With a cliff-top position above the St Lawrence River and captivatingly picturesque old streets, North America’s oldest French-speaking city is a gorgeous, seductive place.
Québec City's dramatic setting does enhance its appeal, with picture-postcard views of the St Lawrence River (and even the Laurentians on a clear day) unfolding from the Terrasse Dufferin boardwalk high above. But its beauty is not all God-given; humankind has played a role in shaping this pretty face too. Just walking down the street here is an aesthetic treat. The city’s historic core is unlike anyplace else in North America, with hundreds of gorgeous mansard-roofed old stone buildings clustered inside a perfect frame of crenelated town walls.
A Living Museum
Québec City is one of North America’s oldest and most magnificent settlements. Its picturesque Old Town is a Unesco World Heritage site, a living museum of narrow cobblestone streets, 17th- and 18th-century houses and soaring church spires, with the splendid Château Frontenac hotel and city icon towering above it all. Even with a T-shirt shop on half the corners, there's more than a glimmer of Old Europe in its classic bistros, sidewalk cafes and manicured squares. History buffs will especially love Québec’s 19th-century hilltop Citadelle and two museums offering graphic representations of the battles between France and Britain for control of the city.
French at Heart
Québec City has something else: the heart and soul of the province, the fiercest of grips on French-Canadian identity and the French language. It is something people here have fought and died for and something they treasure deep. Québécois grow up studying English, but because the anglophone minority here is so tiny – just 1.5% of the population speak English as their mother tongue – they rarely use it outside the major tourist areas. Most city residents are fully bilingual, but if you stray into the surrounding countryside, you’ll quickly find that French is the province’s official language.
Food, Festivals & Fun
Québec City offers a fabulous dining scene and, thanks to the agricultural abundance of nearby Île d’Orléans and Côte de Beaupré, it is a locavore cuisine. The provincial capital goes to great lengths to entertain visitors. All summer long, musicians, acrobats and actors in period costume take to the streets, while fantastic festivals fill the air with fireworks and song. In the coldest months of January and February, Québec’s Winter Carnival is arguably the biggest and most colorful winter festival around. Fall and spring bring beautiful foliage, thinner crowds and dramatically reduced prices.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Québec City.
Spare at least a half-day to visit this extraordinary art museum, one of the province's best. Permanent exhibitions range from art in the early French colonies to Québec’s contemporary artists, with individual halls devoted entirely to 20th-century artistic giants such as Jean-Paul Lemieux, Fernand Leduc and Jean-Paul Riopelle. Arguably the museum's highlight is the Brousseau Collection of Inuit Art, a selection of 100 pieces by 60 artists located at the top of the Pavillon Pierre Lassonde.
Reputedly the world's most photographed hotel, this audaciously elegant structure was opened in 1893 by the Canadian Pacific Railway as part of its chain of luxury hotels. Its fabulous turrets, winding hallways and imposing wings graciously complement its dramatic location atop Cap Diamant, a cliff that cascades into the raging St Lawrence River. Over the years, it’s lured a never-ending lineup of luminaries, including Alfred Hitchcock, who chose this setting for the opening scene of his 1953 mystery I Confess.
Home to Québec's Provincial Legislature, the gargantuan Parliament building is a Second Empire structure completed in 1886. Free 30-minute tours, offered in English and French, get you into the National Assembly Chamber, Legislative Council Chamber and President's Gallery. The facade is decorated with 26 statues, mostly of significant provincial historical figures, including explorer Samuel de Champlain (1570–1635), New France governor Louis de Buade Frontenac (1622–98), and English and French generals James Wolfe (1727–59) and Louis-Joseph Montcalm (1712–59).
Covering 2.3 sq km, North America's largest fort was begun by the French in the 1750s but what we see today was constructed by the British over 30 years from 1820 and meant to defend the city against an American invasion that never came. A one-hour guided tour takes in numerous historical structures, including the King's Bastion and the reduit used later as a military prison. Visit the museum dedicated to the Royal 22e Régiment on your own afterward.
One of Québec City’s must-sees, this verdant clifftop park contains the Plains of Abraham, site of the infamous 1759 battle between British General James Wolfe and French General Louis-Joseph Montcalm that determined the fate of the North American continent. Packed with old cannons, monuments and Martello towers, it's a favorite local spot for picnicking, running, skating, skiing and snowshoeing, along with Winter Carnival festivities and open-air summer concerts. For information and to learn more, visit the Musée des Plaines d'Abraham.
This world-class museum wows even before you’ve clapped your eyes on the exhibits. It is a fascinating mix of modern design that incorporates preexisting buildings with contemporary architecture. The permanent exhibits – ‘People of Québec: Then and Now' and 'This Is Our Story' on the province's Indigenous people today – are unique, sensitively curated and highly educational, with some clever interactive elements. At any given moment there’s an outstanding variety of rotating shows.
Perched on a clifftop 60m above the St Lawrence River, this 425m-long boardwalk is a marvelous setting for a stroll, with spectacular, sweeping views. In summer it’s peppered with street performers; in winter it hosts a dramatic toboggan run. Near the statue of Samuel de Champlain, stairways descend to the excavations of Champlain’s second fort, which stood here from 1620 to 1635. Nearby, you can take the funicular to the Old Lower Town.
Strolling along Rue St-Jean is a great way to feel the pulse of this bohemian district. The first thing that strikes you, once you've recovered from crossing busy Ave Honoré Mercier, is the area's down-to-earth ambience. Good restaurants, interesting shops and hip cafes and bars, many catering to a gay clientele, line the thoroughfare as far as Ave Turnbull. Take any side street and walk downhill (north) to the narrow residential streets like Rue d'Aiguillon, Rue Richelieu and Rue St-Olivier.
On no account should you miss this museum, which traces the history of the order of Augustinian nuns who founded Québec’s first hospital, the Hôtel-Dieu, in 1644 and ran it for over 300 years. OK, it may not sound like a crowd-pleaser, but the half-dozen rooms around a central cloister are filled with remarkable displays of religious items, crafts (artificial flowers were mandatory where flowers bloom only four months a year), an old apothecary and an 18th-century refectory.