Where is the best city in North America to visit in the winter? For me, it is Quebec City, Canada. This medieval-style city perched on a hill overlooking the St. Lawrence River is the perfect combination of North America and Europe. Quebec city is romantic, yet accessible, and family-friendly. Read on for things to do in Quebec City in winter that will make you fall in love with the city too. Although I am writing mainly about my visit to Quebec City in the winter, you can also use this article to plan your trip to Quebec City at any time of the year.
Things to do in Quebec in Winter
There a so many fun and exciting winter activities around Quebec, Canada, you could easily spend a week here. Going to Quebec’s Winter Carnival was on my family’s bucket list, so we headed up for a four-day weekend. We had a fabulous time and can’t wait to return another year. Being part of French Canada, the city feels so European that it is hard to believe that it is within driving distance from New England. In Quebec City, you will find historical, cultural, and military evidence of England and France battling over the area for hundreds of years. We love the food in the region (You can read more about that in my post about Montreal), and my son even gets to practice his French.
Things to Do in Quebec City in Winter
Quebec City is the only walled city north of Mexico City in North America. Quebec City has a modern city; in fact, it is the seat of government for the Providence of Quebec. Old Quebec, or Vieux-Quebec, is the fairy tale-part, with cobblestone streets and stone houses. The Old Town is split into Upper Town and Lower Town by a cliff.
On my spring visit to Quebec City, I took a walking tour of the city, which helped me understand it. Book a walking tour here.
I also took a Ghost and Crimes Tour in which a historical criminal showed us around the Upper Town. Very fun. You can book yours here.
Explore the Upper City
The walled portion of the city, or Upper Town, sits on the cliff’s edge. The looming castle-like hotel, Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, and the Citadel claim a towering presence over this area.
Explore the rue Saint Louis
- Walk along the rue Saint Louis’ cobblestone streets and 18th-century stone houses.
- Aux Anciens Canadiens, a restaurant serving classic gourmet Quebec cuisine, sits in the oldest building in Quebec City, Maison Jacquet, built in 1675.
Monastery of the Ursulines
The first time I visited Quebec, I was a teenager visiting with my beloved, very Catholic, French-Canadian grandmother. We visited this site of the first school for girls in North America. It is pretty cool to visit the place that thought girls were important enough to deserve an education. The site has a small museum and a gorgeous little chapel.
The Roman Catholic Church was influential in Quebec for hundreds of years until a humanizing Silent Revolution in the 1960s. This fact has come up many times in discussions with locals. This nunnery ran for 400 years, and in recent history, the nuns left. This site is full of history and power and deeply moved me.
Get a spectacular view of the Saint Lawrence River from the Terrasse Dufferin.
Look upriver to see the Île d’Orléans.
Take a toboggan ride on the terrace. The rides run year-round and have been doing so since 1884.
Visit the Morrin Center.
This 200-year-old jail was turned into the city’s first English-speaking college. If you love the smell of old books like I do, it has a lovely library.
Visit the City Walls and the Citadel.
Visit the website for more information.
Take the Funicular down into the Lower Town
The funicular is on the Terrasse Dufferin, by the cliff’s edge, behind Chateau Frontenac.
Lower Town sits on the banks of the St. Lawrence River. It was the first part of the city settled in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain.
Petite Champlain, the oldest commercial street in North America
- Eat and shop on Petite Champlain.
- In the summer, grab a drink on a patio.
- Explore the Place Royal, the location of the original French fur settlement.
- Check out the giant “Fresque des Québécois,” a mural depicting Quebec’s history.
Take the Breakneck Stairs (L’escalier Casse-Cou) back to Upper Town
Walk up rue Ste Louis until you cross the city gate, Port-Sainte Louis.
Explore Downtown Quebec
Outside of the walls lies Quebec’s Parliament, The Plains of Abraham (the site of the deciding battle in which the English defeated the French in the fight over French Canada), and many of the larger hotels.
Quebec City’s Winter Carnival
Celebrations to get through winter and party before lent take place all around the world, such as Brazil’s Carnival, Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and Quebec’s Winter Carnival! During three weeks in winter, the city of Quebec is overrun by revelers. The center of the city is cordoned off, and stations set up for winter fun. Beware that Quebec in winter needs a reason to celebrate– it is frigid, with average nighttime temperatures in the single digits Fahrenheit! Also, this festival is very crowded, especially on the last weekend when a pee-wee hockey tournament also takes place.
How Does Winter Carnival Work?
There are many activities spread out around the city. A few examples are ax throwing, a tour of Bon Homme’s ice castle, sledding, and creating ice sculptures. There are also many Quebec treats. As with every carnival, there are also parades. See the schedule here.
A basic ticket includes most activities. The ticket is a cute Bon Homme effigy (plastic Bon Homme that you wear attached to you). You can also buy a deluxe ticket, which includes a souvenir, food, and drinks. The year I went, 2019, we got a hat, a caribou shot, and a maple candy with the deluxe ticket.
If you have extra money on hand, you can pay more for VIP tickets for the parade or additional activities.
How long should I stay for the Winter Carnival?
Because of the long lines for every activity, it takes a long time to do not much. It took us a whole day to see the parade and experience what the two stations near the Parliament had to offer. It doesn’t open until late morning. We were just too cold to make it past the parade, although maybe the lines would have been shorter. A few days are needed to see the whole festival, including riding the flume in old town Quebec by the Chateau Frontenac.
Getting around Quebec during Carnival
Although Quebec has taxis and Uber, they were so hard to get during the mad rush of Carnival, and they were not willing to take you anywhere that required deterring around the roped-off Carnival.
The cutest way to get around is by sled. Forget strollers; babies pulled around in small toboggans are ubiquitous at Carnival.
The public buses are an excellent way to get around downtown Quebec. It is possible to walk everywhere within Old Town Quebec.
Where to Stay in Quebec City
Inexpensive Family Hotel
When we went, we were saving for our bucket list trip to Alaska, so we needed to make this trip on a budget. It is hard to find rooms that easily fit a family of five. Although Old Quebec is a better place geographically to stay, it requires two rooms for our family. It is also much more expensive to stay in, especially in a high season like Carnival. Hotel Classique, a large hotel with apartment-style rooms, two restaurants, free parking and wi-fi about 5 miles from Old Town, was a perfect fit for our family.
There is a bus stop right out front, but the three feet of snow that fell in the days before I arrived made it tough to take during this trip. Although Uber works in Quebec, during this trip, the drivers seemed unwilling to deal with the closed streets that Carnival brings, making this an area a less-than-ideal spot to stay in during this festival. I would stay here again, but not during Carnival.
Stay in an Iconic Fairytale Castle
The last time I visited Quebec, I fulfilled a bucket list wish by staying at the Chateau Frontenac. This exquisite hotel looms over old town Quebec but is not really a castle. The service, location, and convenience of this hotel cannot be beaten.
Stay Right in the Middle of Winter Carnival
Bon Homme’s Castle is in the park in front of the Chateau Laurier, a four-star hotel in downtown Quebec. Even the walled city is just a short walk from this hotel.
Quebec City Restaurants
There are now a couple of restaurants to which I return, now that I am visiting Quebec often. Here are a few of my favorites.
This chain, which means the crazy pig, serves Quebec food around the city. I have eaten in the downtown and Lower Town locations, and our whole party was happy with the open restaurant, good food, and friendly staff. Their breakfast poutine over hashbrowns with hollandaise sauce is my favorite poutine.
We loved this French restaurant in downtown Quebec with free on-site parking.
This is a tourist restaurant on rue Ste Louis in Upper Town with a lot of energy serving yummy Quebecois food and inventive drinks. Be sure to go to the bathroom.
Day Trips from Quebec City
You can see all of these things in one full day driving from Quebec. The only thing winter-specific is the ice hotel. The island is better in spring, summer, or fall as more is open.
Hótel de Glace
Montmorency Falls in Winter
Montmorency Falls, just seven kilometers north of Quebec City, is worth visiting any time of the year. I was here in spring and saw it in its green and blue splendor. But there is something magical about climbing up to this waterfall, which is higher than Niagara Falls, in the winter.
One unique feature of this waterfall is the pain de sucre, or sugarloaf. When mist from the waterfall freezes before it hits the ground, it forms the ethereal white powder seen around the falls. This phenomenon doesn’t happen every year, so we felt very blessed to experience this on a gorgeously sunny, but cold, day.
There are stairs and a cable car (book that ticket here) that can bring you to the top of the waterfalls, or you can drive directly to Parc de la Chute-Montmorency. In the park is Montmorency Manor, which has a gift shop, museum, and restaurant. At some times of the year, the manor serves brunch.
If you enjoy adrenaline, be sure to cross the suspension bridge over the top of the waterfall. After that, continue along the trail looking for smaller falls.
There is also a steep spiral staircase you can take down the hill, but it closes when there is too much ice. Look for opportunities for ice climbing along the falls. It is even possible to zip-line across them. You can book a ticket for that here.
For information on the park and activity hours and prices, check out the park website.
If you don’t have a car, you can book a tour to Montmorency Falls and Ste-Anne de-Beaupré Church.
Île d’Orléans (Orleans Island)
When you are on the Terrasse Dufferin and look up the river, you can see a verdant or snow-covered island. This island is an easy day trip from Quebec. The bridge to get to it is right around Montmorency Falls. The island is full of quaint houses, farms, and shops specializing in locally grown and made foods. When we visited in the spring, we enjoyed island-made wines, jellies, taffy, and ice cream. I especially enjoyed items made from cassis or blackberries.
I brought my family back to Chocolaterie d’IÎle d’Orléans because when I visited in spring, I had the best dark chocolate dipped ice cream cone that I have ever had. I had to have another. They needed to see this darling place. Sadly they do not offer the ice cream in the winter. It was a blessing in disguise, though, as we ordered a dark hot chocolate, which is just as incredible!
Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré
North of the waterfall, there is a catholic basilica that is famous for its healing powers. People travel to Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré and leave their crutches and evidence of disease at the door of the sanctuary.
See the Sunset over Quebec City and the St. Lawrence River.
The first photo in the post was taken from the pull-off on the Pont de l’Île, the suspension bridge that goes from Quebec to Orleans Island. Beware it is cold in the winter, so have your tripod and camera ready to go. Read my Guide to Essential Travel Gear to see what camera and tripod I use.
Packing List for Quebec in Winter
I am an Amazon affiliate. That means that I make money if you buy products through links I provide, at no additional cost to you. Here is my packing list for our trip.
- Long underwear– I swear by long silk underwear as a first layer. It is comfortable, thin, and packs easily.
- Snow pants
- Layered shirts- The key to staying warm is wearing inner layers that keep in the warmth and outer layers that keep out wind and moisture. Flannel shirts are perfect because they are thin and pack well, but also insulate. Over that, wear a sweatshirt or a lightweight sweater.
- Gloves- My glove of choice these days must keep my hands warm while still letting me work my cell phone and camera, like this pair of North Face gloves.
- Hat- To me, the most critical part of a hat is keeping your ears warm. I wore a hat and earmuffs.
- Scarf or face mask– This is something we forgot to bring for the kids and had to end up buying. It is that cold!
- Ski goggles– When my friend told me to bring these, I thought she was crazy. Thankfully, we went on a warm weekend, but it was still cold being outside at the festival.
- A Backpack- You need a place to store your extra layers once you leave your hotel. If you have read my carry-on packing guide, you know a compressible backpack, like this one by Osprey, is key to packing light.
- Toboggan for your child– kids being pulled around on sled were ubiquitous at this festival. A stroller isn’t practical here.
- Hand and foot warmers– we brought lots of these and used them the most on our day of waiting in lines at the carnival.
- Snow boots- I have had my Sorrel snow boots for the last ten years. They last forever, look cute and even have enough grip for a hike up to a waterfall through the snow.
Hopefully, I have convinced you why Quebec is the perfect city to visit during the winter. As far as Quebec’s Winter Carnival– this revelry is a wonderful way to get through the doldrums of winter, but be sure to stay in the thick of it and dress warmly! If you aren’t into crowds, visit Quebec City outside of Carnival and save some money as well. Either way, you will be happy that you visited this incredible city in winter.
Please let me know if you have any comments or questions below.