The birthplace of Québec City, Vieux-Québec’s Basse-Ville (Lower Town) is an exceedingly charming area, a warren of cobbled streets lined with historic houses whose appearances have changed little since the city was founded.
Basse-Ville can be reached from Terrasse Dufferin either by the steep escalier casse-cou (Breakneck Stairs) or by the funicular alongside. The Basse-Ville station of the funicular is the 1683 Maison Louis-Jolliet, 16 rue du Petit-Champlain, built for the retired discoverer of the Mississippi, Louis Jolliet; it now houses a second-rate souvenir shop.
Quartier du Petit-Champlain
Dating back to 1685, the narrow, cobbled rue du Petit-Champlain is the city’s oldest street, and the surrounding area – known as Quartier du Petit-Champlain – is the oldest shopping area in North America. There’s enjoyable browsing potential in the boutiques and art shops in the quaint seventeenth- and eighteenth-century houses: excellent crafts, from Inuit carvings to the products of the glass-blowing workshop and gallery, Verrerie La Mailloche (July–Oct daily 9am–10pm; Nov–June Sat–Wed 9.30am–5pm, Thurs & Fri till 9pm; t 418 694 0445), at the base of the escalier casse-cou at 58 rue Sous-le-Fort.
You can get an absorbing glimpse of the past here, on the corner of rue du Marché-Champlain and rue Notre-Dame, in the 1752 Maison Chevalier, a grand townhouse and one-time London Coffee House, where merchants would meet throughout the nineteenth century. Its rooms strongly evoke how interiors would have looked, with period furniture, costumes and domestic objects. Take a peek, too, into the vaulted cellars, where local artisans sell traditional works.
Champlain built New France’s first permanent settlement in 1608 in Place Royale, in order to begin trading fur with the aboriginal peoples. Known as Place du Marché until the bust of Louis XIV was erected here in 1686, the square remained the focal point of Canadian commerce until 1759, and after the fall of Québec the British continued using the area as a lumber market. After 1860 Place Royale was left to fall into disrepair, but in the 1970s it was renovated. Its pristine stone houses, most of which date from around 1685, are undeniably photogenic, with their steep metal roofs, numerous chimneys and pastel-coloured shutters, but it’s a Legoland townscape, devoid of the scars of history. Happily, the atmosphere is enlivened in summer by entertainment from classical orchestras to juggling clowns, and by the Fêtes de la Nouvelle-France, when everyone dresses in period costume and it once again becomes a chaotic marketplace.