Perched on a cliff top overlooking the St. Lawrence River, Quebec City remains the soul of New France, an enormous territory that once included all of eastern Canada, the eastern U. S., the Great Lakes, and Louisiana, stretching from Hudson Bay in the north to Florida in the south. In 1608, the French explorer Samuel de Champlain was the first European to claim Quebec City, and soon after established a fur-trading post. It was the first significant settlement in Canada, and today it is the capital of Quebec, a politically prickly province almost as large as Alaska. The old city, a tumble of colorful metallic-roof houses clustered around the dominating Chateau Frontenac, is a haunting evocation of a coastal town in the motherland of France, as romantic as any on that continent. Because of its history, beauty, and unique stature as the only walled city north of Mexico, the historic district of Quebec was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985—one of only three areas so designated in North America.
The city is split into two sections. The Lower Town (or Basse-Ville) is where the port is, while the Upper Town (Haute-Ville), the city’s oldest section, dates back nearly 400 years and is still surrounded by its old stone walls.
Though some 95% of Quebec’s 167,000 citizens speak French, most people who work in hotels, restaurants, and shops also speak English.
COMING ASHORE The cruise docks at the Port of Quebec, which includes a bustling commercial shipping operation, are within walking distance of the historic Lower Town, just outside the walled city. The Upper Town can be reached via a steep walk up the hill or the funicular (see below).
GETTING AROUND Virtually no place of interest is beyond walking distance, so your own two feet are definitely the best way to explore. Although there are streets and stairs between the Upper and Lower Towns, there is also a funicular (www. funiculaire- quebec. com), which has long operated along an inclined 210-foot track between the Quartier Petit-Champlain and the Terrasse Dufferin, up top. The upper station is near the front of the Chateau Frontenac, the majestic hotel that towers over the city, and Place d’Armes, a central square; the lower station is actually inside the Maison Louis – Jolliet, a small building with a big FUNICULAIRE sign at 16 rue du Petit-Champlain. It runs year-round daily and wheelchairs are accommodated. The one-way fare is $1.50.
Your best bet for getting a taxi is by finding a stand—such as the ones on the Place d’Armes and in front of the Hotel-de-Ville (City Hall). Restaurant managers and hotel bell captains will also summon one if you ask. Fares are somewhat expensive given the short distances of most rides. The starting rate is C$3.30 (about US$2.75) plus C$1.60 (US$2.25) per additional kilometer. You should tip an additional 10% to 15%. To call a cab, try Taxi Coop (& 418/525-5191) or Taxi Quebec (& 418/525-8123).
City Walking Tour ($54, 3 hr.): If you’re up for it, the best way to discover Quebec’s historical side is by walking through the city’s narrow cobblestone streets with a knowledgeable guide leading the way. Stroll along the first shopping street in North America, Le Petit Quartier Champlain, in the Lower Town. In the Upper Town, 3 centuries of history come to life in sites such as la Place d’Armes, la Terrasse Dufferin, Place de l’Hotel de Ville, and le Musee des Ursulines. Some tours ($54) add a stop for high tea at the Fairmont Chateau Frontenac Hotel, Quebec City’s best-known landmark.
City Highlights by Bus ($39, 21/’2 hr.): Explore the narrow streets and stately residences that have hardly changed in more than 3 centuries. Enjoy panoramic views of the St. Lawrence River from the oldest part of town, drive through the Grande Allee neighborhood for a peek at the Victorian-era homes, and then on to the Chateau Frontenac landmark hotel, where there’s time to explore. Finally, drive on to the Plain of Abraham, where the battle between the French and British armies eventually sealed the fate of the French colony.
Biking to Montmorency Falls ($79, 4 hr.): Peddle a mountain bike some 8 miles to Montmorency Falls, which plummet down a 272-foot cliff into the St. Lawrence River. Along the way, you’ll pass the Quebec Yacht Harbor and cross the St. Charles River to Domaine Maizerets, then ride along the St. Lawrence River for views of Quebec’s skyline and the Island of Orleans.
Spend a day strolling Quebec City’s hilly cobblestone streets, taking in their 17th – and 18th-century buildings, cafes, shops, and homes. Quebec’s Lower Town encompasses the restored Quartier Petit-Champlain, including pedestrian-only rue du Petit – Champlain, and Place Royale, home to the small Notre-Dame-des-Victoires church, the city’s oldest, dating from 1688. Petit-Champlain is undeniably touristy, but not unpleasantly so, with several pleasant cafes and shops. Restored Place Royale is perhaps the most attractive of the city’s many squares, upper or lower. Also in Lower Town, the impressive Museum of Civilization, 85 rue Dalhousie (& 866/710-8031 or 418/643-2158; www. mcq. org), is an excellent interactive museum with rotating exhibits representing historical, current, and controversial subjects. Admission is $13.
The highlight of the Upper Town is the gorgeous Fairmont Chateau Frontenac hotel, rue St-Louis (& 800/828-7447 or 418/692-3861; www. fairmont. com/ frontenac), a beauty set high above the St. Lawrence River. Colonial governors used to reside on the site, and in later years the likes of Winston Churchill and Queen Elizabeth II have stayed at the hotel, a turreted gem with slanted copper roofs, erected in 1883. Just walking around this amazing hotel is a treat, but do yourself a favor and linger for a drink to savor the aura. Fifty-minute guided tours are also available. Call & 418/691-2166 for information.
Other popular attractions in the Upper Town include the outdoor Parc-de-l’ Artillerie, 2 rue d’Auteuil (& 418/648-4205; www. pc. gc. ca/artillerie), a fortification whose walls were erected by the French in the 17th and 18th centuries (admission $3.25), and the Basilica of Notre-Dame, 20 rue Buade (& 418/694-0665), the oldest Christian parish in the Americas north of Mexico.
On a sloped hill just to the south of the Chateau Frontenac is the Citadel, 1 Cote de la Citadelle (& 418/694-2815; www. lacitadelle. qc. ca), a partially star-shaped fortress begun by the French in the 18th century and augmented by the English well into the 19th century. Admission is $8.25. At the eastern edge of the Citadel, the Ter – rasse Dufferin is a pedestrian promenade that attracts crowds in all seasons for its magnificent views of the river and the land to the south, ferries gliding back and forth, and cruise ships and Great Lakes freighters putting in at the harbor below.
Cote de la Montagne, which leads from the Upper Town to the Lower Town as an alternative to the funicular, has a few stores with more tourist-geared items and some crafts and folk art. The Lower Town itself, particularly the Quartier Petit-Champlain, just off Place Royale and encompassing the tiny streets of rue du Petit-Champlain, boulevard Champlain, and rue Sous-le-Fort (opposite the funicular entrance), has many shops selling clothing, souvenirs, gifts, household items, and collectibles. On the other side of the old city, a few blocks past Parliament down Grande-Allee, avenue Cartier has shops and restaurants of some variety, from clothing and ceramics to housewares and gourmet foods. The 4- to 5-block area attracts crowds of generally youngish locals, and the hubbub revs up on summer nights and weekends. The area remains outside the tourist orbit.
Dealers in antiques have gravitated to the cute rue St-Paul in the Lower Town, where they find everything from brass beds and Quebec country furniture to knick – knacks, paddywhacks, and 1950s U. S. kitsch. To get there, follow rue St-Pierre from the Place Royale, and then head west on rue St-Paul.