Exploring Quebec city's tourist neighbourhoods
Quebec City is a world heritage treasure that offers European charms that can’t be found anywhere else in North America, including being the only walled city north of Mexico. For travellers with an interest in history, architecture, fine cuisine and nature, it’s especially an ideal destination. But the decision to visit isn’t the one that’s difficult to make, rather which areas to explore. From the historic streets of Vieux-Quebec to the recently revamped Saint-Roch neighbourhood, the city has many faces, but this guide will provide you with a good understanding as to which you’d most like to experience.
Vieux Quebec/Old Quebec City
Old Quebec City is frequently referred to as a “bit of Old Europe on American soil.” Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s, as mentioned, the only city on the continent north of Mexico to have preserved its walled ramparts. Founded in the early 17th century, the ramparts, gates and other fortifications serve as a reminder of its role in the colonial wars for the control of the Americas, while offering a good glimpse of what living in a fortified city several hundred years ago was like. Be sure to visit both the fortifications and the Citadel, which are the two main defensive works here.
Vieux Quebec is actually made up of two neighbourhoods, Basse-Ville and Haute-Ville, though they’re often thought of as one in the same. One of the city’s most popular tourist destinations, the Upper Town (Haute-Ville) is built into a cliff offering expansive vistas of the Saint-Lawrence, with its cobbled streets lined with boutiques and cafes, while monuments and churches add to its charm. It’s also home to the city’s gay village, which hosts a gay pride festival annually in September.
Lower Town (Basse-Ville) grew around the harbor and was the original neighbourhood of the city. Its ancient streets are sprawled along the base of the cliffs center around Place Royale. Chateau Frontenac is one of its major landmarks, something that’s almost impossible to miss, set upon Cap Diamant looking as if it should be part of a fairy-tale. The cobblestone streets here are home to hip restaurants while the side streets often host vendors selling a wide range of arts and crafts as well as street performers. Wander around, taking in the beauty of the architecture, and be sure to visit the Museum of Civilisation, the most popular museum in the city. It features world-class exhibits focused on Quebec history and culture and also offers workshops on current as well as historical topics.
Other important sights related to the city’s religious history, including the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, and the spectacular Notre Dame de Quebec Basilica Cathedral. Taking a horse-drawn carriage ride or joining a walking tour is a great way to get a real feel of the city’s unique historic district, and for a good perspective of the area, ride the Old Quebec Funicular, where you can take in commanding views of Lower Town and the Saint-Lawrence River below.
Fine dining is a must-experience here as well, with a number of restaurants that are ranked among the city and even the nation’s best like Chez Muffy which overlooks the Saint-Lawrence River in a historic warehouse at the Auberge Saint-Antoine.
Quartier Petit Champlain
Quartier Petit Champlain is its own neighbourhood, but it’s located in Old Quebec City, kind of a neighbourhood within a neighbourhood, and it’s believed to be North America’s oldest commercial district. You’ll find its charming cobblestone streets lined with restaurants, art galleries, boutiques and souvenir shops, and while it may take a while to wander through them all, be sure to save some time to climb the famed Breakneck Stairs (Escalier Casse-Cou), the oldest stairway in the city, built in 1635.
When Quebec City was first founded in 1608, it was called New France, and a visit to Place-Royale, one of the oldest settlements in North America, will take you back in time to its early years. While it’s technically part of Lower Town, it’s worthy of a mention of its own. Considered the literal and spiritual birthplace of Basse-Ville, here you can admire the continent’s oldest stone church, the Notre-Dame-des-Victoires Church. Built in 1688 after a devastating fire roared through the area, destroying 55 homes in 1682, it was restored in 1736, and again in 1969. The altar, paintings and a big model boat that hangs from the ceiling were taken into the city by early settlers as votive offerings to ensure a safe voyage. A huge fresque des Quebecois traces four centuries of the city’s history.
Commercial activity began to decline here in the mid-19th-century, and by the 1950s, the district was rundown. The following decade saw many buildings restored, and today one of them serves as the home to the Musee de la place Royale on its ground floor, which features a 3D film about the city’s founder, Samuel Champlain. In between your explorations, you’ll find many restaurants and boutiques tucked among the old churches and museums.
Saint-Roch is a former working-class neighbourhood that was first settled by the Recollects in the early 1600s. It’s gone through a number of transformations over the centuries, including being a hub for shipbuilding, the home of manufacturing and a popular commercial street, before deteriorating into one of the worst areas in the city. But in recent years, it’s been transformed, becoming a thriving, revitalized community for young professionals, hipsters and students, with warehouses and old retail spaces refurbished. The trendy district is a bohemian hub for avant-garde art, as well as in-vogue eateries, cafes and bars, and upscale boutiques. It’s also the heart of the city’s booming craft beer scene, famous as a hotspot for brew enthusiasts. Enjoy tasting the high quality offerings at Korrigane, a local favourite for Québécois who come to enjoy chatting with friends as well as enjoy live entertainment.
Be sure to visit the Saint-Roch Garden, for local residents there’s no better symbol of the revitalization of the neighbourhood. The immaculate gardens are a hotspot for relaxing around the cascading water fountain and on the shady benches, while art students are drawn here for artistic inspiration.
Located just minutes from Old Quebec, Parliament Hill was named after the Parliament Building, the oldest historic site in Quebec, and an imposing structure with four wings that form a large square. Its architecture was inspired by Paris’ Louvre as one of the few French-style institution buildings here, while its main street, Grand Allee has been referred to as the Champs-Elysees of Quebec City. This busy neighbourhood is filled with luxurious hotels, trendy clubs and many outstanding restaurants. It’s also home to Battlefields Park and the Plains of Abraham, a 98-hectare park that’s over a century old. A must visit, here you can watch the Changing of the Guard at La Citadelle.
Saint-Jean is similar to Saint-Roch, with a laid-back, friendly and somewhat bohemian vibe. It bustles with numerous cafes, eateries, markets and boutiques, and is also home to North America’s oldest grocery store, J.A. Moisan, which dates back to 1871. A stroll through this neighbourhood is really a must, if only to see the Second Empire-style Saint-Jean-Baptiste Church, a national historic monument and the oldest Catholic parish in North America. It stands on the same site it has since the mid-17th-century and features the only Holy Door outside of Europe.
This lovely neighbourhood near Old Quebec between Salaberry Avenue to Belvedere Avenue is bursting with character. It was recently named the city’s arts district, boasting multiple art galleries among its historical sites, restaurants, cafes, lively bars and trendy shops, and often, a number of street artists too. Avenue Cartier is especially colourful. Take a stroll down this street and you might even find that you’re gazing up at an art gallery in the sky. More than 30 giant lampshades were installed by Lightemotion in collaboration with the Musee national des beaux-arts du Quebec, transforming the district into one big gallery.
Old Port/Vieux Port
The Old Port has long been a hub of activity. In the 19th-century, it was one of the five biggest ports in the world, and today, it’s a popular cruise stop. In the summer the port is filled with cruise ships that bring visitors into the city, many of whom take advantage of the nearby charms of rue Saint-Paul, with its sidewalk cafes, art galleries and antique shops. While it’s mostly popular for dining and shopping, it’s also home to a fascinating archaeological and historical site, Pointe-a-Calliere, that dates all the way back to the 14th century, offering a glimpse at what was once the Jean Talon Brewery, the king’s storehouse and the intendants home. Visitors can take part in GeoRallys, geocaching with a historic twist, as well as virtual excavations.
Limoilou is a neighbourhood that’s more popular with locals than tourists, but its well-worth exploring. Stroll along the avenues to discover grand 19th-century homes and other magnificent buildings. 2e Avenue is especially renowned for its collection of local homes with red brick and spiral staircases, while 3e is a bustling shopping street with everything from shops that sell local specialties to exclusive boutiques. Check out the artist studios, the boutiques and numerous foodie delights. Don’t miss the Cartier Brebeuf National Historic Site, a beautiful park and historic site that sits along the banks of the St. Charles River where you can learn about Jacques Cartier, an explorer who spent the winter here during his second expedition to the New World in the early 16th-century.