With its four centuries of French heritage and irresistible ‘walled city’ charm, Québec City is among North America’s most unique and appealing destinations. Divided into Upper and Lower Towns, its scenic historic core offers plenty of variety, yet remains compact enough to explore within 48 hours.
Throw in an international airport and easy road and rail connections from Montréal, and you’ve got the perfect quick weekend getaway.
Québec City’s deep French roots are on delicious display at its dozens of boulangeries, creperies, bistros and wine bars. Dive right into the city’s European allure with dinner at L'Échaudé, where the menu features beautifully presented classics like steak-frites, duck confit and seafood stew. Afterwards, move on to Le Moine Échanson, a cozy brick-walled wine bar, or hit the outdoor terrace at La Barberie microbrewery, especially blissful on warm midsummer evenings when the sun stays up past 10pm.
Kick off your exploration of the Old Upper Town with bowls of hot chocolate or café au lait and fresh-baked croissants at Paillard Café-Boulangerie. From here, an easy walk takes you through pretty Parc de l’Esplanade along the perfectly preserved perimeter of town walls between Porte St-Jean and Porte St-Louis, the city’s two surviving historic gates. If your timing is right you can continue up the walls to the Citadelle – Québec City’s massive, star-shaped 19th-century fortress – to watch the 10am Changing of the Guard, a colorful summer-only ceremony that features soldiers in scarlet tunics and bearskin hats, accompanied by their official mascot, Batisse the goat.
As you walk the town walls, you’ll pass a cluster of calèches, horse-drawn carriages that offer a memorable way to discover the city. Hop aboard and go clippety-clopping down the cobblestones, or continue wandering the Upper Town’s picturesque lanes on foot. Either way, your ultimate destination should be Terrasse Dufferin, a broad boardwalk at the edge of the Upper Town that offers stupendous views of the St Lawrence River and the Château Frontenac, the jaw-droppingly massive castle-like hotel that dominates Québec City’s skyline. In summer, the Terrasse is a delightful place to stroll and watch street performers; in winter, it’s home to the city’s public toboggan run, an exhilarating adrenaline rush that’s fun for all ages.
From here, descend a series of scenic steps into the Old Lower Town, savoring picturesque views of the 17th- and 18th-century mansard-roofed stone buildings lining one of North America’s oldest and narrowest streets, Rue du Petit-Champlain. Browse the neighborhood’s many boutiques, or sit right down to lunch at Le Lapin Sauté, one of several Québec City restaurants that offer bargain-priced multi-course lunch menus. The Lapin is best known for its delightful alfresco terrace and its rabbit specialties sourced from nearby farms – but there are plenty of other menu options for those who would rather simply enjoy the bunny-themed décor.
No matter whether it’s summer or winter, Québec City residents love to get outdoors – and the perfect place to join them is at Battlefields Park, a vast expanse of open fields and forest threaded with walking, cycling and cross-country ski trails overlooking the St Lawrence River. The park is named for the pivotal Battle of the Plains of Abraham, which was fought here in 1759, paving the way for the British to wrest control of Canada from the French. In summer, actors in period costume bring this history to life on Abraham’s Bus Tour; year-round, creative multimedia programs achieve a similar effect at the Musée des Plaines d'Abraham near the park entrance.
Upon leaving the park, meander down nearby Avenue Cartier and Rue St-Jean, two areas popular with locals and off the well-trodden tourist path. Here you’ll find a slew of artsy boutiques as well as some prime snacking opportunities. Get your chocolate fix at Pâtisserie-Chocolaterie Anna Pierrot or Érico , or ogle the seductive display cases at traiteurs (delis) such as Morena and Picardie.
Tonight’s entertainment options range from the trendy to the refined to the downright rowdy. At Le Cercle in the bohemian St-Roch district, you can enjoy dinner and drinks before settling in for an evening with some of the city’s best bands and DJs. Alternatively, check the schedule for Québec City’s renowned opera and symphony orchestra, both of which perform at the Grand Théâtre de Québec, or head up to Grande Allée near Québec’s Parliament building, where a densely packed cluster of nightspots keeps buzzing into the wee hours. The stars along this stretch are Chez Maurice and Chez Dagobert, two historic mansions converted into multi-storey dance clubs.
Start your Sunday morning in style with brunch at Panache, one of the city’s gastronomic temples, where exposed stone walls and beams set a delightful backdrop for gourmet specialties such as lobster and prosciutto tart. Afterwards, wander through Place-Royale, Québec City’s original 17th-century town square, and pose for pictures in front of the Fresque des Québécois, a towering wall mural that portrays a hodge-podge of iconic Québécois figures, from explorer Samuel de Champlain to kids playing hockey. Afterwards, stop in at the city’s finest museum, the Musée de la Civilisation, whose excellent permanent exhibit on the history of Québec’s people is regularly complemented by rotating shows focusing on arts and culture.
For the perfect end to your weekend – and for a few souvenirs to take home – take a leisurely afternoon stroll along boutique-lined Rue St-Paul. This is an antique-lover’s dream, with dealers such as Le Rendez-Vous du Collectionneur showcasing finds from all over the province. Along this same strip you can shop for whimsical Québec-designed glasses frames at Les Branches Lunetterie or lavender soaps stamped with fleur-de-lys patterns at Candeur. Tucked in among the shops is Café St-Malo, a charming bistro that serves excellent moules marinière (mussels with garlic, parsley and white wine). Alternatively, hold out for an afternoon snack at the Marché du Vieux-Port, a covered waterfront market where you’ll find everything from fresh berries picked on the nearby Île d’Orléans to artisanal smoked salmon to a galaxy of French-style, made-in-Québec cheeses at La Fromagère.