by Louis Bignami

Few cities offer that special quality, that blend of tradition and progress which both attracts visitors and convinces locals they share a special place. In Europe, Rome, London and (if you do not mind "interesting" manners) Paris meet these criteria. In South America, Rio stands out. Japanese cite Kyoto. Most Americans place San Francisco on a special pedestal, while others prefer New Orleans or Boston; a few cite New York's "cultural opportunities" and as visitors "make allowances" for local manners.

In Canada, the unique quality of Quebec steals first place from Montreal and Vancouver. Locals cite the French tradition, but "Europe across the St. Lawrence River" better describes Canada's most scenic, and many feel, most friendly French-speaking city. 

After all, the bear skin hatted guard in the largest citadel in North America smacks of England. Italian espresso and Austrian pastry for breakfast in sidewalk cafes along Grand Allee smack of Rome, Vienna or Paris. Woolens from Scotland, knives from Germany, Eskimo and other ethnic crafts entice you, even before you discover the favorable exchange rate at a time when the dollar fades against the pound, mark or yen.

Quebec's quality is largely due to Quebecois (or Quebecers), the friendly residents who mean it when they say, "Quebec vous accueille (Quebec welcomes you)." These are the people who help you with reading your map on corners, who suggest favorite restaurants and who go out of their way to demolish the image of the tight-lipped Frenchman.

A typical example of Quebecois' humananistic approach to civic problems are the city's heated "pigeon condos." Both Montreal and Quebec wanted to rid public buildings of these feathered litterers. Montreal "fried" its pigeon population with electrified wires on public buildings; Quebec built heated bird houses and provided regular feedings in an out of the way spot, and the pigeons moved voluntarily.


This isn't to suggest that you will be treated as a "pigeon" in Quebec as is too often the case in large cities everywhere. Human touches abound. Street entertainers, musicians and artists amuse visitors and you should, but need not, drop coins in their hat. The cog railway that returns you to the upper level of the Upper Town when you're too tired to hike back uphill from Place Royale, and Old Quebec's waterfront Agoura and other inexpensive amenities help make a visit to Quebec special.

You can take public transportation from the international airport into Quebec City or enjoy a reasonable cab ride into town. All the big hotels pick up at the airport. You will find a wide choice of hotels inside and outside the 20 foot-thick walls which enfold the city. We like to stay inside as this eliminates cabs -- horse and carriage rides better suit the ambiance! 

If your budget permits, a stay at Le Chateau Fontenac is a fine choice. The green copper-clad roofs of this massive structure punctuate every Quebec vista. You'll find modern conveniences in a traditional setting plus choice, if rather expensive, restaurants. Even if you neither dine nor stay overnight, consider a visit to Le Chateau's unique curved bar for a drink -- non-alcoholic if you like -- and one of Quebec's best views of the St. Lawrence River.

On tighter budgets, we find the flavor of Quebec is best captured with a stay in small hotels, which are long on charm, if a bit short on bathtubs. Our last tub measured 4 feet 4 inches long. A lodging list is available from the tourism office. If you write, ask about "Old Quebec" hotels. Our favorite hotel on our first trip, Chateau Laurier, is conveniently located just outside the city walls on Grande Allee, across from scenic Cap Diamont and the Plaines of Abraham. Its 54 rooms are a far cry from the Hilton, but it's charming with special touches such as the free coffee machine that is on all night. As elsewhere in traditional hotels, rooms are small. But that's OK; who spends much time in a hotel room when there's so much to see and do outdoors?

Just outside, table-to-table sidewalk cafes line Grande Allee - 40 cafes within a few blocks at last count. Out the back door past the massive Military Drill Hall, a scenic shortcut clings to the cliffs 200 feet above the river on the way to the Fontenac Hotel via the Governor's Promonade and Dufferin Terrace along the city wall.

The joys inside the walls of Quebec satisfy all tastes. Tours by bus and antique autos or horse-drawn carriages, start in front of the Fontenac for visitors who choose not to walk the compact old town. If you opt to stroll along winding streets and you get tired, rest and refreshments are as near as the umbrella outside a sidewalk cafe. Since the city is so small, it's possible to cover everything in a couple of days of wandering on foot. That's perhaps the most interesting way to savor the city of Quebec. Don't even think about car rentals, the limited parking inside the city walls is often by permit only, and parking garages outside the walls seem usually to be filled with government employees. If you insist, park on Grande Allee or on the waterfront, and take public transportation into town as metered spots aren't long enough.

Gravitational Grazing

Wise visitors start at the top and work down, then ride back on a bus or tram from Old Quebec and the river. If your time is limited, you might prefer to follow this schedule. Start with a leisurely breakfast on Grande Allee or try a French croissant and coffee break.

Then stroll over to the huge Citadel which sprawls over Cap Diamant, Quebec's highest point. The changing of the 22nd Regiment guard in their red dress uniforms and bearskin hats is most photogenic.

Afterward, take the downhill walk through St. Luis Gate, which has been rebuilt several times since it was constructed in 1693 as part of the original fortifications. Stop at the information center operated by the Quebec Tourism Department. Skilled people here can personalize tours to your specific needs. Horse-drawn carriage rentals are nearby. To this day I have regretted not taking more horse-drawn carriage rides. Don't pass it up in this romantic French city! 

On professionally led or self-guided walking tours, you can visit the Ursuline Museum, Museum de Cire, Museum de Fort and an ecumenical gaggle of churches, eventually reaching the Place Royal, the greatest concentration of 17th- and 18th-century buildings in North America, along the river. The area has undergone massive restoration and a new section at the water has gone in since we last toured. 

The Parliament building just outside St. Luis Gate deserves a visit too. The banners of the former look best in the morning; the statues of the Parliament Building are most scenic after dark if you don't mind missing the interior tour. This is a dandy sight when it's lighted.

Along les Ramparts, you may divide your attention between the river and the massive guns which have never been fired in anger. Visit New Montmorency Park and enjoy the Archbishop's Palace and Old Quebec Seminary as street entertainers pop around corners and new vistas of the Chateau Fontenac and St Lawrence River delight your eye. For, like other old French cities, Quebec is designed to be enjoyed on foot.

Art is everywhere in shops, homes, hotels, restaurants and museums along the streets. If the Quebec Museum seems a bit stodgy, more modern works can be found at La Galerie du Musee. The city is an active art center too, small shops near the Place Royal in the old lower town below the walls, and near the Place d'Armes in old uppertown Quebec, offer quality arts and crafts.  The Agoura near on the river offers a little bit of everything. Art buffs will also find street artists near City Hall worth a look. Fine pottery, like fine arts, is a good buy. The least expensive quality English and Canadian woolens, English china and French clothing are found near Rue Dauphine and Ru St. Jean.

Shopping and strolling should build a mighty hunger! Fortunately, bakeries turn out crusty loaves of French bread, and it's tough to pass the smell of fresh pastry when you know you can stop for coffee and a snack and watch Quebec pass from under a cafe umbrella.

We munch around town. That's easy to do when restaurants post menus near their doors and the smell of real French onion soup, snails in garlic, croissants and other famous French foods lure you in from the street. If you can manage "sit down" meals, restaurants at all price levels serve good to exceptional French and old Canadian food, as well as Chinese, Vietnamese, German, Italian, Indian and Swiss food.

Getting Out

Outside Quebec's ramparts giant Laurentides Park offers dandy fishing and camping. Rent a car for the day and be sure and see the Ile d'Orleans, an island that's 100 percent historic site. Don't miss the strawberries if they're in season and, if possible, stop at the Auberge Chaumonot for lunch. Back on the mainland, it's only a short drive to Montmorency Falls, 1 1/2 times as tall as Niagara, and to the shrine of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre, the "Lourdes of North America."

Quebec Museum is just outside the walls on the Plains of Abraham within walking distance of downtown, where several battles determined that the British, not the French or Americans, held Canada. Nearby, round Martello Towers near Avenue Tache was built by the British as protection against a U.S. invasion.

With so much history, good food and decent lodgings any visitor will find Quebec worthwhile. Add a decent aquarium, a better-than-average musical tradition and seasonal activities such as downhill skiing within a half-hour drive of Quebec, cross-country skiing on the Plains of Abraham, sailing on the St Lawrence or Boating and fishing an any of the lakes, rivers and streams within a couple of hours of Quebec, and you must hustle to see everything.

Quebec really does not suit those who rush, however. This city demands a more leisurely approach with time to savor the French ambiance or sip dark-roasted coffee at a sidewalk cafe, time to saunter down a cobblestone street and pause to enjoy the sound of a street entertainer's flute, time to dawdle two hours at dinner and, most important of all, time to enjoy everything at a pace which leaves you rested and refreshed. Nearly everyone wants to come back to enjoy Quebec's quality. For most Americans it's a chance to enjoy Paris, and good manners at the same time.