But this steep, walled city and its stone buildings have a very real history, serving as the capital of what was indeed known as New France from 1608 to 1763.
Built on three levels to protect itself from enemies who might storm from the port below, the city’s spiraling tiers each offer distinct personalities.
The highest level is home to the Parliament of the province of Quebec, which sits across from the Hilton Hotel and the Convention Center.
Influenced by the design of the Louvre Museum, the turn-of-the-century Parliament Building’s many statues reflect Quebecois pride in the people who struggled to found French Canada on the banks of the mighty St. Lawrence River.
There is an oasis of greenery here, so serene that it’s hard to imagine the bloodshed that soaked what is called Battlefields Park, site of a decisive battle between French and British troops in 1759. The British won the battle but the French won the linguistic and cultural war.
The nearby fine arts museum, the Musee National des Beaux-Arts du Quebec is one example — it will surprise anyone who has not followed the great Quebec 20th century artists like abstract expressionist Jean-Paul Riopelle, whose bold splashes of color and fiery personal life earned him the nickname, the “wild Canadian”.
It’s on Quebec City’s middle level, imperiously guarded by the Chateau Frontenac Hotel, that much of the city’s action takes place. Opened in l893, the castle-like hotel, now a Fairmont was part of the Canadian Pacific line that served affluent train travelers. Today, it’s perfect for a Sunday morning stroll along the esplanade overlooking the river, before moving inside for a brunch that will keep you full all day long.
Leading up to the Frontenac, Rue Saint- Jean, the colorful main street, curves in and outside the stone city gate. Wherever you walk on St. Jean you’ll find restaurants, some of the oldest grocery stores in North America, and boutiques.
La Maison Simons stands out — it’s an old department store that still sells tempting, and low-cost, clothing. Explore the side streets, too, for some great photo ops.
In this city of festivals, each season brings new events. Place d’Youville, which bisects Rue Saint-Jean bisects, offers one of the main outdoor stages for the Festival d’Ete, world music, rock and Quebec folk. Its fans return year after year.. In the winter, a skating rink holds pride of place. And many of the events tied to the Winter Carnival — billed as the world’s largest — are centered here, where revelers romp in the snow and enjoy a seemingly endless array of floats and street parties.
To get to the Lower Town, walk down the steps or take the Funicular on Dufferin Terrace, across from the Chateau Frontenac. You’ll find yourself in Place Royale, the first permanent settlement in North America, dating back to 1608. Here, too, is one of the oldest stone churches in the continent, Notre-Dame-des-Victoires.
Nearby, there’s a permanent interactive exhibition on the history of Old Quebec at the Centre d’interpretation de la vie urbaine de la ville de Quebec. It includes a huge scale model of Quebec City in 1635, with archeological artrifacts and a augmented reality film.
Keep walking downhill and you’re in the Old Port. There’s a lot to do here, from browsing the antique stores on Rues Saint-Pierre and Saint-Paul, to visiting the farmer’s market, right on the water.
All year round there are unique products like Quebec cheeses and wild blueberry juice. In summer, the bounty of local farms pours in – don’t miss the strawberries from nearby Isle d’Orleans.
Many of the buildings in the Old Port were once banks and warehouses — the boutique hotel Dominion 1912 is an example; it used to house Dominion Fish and Fruit, Ltd.
The mighty St. Lawrence dominates the port, which is used for cruises and skating along the boardwalk. The looming grain silos, site of Robert Lepage’s epic projections on the history of Quebec, glow with mystery and power. But whether it’s up on the hill or down at the port, Quebec City succeeds on, well, many levels.