In 1608, French explorer Samuel de Champlain landed in the New World and established a fur-trading settlement at a spot where the St. Lawrence River narrows. These days, travelers to Quebec City can experience its modern pleasures against a backdrop that seems hardly changed since its time as the capital of colonial New France. And right now, the city's in a festive mood.
To mark its founding 400 years ago, Quebec City is throwing a year-long bash, with historical sites hosting events that highlight local culture and heritage www.myquebec2008.com. Place Royale, the site of Champlain's home, has been transformed into an outdoor stage on which street performers re-enact the city's history through comedy and poetry. The Plains of Abraham, which saw the final battle in the 1759 British conquest of New France, will welcome home pop diva Céline Dion to headline a free open-air concert on Aug. 22. Even Champlain himself (or at least an actor portraying him) will make an appearance at the Place de l'Assemblée Nationale on July 3 the anniversary of his landing during the official ceremonies.
If you come for the birthday party, stay for the city's charms. Within Old Quebec a UNESCO World Heritage Site inside the walls of the city's old fortifications the Petit-Champlain quarter is riddled with steep, narrow cobblestone pathways leading to jewelry stores and artists' workshops. At Le Lapin Sauté restaurant www.lapinsaute.com, the terrace overlooks pretty Rue du Petit-Champlain and the menu offers the best of rabbit, whether as rillettes or in the form of gourmet "hot dogs."
From Petit-Champlain, climb the Breakneck Staircase, or ride the funicular up from Quebec's Lower Town to Upper Town and get a spectacular view of the waterfront. Towering over the bluff, the hotel Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, built in 1893 www.fairmont.com/frontenac, is the perfect place to take it all in.
The food is great up here, too. For a feel of Paris, order the steak frites at Le Café du Monde in the Old Port www.lecfedumonde.com, or relax with a café au lait at L'Ardoise bistro www.lardoiseresto.com after antique shopping along Rue St.-Paul. And if you get hungry while touring the Louvre-inspired National Assembly of Quebec, the building's Beaux-Arts dining room, Le Parlementaire www.assnat.qc.ca/eng/accueil/LeParlementaire, serves the public as well as politicians and dignitaries.
Down the street, bourgeois homes along Grande Allée Est called Quebec's Champs Elysées have been converted into bars, dance clubs and restaurants. Pop into Pub Ozone www.pubozone.com, with its eclectic decor, or Shack Resto-Bar www.shackresto-bar.com, a sophisticated wine lounge on Cartier Avenue. Or just walk around and see what you find. Exploration often leads to new discoveries and that's reason enough to celebrate.