Things to Do in Quebec City
Vieux Québec is the crown jewel of French Canada and if you're coming for the first time, look out - there's simply no other place like it in North America. Narrow cobbled streets are lined with 17th- and 18th-century houses and almost every step will bring you to another historical plaque, a leafy park with a battery of 18th-century canons, a grand 17th-century plaza, and other historical sites. In fact, wandering around Vieux Québec is like exploring an old European city.
Vieux Quebec is compact and easily walkable. On a daytime stroll, you can browse the shops along Rue Ste-Jean, wander among the grassy knolls in the Plains of Abraham, climb to the top of the Citadel, walk the Fortifications, then follow the river boardwalk (the Promenade des Gouverneurs) down to the Victorian waterfront. From there you get the classic view of Quebec City’s most famous building, the Chateau Frontenac.
At the foot of Cap Diamant in the historic Lower Town (Basse-Ville) of Quebec City, the Petit-Champlain quartier is one of the oldest spots in the city and said to be home to the oldest commercial street in North America; Rue du Petit-Champlain.
In the beginning of Quebec’s history, Petit-Champlain was little more than portside village made up of just a few homes and fur trading posts. Today, after a huge urban restoration project, the quartier is bursting with sidewalk cafes, galleries, restaurants, and boutiques hidden down narrow cobblestone streets. The area is also well-known as an artists’ enclave, and nearly fifty of its stores are run by a local artists’ co-op. On the side of 102 Rue du Petit-Champlain, look out for a huge trompe-l'œil. Designed by Murale Création, the famous mural shows different stages of Quebec’s history, from the bombardments to the landslides to the people who set down their roots here by the shores of St Lawrence.
Locals bestow Place-Royale as the spiritual and historical heart of Vieux Quebec, for this spot is not only the birthplace of French Civilization in North America but also one of the continent’s oldest settlements. And that history resonates, as the site has the largest surviving ensemble of 17th and 18th century buildings in North America.
One of the highlights here is the Centre d’Interpretation de Place-Royal, an interpretive center with illuminating exhibits on the individual people, houses, and challenges of setting up a town the shores of the St. Lawrence River. Walk past the center to see a trompe-l’oeil mural of people from the early city. Dominating the plaza is the oldest church in Quebec, Notre-Dame-des-Victoires. It’s worth taking a peek inside at the paintings, altar, and the large boat suspended from the ceiling. When not soaking up the history, duck in and out of the boutiques and restaurants that are sprinkled throughout the Place-Royal.
At the base of the Château Frontenac, Quebec City’s Terrasse Dufferin promenade looks out across the St Lawrence River from its clifftop perch atop Cap Diamant. Named after Lord Dufferin, who was Canada’s governor between 1872 and 1878, come in summertime when green and white-topped gazebos fill the 425-meter-long boardwalk and street performers entertain. Time your visit for the early evening, and you’ll also get to see the sun set over the Laurentian Mountains to the north. In winter, Dufferin Terrasse is especially popular for its Les Glissades de la Terrasse toboggan run, which wooshes people up to 60 mph down an 82-meter slide.
Just underneath Terrasse Dufferin, by the statue of Samuel de Champlain, you can visit the archaeological site of Champlain’s second fort which dates back to 1620.
One of the most charming areas of Quebec City, the Old Port (Vieux-Port) was once a bustling commercial hub for European ships bringing supplies and settlers to the new colony. Today, it’s still bustling, but now the port reverberates with visitors wandering the quays, enjoying picturesque views of the Old City, the St. Lawrence River, and the Laurentian Mountains.
The Quebec City Old Port is also where you’ll find the impressive Musee de la Civilization, spacious and rich with multimedia exhibits on Canadian culture. Also here is the Marché du Vieux-Port (Old-Port Market), where the local farmers and producers come to sell their fresh products. Perhaps the most enchanting of all the city’s many small squares – and a must-see – is the Place Royale, home to the Notre-Dame-des-Victoires church, the oldest church in Quebec, and the Centre d’Interpretation de Place-Royal, which has exhibitions detailing the city’s 400-plus-year history.
The oldest Christian parish north of Mexico, the Basilique-Cathédrale Notre-Dame-De-Québec has suffered everything from fires to battle damage to reconstruction and restoration. The opulent cathedral you see today is richly decorated with impressive works of art including stained glass windows.
Most of the Neo-classic facade of the Basilique-Cathédrale Notre-Dame-De-Québec is from the reconstruction completed in 1771, though parts of the basilica date from the original construction, including the bell tower and portions of the wall. The neo-baroque interior is appropriately grandiose with neo-baroque, filled with ecclesiastical treasures, paintings, and a chancel lamp (a gift of Louis XIV), illuminated by the flickering light of votive candles. Below is a crypt, where some 900 people are buried including governors of New France, archbishops and cardinals.
Just 18 miles (30 km) outside of Quebec City stands one of the most important pilgrimage sites of Canada and the Catholic word: the Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré Basilica. This Catholic sanctuary receives more than half a million visitors every year, which represents quite a lot of people for this modest village.
The reason why this basilica is so famous—even more so than its Montreal counterpart—is because it is credited with many miracles, especially when it comes to curing the sick and disabled. Initially built as a shrine to Sainte-Anne, the basilica, whose history goes all the way back to 1658, got its healing reputation when Louis Guimont, a local carpenter suffering from rheumatism, came to help with the construction of the first chapel and was miraculously healed after its completion. Even nowadays, the pillars in the front entrance of the basilica are covered in crutches from people who are said by the parishioners to have been miraculously cured by Sainte-Anne.
When Quebecois want to soak up the sun or enjoy a family picnic, they head to the Plains of Abraham, contained within Battlefields Park. Within the park’s sprawling 267 acres/108 hectares are grassy knolls, fountains, monuments, trees, and lush sunken gardens all for residents and visitors to enjoy.
Like other sites in Vieux Quebec, the Plains of Abraham is a looking glass into the city’s history. But though it was the site of many clashes for supremacy between the French and British Empires, the park you see today is what Central Park and Hyde Park are to New York and London. Spend an afternoon wandering its walking trails, checking out its historical monuments, and marveling at its landscaping. Throughout the year, the Plains of Abraham is the site of many outdoor concerts and events.
Quebec City resonates with history, and nowhere is it most evident than in the beautifully-preserved Fortifications of Quebec. These restored 17th-century walls, built atop of plunging cliff, tower over the St. Lawrence River. As the only remaining walled city in North America, Quebec City is now recognized as an UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a must-see on a visit to the city.
The Fortifications of Quebec encircle Upper Town, from the Citadel of Quebec through Parc L’Esplanade and Artillery Park National Historic Site, then down toward Quebec City Old Port (Vieux-Port). You can walk the 2.9-mi/4.6-km circuit on top of them, where you can take in sweeping view of the city and St. Lawrence River. The fortifications' Interpretive Centre has a small but interesting exhibit on the history of the walls as well as an old gunpowder building from 1815.
More Things to Do in Quebec City
The Citadel of Quebec, a massive star-shaped fort, towers above the St Lawrence River on Cape Diamond (Cap Diamant), the rock bluff along the water. Though the Citadel never actually was in a battle, it continues to house about 200 members of the Royal 22e Régiment, the only fully French speaking battalion in the Canadian Forces. Thus, the Citadel is North America's largest fortified group of buildings still occupied by troops.
Upon visiting The Citadel of Quebec, you will get the the low-down on the spectacular architecture as well as see exhibits on military life from colonial times to today. The changing of the guard takes place daily at 10am in summer. The beating of the retreat, with soldiers banging on their drums at shift's end, happens every Friday at 7pm from July 6 until early September.
Looking out across the St Lawrence River from its clifftop location on Cap Diamant, Quebec City’s Upper Town (Haute-Ville) is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site Vieux Quebec. Famous for its French and British-built fortifications, many of Upper Town’s perfectly preserved buildings date back to 19th century, and some even go as far back as the 1600s.
The jewel in Upper Town’s crown has to be the iconic Château Frontenac hotel. Built by the Canadian Pacific Railway company in 1893 as a way of enticing railway passengers to Quebec City, today the chateau is a National Historic Site of Canada that’s said to be one of the world’s most photographed hotels. If you’re not staying overnight, you can always enjoy a drink at one of hotel bars which look out to the Laurentian Mountains in the distance. Stuffed with boutiques, restaurants and hotels, Upper Town’s narrow cobblestone streets are where most visitors spend the majority of their time while in Quebec City.
Built in 1687, in the historic Lower Town of Quebec City, Notre-Dame-des-Victoires is one of the oldest churches in North America. Lying atop the ruins of the city’s first outpost, which was built by the Father of New France, Samuel de Champlain, in 1608, Notre-Dame-des-Victoires dominates Place Royale square. Over the centuries, this Roman Catholic church has seen its fair share of battles between the French and British. And after the Battle of Quebec in 1690, the church was given its Notre Dame moniker in recognition of the Virgin Mary protecting the city from danger. However, Notre-Dame-des-Victoires Church was almost completely destroyed by a later British bombardment during the 1759 Battle of the Plains of Abraham.
Restored in 1816, the church was named a National Historic Site of Canada in 1988 because of its beauty and history. A working church with regular Sunday services, a particularly special time to visit is on January 3.
Run by the wife and family of the late, great coppersmith, Albert Gilles, the Albert Gilles Copper Art Museum showcases artwork by both Gilles and his family. Part of the economusee network of Canada, this small museum allows visitors to make their own copper memento, and groups with reservations will get to see live copper work demos. In the museum store, you’ll also find artworks and jewelry for sale.
Albert Gilles was born in Paris in 1895, where an aunt taught him the craft of copper embossing. Crossing the Atlantic in the 1930s to make a new life in Quebec, Gilles quickly established a name for himself as a master coppersmith and created work for everyone from Walt Disney to Pope XII. Perhaps his most famous work is the copper doors he created for Ste-Anne-de-Beaupré basilica, 22 miles outside Quebec City.
Wedged between the St Lawrence River and Cap Diamant, Quebec City’s Lower Town (Basse-Ville) is part of the Vieux Quebec UNESCO World Heritage site. Home to the city’s oldest buildings, there’s plenty to see in Basse-Ville, including the oldest shopping street in North America (Rue du Petit Champlain), and one of Canada’s narrowest streets (Sous-Les-Cap).
A popular place for a wander, and Quebec City’s oldest residential area, Lower Town’s century-old dwellings play host to boutiques and bistros, antique stores and galleries. In summer, street performers entertain outside bustling sidewalk cafes, while in winter the snowy streets are decked with fairy lights and ice statues. Place Royale is a popular visit while in Basse-Ville. This square is where the Father of New France, Samuel de Champlain, first built a French colony on the shores of St Lawrence.
Rising as a beacon of modernity in historic Old Quebec, the Musée de la Civilisation looks at humanity across the world as well as the history of Quebec through an extensive lens. Surrounded by glass panes and greenery, the museum is impressive from the exterior alone. Pre-existing buildings were incorporated into the completed design, which finished construction in 1998. Inside, both its permanent and rotating exhibits are highly interactive and educational, ranging from Quebec’s Aboriginal roots to contemporary culture.
The museum has become known for its fresh and original designs and perspectives, and is thought to be a leading cultural hub of Quebec. It has hundreds of unique and original historic art and artifacts, many of which collectively tell the story of Quebec. There are often family workshops as well as guided tours (in both English and French) available for those looking to take a deeper dive into the museum.
A working-class area and shipbuilding site since the early 1800s, up until a decade ago the Saint-Roch district of Quebec City was an industrial wasteland. Today, it’s the hippest district in the city that’s full of 19th-century factories-turned-nightlife hangouts, alternative stores, tech startups, and bistros. Even the 150-year-old Notre-Dame-de-Jacques-Cartier church has been given a second life as Espace Hypérion, a creative performance center.
Most of the action in Saint-Roch takes places on the main commercial street, rue Saint-Joseph, where hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into renovations over the past 10 years. Spanning 15 square blocks, even the quarter’s new name is up-to-the-minute: the “Nouvo” in Nouvo Saint-Roch is text speak for “nouveau.” And in the east streets of Saint-Roch, on the pillars beneath the Dufferin-Montmorency expressway, look out for giant, colorful murals featuring everything from oversized church doors to chess boards.
Located at the confluence of the St. Charles and St. Lawrence Rivers, Quebec City welcomes over 4 million visitors each year. Strategically important early on as a gateway to the Great Lakes, it remains the only walled city in North America. It is also one of the oldest cities in North America, but the strong French influence means that you may feel like you have been transported to Europe as soon as you arrive.
Cruise ships arrive at either Le Vieux Port (the Old Port) or Le Basse Ville (the Old City), both of which provide easy access by foot to many of Quebec City’s major sights. If you arrive at the Old Port, taxis are also readily available to take you to the Old City.
Quebec’s Old City is divided into a Lower Town and Upper Town and a funicular connects the two. Start your visit in the Lower Town by strolling through the Quartier Petit Champlain, a delightful pedestrian mall lined with cafes and boutiques. Then head to the Place Royale.
Often regarded as the premier reference in terms of Quebec art, the National Museum of Fine Arts in Quebec City has amassed over a whopping 38,000 works of art. It acts as a testament to art history in the province, spanning every major movement from the seventeenth century to today including everything from modernism to surrealism. The museum consists of four pavillions: the Charles Baillairgé pavilion, which concentrates on modern art, the Gérard Morisset pavilion, where the historical works are housed, and the central pavilion, home to the Family Gallery, and, last but not least, the brand new Pierre Lassonde pavilion, which is entirely dedicated to contemporary art. The latter has just been extensively renovated and is now a marvel of modern-day architecture.
Just a few miles/kilometers downstream from Quebec City, the St. Lawrence River splits and the land between is Orleans Island, or Ile d'Orleans. Just 22 miles/35 kilometers long and 6 miles/9 kilometers wide, the island still evokes that pioneering spirit in its people and culture since it was colonized in the 17th century.
Orleans Island has six tiny delightful villages. Ste-Petronille is famous for its Victorian Inn, La Goelich, and has a dazzling forest of red oaks. St-Laurent was once the shipbuilding center on the island, the heritage of which is embraced at Maritime Park. St-Jean is filled with homes of creamy yellow “Scottish brick” facades, which came from the ballast of boats. Also here is La Sucrerie Blouin, where you can see maple syrup being made. Just outside St-Francois you can take in sweeping views of the St. Lawrence River and the Laurentian Mountains.