildings on La Grande Allée. Sidewalk patios and street-facing restaurants have drawn crowds here since the 19th century. Pop in for a bite and then head over to the Assemblée Nationale (Parliament Building). The provincial government sits in a building designed in the Second Empire style and built between 1877 and 1886. You can’t miss the intricate Fontaine de Tourny out front—a gift from heritage department store Simons to celebrate the city’s 400th anniversary in 2008. Guided tours of the interior are available but you may need to save that for another visit.

You’ll only have to turn around to see the city's intact fortified walls, the continent's only such walls north of Mexico. More than 400 years old, they mark the boundaries of the old town. Make your way through the Porte Saint-Louis gate and onto the narrow sidewalks, sloping streets, and cobblestone roads that set Old Quebec apart.

Continue your military history lesson into the modern day at the impressive Citadelle of Quebec. The star-shaped fortress is celebrating its hundredth anniversary this year. Though the site was originally a 17th-century French fortification, the Citadelle was built by British Royal Engineers and the Royal 22nd Regiment has been here since 1920. If you can catch a ceremony here (Beating the Retreat or Changing of the Guard), it’s worth it for the pomp and pageantry. If not, permanent and temporary exhibits, now housed in a bigger, revitalized museum, still make it worthwhile.

Head down to the beautiful Fairmont Le Château Frontenac hotel. The famous castle and iconic landmark in Quebec City is a national historic site. Now operated by Fairmont Hotels and Resorts, its guests have included everyone from Charles Lindbergh to Alfred Hitchcock. Even if you don’t lodge here, the views it offers of the historic St. Lawrence River and Old Quebec make it the perfect spot to take a breather with a cup of tea.

Your late afternoon and evening choices can happen in the order that suits but should include a walk to the Notre-Dame de Québec Basilica-Cathedral (it’s celebrating its 350th anniversary this year). The architecture, design, and artwork inside are breathtaking. As the gas lamps come on you can make your way back along the Rue du Trésor—a small road where local artisans showcase their paintings—and down the road to dinner. Have a traditional Quebecois meal at Aux Anciens Canadiens (make dinner reservations ahead of time with your hotel concierge). Expect to see Quebec staples like pea soup, tourtière, and sugar pie on the menu.

For nightlife, head back out to La Grande Allée, where the quaint atmosphere transforms in the evening with music and nightclubs.

Day Two: People-Watching and Culture

Grab your walking shoes, take your coffee to go, and set out for the Dufferin Terrace. The long walkway has been the waterside promenade of choice for more than a century. Make your way to the funicular—the only one of its kind in North America—that connects Upper and Lower Town. Ride down as the locals have done since 1879.

Today is your chance to fall in line with the relaxed pace of Old Quebec. Start with a stop at Place-Royale, the public square that has been a large part of Lower Town community life since the 1700s. Today it's also home to the Musée de la Place Royale, which helps visitors understand what life was like for early area residents (including the aborigines who first called it home).

The waterfront is dotted with small merchants and park benches. Shop for a picnic lunch at Le Marché du Vieux-Port (Old Port Market), where fresh fish and well-aged cheese share space with flower sellers and artisans.

Board the Québec-Lévis ferry for a view of the city from the waterway. The ten-minute journey over to Levis will run you $3.35 (U.S. $3.08) for guests age 18 to 64 each way. Before the return trip grab an ice cream cone (soft serve with chocolate dip) at Les Chocolats Favoris and enjoy it all the way back to the city.

Continue to rue Saint Paul. The antique shops, historic homes, and art galleries are perfect for afternoon wandering and will offer the chance to chat with the locals. When you’re ready to start the return journey, you can opt to take the funicular back to Upper Town or test your leg strength on the aptly named Breakneck Stairs.

Dine at one of the city’s finest restaurants. Both Panache and L’Initiale will offer a reason to dress for dinner. Or keep it more causal at Le Cochon Dingue. All are within a short walk or cab ride from a hotel in or near Old Quebec.

For an early evening stroll, walk the Promenade des Gouverneurs just below the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac and explore the neighborhood shops in lamp-lit Quartier Petit Champlain.

Day Three: Trendy Neighborhoods and Shopping Escapades

Today you’ll take a different route to explore the farthest parts of the Old City. Opt to walk along the top of the fortification wall that marks the divide between the old town and the more modern one, then make your way back inside to the interactive Museum of Civilization, which features themed exhibitions.

Change gears, shake off the history, and prepare for an afternoon of pure indulgence. Wander up through the popular Faubourg Saint-Jean neighborhood to Erico Choco-Musée for a sweet treat, then head for neighboring Nouvo Saint Roch, a newly revitalized area popular with university students, lunching locals, and tourists alike. Split your time between window-shopping at boutiques and local must-sees like Benjo—a lavishly decadent toy store that rivals New York City’s FAO Schwartz—and surveying the scene from the microbreweries and cafes that dot the laneways. For lunch pop into Le Clocher Penché Bistrot for a tasty and unpretentious fixed-price meal, then stop into one of the city’s local brewpubs, like La Barberie or La Korrigane Brasserie Artisanale.

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