If you want to absorb the sights, sounds and gastronomic delights of Europe without leaving North America, Quebec City is the place for you. It's as close to Paris as you're going to get on this side of the Atlantic.
The city, steeped in four centuries of history and French tradition, is the oldest municipality in Canada's Quebec (pronounced "Ke-bec" by the locals) province. Quebec City is the only fortified city in North America, its stone walls perched strategically atop a cliff at a narrow point of the St. Lawrence River.
French explorers discovered the area and set up a fort there in 1608. New France, as it was called, was conquered by the British in 1759 after the renowned battle on the Plains of Abraham.
Quebec City wears its history well: Narrow cobblestone streets are lined with boutiques, art galleries and cafes. Regal stone churches, some centuries old, command center stage in town squares.
Don't be put off by the ride into Quebec from the airport. Except for occasional glimpses of the St. Lawrence River, Quebec City's outskirts look much like any suburb. The scenery can be off-putting, to say the least, if you're expecting to be immediately mesmerized by Quebec City.
But once you start climbing into the historic district, the scenery changes dramatically. Streets narrow, turning from pavement to cobblestone, and modern buildings give way to lovely stone creations built in the 17th and 18th centuries.
My traveling companion and I stayed at Le Chateau Frontenac, Quebec's crown jewel, located in the heart of Quebec's Vieille Ville (Old City). The century-old Frontenac looks as though it came right out of a fairy tale: The imposing green-turreted castle can be seen from nearly any vantage point in the city, making it one of the most recognizable landmarks in Quebec. It's no wonder that nearly any travel brochure touting Quebec City features at least one picture of the majestic Frontenac.
Try a river view
If you stay at the Frontenac, try to get a room with a river view (there are 544 rooms on 18 floors). You'll have the added bonus of waking up to a panoramic view of the St. Lawrence River.
The Frontenac isn't for those on a budget. The bargain-basement rate at the time we booked was $160 a night, which included a Continental breakfast. We were staying only a few days, so we opted to splurge. We were glad we did, but those staying longer may want to consider accommodations at one of the many quaint hotels located in the Old City.
As the name implies, Vieille Ville is Quebec's historic district -- four centuries old, in most cases. The Old City, which covers just one square mile, is divided into an "Upper Town" and "Lower Town." Each is accessible by stairs or by the funiculaire, a cable car that climbs and descends the steep cliffs between the two.
We tried the stairs -- once -- but opted for the funiculaire thereafter. The ride, which takes only a minute, costs a quarter (one way) and offers a commanding view of the St. Lawrence River and Lower Town. It also saves your calves, which will get an excruciating workout if you use the steep stairs.
The Frontenac, by the way, is located near the funiculaire entrance in Upper Town.
The Old City's narrow, winding streets are ideal for wandering by foot. It's easy to get lost -- and we did, several times -- exploring the quaint boutiques and cafes that line the streets.
Part of the fun of exploring Old Quebec is wondering what's around the next bend or stairwell. We were in constant amazement -- and amusement -- over the seemingly endless stream of finds.
A good way to start your trip is with a stroll along the Terrasse Dufferin, a wide boardwalk in Upper Town. At its western end the boardwalk turns into a daunting stairway called Promenade des Gouverneurs, which leads to Quebec's highest point, Cap Diamant (Cape Diamond). The view from the top is spectacular.
Upper Town is charming, but not quite as bohemian as the lower part of the city. Upper Town is dotted with parks, monuments, modern stores and lovely restaurants.
Feel of Paris
Parts of Lower Town, which we preferred, had a look and feel of Paris. Cobblestone streets are dotted with tony bistros, art galleries and century-old churches. Stone stairways lead modern-day explorers to myriad avenues laid out in no particular order, most of which intersect within blocks of each other.
A casual stroll down rue du Petit-Champlain in Lower Town, the city's oldest street, began with window-shopping in the numerous boutiques and dessert cafes that line the street. It wasn't long before we happened on Place Royale, a cobblestone square presided over by Eglise Notre-Dame-des-Victoires (Our Lady of Victory Church), Quebec's oldest church, a Gothic structure dating to 1688.
The square, which looks like a Hollywood set, is ringed by stone buildings with steep Normandy-style roofs, dormer windows and numerous chimneys. While we were there, vendors sold flowers, fruits and vegetables from wooden carts while sidewalk musicians played sweet melodies.
One of the most challenging aspects of visiting Quebec City is deciding which restaurants to try.
Quebec City is often touted as the best place in the province to sample French-Canadian cuisine. Judging from our experience, I would have to agree.
Many of the city's numerous cafes, brasseries and restaurants are decidedly French. But that doesn't mean you have to blow your diet. Many menus are heavily weighted with seafood dishes, most of them prepared with light sauces and accompanied by fresh vegetables, salads and delectable breads.
We found ourselves reading menus (most restaurants conveniently post them outside) with regularity. Choices were delectable. Most days, we were plotting which restaurant to try for dinner not long after breakfast.
Our first night we tried Restaurant au Parmesan, located at 38 Saint-Louis in Upper Town. A group of Peruvian mountain singers entertained a boisterous crowd at the mostly Italian restaurant, whose menu was heavily weighted in favor of seafood and pasta dishes. It was a bit on the expensive side -- dinner for two, including wine and dessert, was almost $100 -- but delightful.
There are plenty of restaurants for budget-conscious diners. We tried le Cochon Dingue (the Crazy Pig) and Cafe Loft and were enchanted with both. Both are located in Lower Town, which is packed with sidewalk cafes that offer menus to please any palate -- and pocketbook.
Le Cochon, housed on three floors in a former residence, is a cheerful bistro that features salads, home-made quiches and hearty soups. Cafe Loft, located in a converted garage, offers light fare, such as sandwiches and quiche, and spectacular desserts. The cafe offers the best carrot cake I have ever tasted (and I have sampled many). My companion quipped that his chocolate raspberry torte was worth the price of his air fare.
L We even considered smuggling a few slices back to Baltimore.
If you have time and would like the challenge of reading French road signs, you might want to consider an excursion outside the walled city to Ile d'Orleans, an island located about 10 miles from Quebec City.
The island, which is about 5 miles wide and 21 miles long, is ideal for leisurely exploration. We rented a car because we found out that bus trips limit their excursions to one tip of the island. Ditto for boat tours, which don't venture past Montmorency Falls. These impressive falls are located opposite the bridge to the island. Be sure to stop for a look on your way to Ile d'Orleans.
The island is comprised of six separate villages and is spectacular. Each village has its own unique church. As you drive around the island, you will see acres of lush orchards and panoramic views of the St. Lawrence and Quebec City. Roadside stands selling fruit, preserves and sundry island crafts dot the two-lane roadway.
There are numerous roadside sandwich shops, but sit-down restaurants are scarce. We ate lunch at Moulin de Saint-Laurent, located in Saint-Laurent. The restaurant, built in an 18th-century mill, has a cafe terrace that is next to an honest-to-goodness babbling brook. The food was delightful; the setting spectacular.
The residents of Ile d'Orleans, like those in Quebec, were very willing to provide impromptu French lessons. We managed to finesse a few terms in French -- thank you, fork, napkin -- but for the most part we were at the mercy of the locals. They were charming and polite -- and almost everyone spoke English fluently.
There's a lot of territory we didn't cover during our four days in Quebec City. But that's OK. We'll plan to cover some of that ground on our next trip.
IF YOU GO . . .
There aren't any direct flights from Baltimore (or any of the Washington-area airports, for that matter) to Quebec City International Airport, the city's sole airport. You can fly to New York and get a connecting flight to Quebec City on any one of a number of regional and commuter airlines. Or, if you don't want the hassle of New York, you can fly direct to Montreal from Baltimore and catch a connection there. The flight from Montreal Quebec City takes about an hour, and commuter flights leave on the hour.
Most hotels don't provide shuttles, but there are ample taxis. The ride to downtown Quebec City takes about 30 minutes, and costs about $25. Shuttle buses, which make the rounds to all the major hotels, cost about half that.
For more information, contact the Greater Quebec Area Tourism and Convention Bureau, 399 rue Saint-Joseph Est, Quebec (Quebec City), Canada G1K 8E2; (418) 522-3511; or call the Ministere du Tourisme at (800) 363-7777.