Some people daydream about their favorite sports team or the car they want to buy. Me? I daydream about the next time I’ll visit Québec City.
Growing up in the mid-Atlantic meant that crossing any international border was an undertaking that was only done when you had at least a week of time to use. Moving to Massachusetts threw that mindset out the door. The Canadian border is only about three hours from my house, which means that it’s an available playground for short weekend trips. The first time we decided to try it was several years ago when we took a weekend trip to Québec City – the most European city in North America, as it’s known. From the first moment, I was hooked. The architecture, the food, and the warm hospitality of those who call it home have caused us to return many times since. Each time I walk through the streets I feel like I’m home. We’ve visited enough to know our way around, find the restaurants the locals love, and to even offer some directional advice to those standing on the sidewalk with a perplexed look in their eyes.
I’ll admit that there’s a lot of very touristy things to be found there, and for good reason: the city’s filled with tourists. But that’s not a bad thing. It just shows how wonderful the place is and lends a great deal of money to the local economy. According to Québec City Tourism, $1.32 billion was spent in Québec City and the surrounding area because of tourism in 2016 – a tremendous amount of money that provided income for business owners and their employees.
Now, I could never provide the perspective that a local could, but I want to tell you about some of my favorite things to do and places to frequent when visiting the area – no matter if the weather’s warm or below zero.
If you’re there in winter:
- The Carnaval de Québec (Québec Winter Carnival) is my favorite cold weather activity when visiting. This yearly celebration of everything winter has been held each year since 1955, although the first one recorded for the area was in 1894. Is it cold? Absolutely! But you quickly forget about the icy temperatures when you’re standing around a fire table – yes, they have tables with fires – talking with some fellow travelers as you sip something to keep you warm. The parades, ice sculptures, displays, and many other fun activities that are a part of this event make the modest admission fee very reasonable. The Carnaval is always held in February and places to stay book up very quickly, so plan ahead.
- The toboggan is an absolute must for anyone wanting to relive those fun times of riding a sled down a hill. Although, this makes most hills look like small mounds. First appearing in 1884, the toboggan, which sits in the shadow of the iconic Château Frontenac, takes anyone willing to climb the stairs (while listening to the screams of those sledding down ahead of you) on an exhilarating ride that reaches speeds of up to 70 km / hour. Don’t worry, it’s perfectly safe. The staff take every precaution to ensure that riders reach the bottom safely. And for just $3 per ride, it’s a huge bargain for families trying to entertain their kids, or adults looking for yet another reason to hold tight to each other. The toboggan runs from mid-December to mid-March, and more information can be found at www.au1884.ca/en.
- Sometimes you just need to get out of the cold, and there’s no better place warm up than the Musée de la Civilisation. Not only is the museum the repository of the city and province’s cultural history, but it also offers an ever-changing array of excellent exhibits. It’s easy to spend several hours strolling around from room to room, and it’s a very family-friendly museum with something for everyone’s tastes.
- Who doesn’t crave some hot chocolate when cold weather is around? The more decadent, the better. That’s why I couldn’t agree more with Québec City writer and foodie-extraordinaire Allison Van Rassel and her fantastic article about this subject, Québec City’s Best Hot Chocolates. At the top of her list is my favorite in the city, which is found at Auberge Saint-Antoine’s Café-Bar Artéfact. It’s similar to the deliciously thick hot chocolates I’ve enjoyed in Paris. Is it of your usual cup? No. But the amount you get will give two people very good portions.
Just remember to bring very warm clothes with you when visiting in the winter. It’s normal for temperatures to be below zero (Fahrenheit), which can be dangerous for exposed or ill-protected skin. Also, snow and ice are part of daily life during the winter months, so be sure to wear boots that have good tread for stability as you walk the hills and stairs. Also, one way the city provides traction on sidewalks is to put down crushed stone with salt. You’ll track this into buildings, so be courteous and clean your shoes before walking inside.
If you’re there in warmer weather:
- The Plains of Abraham offer a quiet place to enjoy natural beauty in the heart of the city. But this location wasn’t always so peaceful. In 1759, it was the site of the Battle of Québec – a clash between French and British forces. Remember that Québec City wasn’t fortified to make it look good (even though it does), but rather because it was a city on the frontier of a heavily disputed part of the New World. Today, the main reminder of those turbulent times is the Citadelle, which was built starting in 1820. The Plains of Abraham feature walking paths and beautiful views of the St. Lawrence River. You can even walk around the walls of the Citadelle or visit the Musée Royal 22E Régiment, which is a great way to learn about the active regiment that still calls the fort home.
- Walking around offers an opportunity to not only see a beautiful city, but to enjoy the free public art in the form murals and sculptures. These pieces of art are available to view 365 days per year – rain or shine, snow or sun. It just seems to be better when you can enjoy them in the warmth of a summer afternoon.
- You can see the heart and soul of a city when you visit its main market, and for Québec City that would be the Marché du Vieux Port. It’s a year-round market that’s protected from the elements, but I think it really shines during peak growing season. That’s when it’s teeming with vendors and shoppers. The bounty of beautiful and delicious foods for sale will boggle your mind, and I encourage you to try everything you can. The vendors love to chat and are usually willing to offer samples of their products.
- Just over 12 km or about 10 minutes from Québec City is Île d’Orléans. This island, only accessible by the Pont de l’Île, is only 75 km in circumference and is the breadbasket of the region. It’s where farming took root in the area and it still boasts wonderful vineyards, cideries, and farms. It’s great to just drive around the island visiting the farms, talking to the farmers, and trying some delicious foods. There are also plenty of opportunities to walk around and explore the natural beauty of this gorgeous place.
- About 11 km or about 10 minutes from Québec City sits one of the natural wonders of the area: Parc de la Chute-Montmorency. The park, open year-round, is home to a waterfall that took my breath away the first time I saw it. It’s amazing to look at from afar, but you can also take a cable car to the walkway the goes over the top of the waterfall. There are also opportunities for hiking, zip lining, and many other outdoor activities.
- Sometimes, there’s no better way to enjoy a warm afternoon than sitting at a table with a nice glass of wine (beer or cider) and a charcuterie board. For me, the place to do this in Québec City is Bistrot Le Pape Georges in the Quartier Petit Champlain section of the city. I continue to return to this restaurant time and time again. It’s actually one of the places in my dreams when I think about returning. It’s that special!
As with most places that suffer through sub-zero winter temperatures, the warmer months are welcomed with joy and enthusiasm. But the great thing about Québec City is that it’s a city that you can enjoy no matter the time of year.
Do you have some suggestions of places I overlooked? Please feel free to add them in the comments.