There are cities where winter is something to be endured, where the cold months from November to March reduce citizens to shut-ins. Québec City is not one of those places. In Quèbec, the winter is celebrated. In fact, it may be one of the best times of the year to visit. Here's how to enjoy it ...
First, a note about the conditions. For sure, it is incredibly cold (winter temperatures can dip as low as -13°F), but with the correct dress, it can be manageable. Go for the three-layer technique: synthetic fabric on the bottom layer to allow humidity to escape the body, wool, flannel or fleece in the middle, and a wind-shielding exterior layer. Add a hat, scarf, mittens, and boots, and you're ready to go.
Get into the Carnival Spirit
Undoubtedly the number one reason for visiting Quèbec in the frigid winter is Carnaval de Quèbec, the biggest winter festival in the world. The carnival, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, offers 16 days and nights of outdoor parties, events, and parades. They're all presided over by official Carnaval mascot Bonhomme, a big, lovable snowman clad in an arrowhead sash and red cap. Bonhomme's home during Carnaval is his Ice Palace, which is constructed from 2,000 blocks of ice, and is open to visitors. It's also the setting for nighttime dance parties.
This year's Carnaval is drawing to a close (it ends February 16), but there's still time to catch the second Parade along Cartier Street on February 15, brave a snow bath on February 15, and join Bonhomme for a hearty brunch on February 16. At the Place Desjardins, visitors can showshoe, skate, cross country ski, hurtle down a 390-foot-long ice slide, take a sleigh ride, and go husky sledding for the remainder of Carnaval. Plastic figurines (referred to as effigies) in the shape of Bonhomme serve as your pass to all activities within the Place Desjardins, as well as the Ice Palace, and cost CAN$15. Purchasing an effigy also gives you discounted admission to other sites around the city, including the Ice Hotel and Aquarium – and makes for a nice souvenir.
Enjoy the great Outdoors at the Plains of Abraham
All throughout winter you can ski, skate, and snowshoe for free on the Plains of Abraham, a 108-acre park that overlooks the Saint-Lawrence River. The park offers almost eight miles of trails for beginner and intermediate skiers, a two mile-long snowshoe trail, and a large ice rink on the municipal reservoir. If you don't have your own equipment, rentals are available.
Bed Down at the Ice Hotel
Just a few miles outside of the city center is the Hôtel de Glace, the only ice hotel in North America. As its name implies, the entire 44-room hotel is constructed from ice – at least it will be until March 23 when it turns to slush. This year, the hotel's suites have been designed to reflect a "myths and legends" theme, paying homage to folk tales from a around the world, from Easter Island to Egypt.
The ice hotel is open for room tours from 10 a.m every morning (admission costs CAN$18), but, for the full ice hotel experience, you can book a room and spend the night. At around CAN$400 per night for a basic room, it's a (pricey) once-in-a-lifetime experience. Guests staying the night participate in a training session and are advised to make use of the outdoor hot tubs prior to turning in for the night – important for warming the body before going to sleep on a slab of ice. A toasty fleece and sturdy sleeping bag is provided, as is a cocktail in the hotel's ice bar, and breakfast.
Regenerate in an Open-Air Spa
What better way to embrace the cold than by stripping down to a swim suit and jumping into a freezing waterfall? Not so sure? A visit to Sibéria Station Spa might change your mind. The outdoor spa experience here is based on a Scandinavian concept alternating hot, cold, and rest to bring about deep relaxation. To get the true benefit, you wallow in a hot tub, steam room, or sauna then jump into the freezing waterfall, rest for 20 minutes, then repeat the three steps. The spa promises that this principle of thermotherapy reduces stress, eliminates toxins, relaxes muscles, improves sleep quality, and strengthens the immune system. A day pass costs $39 ($27 from 5 p.m. until 8 p.m. closing). Towels are included, but you will need to bring a bathrobe or rent one for CAN$7.