Lower Town (Vieux-Québec: Basse-Ville & Vieux-Port)
Start: Either in Upper Town at Terrasse Dufferin, the boardwalk in front of Château Frontenac, or if you’re already in Lower Town, at the funiculaire (the cable car that connects the upper and lower parts of the Old City)
Finish: Place-Royale, the restored central square of Lower Town
Time: 1 1/2 hours
Best Times: Anytime during the day. Early morning lets you soak up the visual history, though shops won’t be open
Worst Times: Very late at night
The Lower Town (Basse-Ville) part of Old Québec (Vieux-Québec) encompasses the city’s oldest residential area—now flush with boutique hotels, high-end restaurants, and touristy shops—and Vieux-Port, the old port district. The impressive Musée de la Civilisation is here; if you have time, you may want to pause from the tour for a visit. We start at the cliff-side elevator (funiculaire) that connects Upper and Lower towns.
If you’re in Upper Town, descend to Lower Town by one of two options:
1 Funiculaire (Option A)
This cable car’s upper terminus is on Terrasse Dufferin near the Château Frontenac. As the car descends the steep slope, its glass front provides a broad view of Basse-Ville (Lower Town).
Or, if you prefer a more active means of descent, use the stairs to the left of the funiculaire, the:
2 L'Éscalier du Casse-Cou (Option B)
“Breakneck Stairs” is the self-explanatory name given to this stairway (although truth be told, they’re not that harrowing anymore). Stairs have been in place here since the settlement began. In 1698, the town council had to forbid citizens from taking their animals up and down the stairway.
Both Breakneck Stairs and the funiculaire arrive at the intersection of rues Petit-Champlain and Sous-le-Fort. Look at the building from which the funiculaire passengers exit:
3 Maison Louis Jolliet
This building is now the funiculaire’s lower terminus and full of tourist trinkets and gewgaws, but it has an auspicious pedigree. It was built in 1683 and was home to Louis Jolliet, the Québec-born explorer who, along with a priest, Jacques Marquette, was the first person of European parentage to explore the Mississippi River’s upper reaches.
Walk down the pretty little street here:
4 Rue du Petit-Champlain
Allegedly North America’s oldest street, this pedestrian-only lane swarms with restaurantgoers, cafe sitters, strolling couples, and gaggles of schoolchildren in the warm months. Some shops listed in the “Shopping in Lower Town” section of Chapter 14 are here. In winter, it’s a snowy wonderland, with ice statues and twinkling white lights.
5 Le Lapin Sauté
Though it’s early in the stroll, there are so many eating and shopping options here that you might want to pause for a while. Look for the sign with the flying rabbits for Le Lapin Sauté, at 52 rue du Petit-Champlain, a country-cozy bistro with hearty food (where prices are steep but the quality reliable). A lovely terrace overlooks a small garden and, in the warm months, street musicians serenade diners.
At the end of Petit-Champlain, turn left onto boulevard Champlain. A lighthouse from the Gaspé Peninsula used to stand across the street, but it has been returned to its original home, leaving just an anchor and cannons to stand guard (rather forlornly) over the river.
Follow the street’s curve; this block offers pleasant boutiques and cafes. At the corner is the crimson-roofed:
6 Maison Chevalier
Dating from 1752, this was once the home of merchant Jean-Baptiste Chevalier. Note the wealth of windows, more than 30 in front-facing sections alone. In 1763, the house was sold at auction to ship owner Jean-Louis Frémont, the grandfather of Virginia-born John Charles Frémont. John Charles went on to become an American explorer, soldier, and politician who mapped some 10 Western and Midwestern territories.
The Chevalier House was sold in 1806 to an Englishman, who in turn rented it to a hotelier, who transformed it into an inn. In 1960, the Québec government restored the house, and it became a museum about 5 years later. It’s overseen by the Musée de la Civilisation, which mounts temporary exhibitions.
Just past the maison's front door, turn left and walk up the short block of rue Notre-Dame, a carefully restored street of stone and brick buildings. There's a cozy boîtes à chansons (small clubs with live music) called Le Papes-Georges, just around the corner at 8 rue Cul-De-Sac. Otherwise, turn right at Sous-le-Fort and walk 1 block to the:
7 Royal Battery
Fortifications were erected here by the French in 1691 and the cannons added in 1712 to defend Lower Town from the British. The cannons got their chance in 1759, but the English victory silenced them, and eventually, they were left to rust. Sunken foundations were all that remained by the turn of the 20th century, and when the time came for restorations, it had to be rebuilt from the ground up.
From the Royal Battery, walk back up rue Sous-le-Fort. This is a good photo opportunity, with the imposing Château Frontenac on the cliff above framed between ancient houses.
Turn right on rue Notre-Dame. Half a block up the grade is the heart of Basse-Ville, the small:
Occupying the center of New France’s first permanent colony, this small and still very much European-feeling enclosed square served as the town marketplace. It went into decline around 1860 and, by 1950, had become a derelict, run-down part of town. Today, it has been restored to very nearly recapture its historic appearance. The prominent bust is of Louis XIV, the Sun King, a gift from the city of Paris in 1928. The striking 17th- and 18th-century houses once belonged to wealthy merchants. Note the ladders on some of the steep roofs, used to fight fire and remove snow.
Facing directly onto the square is:
9 Église Notre-Dame-des-Victoires
Named for French naval victories over the British in 1690 and 1711, Québec’s oldest stone church was built in 1688 after a massive Lower Town fire destroyed 55 homes in 1682. The church was restored in 1763 after its partial destruction by the British in the 1759 siege. The white-and-gold interior has a few murky paintings and a large model boat suspended from the ceiling, a votive offering brought by early settlers to ensure safe voyages. On the walls, small prints depict the stages of the Passion. The church is open to visitors daily 9:30am to 5pm May to late June and until 8:30pm from late June through early September. The rest of the year it’s open only for celebrations, concerts, and special events.
Walk straight across the plaza, passing the:
10 Musée de la place Royale
For decades, this space was nothing but a propped-up facade with an empty lot behind it, but it has been rebuilt to serve as an interpretation center with shows and exhibitions about this district’s history; it’s good for kids, as well as adults.
At the corner on the right is the:
11 Maison Lambert Dumont
This building now houses Geomania, a store selling rocks and crystals. In earlier years, though, it was home to the Dumont family and one of several residences in the square. To the right as you’re facing it once stood a hotel where U.S. President William Taft would stay as he headed north to vacation in the picturesque Charlevoix region.
Walk about 15m (49 ft.) past the last building on your left and turn around; the entire end of that building is an amusing trompe l’oeil mural of streets and houses, and depictions of citizens from the earliest colonial days to the present. Have your photo taken here—nearly everyone does!
Return to Place-Royale and head left toward the water, down two small sets of stairs to the:
12 Place de Paris
This plaza contains a discordantly bland white sculpture that resembles three stacked Rubik’s Cubes. It’s called Dialogue avec L’Histoire and was a gift from the city of Paris in 1987.
Continue ahead to rue Dalhousie, a main street for cars, and turn left. A few short blocks up and on the left is the:
13 Musée de la Civilisation
This wonderful museum, which opened in 1988, may be housed in a lackluster gray-block building, but there is nothing plain about it once you enter. Spacious and airy, with ingeniously arranged multidimensional exhibits, it’s one of Canada’s most innovative museums. If there is no time now, put it at the top of your must-see list for later.
Across the street from the museum is:
14 Vieux-Port (Old Port)
In the 17th century, this 29-hectare (72-acre) riverfront area was the port of call for European ships bringing supplies and settlers to the new colony. With the decline of shipping by the early 20th century, the port fell into precipitous decline. But since the mid-1980s, it has experienced a rebirth, becoming the summer destination for international cruise ships. It got additional sprucing up for Québec’s 400th anniversary in 2008.
15 Café 47 or Café du Monde
If you’re doing this stroll in the colder months, you might want to head indoors at this point. Café 47, on the first floor inside the Musée de la Civilisation, offers a cafe menu from 10am to 4:30pm and a bistro menu from 11:30am to 2pm. To continue the tour, head back to rue Dalhousie and cross over toward Terminal de Croisières to the waterfront. Another option awaits right on the harbor: Café du Monde, at 84 rue Dalhousie, offers traditional French cuisine in a fun-for-all atmosphere.
From the museum, head across the parking lot to the river and turn left at the water’s edge. After Terminal de Croisières, the cruise terminal, you’ll pass the Agora, an outdoor theater, and behind it, the city’s Customs House, built between 1830 and 1839.
Continue along the river’s promenade, past the Agora, to the small landscaped:
The bronze statue of a sailor here is a memorial to Canadian merchant seamen who lost their lives in World War II. From the point, you can look out across Louise Basin to the Bunge of Canada grain elevator that stores wheat, barley, corn, and soybean crops that are produced in western Canada before they are shipped to Europe. The silos made up a massive “screen” upon which the nightly "Image Mill" showwas projected on summer nights from 2008 through 2014. At press time it was uncertain whether the silos would be lit once again in 2015.
Follow the walkway left from Pointe-à-Carcy along the Louise Basin. You’ll pass the Musée Naval de Québec,which chronicles the birth of the Canadian Navy and the military support provided by ships via the St. Lawrence, including supply and troop delivery to battles on the Plains of Abraham. For details visit www.navalmuseumofquebec.com or call tel 418/694-5387. In the warm months, you can board a scenic river cruise here.
At the end of the basin, take a short jog left, and then right to stay along the water’s edge. Up ahead is a modern glass building, the:
17 Espace 400e Pavilion
This modern building was the central location for Québec’s 400th-anniversary celebrations in 2008. It now hosts temporary exhibitions or events such as the Festibière de Québec (Québec Beer Festival).
From the pavilion, continue 1 block to:
18 Marché du Vieux-Port
This colorful market at 160 quai St-André has jaunty teal-blue roofs and, in summer, rows and rows of booths heaped with fresh fruits and vegetables, regional wines and ciders, soaps, pâtés, jams, handicrafts, cheeses, chocolates, fresh fish, and meat. Cafes and kiosks offer options for a meal or sweet treat.
As you approach, you’ll see, down the street, the city’s grand train station, designed in 1916 by New York architect Bruce Price. He designed the Château Frontenac in 1893 and used his signature copper-turned-green spires here, too.
Leaving the market, cross rue St-André at the light and walk a short block to:
19 Rue St-Paul
Turn left onto this street, which is home to galleries, craft shops, and about a half-dozen antiques stores. They include Machin Chouette (no. 225), which sells antiques “restored, revamped” with a mid-century flair, and Les Antiquités Bolduc (no. 89), which has old fashioned photos, porcelain figures, antique lamps, and the like. Rue St-Paul manages to maintain a sense of unspoiled neighborhood.
20 Mistral Gagnant
Mistral Gagnant at 160 rue St-Paul, is a sunny Provençal restaurant that features hearty fare such as omelets, escargot, bouillabaisse, and outrageously good lemon pie. It offers one of the best values for lunch—with dishes for less than C$16.
From here, return to the heart of Lower Town—Place-Royale and the funiculaire—by turning right off rue St-Paul onto either rue du Sault-au-Matelot or the parallel rue St-Pierre. Both are quiet streets with galleries and restaurants.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.