Québec City is a relaxed city with a big village mentality.
Considered the birthplace of French North America, it is known best for its historic district, Old Québec, with its 18th-19th century French and English architecture and cobblestone streets. Québec City is also home to one of the most photographed hotels in North America, Château Frontenac.
People flock to Québec City in summer for its music festivals and sporting events. Art installations and ephemeral urban spaces pop up throughout the city, and the New France Festival shines a light on 17th-century Québec (known then as New France). In winter, Carnaval de Québec provides a welcome festive escape from the grey days of winter, as the snow-covered buildings and streets transform into a magical winter wonderland.
Supporting small local businesses is an essential part of life here, and Québec City’s thriving restaurant scene rivals that of Montréal.
Plan a trip to Québec City to experience its history and European vibes, but stay to explore its laid-back neighborhoods, French culture and local terroir.
Old Québec (Upper Town) is the best neighborhood for sightseeing
The only fortified colonial city north of Mexico, the Historic District of Old Québec, which spans 135 hectares (334 acres) was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. This district has two distinct parts: Upper Town and Lower Town. Upper Town (also known as the neighborhood of Old Québec) is above Cap Diamant and is home to the city’s rampart walls, churches, convents and military sites.
Walk to the top of Terrasse Pierre-Dugua-de-mons for a picturesque view of Old Québec and the Saint-Lawrence River. Visit Maison de la littérature, a breathtaking library built inside an old church, with a mandate to preserve and promote French literature. Stroll the ramparts, complete with cannons, and admire the views of Old Québec from atop the old city gates.
Upper Town is an ideal place to stay. Hotels are generally modern-contemporary in style, and guesthouses tend to be traditional Québécois style, with heavy woods and antiques. Hôtel Nomad and Monastère des Augustines are unique options in this neighborhood.
Don't leave without a souvenir from Petit-Champlain (Lower Town)
Lower Town, located below the cap (what the Québecquise call the area below Cap Diamant), is an amalgam of two small neighbourhoods: Petit-Champlain and Place-Royale. Here, three-story stone 18th-century Normandy-style houses with colorful red, gray and blue sloped metal roofs flank cobblestone streets. I love strolling down the narrow alley-like cobblestone street in Petit-Champlain, buying foodstuffs, shoes and trinkets from boutiques run by Québec artisans.
The Breakneck Steps, tucked into the corner of Rue de la Petit-Champlain and Rue Sous le fort, is a popular thoroughfare that connects lower and upper (above the cap) towns. I have a love-hate relationship with these stairs, which are a tourist attraction. I love the view of Petit-Champlain from the top but hate the slipperiness of the wooden stairs in winter.
People watch in Place-Royale (Lower Town)
Place-Royale is home to the first trading post and settlement established by Samuel de Champlain in 1608. The public square is where you’ll find Église Notre-Dame des Victoires (which made an appearance at the end of Catch Me If You Can), gem and handicraft boutiques, as well as a cafe and a couple of restaurant patios. Place-Royale is also the main site of the New France Festival each August. I love sitting on the steps of the church, sipping chocolat chaud and watching the crowds of tourists walking around, some with guides, and many with phones raised to snap pictures of the 18th-century Normandy-style stone buildings.
The Royal Battery is at the junction of Rue Saint-Pierre and Rue Sous le fort, and is a quiet place to relax under the shade of a tree. Down the street from here on Rue Saint-Pierre is the site of the first woman-owned business in New France, operated by Marie-Anne Barbel from 1745-1748. Today, its stone vault is home to Pub l’Oncle Antoine, my favorite hang-out. Order the French onion soup (it’s famous here) and a shot of maple whiskey while you enjoy the jovial staff.
For art and antiques, visit Old Port Vieux
The Old Port neighborhood is part of The Historic District of Old Québec and was once home to many of the city’s banks. Musée de la Civilisation is one of the best museums in the city, with a permanent exhibit highlighting Quebec life, including that of its Indigenous peoples.
You’ll find a plethora of art galleries and antique shops here (many of which were once banks), and each summer, the galleries in the neighborhood host an arts walk on Rue du Sault-au-Matelot. Behind this walking street is an alley of wooden staircases and walkways called Rue Sous le cap. It is my favorite way to avoid some of the crowds in summer and leads to the backdoor of a diner, Le Buffet de l’Antiquaire. In the 18th century, the waters of the Saint-Lawrence river licked the back of the houses here (now facing Rue du Sault-au-Matelot) and residents had to build sheds against the cliff instead. Wooden walkways were erected over the skinny street to connect the sheds with their homes. Today, it’s an alley where residents park, but the wooden walkways and stairs remain, a silent reminder of the early days of Québec.
Eat to your heart's content in Saint-Roch
St-Roch is the neighborhood I gravitate to when the tourist seasons are in full swing. Its closeness to Old Québec makes it easy to get to on foot, and it is also home to some of my favorite restaurants and cafes. I love the ambiance of this part of Québec City; it’s vibrant and filled with young Québecers looking to make a name for themselves.
St-Roch is home to microbreweries and some of the best restaurants in Québec City, including award-winning Battuto and l’Affair est Ketchup. I can often be found at Café Saint-Henri micro-torrèfacture, which I love for its communal tables, rich chocolat chaud and fancy donuts. If I’m in the mood for cold brew, then I’m typing away from a table at Maelstrom, which turns into a cocktail bar at night. Clocher Penché is one of my favorite French bistros, and while the seafood tower at JJacques is "meh," the cocktails at this speakeasy are delightful. Nina Pizza Napolitaine is also a favorite indulgence.
Go out for a night on the town in Saint-Jean-Baptiste
If you follow rue Saint-Jean past the old city gates and across Boulevard Honoré-Mercier, you will find yourself in the neighborhood of St-Jean-Baptiste. There is a cornucopia of shops and restaurants here, but the bars and pubs are a big part of the neighborhood’s character. You'll want to make a post-drinking poutine stop at Snack-bar Saint-Jean – it's open until 4am.
Le Drague Cabaret Club, the city’s best and oldest LGTBQAI+ bar, is a club for everyone to enjoy. Sip drinks on the patio or dance from room to room inside. If you go on a weekend, you may catch a drag show.
Pub Nelligan is a small Irish bar with exposed brick walls, wooden beams and an impressive selection of whiskey. I love Bar Sacrilège for its beer, live music, and food partnerships with nearby restaurants. Le Poject, with its vaulted sculpted ceiling and delicious food menu, is also another favorite.
Immerse yourself in arts and culture in Montcalm
Arts and culture are a big focus of the Montcalm neighborhood. This is where the infamous battle between the French and the English took place in 1759, on the Plains of Abraham. In less than 30 minutes, the English won, and Québec’s struggle to hold on to their language and culture began. The Plains of Abraham remain a focal point in Montcalm. During the summer, one of Canada’s biggest music festivals, Festival d’été de Québec is held here. It is an exciting festival featuring world-famous artists like Lady Gaga, Snoop Dogg, Three Days Grace et al.
Beside the plains is Musée nationale des beaux-arts de Québec (MNBAQ), which exhibits works by famous artists from Québec and around the globe. On Grande-Allée and Avenue Cartier, you’ll find restaurants and bars with busy summer patios. The Grand Théâtre de Québec is a contemporary-style venue of concrete and glass featuring opera, symphony and ballet, as well as musicians and comedians.