Quebec City is one of North America's most distinctly European-esque cities, a place where the French language rules and where a spirit of joie d'vivre pervades at any time of the year—even during positively arctic winters. Its oldest section also claims the honor of being the only walled city in North America, outside of Mexico. And with ties to France that predate the lighter nouvelle cuisine, food is one of the main attractions in Quebec City.
With a metro population of 750,000, Quebec City visitors will find this provincial capital an easily manageable size. Besides being accessible by air or car from much of the U.S. and Canada, cruise ships also now dock in Lower Town. Sprawling flat alongside the St. Lawrence River, Lower Town is located several hundred feet below the walled upper city, which is perched on Cap Diamant, the landmark Hotel Chateau Frontenac at its precipice.
Visitors should lace up their sneakers, because many Quebec City attractions are best seen on foot. The promontory on which Chateau Frontenac sits, known as Upper Town, is the eastern boundary of the old walled city. A few steps away from the hotel is the Notre-Dame Basilica, and a few blocks farther on is the Ursilines Convent - the oldest institution of higher education in North America. In back of the Frontenac is Dufferin Terrace, a boardwalk affording excellent views of the river, the opposite shore and the Laurentian Mountains.
One Quebec City attraction not to be missed is the Funicular, which dates to 1879 and shuttles beween Upper and Lower Town; you can also travel via the Breakneck Steps, a staircase that dates to 1635. Much of the Lower Town is also historic and includes the charming Petit Champlain neighborhood; a great, relatively new attraction here is the Museum of Quebec Civilization, which first opened in 1988.
Just outside the western gate of the city are provincial government buildings and an assortment of high-rise, name-brand hotels. Along Grand Allee, which proceeds west into St. Foy, Victorian-era mansions have been transformed into shops, nightclubs, restaurants and small hotels, lending the area a decidedly Parisian ambience.
Quebec City visitors who wish to go off the beaten path can venture northwest of the gate, where streets take yet another plunge into several recently gentrified, artsy districts. These include Faubourg, popular among performers and artists, and St. Roch, the newest city haunt for nightclubbing.
There are also plenty of day-tripping opportunities including, the Ile d'Orleans, an island set downstream by about 10 miles, in the middle of the St. Lawrence. Close by are two magnificent waterfalls, Montmorency and St. Anne; the latter features a swinging bridge made of steel cables, which spans a gorge several hundred feet above the ground.
Do not leave Quebec City without taking a guided tour of the Plains of Abraham, the site of the historic battle in which Quebec City surrendered to British rule. While here, plan to visit the nearby, well-respected Fine Arts Museum.