Québec may just well be the coldest place I have ever been. I’ve spent the last 10 years living in countries where the sun shines and the average daily temperatures rarely require a winter coat. Québec, however, located on the east of Canada, boasts an average temperature of around -17C in January. When we visited, we experienced temperatures of around -28C including wind chill. It was cold! But, if you come prepared and pack the right clothing, then Québec is a truly magical winter destination for families. It’s easily one of the most beautiful places I have visited and in spite of the sub-zero temperatures, the city has so much for visitors to do.
Québec City is the capital of Québec Province, Canada’s largest province. Founded in 1608, it’s the oldest walled city north of Mexico and the cradle of French Civilisation in North America. It is also extraordinarily picturesque; compact, charming and very European.
This is also a city that embraces its winter. Although many of the first European settlers that arrived in the early 17th Century didn’t make it through the brutal first winter, they soon worked out how to survive the tough conditions and to this day, residents make the most of the six cold months of the year. Rather than hibernate indoors, when the snow falls in Québec, the locals head outside to cross-country ski, snowshoe or even run in the snow. School children enjoy recess outside sledging and building snowmen. Snow is a way of life here and something that the Québécois celebrate, no more so than during their annual Winter Carnival.
My eight-year-old son and I visited Québec City to experience the famous Carnaval de Québec. This winter festival is the largest winter carnival in the world. It’s an event that takes over the city; figures and pictures of Bonhomme, the official mascot of the carnival, can be seen across town and carnival events pack the three weekends over which the festival is held.
Some of the most popular events include the Ice Canoe Race, when over 50 teams from Quebec, Canada, France and the USA compete across the frozen Saint Lawrence River between Quebec City and Lévis. On the final weekend there’s the Snow Bath, when crazy carnival goers, dressed only in their swimsuits (as well as gloves, boots and woollen socks), roll around in the snow!
We didn’t get to experience everything that winter in Québec has to offer but over the course of our three-day visit, we saw and did a lot. And, during this time, we fell under the magical spell of Québec, cold toes and all. The following are some of our trip highlights.
La Carnaval de Québec
Our main reason for visiting Québec was to experience La Carnaval de Québec that celebrated its 62nd birthday this year. The first large winter Carnival in Québec City took place in 1894 when the locals decided they’d had enough of the tough, snowy winter and decided to throw a party instead. Two wars and an economic crisis followed and subsequent winter festivals were only held on and off. However, the idea of celebrating winter held strong and in 1954 the carnival was re-introduced, with Bonhomme as the festival’s spokesperson. Ever since then the city has held its winter fiesta annually, with visitors coming from around the world.
To say that my son enjoyed his time at the Carnival would be a serious understatement. Carnival rides and events are held throughout the city but the main festival grounds are on the Plains of Abraham, just outside the walls of the old city. This snowy playground is an absolute delight for children with horse drawn sleigh rides, dog sledding, snow tubing, snow sculptures, human bowling, a ferris wheel ride and much more. It is A LOT of fun for everyone.
In between rides we warmed up in the central bistro where I discovered the delights of Caribou, Québec’s magic recipe for beating the cold. A mixture of red wine, hard liquor (usually whisky) and spices, this traditional alcoholic punch is served warm and does an excellent job at warding off the chill. Caribou is sold only by Quebec’s liquor board — up to 60,000 bottles a year, nearly all during the carnival season. If you spot folk wandering around with red plastic Bonhomme canes, they are most likely filled with Caribou.
The Old City
During our stay we also enjoyed a tour of the old city of Québec. This picture-perfect part of town is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a delight to explore. Narrow cobblestone streets, heritage homes that still bear the name of their original pioneering occupants and towering church spires characterise North America’s oldest settlement. Centre stage stands the beautiful Château Frontenac, the most photographed hotel in the world.
The old town is divided into two parts, the Old Upper Town (Haute Ville) and the Old Lower Town (Basse Ville), where the French first settled in 1608. There are plenty of museums and boutiques and European-style cafés to enjoy, or you just enjoy wandering the atmospheric streets as we did.
Toboggan Slide Au 1884
Located near to the Château Frontenac is the Toboggan Slide Au 1884, a traditional toboggan run with three chutes that is fantastic fun. The toboggan run is over 100-years-old, making it one of the oldest attractions in town. You can fit up to four passengers per toboggan and apparently reach up to speeds of 70km / hour (we didn’t!). The chute is on Dufferin Terrace and tickets can be bought at the Au 1884 kiosk at the bottom of the run. Take a look at our video (below) to see us hurtling down the run.
Another only-in-Quebec activity is ice fishing. Positioned in Louise Basin, in the heart of the port, is Village Nordik, a makeshift winter village where visitors can try this unique Canadian pastime or strap on a pair of ice skates. My son decided to give fishing a go but the combination of cold fingers and a short attention span meant that he didn’t catch anything. Still, the experience of sitting in an igloo (albeit an inflatable one), fishing from a small hole cut into the ice, was a true Canadian winter experience.
Measuring some 83m (272 ft) tall, Montmorency Falls are the highest waterfalls in the province of Quebec and are even higher than Niagra Falls – by some 30m (99 ft). The falls are stunning and a destination for adventure travellers in both summer and winter. Stairs descend on either side of the falls and a suspension bridge over the crest afford beautiful views of the falls themselves and the frozen basin below. There are three via ferrata routes near the falls as well as footpaths that lead past various lookout points.
We were content with viewing the falls from Montmorency Manor, the visitor centre, and had fun trying to spot the ice climbers making their way up the frozen falls.
Village Vacances Valcartier
One of my son’s favourite afternoons was spent at Village Vacances Valcartier. Located just 20 minutes from downtown Quebec, this enormous space is a waterpark in the summer months and a snowy playground during the winter. First opened in 1963 with just eight toboggan slides, today Village Vacance has a huge range of winter activities including a skating path and children’s playground. The main reason to come here in the snow, however, is to go speeding down the mountain on a rubber inner tube.
Much like ski runs, slopes are graded according to difficulty (and speed!) and range from the mild green runs to the stomach-churning Everest that stands at 33.5 metres high. Zipping down this, you can reach speeds of up to 80 km / hour….although we didn’t try and kept ourselves on the gentle slopes! There are lots of slopes and several where you can slide down in groups, including Tornado that involves lots of spinning around. Village Vacances is enormous fun.
Hôtel de Glace – Québec City’s Ice Hotel
The only hotel in North America made entirely of ice and snow (500 tons of ice and 30,000 tons of snow to be precise) Québec City’s Hôtel de Glace is somewhere you must visit, even if you don’t stay the night. Modelled on Sweden’s Ice Hotel, this icy palace boasts 44 rooms and themed suites, an ice bar, an ice wedding chapel, a Nordic area with hot tubs and sauna under the stars and even an ice slide. Since it first opened in 2001, they have played host to some 55,000 overnight guests. Pretty impressive given that visitors will only spend one night here.
We didn’t stay overnight (although we did learn about the somewhat complicated procedure involved in getting into your ice bed!) and enjoyed an excellent tour of the hotel instead. The hotel takes six weeks to build and 50 people will work on the site; some thirty workers and a further 15 or so sculptors. Of the 44 rooms, some are simple and others are incredibly elaborate with intricate carvings and designs. All the beds have a solid ice base with a mattress on top. If you’re interested in spending the night with your kids (133 families slept here last season!) then you need to read this.
If sleeping in the Ice Hotel, you’re given detailed instructions on how to prepare yourself and to keep warm. Sleeping bags, bed sheets and pillows are provided – and they even have modified sleeping bags for kids.
Post-tour, the kids kept themselves busy sliding down the ice slide and we made our way to the bar where I enjoyed my first ever “Accident de Ski-doo” a very Alpine inspired cocktail that came served in an ice shot glass.
We had a wonderful three-days in Quebec and I could quite happily have stayed much longer – especially once we worked out how to keep warm. It’s a fantastic destination for children and we’ll certainly visit again so that the rest of the family can experience the most magical winter in the world.
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Disclosure: My son and I were guests of Tourism Québec and Québec City Tourism during our stay in Québec. All opinions are, as always, entirely my own and I will happily return to the city during winter, next time bringing the rest of the family!
For more ideas on travelling in Canada with Kids, take a look at our Family Guide to Canada