There’s nowhere in North America quite as magical as Quebec City – especially at this time of year.
Amid mind-bogglingly freezing temperatures – in January 2015, it dropped to -36.7 degrees Celsius, the coldest it’s been in 75 years – this predominantly French-speaking town is a warm hug of a destination.
The city, founded in 1608 by French explorer Samuel de Champlain, is one of the oldest European settlements on the continent. It has all the modern conveniences of a capital city, but, with a still-petite population of 516,000, feels intimate and special.
Indeed, the city’s rich European charm is present all year round, coming into sharper focus during the winter season – as we discovered during a visit just last week, in the run up to Christmas.
So don with us your hats, gloves and sturdy snow boots as we recount six of our favorite discoveries about this true winter wonderland…
1 The fact that, yes, it looks like a Disney movie
It’s not the most original observation, but boy is it accurate – we were humming the soundtracks to Beauty and the Beast and Frozen throughout our stay, and challenge you not to do the same.
The city’s throwback style is best preserved on the cobble-stoned lanes of the Petit-Champlain district in historic Old Quebec: a living, breathing UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the only walled city north of Mexico.
From the gorgeous Place-Royale square to otherworldly streets such as Rue Saint-Jean and rue Saint-Louis, the whole area is teaming with cozy coffee shops, inviting restaurants, trendy boutiques and curious novelty stores. Head here to take in the gentle, tasteful Christmas decorations with Santa Claus and countless carolers for company.
2 The fascinating Chateau Frontenac
Again, this 600-room luxury hotel is straight out of a fairytale – part Medieval castle, part Renaissance palace. A commanding presence atop Quebec City, it boasts spectacular views of the Saint Lawrence River, and a sumptuous, regal interior; all gorgeously pretty chandeliers and rich oak paneling. We would like to get married here. Any takers?
3 The stylish boutique hotels
If Chateau Frontenac is a little out of budget, why not stay at the comfortable Auberge Place d’Armes, one of many trendy boutique hotels in Quebec City.
Spanning two floors and two centuries-old townhouses, the slightly rickety character of this quaint four star won’t be for everyone – there’s no lift, for example, but rather, a steep, slightly uneven staircase – but we loved its throwback charm (and also the rain shower in our room). Most of all, we adored waking up like a kid on Christmas morning to find the first proper snowfall of the season on the lovely Rue Sainte-Anne [above].
Service was very good – some say locals aren’t welcoming towards English-speaking visitors, but we didn’t detect any such inhospitably at the hotel or in the wider city during our stay.
4 The gorgeous churches
Speaking of saintly structures, Quebec City is absolutely full of them, generating huge numbers in religious tourism. We witnessed a rare event during our stay – the opening of the Holy Door (one of only seven in the world) at the attractive Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec.
5 The wealth of things to do – from ice skating to museum hopping
Skiing is an art form in Quebec, but there are a plethora of activities in the city for those with the outlook of Ab Fab’s Patsy Stone (I.e. ‘Nothing on god’s earth would get me onto a pair of skis.’). For a decidedly lower impact way of staying active, rent skates on site at the popular Place D’Youville rink.
For something educational, head to the stunningly designed Musée de la civilisation and learn how to build an igloo at the ‘This Is Our Story: First Nations and Inuit in the 21st Century’ exhibit.
Elsewhere, to shop for Christmas decorations all year round go to La Boutique de Noel de Quebec; for killer cocktails and zingy tapas try Bistro L’Atelier; to mix with LGBTI locals and enjoy riotous drag, drop by Le Drague Cabaret Club; to explore local art and wine to a jazz soundtrack go to Le Cercle, and finally, prop up a stool at the hip and happening Korrigane brewery for the extensive beer collection and hearty pub grub (including local comfort dish poutine – don’t ask me to describe it, because I’m still shuddering at the memory. Suffice to say it’s not for everyone)
6 The nearby Montmorency Falls – which often freeze over during winter
You can’t go wrong with Quebec City’s photogenic surrounding countryside, best epitomized by this beautiful waterfall, just a short drive from the city center. Montmorency Falls are 30ft taller than Niagara Falls (albeit far narrower – but we’ll gloss over that), and can be spectated by suspension bridge, cable car, zip wire, via an ice climb (!), or, if you’re not keen on heights, from your car window on the highway. Enjoy.