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Introducing Québec City

Québec City is the crown jewel of French Canada and if you're coming for the first time, look out - there's simply no other place like it in North America.

It's pure Old World Europe right smack in North America, the heart and soul of francophone culture in the New World, and it's got a boisterous and down-to-earth population proud to show it all off.

In short, it's hard not to be completely wowed by the place.

Perched atop a cliff that swoops down to the St Lawrence River, Québec City is the only walled city on the continent north of Mexico.

These fortifications now protect an entire old town that's become a kind of living museum. Narrow cobbled streets are lined with 17th- and 18th-century houses and almost every step will bring you to another historical plaque marking the battles between the French and British Empires for this symbolic piece of land, or a statue representing the French colonists' subsequent struggle for survival in English-speaking North America.

Plenty of first-time visitors just spend their time walking around the city with their jaws dropped open, muttering 'I can't believe this is in North America.'

Québec City's one-of-a kind history and cultural significance has even got the attention of Unesco. And since 1985 the entire old town has been placed on the UN's prestigious world heritage list.

Any time of year is good for a visit. Summer draws the mother load of tourists. The crowds create fascinating street life and a buzz wherever you go. And in turn, the city really pulls out the red carpet for visitors: everyone from musicians to acrobats to actors in period costume take to the streets. There's also terrific festivals and oodles of special museum exhibitions and tours. Fall and spring bring beautiful colors, dramatically reduced prices and thinner crowds. And in the winter, Caribou, an alcoholic drink enjoyed by the early settlers, is sold everywhere to keep people warmed up. Even in the darkest and coldest months of January and February, Quebecers have found a way to have fun: throwing the annual Winter Carnival, arguably the biggest, most colorful and most successful winter festival around.

The city has gone to great lengths to make the city as traveler-friendly as possible. Explanation panels are everywhere both inside and outside the walls pointing out historical events and things of interest to travelers - many of the plaques on historical buildings are translated into English. Even most of the street signs have explanations underneath, telling you who the street was named after and why.

Most visitors never venture outside the Old Town, but there is plenty to explore outside the walls as well.

The St-Jean-Baptiste neighborhood has wonderful shopping, cafés and bars as does the nouveau St Roch (New St Roch), another downtown neighborhood that's become one of the most striking and exciting examples of urban renewal in the province's recent history.

You will also be visiting Québec City at one of the most interesting times in its development. The entire region is gearing up for 2008, when it will celebrate Québec City's 400th birthday. Year-round festivities are planned and everything from museums to infrastructure is getting a spruce up in anticipation of the event.

Though Québec City was once considered little more than a day or weekend trip from Montréal, more and more visitors seem to be bypassing Montréal altogether and spending their entire vacation here and the surrounding regions.

Nine million tourists come to Québec City each year and it's regularly voted one of the top 10 tourist locations by everyone from Condé Nast to National Geographic Traveler Magazine.

About 622, 000 people live in the Québec City municipality and around 95% of them have French ancestry. The English minority is miniscule here, but everyone associated with the tourism industry, including staff at hotels, restaurants, shops or tourist sites speaks English. Québec City is the capital of the province of Québec, which means once you leave those Old Town walls and head for its compact downtown you'll be rubbing shoulders with the province's elite: the rich, the powerful, the lobbyists, the wheelers, dealers and decision makers.

Québec City is also an important port and is developing its high-tech sector. In conjunction with Laval University, 'new-economy' high-tech enterprises are developing, particularly in such specialized fields as photonics, geomatics, biotechnology, nutraceuticals and software.

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