Quebec City is a charming place to visit all year round, but no other season really captures its special blend like winter. While summertime has the Festival d’été de Québec music extravaganza and temperatures that make Vieux Québec eminently more walkable, winter in the provincial capital has the family-friendly magic of Carnaval de Québec, which launched on Jan. 25 and runs through Feb. 11 — as well as loads of outdoor winter sports in the heart of the city, seasonal sights to see nearby and plenty of cozy indoor activities that just wouldn’t be the same without the snow and the frost — and the ubiquitous Christmas decor, which stays up well past the standard Jan. 7 cut-off.
Starting with the cozy, there are very few restaurants left in the world like le Continental, the kind of place you can easily imagine 1950s movie stars eating at — as well as, perhaps, some of our province’s 1950s-style politicians (we didn’t spot any, for the record). Virtually unchanged since it opened in 1956, le Continental specializes in cooking steaks and seafood table-side, with friendly waiter-chefs in white tuxedos putting on a fiery flambé show for your pleasure. These meals are excellent, and well complemented by fine cocktails and exceptional caesar salad.
Another unique winter dining experience was at Ophelia, a restaurant that’s also focused on surf and turf for lunch or dinner, and offers outdoor seating in well-heated bubbles. After a heavy snowfall, grabbing some clam chowder and a glass of wine out in the open was a novel and very pleasant way to spend a mid-afternoon. (For the bubble-curious, Old Montreal’s William Gray Hotel rooftop bar and Auberge St-Gabriel restaurant also have them.)
Just prior to lunch at Ophelia, we travelled about 40 minutes outside the city to Valcartier to visit the infinitely less cozy (but still adorable) Hotel de glace. The Quebec City region is one of only two places in the world where an ice hotel is maintained through the winter months (the other being a remote site in Sweden), so it’s really worth the excursion. (Our Uber driver there and back — who had had definitely leaned into his resemblance to Elon Musk in the style department, though he didn’t drive a Tesla — did a great job of setting the mood with a playlist of Québécois classics, and was pleased to learn that, despite what he’d heard, there are people in Montreal who speak French!) The designs within the ice hotel, where themed images are carved into snow walls of private rooms and ice sculptures line the communal areas, are enhanced by coloured lights, and the bar serves a range of cocktails in hollowed ice cubes to warm your insides as you reanimate your hands by the fire. There’s also a communal room that looks like a cult church out of Yellowjackets, but even that is more cute than creepy.
Travelling to Quebec City by train is highly recommended (it’s 3.5 hours), as is — of course — staying at the iconic Chateau Frontenac. The historic castle-like structure that looms over Quebec City is one of the oldest luxury hotels in the world (est. 1884), and while it’s guaranteed to be something special under any circumstances, it’s absolutely enhanced by staying in the Fairmont Gold section of the hotel. The rooms are premium and offer access to a beautiful lounge on the 14th floor, where free snacks, non-alcoholic drinks, breakfast and 5 à 7 bites are served daily, as well as cocktails, wine and beer (which are paid/honour system). The views from the windows all around this room — which has the feel of a converted presidential suite — are also spectacular in wintertime, from the icy lake and cargo ships to the city skyline to the National Assembly, which you can easily hate-watch in all its splendour.
Whatever your feelings are about the Bonhomme Carnaval (lots of mixed feelings out there), he is clearly a mascot that symbolizes tradition, winter and joie de vivre, which represents the city pretty well. Politics aside, Quebec is an old-school party town, which is part of what makes it such an essential winter travel destination. ■
For our latest in travel, please visit the Travel section.