You might think this is just another pit-stop cruise port city, but think again! Old Quebec city is a 400-year-old town and a designated UNESCO World Heritage site, making it a legally protected area due to its cultural and historical significance. And for a good reason! Its streets are filled with beauty, history, and remarkable buildings in every corner waiting for you to discover what makes this town truly special.
What You Must Know About Old Quebec City Before Visiting
One look at a Quebec city map will show Old Quebec as a neighborhood in the province of Quebec, as well as Quebec city’s historical district. Also known as downtown Quebec City or, simply, the Old City, this district is where the French first permanently settled in North America.
Samuel de Champlain, a noted French navigator and colonist, chose this area for Fort Saint Louis in 1608 thanks to its strategic location on the cliff overlooking the St. James River. The city became the capital of New France before the British acquired it in 1760, which explains the English overtones in an otherwise fully French community.
UNESCO designated Old Quebec city as a World Heritage Site in 1985, considering it an authentic and nearly complete example of a fortified colonial city that managed to retain its historical integrity throughout four centuries of change.
Old Quebec City is divided into two sections:
Upper Town (Haute-ville) — originally used for defense due to its position on top of the Cap Diamont cliff, it is now the city’s administrative, military, and religious center. The citadel fort remains, along with the 7.4km (4.6mi) of fortified city walls that surround it (fun fact: it is the only walled city north of Mexico and it is walkable!). This section also contains the stunning Chateau Frontenac hotel, the Terrasse Dufferin boardwalk, and the beautiful Notre Dame de Quebec Basilica Cathedral.
Lower town (Basse-ville) — this area is the older of the two sections, and was where the merchants and artisans lived following the British Conquest. It contains Quebec city’s Old Port, various museums and the popular shopping district. It is also where you will find Place Royale, the town’s vibrant public center.
Old Quebec residents, called Quebecois, are among the most polite and friendly group of people you will run across in your travels.
Best Time of the Year to Visit
The winters in Old Quebec city are typically cold, cloudy, and windy, with lots of snow (November to March). Expect -15°C (5°F) at night and near-freezing temps during the day.
April is a transition month, with milder temps and better walking weather. May ushers in summertime with temps around 25°C (75°F) in the day and a low of 13°C (55°F), with periods of considerable rain.
The fall is postcard-perfect, with breathtaking foliage in a burst of oranges, reds, and yellows painting the landscape. It is also the best time to visit the wineries and cheesemakers that dot the island. September is a moderate transition month, with nights getting chillier in October and snow starting around November.
The city’s high season runs between June 24th to early September, and is the busiest time to visit. Aim for April to May if you want to enjoy nicer weather and less crowds. Wintertime is the best time to visit Old Quebec city despite the climate for a chance to see the dazzling holiday decorations that turn this city into the French version of a Norman Rockwell Christmas painting.
Must-Dos When in Old Quebec City
How best to explore Old Quebec? The historical town center is compact, making it easy to see the top Quebec city attractions while you are in port. Check out these sites and activities in Quebec city:
At the top of the historic district you have La Citadelle, a star-shaped building that housed various military troops since 1850 and even was the official residence at one time for the governor general. Also known as the Gibraltar of the Americas, today it is still a functioning military base but is also used for ceremonies and conferences. The Citadelle of Quebec became a National Historic Site of Canada in 1946.
Take a tour (the only way to gain entry into this wonderful landmark) to learn about the lives of the brave WWI soldiers of the 22nd Battalion (today’s Royal 22nd Regiment) as told through photos, videos, archival objects, and interactive maps. Summertime brings with it the traditional changing of the guards every morning at 10:00am.
While in Upper Town, be sure to stop at the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac, Old Quebec city’s landmark hotel and an icon of the city’s skyline. One look at its green copper roofs and central tower and you will understand why it’s considered to be the most photographed hotel in the world! Built by the Canadian Pacific Railway Company in 1893, it is a prime example of Canada’s grand railway hotels back in the19th century. The original chateau has since expanded into 661 rooms, and has hosted many celebrities throughout its history including Charles Lindbergh and Celine Dion.
Pop inside the two-towered Notre Dame de Quebec Basilica Cathedral to gaze at its stained glass windows, three Casavant organs, and a spectacular golden canopy supported by golden chancel sculptures. This stone church was the first Catholic parish north of Mexico and is the only Catholic church outside of Europe with a Holy Door. Holy doors are a symbol of passage, and the experience is available to Christians and non-Christians alike. These doors are sealed shut when not in a holy year, however even when shut you are always welcome to touch the door in contemplation.
Also in Upper Town is the Musee des Ursalines de Trois Rivières; founded in 1697, the site was the first school for young girls, and also the first hospital available in the area. The Ursaline sisters (nuns who branched off from the Angelines Catholics) served through teaching and healing, and inhabited the monastery until 2019. Enjoy a guided tour of the ornate buildings and learn more about the lives — and secrets — within the monastery’s walls.
Running along the cliff is the Terrasse Dufferin, a wide, wooden 17th century boardwalk with panoramic views of the St. Lawrence River and the city below. Locals and tourists alike flock to the boardwalk to enjoy the sights, grab photos, and be entertained by the street performers.
Once in Lower Town, head to the Place Royale, or Quebec Royal Square, in the heart of the district. This public square was where Samuel de Champlain chose to settle, making it the birthplace of French America. The original settlement contained a fort, residence, store, and a trading post — creating a thriving business and trade hub (fur and lumber) in the 17th and 18th centuries.
In the square you will see several small stone and brick row houses adorned with bright shutters and planters overflowing with flowers; these former homes of the town’s wealthy merchants now contain shops, museums, cafes, and much more. You will even find a bust of King Louis XIV in the center of it all.
On the edge of Place Royale is Notre Dame des Victoires, a small stone church built in 1688 as an alternate place to worship for those parishioners who had trouble making it up the hill to the larger basilica during the cold winters. The church’s interior looks remarkably similar to how it did in the 18th century, and Is still used today by the locals to come pray.
Just outside the square is the Mural of Quebecers, a breathtaking fresco on the side of a building showcasing 400 years of city life on one wall!
The Petit Champlain district, once a small fishing village in the 1500s, is now one of the hottest shopping spots in Quebec! Meander along the narrow cobblestone streets to discover the latest art and fashion, then pause at a cafe for some coffee or hit up one of the bistros serving exquisite cuisine.
A short drive away is Montmorency Falls, a natural waterfall in Parc de la Chute‑Montmorency that at 83m (275 feet) is almost one third taller than Niagara Falls. Climb the 487-step staircase or take a cable car to the top and stare in awe as you watch the water cascade down into the St. Lawrence River below. Adventure lovers will enjoy the opportunities for hiking and rock climbing around the site.
How to Make the Best Out of a Trip to Old Quebec City
Here are a few local tips and tricks to better enjoy your visit to the city:
- French is the official language, however many people do speak English. That being said, it is always good to learn a few words like bonjour (hello) and merci (thank you), that go a long way with the locals!
- The city itself is very hilly with some steep inclines. If mobility is a challenge, you can take advantage of the funiculaire; built in 1879, the inclined elevator cars connect Upper Town and Lower Town (or just take a ride for the spectacular panoramic views)
- Keep in mind that most buildings and businesses have step entrances, so watch your step!
- Tipping is not mandatory, even if wait staff might tell you otherwise; those who choose to do so usually tip around 15% of the bill
- Wireless internet is freely available in the cafes and other locations throughout the area
What Else Can You Do in Old Quebec City?
Quebec’s food is a fascinating blend of British comfort food, traditional French dishes, and First Nation fare. It embraces a farm-to-table approach, often with roots in boreal cuisine. The nearby boreal forest with balsam fir, sea buckthorn, and honey berries — staples found in the cuisine and medicine cabinets of many First Nations peoples and Quebec’s early settlers — lend an earthy flavor to many of the area’s dishes.
While in town you have to try the poutine, a dish of fries dressed in brown gravy and topped with cheese curds that is synonymous with Quebec! Tourtieres, or savory meats enveloped in a flaky pie crust, are another local favorite. Gourmet olive oils, fine chocolates, and maple syrup are also enjoyed liberally.
Foodies will get a kick out of traditional Quebecois fare at the internationally renowned aux Anciens Canadiens housed within Maison Jacquet, the largest and oldest house in Upper Town. Another local favorite with a contemporary twist is Restaurant Legende, whose fresh, local delicacies such as lamb fries and elk carpaccio will leave you wanting more.
If shopping is more your style, check out the leather, suede, and cashmere goods in the Rue de Petit Champlain shops nestled inside renovated historical buildings that once belonged to the area’s fur traders and sailmakers. You can also go antiquing and browse the art galleries on nearby Rue Saint Paul.
Take a budget-friendly ferry ride across the St. Lawrence River and be rewarded with Insta-worthy photos of the city skyline as well as another perspective of this amazing city.
Finally, the Grand Allee will delight you with its many restaurants, microbreweries, and sidewalk patios by day and its sizzling dance clubs at night. What once was a country road has built up over the centuries and is now a hotspot for the locals to party.
With so many things to see and do, the best place to start is with a walking tour to get a great overview of this marvelous town! Call us today and we will set you up with all the magic and majesty that Old Quebec city has to offer.