A 19th-century traveler from France once remarked of Quebec City, “It looked like St.-Malo strayed up here and was lost in the snow.” Though I’ve settled in Montreal, an easy three-hour drive away, every time I return to Quebec City I too succumb to the illusion that I’ve been teleported to the narrow streets of that walled city in Brittany, bewitched by the vista of steeples, horse-drawn calèches, and four-centuries-old ramparts.
The province’s self-proclaimed capitale nationale, Quebec City may be more bureaucratic and conservative than its cosmopolitan big sister, Montreal, but it’s also more compact and picturesque. Writer H. P. Lovecraft in 1931 thrilled to the “chance glimpse of one of these silver spires at the end of an ancient uphill or downhill street.”
I seek out such atmospheric streets as Rue Sous-le-Cap, a sinuous alleyway that dramatically abuts granite cliffs topped by fortifications. After lingering in Place Royale, a square surrounded by fieldstone facades and steeply pitched roofs, I ride the funicular—in operation since 1879—to the Upper Town. Here, venerable inns line little-walked Avenue Ste. Geneviève, which also offers precipitous views of the St. Lawrence River. I make an essential pit stop at Chez Temporel, in the dogleg Rue Couillard, for a little French folk music and a bowl of café au lait.
Rainy days call for a few hours in the concrete-and-limestone confines of architect Moshe Safdie’s Musée de la Civilisation, wandering among artifacts of Québécois life (such as a circa 1736 long boat or a Montréal Canadiens hockey sweater).
In winter, I’ll stand in line for the Glissades de la Terrasse, an 820-foot-long toboggan ride that sends people careering down an icy slope at 45 miles per hour. It’s located on Dufferin Terrace, a cliff-hugging boardwalk that serves as the perfect platform for watching nightly fireworks in summer.
In all kinds of weather, I’ll shop for Jacques Brel records, vintage Crock-pots, and night-lights shaped like the Madonna at Le Comptoir Emmaüs, a multistory cross between a thrift store and Ali Baba’s cavern.
Climbing the town’s hills burns calories, so I feel no guilt about reserving a table at L’Initiale, Panache, the Saint-Amour, or one of the other restaurants where chefs work with continental French traditions but stock their pantries with ingredients from the local terroir.
To see, smell, and purchase the best of these—including ice cider from the Eastern Townships, Paillasson cheese from the Île d’Orléans, and blueberry honey from Charlevoix—I browse the indoor stalls of the Marché du Vieux-Port. Sampling the microbrewed ales, lagers, and stouts at Le Sacrilège bar requires some belt-loosening, as does ordering the churros at Le Cercle, an alternative music venue in the newly thriving St. Roch district.
I like to end the night at the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac’s oak-paneled bar, sipping my cocktail of choice, a Pierre-Elliott Trudeau (an effective combination of vodka, triple sec, and Campari). Through windows topped by stained-glass ships, I gaze over the riverfront where the history of New France began.
My Quebec City, after all, brings me the best of both worlds, old and new.
This piece, written by Taras Grescoe, first appeared in National Geographic Traveler’s February/March 2014 issue. Grescoe’s latest book is Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves From the Automobile.