Mention Quebec City, and the response is often a swoon-worthy sigh. This 400-year-old French microcosm in eastern Canada blends Old World romance with new school verve, European flair with American style, small-town charm with urban sophistication. The result not only works; it shines.
The only fortified city north of Mexico, Quebec City crowns Cap Diamant, a cliff-edged promontory rising 320 feet over a bend in the St. Lawrence River. Recognizing the site’s defensive perks, explorer Samuel de Champlain founded New France here on July 3, 1608. Natural defenses augmented with walls and fortifications worked until 1763, when the English ultimately prevailed. Despite efforts to eradicate its French culture and language, Quebec has clung to both.
Quebec City reveres its past but doesn’t wallow in it. It keeps reinterpreting itself and evolving. The blending of centuries is especially evident with this year’s 400th anniversary celebration.
The city’s architectural and cultural mélange is best appreciated on foot. Begin on Battlefields Park on the Plains of Abraham, home to the Musée National des Beaux-arts du Québec, the fine arts museum that includes its original Neoclassical building, an adjacent former city prison, and the Grand Hall, a contemporary glass-and-granite construction that unites all three. Continue down Grand Allée, sometimes referred to as the city’s little Champs élysées, where music pulses from the street-facing discos and sidewalk cafes.
Both the Grand Allée and the 21st century end at the ancient walls protecting the World Heritage Site of Vieux Quebec (Old Quebec). On the other side of the St. Louis Gate, horse-drawn carriages clipclop along the puzzle of narrow streets framed by 17th- and 18th-century stone buildings capped with steeply pitched roofs.
Vieux Quebec is divided into two sections, Haute-Ville (Upper Town) and Basse-Ville (Lower Town). Haute-Ville’s Rue St.-Louis ends at the Dufferin Terrace, a clifftop boardwalk overlooking Basse-Ville’s Quartier Petit-Champlain. The nearby Vieux-Port (Old Port), the historic center of the city’s maritime heritage, is now home to the Musée de la Civilisation. Sprinkled throughout are galleries and shops. Steep roads, steeper stairs and a cliffscaling funicular connect Hauteand Basse-Ville.
Lording over Quebec City is the Chateau Frontenac, a castle hotel that’s hosted rock stars, presidents and kings. Its Galerie d’Art du Chateau Frontenac, with a selection of works by nearly 100 top-tier Quebec artists, is a fine place to begin a Vieux Quebec arts tour. From here, cross Place d’Armes, where armies once paraded, to Rue du Trésor, a pedestrian alley that doubles as an outdoor art gallery. Then descend via funicular to Petit- Champlain, the cobblestone street tucked beneath the cliffs.
Many of the historic buildings lining Petit-Champlain are owned by Quartier Petit-Champlain, a co-op credited with transforming the area from a slum slated for demolition to an arts-oriented, history-infused shopping district. Near the foot of the street is a co‑op-sponsored trompe l’oeil mural that looks through the building’s wall, providing a time-travel peek at life inside.
Among the boutiques and galleries on the narrow street is Sculpteur Flamand. Founding co-op member and self-taught woodworker Alain Flamand carves traditional scenes and characters—the woodsmen, boatmen, fiddlers and trappers who helped build the city. Contrast his sculptures and reliefs with turned bowls, jewelry boxes, carved birds and other fine works crafted by the 65 Quebec artisans represented by Boutique Oh! Bois Dormant.
Wander into Transparence, a glass gallery with an emphasis on thermoformed pieces, or over to Pauline Pelletier’s eponymous shop. Porcelain specialist Pelletier is renowned for her smoke-fired cats and fractured pieces. She makes, breaks, then reconstructs forms, often augmenting them with copper fixtures, electro-plated animals or gold-luster porcelain fruits. Nearby, jeweler Louis Perrier operates two shops, one selling his work, the other representing up-and-coming artisans.
Across from the funicular base, adjacent to the ominously named Casse-Cou (Breakneck) stairs, is Jean Vallieres’ Verrerie la Mailloche, where he demonstrates traditional glass blowing techniques. An upstairs gallery sells pieces crafted here. Near the top of Casse-Cou, Alliage shimmers with contemporary metal craft. Alana Baird’s tin fish swim in the windows, sunlight reflecting off their gills and dappling Jean Bélanger’s glass-and-metal tables.
Return to the funicular base, and walk down Sous-le-Fort, turning left on Notre-Dame to Place-Royale, the original site of New France. Jean-Francoin Dugal uses traditional wooden joinery—no screws or nails, simply mortise, tenon and dovetails— to create his elegant, ergonomic rocking chairs. Among the 20 artists also exhibiting at Dugal is jeweler Brigitte Perrier, Dugal’s wife and Louis Perrier’s daughter.
Just after the square is Boutique Métiers d’Art du Québec, showing works by more than 100 members of the Arts and Crafts Council of Quebec. Venture into the back room to view such eye-catching pieces as éric Tardif ‘s steamed wood birds, Jacinthe Bruneau’s figures or Marie-Ange Samon’s spiritual vessels. Don’t miss the trompe l’oeil mural depicting Quebec’s historic figures on the gallery’s exterior wall.
Cross Rue Cede la Montagne and wrap around into the Vieux-Port via Rue de Sault-au-Matelot. It would be easy to spend the better part of a day visiting Les Galeries d’Art Beauchamp, Marc and Claudette Beauchamp’s cluster of six galleries representing more than 140 established and emerging artists.
Especially worth a look are Galerie d’Art Beauchamp et Beauchamp and Galerie d’Art Bel Art, sharing a building on Rue de Sault-au-Matelot and Cede la Montagne; be sure to visit the lower-level vault. On the far end of Rue de Saultau-Matelot is the studio of Guy Levesque, who uses a Middle Ages molding technique to craft leather masks, many inspired by the commedia dell’arte.
Turn left on Rue St.-Paul and meander through the neighborhood’s antique shops and galleries, progressing through the centuries by visiting both Maison Dambourg Antiquités, with a fine selection of Quebec folk art, and Lacerte Arte Contemporain, a highly respected contemporary art gallery.
St.-Paul exits the Vieux-Port and morphs into Boulevard Charest Est, which slices through the heart of Quebec’s trendiest neighborhood, edgy Nouvo Saint-Roch. Equally edgy is Centre Materia, a juried craft exhibition and installation center. “The space is dedicated to promoting artists who push boundaries,” says director Marianne Thibeault. “We look for technique and knowhow, but it’s very important that the works be a new interpretation.”
From 1608′s New France in the New World to 2008′s new interpretations in Nouvo Saint-Roch, Quebec City has kept its heart, without selling its soul. Exclusive quadricentennial exhibits and events marry traditional culture with 21st-century technology, and hint that visionaries already have ideas for the next 100 years. Imagine that.