Historic District of Old Québec

By Stillman Rogers

What is the Historic District of Québec?

In 1608, Henry IV, King of France, sent Samuel Champlain, Pierre Dugas, Sieur de Mons, and a crew of 28 men to a bluff overlooking the Saint Lawrence River to establish the colony of New France. The city that grew there is today the only walled city in North America, preserving its ramparts, gates and bastions.

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Two sides of a plaza in Old Quebec: small stone buildings, 3 stories, with steep roofs.
Place Royale, Old Québec

Why is the Historic District of Old Québec a UNESCO World Heritage site?

The founders of Québec chose a site with a good harbor and a tall defensible bluff to protect the small and vulnerable colony. While commercial and residential facilities were built at the foot of the escarpment, the Governor’s chateau and residences were erected on the fortified bluff.

As the settlement grew and conflict with the British expanded, more fortifications were built. The French-British contest for North America ended with the British conquest of Québec in 1759, but the defensive walls were again enhanced during the American Revolution, when American colonists attacked in 1775. The substantial stone and brick construction inside the city’s strong stone bulwarks has left an architectural and cultural legacy that UNESCO cites as one of the best examples of a fortified colonial city.

Rue St Louis, lined with colorful buildings a few stories tall.
Rue Ste Louis in Québec

What can you expect on a visit to Old Québec?

The city is a treasury of cultural and architectural history. Buildings at the foot of the bluff date from as early as the city’s founding, including a house built by Lois Jolliet, discoverer of the Mississippi, in 1683. The first Catholic Church in North America is also there. The Chateau Frontenac, at the top of the bluff, dominates the scene, but under the Dufferin Terrace at its base lie the now excavated remains of the Governor’s Chateau, a structure from which the country was ruled from 1608 until it burned in 1842. The streets of the old city wind up and down hill, lined with three- to five-story buildings dating back as many as four centuries.

Is Old Québec worth visiting?

The only walled colonial city north of Mexico, Québec is an exciting destination for lovers of history and culture. In addition to a French flavor, the city’s culture is rich in its own history as an outlier of France and its long association and intermingling with Native American peoples. This shows particularly in the cuisine, which draws heavily upon Quebecois culinary favorites. Québec City is worth a special trip, and visitors should plan at least two or three days to see the highlights.

Book your accommodations in Old Québec.

An open space for pedestrians in the foreground, an impressive castle-like building in the background with a tall and wide tower.
Dufferin Terrace and the Chateau Frontenac

What sorts of travelers would like Old Québec?

The old city of Quebec provides an immersion in New France. While its language is French, it is Quebecois French and has its own nuances, its own color. Travelers interested in history or architecture will find it fascinating, but others will appreciate its shopping (one street is devoted entirely to local crafts and products), its variety of dining, and the European feel to its streets and squares.

Tips for visiting Old Québec

Québec is a walking city, and you should expect some very steep streets and wear comfortable shoes. You can take the Funiculaire du Vieux-Québec instead of climbing from the lower city to the upper one.

French is the local language, but non-francophones will find English widely spoken.

During winter the winds off the Gulf of St Lawrence can be very cold, so plan your wardrobe accordingly.

In the summer, restaurants may be crowded at night, so make reservations early. One restaurant, Chez Boulay, brings the flavors of Québec’s forests and wildlands into its boreal cuisine.

Text: Historic District of Old Quebec, Quebec Province, Canada. Images: above, Chateau Frontenac; below, a colorful shopping street.

Consider also visiting other UNESCO sites in eastern Canada.

Where is Old Québec?

Québec City is located in the Canadian Province of Quebec, at the point where the Saint Lawrence River ends its journey from the Great Lakes and enters the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The city is served by Jean Lasage International Airport, 11 km (6.5 miles) from the Old City. Rail service is provided by VIA Rail Canada.

The TransCanada highway does not go through Québec City itself, but it goes through Levis, on the other side of the river. It’s about a three-hour drive from Montreal or about 15 minutes longer by train. From Ottawa, the drive is almost five hours or six hours by train.

For more information about Québec’s Old City, see its official website.

Have you been to the Historic District of Old Québec? If so, do you have any additional information or advice about this UNESCO World Heritage site? Please add your comments below!

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