Quebec is a tale of two cities: On one side of 400-year-old stone walls, gas lamp-lit cobblestone streets and horse-drawn carriages preserve the historic feel of Canada's oldest city, established as a French colonial outpost in 1608. On the other side of those walls is a city whose reinvigorated neighborhoods are bursting with sexy nightclubs, funky restaurants, and a laissez-faire French vibe. A beloved French culture means late-night nibbles and lingering sips from well-replenished wine glasses next to architecture as varied as its conquerors. Everything in this city is served with a view: stylish shoppers at a French bistro perch, city lights from a St. Roch-area nightclub, and the mighty St. Lawrence River flowing by.
When to Go: July to September, when music festivals, outdoor concerts, and special exhibits are held across the city. October brings fall foliage tours and the annual jazz festival. In January and February, the 17-day Quebec Winter Carnival is billed as one of the world's largest, attracting nearly 650,000 hearty revelers. Events range from wacky ice canoe races across the frozen St. Lawrence to the spectacular International Snow Sculpture Competition.
Where to Stay: Fairmont Le Château Frontenac is an icon. The castle perched above lower Quebec has a history that dates back more than a century. Auberge Saint-Antoine offers a boutique experience in a historic setting and boasts artifacts left in the area by both the French and British colonial regimes. In the winter, book a room with a fireplace and bring a sleeping bag to the Hôtel de Glace, built out of ice and open from January through March (weather permitting).
How to Get Around: Quebec City has an easy-to-use public transit system. Old Quebec is quite walkable, and the funicular has taken people between Upper and Lower Quebec since 1879. The hop-off, hop-on double-decker bus tour visits 11 main tourist stops, including the contemporary Musée de la Civilisation and historic square and museum Place-Royale. Some of the city's charm lies in the fact that it is as vibrant as any large city but small enough to make travel easy. "Everything is so close here," says resident travel consultant and blogger Frederic Gonzalo. "If you want to go to the woods, or a sugar shack, or downtown, you hop in your car and in ten minutes you're there."
Where to Eat or Drink: Chez Ashton is a fast-food chain, but for fast, cheap, basic poutine—thick-cut, home-style fries with homemade gravy and fresh curds—particularly after 1 a.m., it's the place to go. For decidedly more upscale Québécois fare, schedule a late lunch at Aux Anciens Canadiens in the Upper City. The lunch menu (try the pea soup and meat pie)—and less-than-dinner prices—are available until 4:45 p.m. Panache is in a historic maritime warehouse in the Vieux Port, yet the menu takes a modern Québécois twist with dishes like tangy "lobster" ravioli (the name refers to a bright orange-red mushroom). At Casse-Crêpe Breton, bypass the booths and tables to sit at the counter, choose your sweet or savory fillings, and watch the chef create your crêpe.
For a cool treat, "Hop on the ferry in lower town and take it across to Lévis," suggests local parenting and lifestyle blogger Julia Gabriel. "Hike up the hill and enjoy some of the most amazing soft-serve dipped cones you have ever had at Chocolats Favoris. They have a mouth-watering selection of soft-serve ice cream and Belgian chocolate dips. My waistline can attest to that. The nice thing is when you head back into the city, you get to see old Quebec from a whole new perspective."
What to Buy: Le Sachem showcases coyote-skin moccasins, carved peace pipes, and other crafts produced by First Nations artisans. In the Quartier Petit Champlain, visit Vert Tuyau, a cooperative formed in 2008 by local artists and craftspeople, for original pieces like whimsical sculpture clocks. Pick up a bottle of Quebec's ice cider dessert wine in North America's oldest grocery store, J.A. Moisan, founded in 1871.
What to Read Before You Go: Willa Cather's historical masterpiece Shadows on the Rock (1931) is set in 17th-century Quebec, a bastion of French civilization in an isolated and unforgiving wilderness.
Helpful Link: Quebec City Tourism
Fun Fact: The Fairmont Le Château Frontenac hotel's most popular resident is canine ambassador Santol. Sign up to take her out for a walk around the city. When not out with guests, Santol can be found on Facebook.
Heather Greenwood Davis is an award-winning travel writer for the Toronto Star, Canadian Family, Parents Canada, and O, The Oprah Magazine.