Photograph by Richard T. Nowitz, National Geographic
Site: Historic District of Old Quebec
Year Designated: 1985
Reason for Designation: North America’s premier walled city is an architectural treasure and a monument to European colonial history in the New World.
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Often called a bit of Old Europe on American soil, Quebec is the only walled city north of Mexico. The legendary French explorer Samuel de Champlain founded Quebec early in the 17th century, and the ramparts, gates, and other fortifications that subsequently surrounded the city serve as a rock-solid reminder of its role in the colonial wars for control of the Americas. The city was the capital of New France until 1760, after which time it centered the new British colony before becoming part of an independent Canada.
Quebec’s Upper Town (Haute-Ville) is perched on cliffs overlooking the St. Lawrence River and providing views of the countryside for many miles beyond.
The iconic structure of Upper Town, indeed of all Quebec City, is the castle-like Château Frontenac. The grand hotel was built by the Canadian Pacific railroad at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries and has dominated the city’s skyline ever since. But Château Frontenac remains a relative newcomer in an architecturally rich ville where many museums, churches, homes, and scenic lanes date back to the 1600s.
The star-shaped Citadel, which dominates the city and the St. Lawrence, was constructed after Americans attacked British Quebec in 1775-76. Suspended below the fortress, on the cliff face, lies the Promenade des Gouverneurs. This boardwalk and the adjoining Terrasse Dufferin offer a unique opportunity for strolls that showcase the commanding clifftop views prevalent on the edge of the Upper Town.
Accessible by steep stairs or via funicular car, Old Quebec’s Lower Town has its own historic charms. The Basse-Ville sprang up around the city’s harbor and was in fact the original neighborhood of the city. Homes, shops, and ancient streets sprawled here at the base of the cliffs center around Place Royale—a square on the site of the garden of Champlain’s Habitation (1608).
Adjacent to the Citadel and the streets of the old city, the Parc des Champs-de-Bataille preserves the grassy, cliff-top Plains of Abraham—where French hopes of New World dominance were forever dashed on September 13, 1759. Though the French lost the battle, and with it their American empire, visitors will discover that here in Quebec French culture has enjoyed an enduring triumph.
How to Get There
Quebec City is serviced by an international airport and a rail hub. Many U.S. visitors arrive by private car, though passports are now required for such travel.
When to Visit
Those in search of a winter wonderland should visit in February, when the Carnaval d’Hiver (Winter Carnival) is in session. Winter sport, arts, and entertainment are all on offer and the chill air is amply warmed by Quebecois hospitality—and plentiful food and drink. For those with warmer blood, the Summer Festival, held in July, turns much of the Upper Town into a festive outdoor stage.
How to Visit
Old Quebec is made for walking. The city’s ancient streets are narrow, winding, and so rich with unexpected treasures that a leisurely pace is well rewarded. The wide-open Plains of Abraham invite exploration by bike or, in winter, by cross-country ski.
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