QUEBEC is a city of delightfully stark, yet virtually seamless contrasts; centuries-old fortification walls lead to chic open-kitchen restaurants, and cobblestone streets give way to bike paths and innovative art institutions. The enchanting Francophone capital of Quebec province, and one of the oldest cities in North America, Quebec City received a major face lift before its 400th anniversary in 2008. Perhaps more significant than the new boutique hotels, revitalized parks and gleaming cultural centers was the overdue attention the city finally received, which continues to propel it forward. Quebec City, a historic, cultural and culinary center beside the St. Lawrence River, has emerged from the long shadow cast by its ever popular neighbor, Montreal.
1) CLASSICS, DONE RIGHT
When it comes to cuisine, Quebec City might as well be Paris West, with its no-holds-barred amalgam of traditional French, native Québécois and innovative farm-to-table offerings. Best to start with the basics. On a narrow winding street in Old Quebec, Café Chez Temporel (25, rue Couillard; 418-694-1813) is a deliciously classic French cafe, with windows made for people-watching. The 36-year-old spot plays a gentle mix of folk and French music — a lovely soundtrack for eating the perfect croissant (2 Canadian dollars, about the same in U.S. dollars) or a slice of quiche Lorraine with a salad (8.75 dollars) and a café au lait (2.75 dollars) among the locals.
2) SCALE THE WALLS
Feel history with your feet as you wander Old Quebec, a Unesco World Heritage Site with car-free streets, towering monuments and 17th-century homes. You can detour through the opulent lobby and cliffside boardwalk of the hotel Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, but for a truly peerless perspective on the city’s history and geography, you must do a little scrambling. Head up the staircase at the corner of Rue St.-Louis and Côte de la Citadelle and climb onto the wide, grassy fortification wall that rings the old city. Walk north on the wall (one of the most intact defensive city walls in North America) among the cannons and the sunbathing, dog-walking, hand-holding residents. Hop off at Rue St.-Jean.
3) CHOCOLATE, BOOKS & BEER
With its colorful brick buildings and fashionable boutiques, bars and restaurants, the hilly Rue St.-Jean, beyond the old city, sheds its tourist tone and becomes the chic St.-Jean-Baptiste neighborhood. Stop at Choco-Musée Érico (634, rue St.-Jean; 418-524-2122; chocomusee.com) for a cocoa history primer and savor a buttery-smooth chocolate filled with pecans and salted caramel. Then peruse the classics and future classics among the secondhand books at the Librairie St.-Jean-Baptiste (565, rue St.-Jean; 581-999-095; librairiesjb.com), a bookstore-cum-coffee-shop and beer bar. Finally, quench your thirst on the art-filled terrace at Bar Le Sacrilège (447, rue St.-Jean; 418-649-1985; lesacrilege.net), with 13 local beers and one cider on tap.
4) WINE-DRIVEN DINING
“It’s all about the wine,” said a waiter-sommelier at Le Moine Échanson (585, rue St.-Jean; 418-524-7832; lemoineechanson.com), even as plates of crème brûlée au foie gras and Catalan-style duck confit made their way out of the kitchen in this small five-year-old restaurant. The seasonal small-plates menu changes four times a year, depending on the selection of organic and natural wines in stock. Dinner for two, including wine, is about 120 dollars. For a down-homey alternative, head to La Cuisine (205, rue St.-Vallier Est; 418-523-3387; barlacuisine.com), a restaurant and bar outfitted like a retro university student’s apartment. The vintage furniture is for sale and the kitchen is open, with a decades-old stove and a pair of microwaves churning out Québécois comfort food like croque monsieur and casseroles. Dinner for two, with local beer, is about 30 dollars, live D.J., hip crowd, Nintendo and other diversions included.
5) QUÉBÉCOIS CABARET
For an artistically inspired night out, there’s Le Cercle (228, rue St.-Joseph Est; 418-948-8648; le-cercle.ca), a sleek industrial-modern space born of a 2009 merger between a wine bar and an adjacent performance venue. It offers live indie, rock, dance and folk music, and films, comedy shows and theater. (Admission ranges from free to 25 dollars.) The spot also features local art and video projections, a 2,000-bottle wine cellar and a kitchen, ideal for late-night snacking, that serves dishes like chilled smoked mussels.
6) INDIE REVIVAL
Start your day in the St.-Roch neighborhood, where urban decay has yielded to a gentrifying blend of government investment and pioneering artists and entrepreneurs. Grab a bite at Bistrot Le Clocher Penché (203 rue St.-Joseph Est, 418-640-0597, clocherpenche.ca), a bistro whose name is an homage to “the leaning steeple” across the street. The blood sausage, soft-boiled egg and poached pear over a puff pastry (17 dollars, coffee and yogurt parfait included) is excellent. Then wander into the nearby Boutique Lucia F (422, rue Caron; 418-648-9785), a vintage clothing shop, with nary an item over 100 dollars. Just down the Rue St.-Joseph is Morgan Bridge (367, rue du Pont; 418-529-1682, morganbridge.ca), a gallery of Quebec City and Montreal street and comic art that sells locally made T-shirts, music and books. For a high-brow alternative, visit La Chambre Blanche (185, rue Christophe-Colomb Est; 418-529-2715; chambreblanche.qc.ca), an art collective that features the work of its current international resident artists and displays the portfolios of those it has hosted since 1982.
7) HYPERLOCAL BEER
La Barberie (310, rue St.-Roch; 418-522-4373; labarberie.com), in the St.-Roch neighborhood, is one of the best and most beloved among a growing number of microbreweries in the city, with a recently expanded outdoor patio. The cooperative brews 30 to 50 beers a year, ranging from a tasty India Pale Ale to sangria-, chardonnay — and tea-flavored varieties. For the full experience, order a 16-dollar carousel with five ounces of each of the eight different beers on tap.
8) A HOT TICKET
Bistro B (1144 Avenue Cartier; 418-614-5444; bistrob.ca), the elegantly modern yet cheerfully communal new restaurant from François Blais — the rock-star chef who opened Panache, one of the city’s most renowned dining spots — has superb food, design and service. The menu changes daily, but you can’t go wrong ordering the tartare du jour and the duck breast, which on a recent night was served in a white wine sauce with a butternut squash purée and purple broccoli. For dessert, try the cheesecake, heavy in chocolate, with an accent of raspberry sorbet. Dinner for two, with wine, is roughly 130 dollars. Reservations recommended.
9) SEE THE SCENE
On the nearby Grande Allée, a stretch of nightclubs exerts a fierce gravitational pull for exotic cars, celebrity clientele and acrobatic dancers dangling from ceilings. Try Savini Resto-Bar Vinotèque (680, Grande-Allée Est; 418-647-4747; savini.ca, no cover) or Maurice Nightclub (575, Grande-Allée Est; 418-647-2000; mauricenightclub.com, free to $5). Swing by Chez Ashton (640 Grande-Allée Est; 418-522-3449; chez-ashton.com) for late-night poutine (French fries drowned in gravy and cheese curds) like any good Québécois clubgoer should.
10) TO MARKET, TO MARKET
Antiques, art and trinkets. That’s the Rue St.-Paul, in the Old Port neighborhood. But those worlds collide quite cleverly in Machin Chouette (225, rue St.-Paul; 418-525-9898; machinchouette.com), French for “Cute Machine.” The design shop sells handmade pieces, like a lamp made from an antique tricycle (620 dollars). For culinary creativity, cross the street to Le Marché du Vieux-Port (160, Quai St.-André; 418-692-2517; marchevieuxport.com), a sprawling market where chefs and tourists browse stands of local seafood, meats, cheeses, produce and pastries.
11) ALONG THE COAST
Quebec is perhaps best experienced on two wheels. For 18 dollars for two hours, rent a hybrid bike in the Old Port at Vélo Passe-Sport Plein Air (80, rue Quai St.-André; 418-296-3643; velopasse-sport.com). Cruise the paths along the river to the Baie de Beauport, a recreational park with kayaks, pedal boats and sailboat rentals. From there, continue on to the Parc Linéaire, a network of cycling and walking paths that follow the St. Charles tributary of the St. Lawrence River, past gardens and kite-flying children — a perfect end to the day.
IF YOU GO
The stylish 95-room Auberge Saint-Antoine (8, rue St.-Antoine; 888-692-2211; saint-antoine.com), on the cusp of the Old Port and Old Quebec, is built around a cannon fortification. Its lobby and rooms, which start at 169 Canadian dollars, display local artifacts like coins and cannonballs. The hotel is also the home of the well-regarded Panache restaurant. Rooms come with free Wi-Fi and access to a fitness center and an in-house cinema.
And, of course, there’s the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac (1, rue des Carrières; 866-540-4460; fairmont.com/frontenac), a 618-room palace atop Old Quebec that opened as a hotel in 1893. Doubles start at 199 dollars.