Spread over the promontory Cap Diamant and the banks of the St Lawrence River, QUÉBEC CITY (sometimes referred to just as “Québec”) is one of Canada’s most beautifully located cities, and certainly its most historic one. Vieux-Québec, surrounded by solid fortifications, is the only walled city in North America, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Throughout the old city winding cobbled streets are flanked by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century stone houses and churches, graceful parks and squares, and countless monuments. Although some districts have been painstakingly restored to give tourists as seductive an introduction to Québec as possible, this is nevertheless an authentically and profoundly French-Canadian city. Over ninety percent of its 750,000 population are francophone, and it is often difficult to remember which continent you are in as you tuck in to a croissant and a steaming bowl of café au lait in a Parisian-style café. Moreover, despite the fact that the city’s symbol is a hotel, the Château Frontenac, the government remains the main employer.

None of Québec City’s highlights are far from the St Lawrence River, with the main attractions being evenly distributed between the upper and lower portions of what is known as Vieux-Québec (Old Québec). Within the quarter’s walls reminders of the days when the city was the bastion of the Catholic Church in Canada are discernible at almost every corner. The Church can claim much of the credit for the creation and preservation of its finest buildings, from the quaint Église Notre-Dame-des-Victoires to the Basilique-Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Québec and the vast Séminaire.

On the Cap Diamant, Haute-Ville (Upper Town) continues along the river from the old city walls and from here you should wander at least to the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec, home to the finest art collection in the province. The museum is set in the expansive battlefield of the Plaines d’Abraham, a national historic park that unfurls west of the massive and magnificent Citadelle, an austere defensive structure that reveals the military pedigree of a city dubbed by Churchill the “Gibraltar of North America”. At the foot of the Château Frontenac, Terrasse Dufferin is also worth a stroll to watch street entertainers and for the arresting views over the river, but it gets crowded in the evening. It also overlooks the second part of the Vieux-Québec, Basse-Ville (Lower Town), connected to Haute-Ville by funicular and several winding streets and stairs; if you’re only in Québec City for a short while, head here straight from the Place d’Armes and then return to the Upper Town for the remainder of the sights. One of the main pleasures of the area, besides the wonderful old houses and small museums, is the Musée de la Civilisation, which expertly presents all aspects of French-Canadian society.

Brief history

For centuries the clifftop site of what is now Québec City was occupied by the Iroquois village of Stadacona, and although Jacques Cartier visited in the sixteenth century, permanent European settlement did not begin until 1608, when Samuel de Champlain established a fur-trading post here. To protect what was rapidly developing into a major inland trade gateway, the settlement shifted to the clifftop in 1620 when Fort St-Louis was built on the present-day site of the Château Frontenac. Québec’s steady expansion was noted in London, and in 1629 Champlain was starved out of the fort by the British, an occupation that lasted three years.

Catholicism and commercial might

Missionaries began arriving in 1615, and by the time Bishop Laval arrived in 1659 Québec City and the surrounding province were in the grip of Catholicism. Yet in the city’s earliest days the merchants of the fur trade wielded the most power and frequently came into conflict with the priests, who wanted a share in the profits in order to spread their message among the aboriginal peoples. Louis XIV resolved the wrangles, after being advised to take more interest in his kingdom’s mercantile projects. By 1663 the entire French colony, which stretched from Newfoundland to the Gulf of Mexico, was known as New France and had become a royal province, administered by a council appointed directly by the Crown and answerable to the king’s council in France. Before the century ended, the long-brewing European struggles between Britain and France spilled over into the colony. It was at this time that the Comte de Frontenac, known as the “fighting governor”, replaced Champlain’s Fort St-Louis with the sturdier Château St-Louis, and began work on the now-famous fortifications that ring Vieux-Québec.

British takeover

In 1759, during the Seven Years’ War (also known as the French and Indian War), the most significant battle in Canada’s history took place here, between the British under General James Wolfe and the French commander general Louis Joseph, Marquis de Montcalm. The city had already been under siege from the opposite shore for three months when Wolfe and his four thousand troops scaled the cliff of Cap Diamant and engaged the hastily organized and ill-prepared French. The twenty-minute battle on the Plains of Abraham left both leaders mortally wounded and the city of Québec in the hands of the British, a state of affairs ultimately confirmed by the Treaty of Paris in 1763.

In 1775 – the year after the Québec Act, which allowed French-Canadians to retain their Catholic religion, language and culture – the town was attacked again, this time by the Americans, who had already captured Montréal. The British won the battle, and for the next century the city quietly earned its livelihood as the centre of a timber-trade and shipbuilding industry. Yet by the time it was declared the provincial capital of Lower Canada in 1840 the accessible supplies of timber had run out. The final blow came with the appearance of steamships that could travel as far as Montréal (earlier sailing ships had found it difficult to proceed beyond Québec City). Ceasing to be a busy seaport, the city declined into a centre of small industry and local government, its way of life still largely determined by the Catholic Church.

The rise of Québécois nationalism

With the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s and the rise of Québec nationalism, Québec City became a symbol of the glory of the French heritage: the motto Je me souviens (“I remember”), for instance, placed above the doors of its parliament buildings, was transferred to the licence plates of Québec cars, to sweep the message across Canada. Though the city played little active part in the changes, it has grown with the upsurge in the francophone economy, developing a suburbia of shopping malls and convention centres as slick as any in the country.

Accommodation

Vieux-Québec has plenty of reasonably priced accommodation options, even as prices have gone up in recent years. The only downside to staying there is the difficulty in finding cheap parking – expect to pay $25 a day for a spot in a garage. Basing yourself outside the city walls is worth considering, too – the rates are usually better, parking is cheaper and there are some good choices within easy walking distance of the old city. As Québec City is one of Canada’s prime tourist destinations, try to reserve in advance, particularly during the summer months and the Carnaval in February.

Basse-Ville

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.

The funicular

Basse-Ville can be reached from Terrasse Dufferin either by the steep L’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. The quaint seventeenth- and eighteenth-century houses now hold boutiques and galleries selling excellent crafts, from Inuit carvings to the products of the glass-blowing workshop and studio, Verrerie La Mailloche (July–Oct daily 9am–10pm; Nov–June Mon–Wed, Sat & Sun 9.30am–5pm, Thurs & Fri 9.30am–9pm; t 418 694 0445), at the base of L’Escalier Casse-Cou at 58 rue Sous-le-Fort.

Maison Chevalier

You can get an absorbing glimpse of the quarter’s past life in the 1752 Maison Chevalier, on the corner of rue du Marché-Champlain and rue Notre-Dame, a grand town house 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.

Place Royale

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.

The Battle of the Plaines d’Abraham

In June of 1759 a large British force led by General Wolfe sailed up the St Lawrence to besiege General Montcalm in Québec City. From the end of July until early September the British forces shuttled up and down the south side of the river, raking the city with cannon fire. Montcalm and the governor, Vaudreuil, became convinced Wolfe was planning a direct assault on the citadel from Anse de Foulon (Wolf’s Cove), the only handy break in the cliff face; this was confirmed when lookouts observed a British detachment surveying Cap Diamant from across the river in Lévis. Montcalm thus strengthened the defences above Anse de Foulon, but made the mistake of withdrawing the regiment stationed on the Plains themselves. The following night the British performed the extraordinary feat, which even Wolfe had considered “a desperate plan”, of scaling the cliff below the Plains via Anse de Foulon, and on the morning of September 16 Montcalm awoke to find the British drawn up a couple of kilometres from the city’s gate. The hastily assembled French battalions, flanked by Aboriginal warriors, were badly organized and rushed headlong at the British, whose volleys of gunfire mortally wounded Montcalm. On his deathbed Montcalm wrote a chivalrous note of congratulations to Wolfe, not knowing he was dead. Québec City surrendered four days later.

Drinking and nightlife

Québec City has far more relaxed nightlife than Montréal: an evening spent in an intimate bar or a jazz or blues soiree is more popular than a big gig or disco, except among the younger set. Outside of the Festival d’Été in July, few major bands tour here, though there are plenty of spots to catch Québécois bands. Québec City’s main bar and nightclub strips are around rue St-Jean in the Faubourg Saint-Jean-Baptiste and rue St-Joseph in Saint-Roch; both have lively bars and gay nightspots oozing atmosphere. Places on Grande-Allée tend to cater to tourists, but there are a few decent clubs at either end of the strip.

Eating

It is when you start eating in Québec City that the French ancestry of the Québécois hits all the senses: the city’s restaurants present an array of culinary delights adopted from the mother country, from humble baguettes to sumptously presented gourmet dishes. The lively cafés are ideal starting points for immersing yourself in the city, as you wash down bowls of soup and croûtons (toasted baguettes dripping with cheese) with plenty of coffee.

Vieux-Québec (upper and lower) is home to most of the gourmet restaurants and cafés; in Haute-Ville you’ll generally find better value along rue St-Jean than rue St-Louis. Other areas have their fair share of eating spots as well – notably Faubourg Saint-Jean-Baptiste and Saint-Roch (both eclectic and cheaper) and, just outside the walls, Grande-Allée (generally touristy and expensive). Your best bet for good-value mid-price restaurants is to head for the numerous terrace-fronted establishments on av Cartier, near the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec. Although prices in the city tend to be rather high, even the poshest restaurants have cheaper lunchtime and table d’hôte menus. Authentic French-Canadian cooking – game with sweet sauces followed by simple desserts with lashings of maple syrup – is available at very few places in town, although the many cabanes à sucre on Île d’Orléans offer typical meals to tourists.

Haute-Ville

The ten square kilometres of Vieux-Québec’s Haute-Ville, encircled by the city walls, form the Québec City of the tourist brochures. Dominated by the Château Frontenac, it holds a glut of historic architecture and several compelling museums. The whole area is undeniably enchanting, and simply strolling along its maze of streets is one of the city’s great pleasures.

Place d’Armes and around

Haute-Ville’s centre of gravity is the main square, the Place d’Armes, with benches around the central fountain serving in the summer as a resting place for throngs of weary sightseers. Champlain established his first fort here in 1620, on the site now occupied by the gigantic Château Frontenac, probably Canada’s most photographed building. Beside it stands the Maison Maillou, which houses the Québec chamber of commerce. Dating from 1736, this grey-limestone metal-shuttered house, with its steeply slanting roof, displays the chief elements of the climate-adapted architecture brought over by the Norman settlers. On the west side of the square, on the spot where the Récollet missionaries built their first church and convent, is the former Palais de Justice, a Renaissance-style courthouse designed in 1877 by Eugène-Étienne Taché, architect of the province’s Parliament buildings.

Château Frontenac

New York architect Bruce Price drew upon the French-Canadian style of the surroundings to produce the Château Frontenac, a pseudo-medieval red-brick pile crowned with a copper roof. Although the hotel was inaugurated by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1893, its distinctive main tower was only added in the early 1920s, resulting in an over-the-top design that makes the most of the stupendous location atop Cap Diamant. Numerous notables, including Queen Elizabeth II, have stayed here.

Fronting the Château Frontenac, the wide clifftop boardwalk of the Terrasse Dufferin provides a spectacular vantage point over Basse-Ville and the St Lawrence. Underlying part of the boardwalk are the foundations of Frontenac’s Château St-Louis, which served as the governor’s residence for two centuries until a fire destroyed it in 1834. The leafy park running alongside the boardwalk was the château’s garden – hence its name, the Jardin des Gouverneurs. To the south, a long flight of stairs leads up to the Promenade des Gouverneurs, a narrow boardwalk perched precariously on the cliff face below the Citadelle that leads to the Plaines d’Abraham.

At the north end of the terrace – which offers charming views of the river – stands a romantic statue of Champlain and, beside it, a modern sculpture symbolizing Québec City’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From here a funicular descends to Vieux-Québec’s Basse-Ville; save that for the weary walk back up, and instead take the stairs down at the north end of the terrace to the Porte Prescott, one of the city’s four rebuilt gates.

Basilique-Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Québec

The impressive bulk of the Basilique-Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Québec constitutes the oldest parish north of Mexico; the church was burnt to the ground in 1922 – one of many fires it has suffered – and was rebuilt to the original plans of its seventeenth-century forebear. Absolute silence within the cathedral heightens the impressiveness of the Rococo-inspired interior, culminating in a ceiling of blue sky and billowy clouds. The altar, a gilded replica of St Peter’s, is surmounted by an elaborate baldachin uncharacteristically supported by angelic caryatids rather than columns due to the narrow space, and is topped by a statue of Jesus standing on a gilded sphere. The pewter sanctuary lamp, to the right of the main altar, was a gift from Louis XIV and is one of the few treasures to survive the fire. In the crypt more than nine hundred bodies, including three governors and most of Québec’s bishops, are interred. Champlain is also rumoured to be buried here, though archeologists are still trying to work out which body is his. Unfortunately, the only part of the crypt you can see on the informative guided tours is a mundane modern corridor.

Château Frontenac

New York architect Bruce Price drew upon the French-Canadian style of the surroundings to produce the Château Frontenac, a pseudo-medieval red-brick pile crowned with a copper roof. Although the hotel was inaugurated by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1893, its distinctive main tower was only added in the early 1920s, resulting in an over-the-top design that makes the most of the stupendous location atop Cap Diamant. Numerous notables, including Queen Elizabeth II, have stayed here.

Fronting the Château Frontenac, the wide clifftop boardwalk of the Terrasse Dufferin provides a spectacular vantage point over Basse-Ville and the St Lawrence. Underlying part of the boardwalk are the foundations of Frontenac’s Château St-Louis, which served as the governor’s residence for two centuries until a fire destroyed it in 1834. The leafy park running alongside the boardwalk was the château’s garden – hence its name, the Jardin des Gouverneurs. To the south, a long flight of stairs leads up to the Promenade des Gouverneurs, a narrow boardwalk perched precariously on the cliff face below the Citadelle that leads to the Plaines d’Abraham.

At the north end of the terrace – which offers charming views of the river – stands a romantic statue of Champlain and, beside it, a modern sculpture symbolizing Québec City’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From here a funicular descends to Vieux-Québec’s Basse-Ville; save that for the weary walk back up, and instead take the stairs down at the north end of the terrace to the Porte Prescott, one of the city’s four rebuilt gates.

Séminaire de Québec and Musée de l’Amérique Française

Next to the cathedral, the old Séminaire de Québec was founded by the aggressive and autocratic Monseigneur François de Laval-Montmorency in 1663. At its construction, the seminary was the finest collection of buildings the city had seen, leaving Governor Frontenac muttering that the bishop was now housed better than he. Primarily a college for priests, the seminary was also open to young men who wanted to follow other professions, and in 1852 it became Laval University, the country’s first francophone Catholic university. Today, only the school of architecture remains; the other departments were moved to the western suburb of Sainte-Foy.

Public access is limited mainly to the ever-expanding Musée de l’Amérique Française (Museum of French America), whose four sections occupy a small part of the old Séminaire. The entrance – and departure point for one-hour guided tours of the seminary – is in the Welcome Pavilion in the Maison du Coin, next to the basilica. Upstairs, adjacent to a small exhibition on the early colonists, the Roman-style chapel has a Second Empire interior housing Canada’s largest collection of religious relics – bones, ashes and locks of hair of various saints. Laval’s memorial chapel contains his ornate marble tomb (his remains are now in the basilica). The whole interior is a bit of a sham, though: fed up with rebuilding after the chapel burnt down yet again in 1888, the church authorities decided to construct the pillars and coffered ceilings out of tin and paint over them; the stained-glass windows have been painted on single panes of glass and even the tapestries are the result of some deft brushwork.

The wrought-iron gates between the Welcome Pavilion and the basilica lead into a vast courtyard flanked by austere white buildings; pass through the gates to visit the rest of the museum. Alternatively, take the underground corridor directly from the chapel; along the way a photo exhibit fills in the history of the Séminaire’s buildings. Either way, you end up at the museum’s Pavillon Jérôme-Demers, which displays a tiny sample of the eclectic items gathered by Québec’s bishops and the academics at Laval – scientific instruments, an Egyptian mummy (with a remarkably well-preserved penis) – as well as ecclesiastical silverware and some of Laval’s personal belongings. The museum’s name derives from the exhibition on the second floor, The Settling of French America, which illustrates the history of the emigration and settlement of the more than nineteen million North Americans of French stock.

The Citadelle

Dominating the southern section of Vieux-Québec, the massive star-shaped Citadelle can only be visited on one of the worthwhile guided tours. The tour de force of Québec City’s fortifications, the Citadelle occupies the highest point of Cap Diamant, 100m above the St Lawrence. This strategic site was first built on by the French, but the British constructed most of the buildings under orders from the Duke of Wellington, who was anxious about American attack after the War of 1812.

The complex of 25 buildings is the largest North American fort still occupied by troops – being home to the Royal 22nd Regiment, Canada’s only French-speaking regiment. Ranged around the parade ground are various monuments to the campaigns of the celebrated “Van-Doos” (vingt-deux), as well as the summer residence of Canada’s governor general and two buildings dating back to the French period: the Cap Diamant Redoubt, built in 1693 and thus one of the oldest parts of the Citadelle, and the 1750 powder magazine, now a mundane museum of weaponry and military artefacts.

In addition to the guided tours, the admission price includes the colourful Changing of the Guard (late June to early Sept daily 10am), which you can catch at the end of a 9am tour (otherwise arrive by 9.45am), and the Beating of the Retreat tattoo (early July to early Sept Fri–Sun 7pm, at the end of the 6pm tour).

Open-air venues

In summer, open-air venues are particularly popular in Québec City. The largest is the Agora, in the Vieux-Port, a huge amphitheatre used for a range of productions (such as Cirque du Soleil), including a few major international draws.

A summer-long programme of activities is also enacted on open stages in the Jardins de l’Hôtel de Ville; at the Parc de la Francophonie beside Grande-Allée, just beyond the Parliament buildings; and in the place d’Youville. In place Royale and at the Kiosque Edwin-Bélanger bandstand on the Plaines d’Abraham, there are various free classical music concerts.

Performing arts and cinema

From May to September there are dance, theatre and music events at various outdoor venues, and throughout the year performances can be caught at the city’s theatres, most of which are in trendy Saint-Roch (though note plays tend to be in French only). The liveliest months are February and July, when the entire city is animated by its two principal festivals: the excellent Carnaval and the equally frenzied Festival d’Été. Tickets for most events can be purchased through Admission (t 1 800 361 4595, w admission.com) and Réseau Billetech (w billetech.com). For information on the city’s goings-on, check out the listings section in the French daily newspapers Le Soleil and Journal de Québec and the free weekly newspaper Voir (w voir.ca). The quarterly bilingual magazine for tourists Voilà Québec (w voilaquebec.com) also carries information, as does the English Québec Chronicle-Telegraph (w qctonline.com), published every Wednesday.

Québec City festivals

Québec City is renowned for its large annual festivals.

Carnaval de Québec February t 418 626 3716, w carnaval.qc.ca. Held in the depths of winter, when large quantities of the warming Caribou – a lethal mix of red wine, spirits and spices – are consumed amid parades and ice-sculpture competitions.

St-Jean Baptiste Day June 24. The provincial holiday sees an outpouring of Québécois pride spilling onto the streets in a massive celebration, with thousands of fleur-de-lis flags adorning the entire city.

Festival d’Été Eleven days in July t 418 529 5200, t 1 888 992 5200, w infofestival.com. The largest festival of francophone culture in North America and the biggest outdoor music festival in Canada, it includes several major international acts, and everyone is roped in to the celebration, with restaurants offering discounts and all of Québec’s major performers pitching up to lead the party from open-air stages all over town.

Fêtes de la Nouvelle-France Aug t 418 694 3311, t 1 866 391 3383, w nouvellefrance.qc.ca. Great fun, as Basse-Ville returns to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: thousands of Québécois from around the province dress up in period costume, often ones they’ve sewn themselves.

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Rough Guides Editors
8/29/2020
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