Quebec City brims with charm and history at every corner. The only walled city in the Americas north of Mexico, its 4 kilometres of ramparts enclose a UNESCO World Heritage centre accessed through four stone gates. Built on a lofty escarpment above the St Lawrence River, it is topped by the fairy tale Le Chateau Frontenac, said to be the most photographed hotel in the world. And this city of just half a million is French – but without the arrogance, as the Quebecois love to say!
Begin inside the walls of Old Quebec where you'll not only find horse-drawn carriages (calesches) clip-clopping along cobblestone streets but also discover there's an Upper and a Lower town. Connected by 30 separate staircases and a funicular, each has a distinct personality. The imposing buildings, flower-filled squares and Dufferin Terrace – a boardwalk with sensational river views – are in the upper town, while the lower town has boutique hotels, galleries and restaurants in historic cottages and warehouses.
For traditional tableside flambe and a night of theatrics head to Le Continental (restaurantlecontinental.com) near the Chateau. Order the flaming steak au poivre and the crepe suzette, performed by waiter Denis who's been flipping pans and slurping cognac for 12 years. A prix fixe meal at Aux Anciens Canadiens (auxancienscanadiens.qc.ca), located in the oldest house in the city, is a steal at $20. Waiters dressed in period costumes serve comfort food including maple syrup pie in this 1675-built red-and-white house. Casual dining on the charming Le Petit Champlain street in the Lower Town doesn't get any better than at Le Lapin Saute (lapinsaute.com). There's plenty of rabbit on the menu along with French onion soup and foie gras.
The attraction of the city is its European ambience. It's easy to imagine yourself in some medieval town, albeit one with immaculate streets lined with fashionable boutiques. History-lovers, especially those with a military leaning, will love the old fortifications, the Citadelle, parks lined with cannons and the Plains of Abraham where decisive battles were fought. It's hard to believe that this city founded by the French, whose residents speak that mother tongue, ultimately succumbed to the British in 1759. Beyond the statues and forts, there are micro-breweries and cafes in the hip Rue St Jean and St Roch districts.
Climb aboard the Hop-On Hop-Off bus to orientate yourself with this city that wraps itself around a promontory that rises steeply from the river. Ride the funicular for great views but for the best photo of the city, take the ferry across to Levis on the other side. Seek out the city's 14 outdoor murals (the best one is near Place Royal, Lower Town) and get active with a cycle ride along Boulevard Champlain on the river's edge.
Who doesn't want to stay in a hotel that looks like a castle? The Chateau Frontenac (fairmont.com/frontenac-quebec) is the grandest in town, dominating the skyline since 1893. The 611-room edifice is far from stuffy following a recent $75.5 million renovation that added new bars and guestrooms with modern luxury touches. It's rare to call a hotel unique these days, but the newly-opened Le Monastere des Augustines (monastere.ca/en) comes pretty close. This hotel and wellness centre occupies the site of the Augustine convent and hospital, established by French nuns in 1639. Guests can stay in "authentic" or "contemporary" rooms where healthy food (and occasional wine), massage and a long list of therapies are offered at reasonable prices.
This is an infinitely walkable city, but don't wear high heels on any of those staircases. For a little glamour at a low price enjoy the weekday $20 lunch at the Chateau Frontenac's Le Sam bar.
Caroline Gladstone was a guest of Quebec Tourism. See quebecregion.com