QUEBEC CITY — It probably shouldn't come as any surprise that a town that's been around more than 400 years would claim beaucoup historical bragging rights.
"That's the Ursuline Convent," says our guide, Sharon Frenette. "It's the oldest girls school still in operation in North America."
Later, "There's the Hotel-Dieu de Quebec, it's the oldest hospital in North America."
Still later, "Here's J.A. Moisan, it's the oldest grocery store in North America."
Then there are the city walls. Started by the French in 1745, finished by the British, they average 40 feet high and 20 feet thick. And they're the only remaining fortified city walls in the Americas north of Mexico.
But, truth be told, you don't come to Quebec City for oldest. You come for Frenchest:
Stroll the cobblestone streets, and nearly every conversation you hear is en francais. After all, 95 percent of the more than 600,000 people living here speak French.
Wander the Old Town (Vieux-Quebec) passing sidewalk cafe after sidewalk cafe until you find just the right one where you and your amour can sit side by side, sipping your wine and watching the parade pass by.
Climb the Escalier — literally "neck breaking" — steps from the Lower Town to Vieux-Quebec and you're reminded of the climb from the bowels of the Metro.
Mon Dieu! I think I'm in Paris!
Which just goes to show, you don't have to fly eight hours to get your Gallic fix.
Quebec City (that's kwe-BEK to you Anglophiles, ke-BEK to you Francophiles) was founded in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain and was at one time the capital of New France. That all changed during what we call the French and Indian War, when British troops won the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, just outside the city walls, and captured the city. That was in 1759, and by 1763 France had ceded New France to the British.
But while much of Canada today has a decidedly British influence, Quebec, both the city and province, has tenaciously held to its French roots. That heritage is graphically on display in Place-Royale, in the Lower Town, where a five-story mural attracts visitors who snap photos of each other standing next to images of the who's who of the city who decorate a streetscape also occupied by the likes of Mark Twain and ordinary, modern-day folks.
"We have 16 important people in our history, so you can stand in front of this mural and have a history of Quebec," Frenette says. "Champlain in the front and Frontenac, the greatest of the French governors."
Frontenac, the famous playboy who had been sent to New France to be governor after getting the daughter of a very important Frenchman in trouble, lends his name to the city's most famous landmark, the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac. The huge, castlelike hotel, which opened in 1893, dominates the Old Town with its commanding view of the St. Lawrence River.
Stroll across Rue Saint-Louis from the Frontenac and you're in Place d'Armes, a park area where you're likely to find street performers surrounded by a crowd. These artists have to be licensed after auditioning at City Hall, Frenette told us, and only 80 permits are issued.
Next to Place d'Armes, Rue Sainte-Anne is filled with sidewalk cafes doing a brisk business in the warm sun, and a block down are the stalls of artists, offering their paintings and sketches and reminiscent of similar scenes in the Montmartre section of Paris.
Quebec City invites walking, whether exploring inside the walls or outside (you can walk on top of those walls too). On Rue Saint-Jean, outside the walls, is J.A. Moisan, that old grocery store, founded in 1871, that overflows with exotic mustards and olive oils, balsamic vinegars and smoked meats, foie gras and baguettes, of course.
Across the street is a relative upstart, Erico, which has been creating another French staple, fine chocolates, since 1988. There are the usual delectables, such as truffles and caramels, and the more exotic, such as goat cheese and pear in white chocolate. Oh, and then there's the Chocolate Museum, full of antique molds, chocolate pots, books, old advertising materials and more.
Back inside the walls you descend to the Lower Town (again outside the walls) via those challenging stairs or, if you're not up to that, the funicular.
Down here is the Old Port (Vieux-Port), where you can while away an afternoon cruising the St. Lawrence while getting an earful of city history from a faux Louis Joliet, decked out in waistcoat, knickers and three-cornered hat.
Or, just wander streets such as Rue Saint-Paul and adjoining alleys, where antique shops call out to your credit cards.
We lunched outside at Le Buffet de L'Antiquaire, a dinerlike eatery where locals and visitors chowed down on traditional Quebecois home cooking, such as deep-dish meat pies, pea soup and sugar pie. And, of course, wine.
But, then, what else would you drink when in Paris? Or New Paris?
If you go
When to go
May through September are the best weather options for walking and outdoor dining. That said, winter in the northland also has its charms, and a particular draw is the city's famous Winter Carnival, scheduled Feb. 1-17.
For a splurge, Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac is the iconic place. But you may very well pay $300, $400 or $500 a night for one of the 618 rooms. 1 rue des Carrieres; 866-540-4460; fairmont.com/frontenac
We peeked in at Auberge Saint-Antoine, a gorgeous boutique hotel in the Old Port area that's decorated with artifacts from the city's history. You can spend as much here as at the Frontenac, but it also may be possible to find a room for less than $200 at certain times. 8 Rue Saint-Antoine; 888-692-2211; saint-antoine.com/en
The Quebec City Tourism website (see below) can help you find lodging under $100 a night. But when researching, be sure what you're booking isn't far from the Old Town area.
So many choices, so little time. Hands down, though, the best meal we had in Quebec City was at Le Continental, just down the street from the Frontenac. Who would think a steak prepared table side by your waiter in a skillet on a Sterno burner could be better than anything you'll find at the finest steakhouse? 26 Rue Saint-Louis; 418-694-9995; restaurantlecontinental.com
Ile d'Orleans sits in the St. Lawrence River just north of the city. It's peaceful, laid back and has enough farm stands, wineries, cideries, inns and restaurants to keep anyone occupied. iledorleans.com
Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre, also north of the city, on Avenue Royale, attracts 11/2 million pilgrims and other visitors a year. The historic houses on the drive to the basilica are fascinating, and the stained glass and tile mosaics in the basilica will blow you away. shrinesaintanne.org
Quebec City Tourism, 877-783-1608, quebecregion.com/enCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun