Quebec City: An Essential Guide
Walking through the streets of Old Quebec ("Vieux-Québec"), it's easy to feel like you've stepped off a plane that landed somewhere in Europe. From the winding cobblestone streets to the centuries-old architecture, the city has maintained much of its New France charm. In fact, in 1985 UNESCO recognized this commitment to the past by adding the historic district to its World Heritage List. The stone walls that surround the area are a large part of that special designation, Quebec being the only city in North America to have preserved fortifications of this kind. While history is celebrated year-long, as the capital of the province of Quebec, the city benefits from sophisticated museums, hotels, restaurants, and festivals that attract the best of the best performers, in both English and French.
Whether in town for work or pleasure, this essential guide to Quebec City will help you figure out how to get around, what to see, and where to go to have a great stay. Bon séjour!
THE LAY OF THE LAND
Quebec City sits atop Cap Diamant, a cliff that overlooks the Saint Lawrence River. The downtown area is divided by the city's topography into the Upper and Lower towns, "Haute-Ville" and "Basse-Ville" respectively. There are steep hills and staircases to navigate between the two.
Upper and Lower Old Quebec is dominated by tourist attractions, hotels, and government buildings. On higher ground, you'll find the iconic Château Frontenac, the Citadelle, and the National Assembly (the provincial legislature). Saint-Jean and Saint-Louis are the main streets, each marked by a stone archway and lined with shopping and restaurants.
In the lower section of Old Quebec, there's the picturesque Petit Champlain and Place Royale, where you'll find more shops and food options. Keep walking and that area becomes the Old Port, with art galleries, antique dealers and a farmer's market. Not far is Saint-Roch, a young and trendy part of the city that is welcoming to wandering visitors.
In the Upper Town, the modern-bohemian Saint-Jean Baptiste neighbourhood begins outside the Saint-Jean gate. The family-friendly Montcalm area is just beyond that, where Cartier Street is always bustling, as are the Plains of Abraham.
Driving in Quebec City is straightforward, except within the walls of the old city. One-way streets are more common than two-way, leaving visitors circling and circling. It’s best to enjoy this area by foot and to leave the car at one of several well-marked parking lots ($20 per day, on average). Parking meters are widely available, but only for a few hours at a time. The city recently launched a parking app called, Copilote. Download it and sign up for re-loading your meter at a distance, or use the Copilote website.
Public transit: The RTC (Réseau de transport de la capitale) is Quebec City's public bus network. Regular adult fare is $3.25. (The one exception is Route 21 which travels through Old Quebec. Regular fare is $2.) Paying the exact fare is important since bus drivers do not issue change. Children five years old and younger travel free.
For unlimited travel, the RTC offers a 1-day pass ($8) and an unlimited weekend pass ($15). To purchase these, or a booklet of bus tickets (which reduces regular adult fare to $2.90), there is an RTC office conveniently located a block away from the Saint-Jean gate. Tickets can also be purchased at "dépanneurs" (convenience stores).
Taxi: With a high concentration of hotels in a small area, taxis are easy to flag down. The initial fare is $3.75, plus $1.70 per additional kilometre. Waiting time is $0.63 per minute. The prices are set by Quebec's transport commission. Uber is starting to have a larger presence.
When arriving at Quebec City's Jean Lesage Airport, there are no public transit options, only taxi service. The fare to get into the city centre is set at $34.25 for the 20-minute trip.
Bike: Quebec City is linked to the province-wide network of bike paths called the Route Verte. An easy entry point is the Old Port, from where a cyclist can leisurely ride along the Saint Charles River, the Saint Lawrence River, or to the Montmorency Falls. The paths do not cross into the Upper Town. Certain city buses (Métrobus 800 and 801) have free bike racks – first come, first serve.
Ferries: A ferry operated by the province connects Quebec City with Lévis, a city on the other side of the Saint Lawrence River. The terminal is near Petit Champlain and ferries leave both shores every 20 or 30 minutes, at peak periods. While commuters (vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists) use the service daily, for tourists the 10-minute trip offers one of the best views of Quebec City. Regular adult fare, per direction, is $3.50. Children four years old and younger travel free.
Other: To step back to the time of your surroundings, horse-drawn carriages ("calèches") offer guided tours of Old Quebec. Prices start at $100 for a 40-minute ride. Operators do take reservations, but they are not required.
Language: French is the everyday language in Quebec City. While the same is true for Montreal, the English-speaking community in Quebec City is much, much smaller. Many people do speak English, however, especially in the downtown core where tourism is big business. In fact, most restaurants in the old sector have English copies of their menu. Websites for most attractions also have English versions, at times more limited in content. That's the case with city-operated websites, although the Ville de Quebec has made an effort to make information of interest to tourists available in English.
Radio: The only English radio in the Quebec City area is from the public broadcaster, CBC Radio. For local, as well as national news and programming, tune to CBC Radio 1 (104.7 FM). CBC Radio 2 (96.1 FM) is also in English and offers Canada-wide music programming. For Radio-Canada (the public broadcaster's French service), tune to ICI Radio-Canada Première (106.3 FM) and Ici Musique (95.3 FM).
Popular commercial radio stations (all French, but play a mix of English and French music) include: WKND (91.9 FM) and Rouge FM (107.5) for pop and rock, FM 93 (93.3 FM) for classic rock, NRJ (98.9 FM) for Top 40, and Radio Classique (92.7 FM) for classical. The Quebec City area also has a tourist radio station that loops information about major attractions, in English (89.7 FM) and in French (106.9 FM).
Television: There is no local English television in Quebec City, with the nearest coverage coming from Montreal. Meanwhile, the CBC News Network is the country’s principal news outlet and covers major national and international news.
Arts, culture and event: The best place for listings is QuoiFaireAQuebec.com (translates to, "What to do in Quebec City"). While the title is in French, the site is bilingual.
ENJOYING YOUR STAY
Classic tourist attractions
Museums: Quebec City's museums showcase the province's past and present, and welcome special exhibitions from top museums around the world. For history and culture, check out the Musée de la civilisation, which also operates the French heritage- focused Musée de l'Amérique francophone.
The Citadelle: At the far eastern end of the Plains of Abraham you'll find the Citadelle. The star-shaped fort is an active military base, home to the Royal 22nd Regiment. It is also a tourist hotspot with a museum and guided tours. In the summer, the public is invited to the daily Changing of the Guard, complete with the regimental mascot, Batisse the goat.
The National Assembly: The province of Quebec's government sits at the National Assembly ("Assemblée nationale") and visitors can take 45 minute guided tours, free of charge. Just outside the parliament building, the Fontaine de Tourny is an impressive round fountain. Restored for the city's 400th anniversary in 2008, it is originally from France, where it was awarded a gold medal at the Paris World Fair in 1855.
Montmorency Falls: A 15-minute drive from the city centre you’ll find Montmorency Falls which, at 83 metres, are even higher than Niagara Falls. A gondola takes you to the suspension bridge at the top, or, for a good workout, take the stairs. Once at the waterfalls, you’re near the bridge to cross over to Île d'Orléans. The island is covered in heritage homes and farms, many of which are open to the public during harvest season. Visitors will enjoy driving from village to village, and the 70-kilometre loop to get back to the bridge is also popular with experienced cyclists.
Major festivals: For two weeks every winter (end of January to the start of February) Quebec City celebrates the cold with its Carnaval de Quebec, a winter carnival recognized all over the world by its snowman mascot, Bonhomme Carnaval. In July, Festival d'été de Québec takes over the city with 11 days of music, showcasing local talent and the biggest international stars. More than 300 concerts are performed in venues ranging from intimate theatres to a massive outdoor stage on the Plains of Abraham.
Shopping: Unlike many cities in North America, stores in Quebec City generally close between 5 and 6 p.m., both on weekdays and weekends. However, on Thursdays and Fridays hours are extended to 9 p.m. Grocery stores and gas stations keep their own schedules.
Hockey: Hockey is gospel throughout the province and Quebec City is no exception. The Videotron Centre is the city's new $400-million amphitheatre, built in the hopes of attracting an NHL franchise. Right now, it is the home-arena for the Remparts junior hockey team, and is a major concert venue.
For beer, wine and liquor: The drinking age in Quebec is 18. Wine and beer is sold at supermarkets and dépanneurs. For more selection and better quality items, including spirits, seek out the province-run liquor outlets called the SAQ ("Société des alcools du Québec"). Alcohol can only be purchased in stores until 11 p.m., while serving hours are until 3 a.m. in bars.