Quebec Travel Guide


Lower Town (Basse Ville)
The oldest and most interesting part of the Lower Town is the section to the immediate east of the Upper Town. The two 'towns' are connected by a funicular that travels up and down the cape, but the most rewarding path between them is carved out by a collection of steep, winding streets and short-cut staircases, one of which is encouragingly called Break-Neck Staircase (Escalier Casse-Cou). The well-trafficked thoroughfares at the cape's base include Rue du Petit Champlain and Rue Sous le Cap, two of the oldest streets in North America and, with mere individual widths of 2.5m (8.2ft), also two of the narrowest. The Lower Town's main meeting point is the 400-year-old Place Royale, a human vortex surrounded by nicely aged buildings and overpriced tourist emporiums.

On the western side of Place Royale is the Église Notre Dame des Victoires, a modest edifice built in 1688 and ranked the oldest stone church on the continent. Hanging in the church's interior is a replica of a wooden boat called the Brézé, considered a luck charm for Atlantic navigators. A short walk further west is Parc Montmorency, formerly a 17th-century cemetery that provided infertile ground for European dead, now with a statue of Sir Georges Étienne Cartier (who had a major hand in the formation of the 1867 Canadian Confederation) planted in its centre.

Old Port (Vieux Port)
The city's old harbourside area has been doted on by developers and now fields a crop of government buildings, newish apartment complexes, retail boutiques and recreational/entertainment facilities, the most prominent of which is the outdoor concert arena called Agora. The architectural melange taking up an entire block on the western edge of the harbour district is Québec City's famed Musée de la Civilisation, most of it hammered together in traditional Québécois style in 1988 but comprising some far older buildings such as Estèbe House (dating from 1752). This museum, regarded as the exhibitionist highlight of the province, has permanent displays on the diversity of native Canadians - the traditional cultures collectively known as the First Nations - and on societal life since Europeanisation, as well as short-lived exhibits on contemporary concerns like globalisation.

Further adding to Québec City's respectable listing of museums are the Musée Naval de Québec, which details the city's fondness for saltwater, and the Old Port of Québec Interpretation Centre, a multi-storey affair that outlines the history of what was once one of the world's biggest and most active ports. Northwest of the Museum of Civilisation, on Rue St Paul, you'll find a convivial jumble of antique shops and cafes.

St Jean Baptiste & St Roch
For a taste of Québec City outside the walls of the Old Town and away from the epicentre of the tourist quake, take a wander through the primarily residential districts of St Jean Baptiste and St Roch to the immediate west and northwest (respectively) of the ramparts. The neighbourhood of St Jean Baptiste, part of the Upper Town, is distinguished by the accordions of tiny, quaint houses along streets like Rue d'Aiguillon. The area is bordered on its southern side by a boulevard called Grande Allée, which in turn is bordered by discos, cellar-dwelling taverns and alfresco restaurants serving everything from baked goods to Tunisian cookery. Another street that's decked out in eateries, as well as upmarket shops, is the western extension of Rue St Jean. Between St Jean Baptiste and the Old Town is the seat of the provincial legislature, the Assemblée Nationale, an imposing 1886 building with a statue-encrusted facade - free tours are regularly conducted.

St Roch, in the Lower Town, is a former residential stronghold of the working class that's been subjected to increasing gentrification in recent years. As a result, a walk along Rue St Joseph reveals semi-dilapidated buildings jostling for space with secondhand goods shops and some of that genre of hip cafe that renovates squalor and appropriates sweat-stained industrial surrounds for their gloating trendiness. If you're feeling artful, head for the art galleries on the open-air garret of Rue de St Vallier Est.

Upper Town (Haute Ville)
The Upper Town is where the old fortified part of Québec City - the enchanting and exceedingly tourist-friendly Old Town - chooses to live. The main structure in this wall-encircled chunk of historical real estate is La Citadelle, a hefty asymmetrical fort that began to take its irregular shape when the French started building storage facilities for gunpowder in 1750, and which was completed 70 years later by the British as they readied themselves for an American attack. Nowadays, The Citadel is home to a long-serving Canadian regiment called the Royal 22s and also to several military museums. Stretching southwest of the fort is the Battlefields Park (Parc des Champs de Bataille), a pleasant swathe of green that caters to in-line skaters, cyclists, skiers and strollers. The large slice of turf nearest the cliffs is called the Plains of Abraham and it was here that the British won a famous victory over the French in 1759. Also inside the park boundary is the Musée du Québec, with a highly regarded collection of provincial art from the likes of painter Jean-Paul Riopelle and sculptor Louis-Philippe Hébert.

There are several theologically rich sites in the Upper Town, including the Ursuline Convent & Museum, a restored estate that invites sightseers into the 17th and 18th-century lives of the Ursuline sisterhood; the Musée des Augustines, which concerns itself with the efforts of three pioneering nuns who offered salvation to a harsh Québec in 1639; and the handsome Anglican Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, built in 1804 to a template provided by London's St Martin in the Fields. Le Château Frontenac is a glorious landmark hotel with a stately medieval tower, built to service the luxurious demands of late 19th-century clientele and still accommodating wealthy patrons into the 21st. Behind the hotel is Terrasse Dufferin, a crowded cliff-top esplanade where Québec City pedestrians sociably collide. If you want to see more of the Old Town, it's possible to do a 4.6km (2.8mi) circumnavigation of the district along the tops of the weathered ramparts that encircle it.

Off the Beaten Track

Grosse Île
In 1832, a group of British soldiers returned to Québec City from a stint in India and unknowingly introduced the populace to cholera - around 3500 people (or 10% of the population) subsequently died. To prevent such scourges, the local authorities set up a quarantine station on Grosse Île, a small island in the St Lawrence River to the city's east. The station handled mainly European immigrants, processing over four million people before its closure in 1937. One of its busiest periods was during the 1840s, when the Irish potato famine drove 100,000 people to Canada, 7500 of whom died on Grosse Île of typhus.

Since 1994 it's been possible to take guided tours of Grosse Île to inspect the old disinfection chambers, hospital, cemetery and immigrants' living quarters. The tours are conducted from a marina in the village of Berthier sur Mer, which is located on the southern bank of the St Lawrence roughly 60km (37mi) from Québec City. Grosse Île floats just off the north-eastern corner of the much larger Île d'Orléans, a highly popular holiday destination due to its centuries-old cottages and manors, abundant galleries of island art, and lovely river-enhanced scenery.

Parc de la Jacques Cartier
If you've had enough of man-made attractions and are hankering to see some of the wilderness stowed away in the expanses of Québec province, put aside some time to visit one or more of the parks within a one-to-two-hour road trip of the capital. The largest, 40km (25mi) north of Québec City, is the Parc de la Jacques Cartier, where canoeing, mountain biking, hiking, camping and cross-country skiing are all ardently pursued. Parc du Mont Ste Anne, 50km (31mi) east of town, has several hundred kilometres of cross-country skiing or hiking trails (depending on the season), while Réserve National de Faune Cap Tourmente, a further 15km (9mi) east, is a bird sanctuary that's particularly popular with snow geese. Less appealing due to its tourist turnover, but still an impressive sight for building-weary eyes, is Parc de la Chute Montmorency, a reserve established around a set of higher-than-Niagara waterfalls in Beauport, 7km (4.3mi) east of Québec City - visitors can catch a cable-car up the mountain and clamber across a footbridge above the falls, which are at their loudest in winter.

Anyone interested in native Canadian culture should make the 15km (9mi) journey northwest of Québec City to the small community of Wendake and its reconstructed Huron-Wendat village, called Onhoüa Chetek8e. Here you can take guided tours through traditional longhouses and sweat lodges, watch long-practised dances, and try to ignore some tacky souvenir stalls. One of Québec province's 11 First Nations, the Huron-Wendat were a powerful tribe centred in the Great Lakes region until their Iroquois brethren drove them to their current home at Wendake in 1650. Their original language, which they no longer speak in deference to French, included the word kanata, meaning 'settlement', which was subsequently altered to form 'Canada'. Their old tongue is also the explanation for the '8' in the name of their current-day tourist village, a simplification of a letter that looks like a 'u' on top of an 'o' and which is pronounced either 'ou' (if it appears before a consonant) or 'wa' (if it precedes a vowel).

For an ultra-modern counterpoint to the relative modesty of the First Nation experience, wait patiently for winter to arrive and then immediately head west out of Wendake to Lac St Joseph's Station Écotouristique Duchesnay, where you'll be confronted by a hotel carved entirely out of ice. The Ice Hotel, the frozen brainchild of the vodka-addled Absolut corporation, has its corridors, tables, chairs, reception desk, dishes, glasses and most (but not all) of its sundry other bits made from ice: 317,450kg (350 tons) worth, to be precise. The whole 3000 sq m (32,300 sq ft) shebang is built over five weeks at the beginning of winter every year and then thaws itself into oblivion at season's end.

Art Galleries

Galerie Linda Verge
1049, avenue des Érables (418) 525-8393

Galerie de l'École des arts visuels
255, boul. Charest, Est, (418) 656-7631

Galerie d'un jour
900, boul. Charest, Est, (418) 523-2316

Galerie Estampe Plus
49, rue Saint-Pierre, (418) 694-1303

Galerie Loup de Goutière
347, rue Saint-Paul, (418) 694-2224

Studio d'art Georgette Pihay
53, rue du Petit-Champlain, (418) 692-0297

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