In winter, Québec City turns a different shade of splendor, robed in a sparkling mantle of snow. Its magical 400-year-old charm turns up a notch with twinkling lights and holiday tradition. Awash with history, culture and a relaxed, French-speaking populace, this former French fur-trading post revels in its robust, rustic roots, accompanied by sleigh-loads of European flair. Read below to find out why it’s one of our favorite cities in the world.
Photo Credit: Pierre Laurin
Old Town Winter Wonderland
Placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list in 1985, Québec City’s Old Town is the only walled city north of Mexico. Wander through the cobbled streets and you may think you’ve landed in Europe. Lower Town offers history, boutiques and bistros along the charming Petit-Champlain and in Place-Royal, the first permanent settlement of New France. Upper Town houses the fabled Cheateau Frontenac, military fortifications and Battlefields Park, where the English defeated the French in 1759.
Old Town ramps up its 400-year-old charm and magic during Québec Fête Noël (Québec’s Christmas Celebration). Evergreens dressed in twinkling lights, ice sculptures, holiday feasting, live nativity scenes, street theater, concerts, choirs and caroling create the festive merriment. The homey Christmas market at Old Port Market features locally made products and gifts, while Aux Anciens Canadiens serves traditional meals and meat pie with holiday cheer in its 17th-century house.
If you tire of the cold, a museum pass will give you access to the excellent Museum of Civilization, Musee du Fort, Notre-Dame Cathedral and more. To relax, try a Nordic Spa like Siberia Station, which features wooded paths connecting Finnish and steam saunas, outdoor whirlpools and hot rest areas with fireplaces and wood stoves. Shoppers can take shelter in the giant Les Galeries de la Capitale or frolic in its massive indoor amusement park, the second largest in North America.
Winter Ice & Traditional Delights
Canada’s answer to Mardi Gras comes with a clean, fresh joie de vivre. Dating back to 1894, Québec’s Winter Carnival is the largest in the world, featuring every kind of imaginable fun: skating, slide runs, sleigh rides, ice sculptures, ice fishing, dancing, outdoor cinema and night parades, along with snow baths, ice-canoe and dog races, snow rafting and carnival booths. Festivities occur throughout Old Town over a 17-day span in January and February.
For a quieter stroll through tradition, find J.A. Moisan on rue Saint-Jean. Said to be the oldest grocery store in North America, it was founded in 1871 to meet the tastes of the affluent Upper Town clientele. The vast emporium of fine imports still purveys the spirit of the past with quality food, music and décor from the 1920s and ’30s, accompanied by good old-fashioned service. Stop by for a latte and pastries or fine cheeses and preserves made in Québec.
To celebrate the end of winter, the Québecois turn to maple syrup. The First Nations’ people used it to cook venison. French pioneers added it to their own wood-fired dishes. Today, maple syrup is a multimillion-dollar industry. Québec’s “sugaring off” season begins when the weather warms and the trees are tapped for sap. The syrup is produced in cabane à sucre (sugar shacks), which become popular gathering places for traditional foods and joyful ambience. Sugar shacks come in all stripes and sizes, some offering year-round tours and tastes.
Zany, Crazy & Cool
Québec City has the cool market cornered with wild and eclectic offerings. Entirely engineered of snow and ice, Québec’s Hôtel de Glace (Ice Hotel) is reconstructed every year and only stays open from January to March—or until it melts. But consider the cold, hard facts before you book a room: Nordic sleeping bags instead of sheets, shared changing rooms, 9 p.m. check-in and 8 a.m. check-out, and an indoor chill factor between 23° and 26° Fahrenheit) (-3° and -5°C). If you’re not interested in lodging, you can always opt to visit the glittering Ice Bar and enjoy the hotel tour by day.
Just outside the city, raging waters plunge over cliffs taller than Niagara Falls. In the winter, portions of the massive falls at Parc de la Chute-Montmorency turn into ice and a climber’s dream. If you don’t want to sign up for an ice-climbing course, take the cable car to the top, cross the footbridge over the Falls, walk or snowshoe the surrounding trails, dine at Le Manoir Montmorency or toboggan with the kids on the frozen base of the Falls.
Savor the Flavors
Québec has the most distinctive regional cuisine in all of Canada, blending the traditions of its founding nations and first people. To best sample the local specialties, join the Walking Food Tour. A professional guide will lead you to select restaurants, bakeries, alcohol outlets and grocers to sample everything from chocolate to cheeses, meats, pastries and crepes. C’est magnifique!
Le Cochon Dinge (the Crazy Pig) has delighted customers for over 30 years with its Old Town location, colorful bistro ambiance and creative French-Québécois treats. Drop in for one of their signature breakfasts to savor soft French toast dripping with pure Canadian maple syrup, berried waffles or crepes, along with Belgian hot chocolate or a café au lait. Top off lunch or dinner with traditional sugar pie, and you’ll understand the joyful mood of the Crazy Pig.
In the evenings when the snow falls and the air turns icy, locals head inside for warm comforts. In the Upper City, drop in at the art-deco Hotel Clarendon where jazz musicians like Diana Krall have graced the bar’s stage. For Old-World respite, find a seat at the St-Laurent Bar & Lounge at Le Chateau Frontenac and order one of their famous martinis.
Studio of Many Faces
Travelers who appreciate unique art pieces should pay a visit to the studio of Québec artist Guy Levesque. His eclectic masks, sculptures and furniture crafted of leather and metal have found their way into local film and theatrical productions and have traveled to art shows and homes around the world. The workshop-gallery in Québec’s Vieux-Port (Old Port) district lets visitors observe the steps involved in his unique molding technique. Chairs fashioned after animals, masks that mold to the wearer’s face and sculptures of modern and primitive design all speak to the artist’s intriguing vision of form and function. His work may also speak to your own vision for an unusual and specially crafted keepsake by which to remember your trip.
Quebec Travel Tips
The winter holidays in Québec add extra twinkle to an already sparkling destination. To make sure your trip is filled with the utmost warmth and joy, scan this list of tips. We hope it will help bundle you up with the right outfits and amenities for snowy, winter fun.
The Québécois have fiercely protected their heritage and proudly speak French, with a bit of their own dialect mixed in. Locals who work in the tourist industry (hotels, restaurants, retail) speak English, but don’t expect it away from tourist areas. Road signs outside Montréal and Québec City will be in French. Bring a translator or phrase book, or brush up on some basic French phrases.
Winter temperatures in Québec drop well below freezing between November and April, often accompanied by wind and snow. Average January temperatures of 18 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and 1 degree Fahrenheit at night may actually feel colder due to wind chill. Wear layers of clothing to navigate indoor/outdoor conditions.
Dressing for Subzero Outdoor Activities
Thin, wicking layer next to your skin—top and bottom. Avoid cotton since it absorbs moisture, making you colder.
Foreign travelers must pay their own medical expenses in Canada. Your health insurance provider may reimburse you—check before departure to understand your coverage in foreign countries. Bring any medication you might need, and carry necessary labels or paperwork should customs agents request them. Contrary to popular belief, pharmacies in Québec can only fill prescriptions written by physicians licensed in Canada.
Québec Driving Tips
Driving in the snowy north requires extra caution. Using winter/snow tires, slowing down and leaving more distance between you and the vehicle ahead of you are just a few of the basics. If you are unfamiliar with black ice or harsh winter conditions, consider public transportation or taxis. Alternatively, Québec City’s Old Town is best explored on foot.
Upper & Lower
Québec City is built on two levels. Lower Town, the city’s original settlement, lies fairly flat along the St. Lawrence River, while the walled Upper Town sits above on a hilly plateau. You can climb the steep stairs connecting the two or take the funicular—a cable railway that hugs the hillside. It costs $2 CDN (approx $1.95 U.S.) and operates year-round from 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. (until midnight in summer).
Take a Winter Walk
Walking through Québec City’s Old Town is probably the best way to see it, considering the narrow roads and congested traffic, not to mention steep parking rates. Insulated, waterproof boots are mandatory to navigate the hills and cobblestone streets, coupled with snow and icy weather.
Although U.S. visitors may currently enter Canada without a passport (lawful permanent residents must have a green card), air travelers will need a passport or NEXUS card to re-enter the U.S. If you re-enter by land or sea, a valid passport, passport card, enhanced driver’s license or NEXUS card are accepted.