Is there ever a bad time to visit Quebec City? This gorgeous Canadian destination -- a rare example of a walled city in North America -- is filled with cobblestones, art, and history galore. The battles that took place in this region helped decide the fate of the continent, and the area has beckoned to travelers for centuries. I know, because I’m one of them!
With its numerous plane, rail, and road connections, Quebec City is easy to visit, and I’ve been there many times in all seasons. So pack your mittens, thermal underwear, and touque (that’s Quebecois French for a warm stocking cap) and embrace Canada’s prettiest city in the prettiest season of all -- winter!
Here are nine reasons to visit Quebec City in the colder months.
1. The Carnaval De Quebec Takes Place In February
Quebec’s winter carnival, the Carnaval de Quebec, takes place every February. First established in 1894, it was the largest winter festival in the world by 2006 (though the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival in China has since stolen that title). The entire city gets into the spirit of Carnaval and is decorated with lights and ice sculptures. Highlights of the event include day and night parades, both led by Bonhomme.
Bonhomme might just be the cuddliest mascot in the world. He’s a 7-foot-4-inch snowman whose figure can best be described as roly-poly. With his jaunty red hat and huge smile, Bonhomme spreads winter cheer throughout the city. He is given the keys to the city at the beginning of Carnaval to symbolize that he will be the undisputed leader of all festivities during the coming days.
Carnaval also includes world-class winter sporting competitions, including snowboarding, ice canoe races, snowshoeing, hockey games, dog-sledding races, and snow sculpture competitions. Visitors who prefer indoor events will appreciate the masquerade ball, which is held in the stately Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac hotel. Plus, restaurants and bars offer special meals, and many more activities take place throughout the city.
If the Carnaval de Quebec is on your travel bucket list, make your hotel reservations early. The Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac is in the heart of the city and thus located amidst much of the action. However, there are many well-positioned inns and bed and breakfasts around the old city that offer a homey and affordable alternative. My personal favorite is the Hotel Maison du Fort, which is just a short walk from the Chateau Frontenac, features a lovely homemade continental breakfast with delicious zucchini cinnamon bread, and is a great place for women traveling solo.
2. You Can Have A Magical Christmas
It’s hard to describe just how magical Old Quebec is at Christmastime. It’s not just the soft clouds of fluffy snow coating the rooftops, nor the thousands of mini lights adorning the shop windows.
The city hosts two holiday markets, bringing artists, creators, chefs, and shoppers together. The Grand Christmas Market offers more than 1,000 local products from the end of November to December 31 and includes culinary workshops, visits with Santa Claus, and Christmas tree sales. Meanwhile, the German Christmas Market runs until December 23 and is a delicious destination featuring traditional gingerbread, mulled wine, and sausages. Other treats include a children’s zone, a choir program, and unique gift vendors.
If you’re a Christmas mega-fan, a visit to La Boutique de Noel de Quebec is essential. This year-round Christmas shop is the perfect place to find a special souvenir of your trip.
3. You Can Stay In A World-Famous Ice Hotel
North America’s only ice hotel, the Hotel de Glace, made entirely from ice and snow, welcomes guests each year between January and March -- provided the weather cooperates. You can visit the beautiful Grand Hall of the hotel, see the chapel, play on the ice slide, check out the rooms and suites, and finish your tour at the Ice Bar with a delicious cocktail served in a glass made of ice. And if you’re truly adventurous, you can stay overnight!
Yes, your room will really be made entirely of ice, including the platform of your bed. However, the mattresses are soft, and thermal sleeping bags are provided. The average temperature of the rooms hovers between 23 and 27 degrees, so you’ll have to be a hearty traveler, even though your sleeping bag will keep you very snug. It might be worth the shivers when you see the Nordic spa area in the hotel courtyard, designed to be enjoyed under the stars and to help guests warm up before they go to bed.
4. You Can Feast On Poutine
Poutine is very much a year-round food in Quebec City -- indeed, in most of Canada. This dish of fresh, hot French fries and squeaky cheese curds topped with savory gravy is part drunken snack, part comforting meal, and 100 percent beloved by Quebecers.
If you’re in Quebec City during the first week of February (just before Carnaval), you can celebrate La Poutine Week with the locals. More than 60 different restaurants offer their own special take on this delicious dish.
5. You Can Experience A Different Kind Of Bike Ride
Quebec City is a year-round cycling destination. In the spring, summer, and fall, a regular bike will do, but, come winter, the city’s trails are perfect for fat-tire bicycles. A fat-tire bike is one with tires that are 4 or 5 inches thick, perfect for cycling on snowy surfaces.
The Empire 47 offers 25 miles of groomed, well-maintained trails and a rental service for convenience. It’s one of the easiest places to try fat-tire cycling in the area. In fact, it’s considered one of the most popular fat-tire destinations in the world!
Another great option for beginners is Mont-Sainte-Anne, which offers 20 miles of groomed trails. Positioned next to a cross-country ski center and a downhill ski resort, this is the perfect place to go with the family so that everyone can participate in the sport they love.
6. You Can Take A Wild Toboggan Ride
In the heart of Old Quebec, right next to the Fairmont Chateau Laurier, sits one of the world’s oldest toboggan runs. It operates from December through March, weather permitting. The aptly named Au 1884 does indeed date back to 1884, which makes it older than the hotel itself. Your toboggan will breeze down the track at speeds surpassing 40 miles per hour! Plus, it’s one of the most economical activities in town. A trip down the toboggan and a hot chocolate cost only $7.
7. You Can Buy Maple Taffy
During Carnaval and at the other winter festivals and special events, you can buy maple taffy on a stick for just a few dollars. But this isn’t your typical candy-store taffy! It’s made by pouring maple syrup into fresh, clean snow and then wrapping it around a stick as it hardens. If you happen to visit in late March or April, you’ll likely see pop-up stands selling it at popular tourist destinations, even if there isn’t a special event underway. This marks the beginning of the maple syrup season, and you’ll be getting fresh syrup that was mere tree sap days earlier.
8. You Can Heat Up And Chill Out At A Nordic Spa
Even if you don’t get to check out the Nordic spa at the ice hotel, there are others in the area that beckon to visitors. Nordic spas alternate hot and cold experiences for the most refreshing adventure imaginable. A combination of heated pools, aromatherapy steam rooms, and icy-cold plunge pools, the experience is said to have a number of health benefits. However, if you follow in my footsteps and just stick mostly to the warmer pools, no one will judge you! The Siberia Spa is a popular spot that’s just 20 minutes from Quebec City.
9. You Can Warm Up With A Cocktail With A View
Every time I go to Quebec City, there’s one tradition I must partake in, and I think it works just as well in winter as it does in summer -- in fact, it might even be better! I go for a drink -- usually a chocolate martini -- and some dessert at the 1608 Wine & Cheese Bar at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier. It’s the perfect spot for a little treat -- the old-fashioned bar is timeless and elegant, and the service and drink preparation are impeccable. Plus, this time of repose allows you to experience a little bit of the hotel’s elegance for a fraction of the price of staying there. But best of all, the views of the river, the toboggan at Au 1884, and the city are fantastic.
10. The Caribou Is Delicious
If locals offer you some caribou, they’re not talking about the wild animal! Caribou is a mix of red wine, a spirit (usually rye whiskey), and maple syrup. It can be served cold or warmed up with spices like a mulled wine. Legend has it that, once upon a time, loggers and hunters drank a mix of caribou blood and whiskey for an effective pick-me-up while working in the cold. While households used to make their own blood-free concoction (and some still do), today you can buy a commercial caribou at authorized liquor distributors, and many bars have their own distinct recipes as well. It’s delicious and a great way to wrap up a day of exploring Quebec City.