Instead, windows and French doors are flung wide and terraces open up to cobblestone streets and the St. Lawrence River. The smell of steak frites and chocolate wafts through narrow alleyways, and musicians strike up lively chansons. It’s the sweetest time of year to explore this chic, charming city of half a million and its cultural scene.
THE FORTIFIED CITY
Quebec City’s fortifications are among its most famous landmarks, cradling a remarkably well-preserved slice of colonial life. This is North America’s only remaining city with such ramparts, gates and bastions, and the walled section of town, Old Quebec, is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Inside the walls, an area of less than 1 square mile is packed with cafés, historic sites and souvenir shops, all presided over by the Château Frontenac, a 120-year-old 618-room hotel that sits high on Cap Diamant. The hotel is set on the pretty Place d’Armes, home to the Musée du Fort, where a 30-minute sound-and-light show reenacts the battles that shaped this city.
But first, an early-morning exploration of Lower Town is in order. Pop over to Rue Saint-Jean—the beginning of the Chemin du Roy, the oldest roadway in Canada—for a croissant and coffee at Paillard, and maple goodies at Les Délices de l’Érable (a museum devoted to all things maple) before pausing for photos of the St. Lawrence and Lower Town from Dufferin Terrace. This is where Quebec’s founder, Samuel de Champlain, built a fort and where, in 1635, he drew his last breath.
Below, Place Royale and Quartier Petit Champlain will soon fill up with fellow travelers ogling the cobblestone streets, artisans’ co-ops and romantic bistros. Get a leg up by descending the 59 steep steps of Breakneck Stairs, or hop on the funicular cable car that travels 210 feet at a 45-degree angle between Upper Town and Lower Town. You’ll never believe that this pristine area was a slum in the 1950s. Walk to the end of Rue du Petit-Champlain to hear musician Marc Lavigne, who regularly plays outside Le Lapin Sauté, and to see the Petit-Champlain fresco, which tells more stories of the past four centuries.
Lunch at Restaurant SSS may mean garlicky linguini, a crisp sauvignon blanc and a slice of sugar pie, a Quebec specialty. That should fuel you for an afternoon at the Musée de la Civilisation, where the exhibit “Le Temps des Québécois” showcases everything from the royal French coat of arms and the quartz that Jacques Cartier mistook for diamonds to slot machines and a Robert Charlebois sequined top.
You’ll find your own artsy top at any number of shops lining nearby Rue Saint-Paul, including funky bike jerseys at Autrement et Alors, while Rue Saint-Pierre is lined with fine-art boutiques. Be sure to stroll through Le Marché du Vieux-Port, as well; the indoor farmers market is a sensory overload, with baskets overflowing with berries, macarons and maple-syrup popcorn. It’s also a great place to pick up a baguette and cheese.
It’s said that the people of Lévis, the city just across the river, live in the best place in the province, thanks to their view of Quebec City. Catch a glimpse by taking the Quebec–Lévis ferry, which leaves the waterfront every 30 minutes during the day. Back in Vieux-Port, tuck into oysters on a bed of salt or a perfect mound of salmon tartare at the Paris-inspired bistro Café du Monde. And it seems as if Europe were only an arm’s length away in the lively Grand Allée, a gaslight-lined street of cigar bars, nightclubs and lounges known as the Champs Elysées of Quebec City.
BEYOND THE WALLS
From late June through September, the changing of the guard takes place daily at 10 a.m. at the adjacent Citadelle, which also connects to the Governor’s Promenade. At the ceremony, look out for Batisse, the gussied-up goat, who’s the mascot of the regiment housed at this working fortress. Then head out Saint-Louis gate to the Musée National des Beaux Arts du Quebec, a sprawling complex that includes neoclassical buildings, a former prison and a modern pavilion, all connected by glass halls and underground tunnels. Don’t miss the canvases of Jean-Paul Riopelle or the intricate serpentine carvings among the 2,100-plus pieces of Inuit art here.
Ready to hobnob with Quebec politicians? Many visitors don’t realize they can have lunch on blue-velvet chairs beneath gilded chandeliers in the Parliament Building, a Second Empire-style structure now fringed by gardens growing kale, sage and other produce and flowers for Le Parlementaire restaurant.
Then again, social climbing’s more fun at Montmorency Falls, a park just outside the city that offers the chance to stand on a suspension bridge above a thundering cascade taller than Niagara.
A paved bike path connects Quebec City to Montmorency; on the way back, stop at in the trendy Nouvo Saint-Roch neighborhood for vintage-clothing shops, record stores, microbreweries and bistros. One of the locals’ favorite streets to shop, meanwhile, is Avenue Cartier, where a browse through La Bouquinerie de Cartier may lead to an afternoon snack at a boulangerie or patisserie.
You’ll want to save your appetite, however, for dinner at Le Saint-Amour, back inside the city walls on a side street near the Kent and St. Jean gates. This romantic spot, with its enclosed atrium patio, has reportedly seen the likes of Sting and Paul McCartney. And the foie gras, paired with a Quebec ice wine (maybe followed by the chocolate mousse) will have you falling in love with this Francophone city.