Here’s a little secret: In February 2020, just before the COVID-19 pandemic would shut down international travel for over a year, our family drove to Europe from Boston in the time it normally takes to fly there. It’s easy if you know the shortcut: Just head north on Interstate 93, to Quebec City.
OK, fine, so we weren’t technically in Europe. But as we strolled the narrow streets of Old Quebec, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that dates back to the early 17th century, I was hard-pressed to tell the difference. Bakeries and bistros lined the lively cobblestone lanes. Snippets of singsong French followed us from shop to street corner. And it was all encircled by nearly 3 miles of imposing stone ramparts, like a medieval village, making it the only walled city north of Mexico on our side of the Atlantic.
The city is a joy to visit in summer, but it’s never prettier than in winter. Even in February, after the holidays have come and gone, Quebec looks like a Christmas card. Drifts of snow dot the slate mansard roofs, while twinkling string lights dangle overhead. And, as part of Quebec’s annual winter carnival, an entire infrastructure of ice springs up around the city.
Even before the pandemic nudged more activities outdoors, Quebec had long been celebrating winter outside, in defiance (or in a frosty embrace) of the cold. For over a week each year, the annual Quebec Winter Carnival (carnaval.qc.ca, 418-626-3716) transforms the city with larger-than-life art exhibitions, live outdoor music performances, and winter-themed games and events for all ages. Restaurants set up outdoor seating with fire pits and, from behind elaborate outdoor bars sculpted entirely of ice, serve up drinks including Caribou — a sweet, boozy French-Canadian concoction of wine, spices, and liquor served hot or cold (or really cold, in a shot glass made of ice). Most of the fun at the carnival, which this winter runs from February 4 to 13, takes place outside — making it the perfect pandemic excursion for the warmly dressed.
As of press time, vaccinated Americans are allowed to enter Canada if they meet a couple of requirements: Travelers age 5 and up must show border agents proof of a negative molecular COVID test (i.e., a PCR, NAT, or RT-LAMP test, not a rapid antigen test), taken within 72 hours of entering the country, or proof of a positive PCR test taken between 14 and 180 days prior. You’ll also need to upload proof of vaccination through the free ArriveCAN app (and bring your vaccine card, since Quebec restaurants require proof of vaccination). Finally, travelers may be randomly selected for a COVID test at the border, but it’s free and you don’t have to wait around for the results. (Travel restrictions may change, so visit travel.gc.ca for the most up-to-date information.)
Our drive to Quebec City took a little over six hours, and the tiny town of Franconia, New Hampshire, made for a good pit stop. After a quick but tasty lunch of bagels, wraps, and paninis at the Hungry Bear Cafe (603-823-2110), we popped into the Garnet Hill Outlet Store (garnethill.com, 603-823-5917), where my wife and daughter stocked up on fuzzy flannel and cozy cashmere. (The L.L. Bean Outlet in Concord, New Hampshire, is another good option for last-minute outdoor gear and hand warmers.) We finally crossed the bridge into Quebec City just as dusk descended.
Romantics may want to stay at one of the many charming boutique hotels within the historic walls of Old Quebec — or at the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac (fairmont.com, 418-692-3861). It’s a pricier pick, with rooms starting at around $230 (in US dollars) per night during carnival week, but the currency conversion helps: As of this writing, a Canadian dollar is worth 80 US cents. And with its gothic turrets and spires, this imposing 19th-century cliffside castle of a hotel, perched high above the St. Lawrence River, is the stuff of fairy tales and Harry Potter films; it’s easily the most stunning and recognizable feature of the Quebec skyline.
But those with kids can’t go wrong at the Hôtel Palace Royal (hotelsjaro.com, 418-694-2000), where rooms start around $128. It’s in the heart of the city, diagonally across from the iconic public skating rink at Place d’Youville and just outside St.-Jean Gate, a dramatic stone entrance to the old city. As we pulled up to the hotel, our dashboard thermometer read 4 degrees, so we were grateful for the underground garage.
Even better, as far as our daughter was concerned, the Palace Royal features a 10-story, glassed-in atrium with an indoor pool, hot tub, and palm trees. Our one-bedroom suite included a balcony overlooking the pool area, so in addition to swimming, we were able to have coffee or drinks “outside” — it felt downright Floridian, even as we watched snowflakes flutter beyond the windows. However, a city-facing room might have been a better choice, as the scent of chlorine was unshakable.
When we ventured out into the evening air that first night, it was shockingly, breath-snatchingly cold, even for Quebec. But nobody here lets the cold spoil the fun. People dress fashionably warm. Many parents steer their toddlers around snowbanks in sleds, not strollers. Even fine restaurants give off a ski lodge vibe, with bulky parkas draped over chair backs and woolen scarves and mittens cast about the elegant table settings.
We headed west down Rue St.-Jean and ducked into the Billig (418-524-8341). Like so many French-Canadian cafes, this creperie — with its exposed brick and cheerful bursts of bright color — has an effortlessly chic, light-handed whimsy about it. That was good news, because the service was a bit character-building; over an hour passed before we got our saucy, savory crepes, served open-faced. But with flames dancing in the fireplace and a starter of steamy French onion soup (hot chocolate for the onion-averse 8-year-old), it was a pleasant, cozy wait.
On our dash back to the hotel, we popped into L’intermarché St-Jean, a small grocery store — partly just to get out of the sub-zero cold, but also to get some milk and cereal for a morning breakfast on the balcony. And as we reached the checkout, I noticed a display case of Canadian maple syrup for about $7 a quart. Even my semi-defrosted brain could tell that was an outrageous deal compared with what we pay in Boston. So, naturally, we left with six cans of the stuff.
The next morning, we dressed like Arctic explorers, ready for a full day in the frosty cold. We layered flannel, fleece, and wool beneath our heaviest coats, and pulled on thick socks and waterproof winter boots. Then came the hats, scarves, gloves, and finally, my wife’s stroke of genius: 10-hour Ignik hand warmers and foot warmers to tuck inside our gloves and boots.
At that point, we were officially too hot to stay indoors even a minute longer. We walked a few blocks to the Parliament Building, one of three main carnival sites, and picked up the year’s “Effigy” — a small, wearable trinket that serves as proof of admission, like a lift ticket. (A presale is expected to begin in early December, with Effigies going for $15 apiece; they cost $25 when purchased onsite.) The design changes every year, but always features Bonhomme, the beloved carnival mascot: a jolly snowman sporting a red knit hat and the traditional French-Canadian arrow sash around his waist.
We entered a snowy plaza filled with ice bars, fire pits, food vendors, and so much ice crystal eye-candy that it was hard to stay out of other people’s Instagram feeds. Inside Bonhomme’s Castle, a massive, surreal snow fort, was a colorful ‘80s-themed interactive art exhibit called Pixel. We made designs with glowing pegs on a huge Lite-Brite-style wall, and chased one another through a human-scale Pac-Man maze beneath black lights. At the end of the exhibit, we each took a turn playing an ice canoe-racing game on a jumbo screen, cheered on by other carnival-goers. (Art installations and events change every year; organizers will announce the 2022 lineup on December 1.)
Ready to warm up indoors for a bit, we made our way to the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac. We couldn’t afford to stay the night at the hotel, but we could swing a lunch at Le Sam Bistro Évolutif (fairmont.com, 418-692-3861), the stunningly appointed restaurant inside. Savvier diners — that is, those with reservations — soaked up sunshine and river views on the enclosed veranda, but we were plenty happy tucking into a cozy interior booth and shedding a few layers. The food was perfectly prepared, but I had to remind myself that the prices were in Canadian dollars, meaning my $30 salmon actually cost a slightly more reasonable $24. (As of press time, proof of full vaccination is required to dine indoors at Quebec restaurants, and masks are required when not seated at your table.)
As we spilled out of the Frontenac onto Dufferin Terrace — a sprawling public plaza high above Lower Town and the St. Lawrence River — we heard a burst of delighted squeals and shrieks coming from a trio of sleds speeding down a towering wooden toboggan track to our right. We all looked at each other, our expressions in silent agreement: This, we must try. We bought tickets for $3 apiece inside Au 1884 (au1884.ca, 418-528-1884), a tiny cafe at the bottom, then hopped in line to grab a free toboggan from wide-eyed riders as they glided to a stop. (One sled can hold up to four people.) Dragging the toboggan up a long, snowy set of steps proved worth the effort: We were rewarded with a spectacular view of the snow-covered city and the ice-chunked St. Lawrence hundreds of feet below us.
We were so high up, in fact, that it was a little vertigo-inducing, so I was grateful when the attendant instructed us to sit on our sled. There were three lanes, side by side, like a gigantic pinewood derby track coated with slick ice. We got situated, our brave daughter in front, everybody’s legs tucked in tight, phones zipped into pockets. Then, after a quick countdown, the brake pegs dropped, releasing all three toboggans at once, and we were careening straight down the old-fashioned thrill ride at something like 40 miles per hour. We all started laugh-screaming as we picked up more and more speed. But a split second before I was about to truly panic, we flattened out at the bottom and coasted to a peaceful stop, where I broke into relieved, exhilarated giggles. The toboggan run is a must-do, and it runs from mid-December into March, depending on the weather.
Meandering around Old Quebec, we indulged in some traditional French-Canadian treats. For us parents, that meant a locally brewed Boréale ale (the malty red Rousse and dry Noir stout are ideal for cold weather), or a hot cup of Caribou by a warm fire. Our daughter, meanwhile, enjoyed the interactive indulgence that is maple taffy.
A flannel-clad man behind a 3-foot-high block of snow poured boiled maple syrup onto the icy snowpack, then handed our daughter a popsicle stick. After 10 seconds, he instructed her to poke and roll the stick in the quickly thickening syrup, creating a natural taffy pop. At about $2 apiece, this activity-snack combo proved priceless in perking up our weather- and walking-weary child.
By dinnertime, we were too cold and tired to venture far from the hotel, but we lucked upon Sapristi (sapristi.ca, 418-692-2030), an Italian restaurant just inside the old city walls on Rue St.-Jean. My wife loved the linguine with pesto, our daughter eagerly tore into a brick-fired kid’s pizza, and my “risotto of the moment” — with chorizo and shrimp — was creamy and comforting.
Walking back to the hotel, we took in the ice skaters at Place D’Youville, gracefully gliding and swishing beneath the lights. We didn’t think to bring our skates, but that’s probably for the best; I’m not a very good skater, and there are no walls along the edge of the rink — so I would have had no way to bring myself to a stop without causing an international incident.
The next day, high temps hit the teens, and it felt positively balmy. We started the day at the other carnival hot spot along Grande Allée, which was blissfully pedestrian-only during the festival. We took a snow tube ride down a park slope, swung on repurposed snowboards, and ordered piping hot deep-fried Oreos from a snack hut. We watched some traditional dancing and fiddling being performed on an outdoor stage. And our daughter got a huge kick out of the hockey mini-golf course — think hockey sticks instead of putters, ice instead of turf, and pucks instead of golf balls — and played every hole.
After a quick lunch, we descended the “Breakneck Steps” down to picturesque Lower Town, which dates back to Champlain’s settlement of the city in 1608. (Lazily or wisely, we would fork over $3 apiece to ride the funicular back up later.) After poking around a combination of quaint and quirky shops, we warmed up inside Pub L’Oncle Antoine (418-694-9176), a cavern of a tavern in the cellar of an 18th-century house, with arched stone walls and a crackling fire. The food was fine, but more importantly, it was the coziest pub I’ve been to outside of Europe — a wonderful spot to sip a pint and play a board game, feeling like you’re in the Gryffindor common room.
For dinner, we made a reservation at La Buche (restolabuche.com, 418-694-7272), a woodsy, rustic restaurant that puts a modern spin on traditional French-Canadian fare. Brunch is their claim to fame, but I was excited to try the dinner menu, which includes tourtière, meat pies like my Quebecois grandmother used to make. The decor is funky, bordering on bonkers: toboggans, snowshoes, and fox pelts on the walls, graffiti everywhere, and a bathroom sink that consists of a claw-foot tub with a hose. The shepherd’s pie and meat pies were hearty and authentically tasty, but it’s admittedly not a great spot for vegetarians.
On our last day of vacation, we realized there was still so much more winter to be had. In Quebec City’s sprawling Plains of Abraham park, there are miles of snowshoe and cross-country skiing trails, with equipment rentals available. Outside the city, a handful of sites maintain ice skating trails that magically meander through wintry woodlands. But the drive back to Boston would be a long one, so we got on the road with plenty of daylight to spare. We hit some snow flurries and windy turbulence through the White Mountains — but it sure beat jet lag.
Jon Gorey is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.