It’s easy to get lost in Quebec City. The often narrow cobblestone streets of Old Quebec meander: climbing hills and descending stairs. You’ll spend a weekend in Quebec City lost and you’ll love every second of it.
The French-speaking capital city of this Canadian province is often noted as being the most European in North America. Although it’s difficult to be completely convinced you’re in Europe, it’s still charming and quaint on its own.
A weekend in Quebec City is just the right amount of time to get familiar with the picturesque city and enjoy its je ne sais quoi.
Get to Know the City
Quebec City was first settled in 1535 by Jacques Cartier but it wasn’t founded until 1608 by Samuel de Champlain. Both are names you’ll see around the city. Today, Quebec City is the second-largest city in the province.
Over the years, the city has changed hands between the French and the English before eventually becoming Canadian. Although it is an oversimplification of hundreds of years of history, the French left a deep imprint on the city. The language, culture, and food can be seen (and tasted) everywhere.
Most travelers to the city will focus their visit in the historic Old Quebec, at the tip of land that juts into the St. Lawrence River and is bordered by the St. Charles River. The district is actually two-tiered. The Upper Town, overlooking the St. Lawrence River from above, was originally established as the military and governmental center of the city. It features the citadel and further fortifications. Just below, and at sea level, is the Lower Town that, historically, has been more residential and commercial.
Practical Tips for Your Visit
Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its remarkable history dating back to the 17th century, Quebec City has its modern touches. For example, you can generally spend a weekend in Quebec City without cash. Credit cards are accepted practically everywhere, although there are some exceptions.
As with the entire province, Quebec City is a primarily French-language city. Within the city, especially the Old Quebec area, you can easily get by with a French greeting and then using English. However, in other areas that are less frequented by tourists and travelers, people may be less confident with their English (despite the fact that they usually need not be). You’ll find street signs are strictly in French as are many business signs.
Regardless, your entire family will feel welcome. And that includes your four-legged family members. When the weather is warm and mild, don’t leave your dog at home. From spotting water bowls outside of some shops to plenty of outdoor dining, you’ll definitely consider Quebec City dog-friendly.
Whatever the Weather
When winter comes rolling in, Quebec City is a very different spot. But in late summer and early fall, delightful temperatures offer cool mornings and sunny afternoons. Expect a bit of wind, especially along the river, and maybe some rain.
Things to Do in Quebec City
A weekend in Quebec City is just the right amount of time to explore Old Quebec with its rich history and culture. And the best place to start is at the Le Château Frontenac, sitting on the edge of the Upper Town overlooking the St. Lawrence River.
Often referred to as a castle, this massive and impressive luxury hotel opened in 1893. From Terrasse Dufferin, the wooden boardwalk that hugs the cliff outside of the hotel, you can admire the striking building from every angle. If you want to get a peek inside, you have a few options. You could spend the night, dine at one of the hotel’s restaurants (they serve afternoon tea on Saturdays!), or even take a tour.
Terrasse Dufferin is for more than just admiring the Château. The 19th-century boardwalk is the center point of activities during the winter, including a toboggan run. But year-round you can enjoy the gazebos and benches that line the extra-wide boardwalk, giving a touch of the English seaside.
At the northern end of the boardwalk is the Funiculaire du Vieux-Québec. Opened in the late 1800s, the funicular links the Upper Town and Lower Town while offering impressive views over the historic town and onto the river. There is a fee to ride in the funicular. But, alternatively, you can take the well-worn wooden stairs just to the side. They’ll lead you down onto Côte de la Montagne, a steep street that leads to the famous Breakneck Stairs (Escalier Casse-Cou), several tiered sets of stairs. From there, the most charming and enticing parts of the Lower Town await you in Quartier Petit Champlain.
Shopping in Quebec City
Anyone looking to go shopping need only look as far as the winding streets of the Lower Town. You never know what you may find just around the corner on the next narrow cobble-stone street. Quartier Petit Champlain is definitely the area to be in, with a real range of different stores.
Atelier La Pomme’s striking window displays of clothing will lure you in. And you’ll want to stick around once you find out the shop offers original pieces created by local designers. You can go home with an investment piece that almost no one else will have.
And don’t go home without maple syrup. While you’re exploring, stop in La Petite Cabane à Sucre de Quebec. They have the maple syrup you’re looking for plus a dizzying array of other maple products — some you can’t imagine that they exist. From maple butters to maple teas.
There are also plenty of souvenir shops, too, if you’re looking to pick up a magnet, postcard, or hockey-related gear. In general, the shops are a mix of high and low. And if you’re looking for antiques or art galleries, there are many shops not far from the heart of the Old Quebec area.
Stroll Through Historic Quebec City
As of lover of old buildings and the owner of a 19th century home, I adored strolling through the city and observing all the details on the exquisitely restored buildings. Double windows, exposed stone walls, and painted metal roofs all await. Not only will wandering through the city transport you to a small European village somewhere, but you’ll also likely stumble upon some of the city’s lovely squares and best views.
Place Royale is one of the city’s most popular squares. It’s also one of the most significant as it’s located on the site where Samuel de Champlain founded Quebec City in 1608. At the time, there was a fort, trading post, and Champlain’s home. While his home today is only an outline you can see on the ground, the square is home to the continent’s oldest stone church, Notre-Dame-des-Victoires Church from 1688. The city’s oldest bar, Pub L’Oncle Antoine, also sits on Place Royale not far from a bust of King Louis XIV.
Just down a side street from Place Royale is Place de Paris, a quiet square just across the street from the docks. Place de Paris offers beautifully restored stone buildings with modern benches and picnic tables for a great place to take a break and soak the charm all in during a weekend in Quebec City.
But for my money, the best views from Quebec City are from La Terrasse Saint-Denis. Tucked up the hill between the Terrasse Dufferin and La Citadelle de Québec, the spot offers impressive views that offer the best of Quebec City. The Chateau stands proudly looking over the St. Lawrence River, offering views all the way across the waterway, while more modest stone buildings line the nearby streets. The terraced hill just below La Terrasse Saint-Denis, but still above the boardwalk, is the green field of Pierre-Dugua-De-Mons Terrace. A path leads from Terrasse Dufferin all the way to the citadel, connecting all of the squares.
Military Attractions in Quebec City
While the picture-postcard appearance of Quebec City delights, you don’t have to look far to see the city’s military history. Take, for example, the wall that encircles the Upper Town and the black painted cannons that pop up seemingly everywhere, carefully aimed out towards the river. These fortifications were originally built in 1690 and today are the only remaining ramparts in North America north of Mexico. As you walk in and out of Old Quebec, it is likely via one of the four remaining gates. At the St. Louis Gate, you can climb some stairs to get a view from the top of the wall.
Nearby to the St. Louis Gate is La Citadelle de Québec, a historic and still active military installation. The oldest military building in the country, La Citadelle has changed hands over the years just as the rest of the city has. The Citadel offers guided tours in addition to a military museum that’s also on the site. Walking along the thick, tall stone walls of the fortifications is impressive.
Because Quebec City is the capital of the province of Quebec, the parliament building sits in the heart of the city, just outside of those fortified stone walls of Old Quebec.
The building was designed in the French Rennaissance style by Eugène-Étienne Taché, the man who is also responsible for the province’s coat-of-arms and the motto on every Quebec license plate. It was opened in 1886 after nearly a decade of construction.
The building is commanding. And most notable is the open structure at the top of the main tower upon which the Canadian flag flies. The sculptures of famous and notable Canadians added across the front of the building were a later addition.
Surrounding the Quebec Parliament Building is a striking garden that has been maintained since 1986 by students from the Université Laval. During a visit to the Parliament Building, the gardens are the first thing your eyes will land on. And the university students transform an urban area into a lush garden oasis.
Where to Eat
If you want to eat like you’re in France or just indulge in something simpler like milkshakes and burgers, you can find it in Quebec City.
For a Parisian-inspired breakfast in Quebec City, head to Le Cochon Dingue. Just a stone’s throw from the popular Umbrella Alley, Le Cochon Dingue offers more than just breakfast. But it is their classic approach that will win you over, like toasted personal-size baguettes. If the weather permits, they have plenty of sidewalk seating that will transport you to Europe.
Another great option for breakfast in Quebec City is the popular La Buche. Perhaps the restaurant with the most character in the city, La Buche embodies the feel of a sugar shack and that inspiration is in the food, too. The large breakfast menu includes indulgences like French toast with maple carmelized apples, apple butter, and a thick, rich maple caramel sauce. The quirky and fun restaurant also serves lunch and dinner, too.
For burgers and bistro favorites, head to Le Chic Shack or Les Trois Garçons. Le Chic Shack wows with an uncomplicated and delicious menu focusing on burgers, fries, and milkshakes. Located in the shadow of Château Frontenac, the restaurant has large windows that open for that wonderful indoor-outdoor flow. At Les Trois Garçons, you can enjoy bistro staples with a cold beer in a laidback setting.
You can find lots of sweet treats at Paillard. The cafe and boulangerie is said to be home to the city’s best croissant and who am I to disagree. (I had two. Just to be certain.) In addition to croissants, you’ll find a mind-boggling array of bread, pastries, sandwiches, and more. Grab some treats to go or to stay and enjoy the large seating areas both outdoors and in. The sidewalk seating is great for people watching, especially on busy weekends when nearby restaurants have live music.
Where to Stay
For many, the iconic Fairmont Le Château Frontenac will be the first choice for where to stay during a weekend in Quebec City. The luxury hotel is expansive and in the center of all the action.
But for those with a more limited budget, I recommend the Hilton Quebec. Positioned on the edge of the old town and across the street from the Quebec Parliament building, it offers remarkable views of the Chateau, the walled fortifications, the river, and the Upper Town. The rooms are modern, spacious, and comfortable.
If mobility is a concern, consider staying within Old Quebec with all of the action just outside your door. If you can handle some extra steps, a hotel with a view slightly more removed from the historic district may be more enjoyable.
Quebec City is a great city for exploring on foot, especially because it allows you to gawk at the sights. And for a weekend in Quebec, being on foot will allow you to take it all in.
But, because it is hilly and many streets are cobblestone, it can be a challenge at times. Much of Old Quebec can be reached by car. As with any city, parking can be difficult to find. But if you want to minimize the walking, parking close to where you want to go can (maybe) be an option.
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All photos, as well as opinions, are my own. This post contains affiliate links.