You’re visiting a cold destination in the Winter?! We get that. A lot. We got it last January on our trip to Stockholm (read about that here), previously on Thanksgiving jaunts to Montréal and Toronto, and we got it again this year regarding our Thanksgiving getaway to Québec City! In short, we always try to go away over Thanksgiving because of the two free vacation days! Sometimes we take the whole week, others we just take the long weekend. This year we could only take the long weekend and decided on Québec City because we found fabulous, direct flight deals from JFK (about $200 less than I usually see)! And it was a great long weekend – even in the cold weather!
Québec City (or simply, Québec) is the capital of Québec, the large, French-speaking province in the Eastern part of Canada. Québec was founded in the early 1600s by Samuel de Champlain as a French settlement, and the Québec province is generally what people mean when they refer to “New France.” As a result of its French roots, French is the predominant language and the city maintains a very European feel. For example, Québec is the only walled city in North America north of Mexico and it is home to the famous “castle,” the Château Frontenac. In addition, the Old Town maintains many of its historic buildings – just like in Europe! Québec is a great city to visit if you are in need of a European fix without the expense and time of a European vacation.
In terms of layout, Québec City is a small city and you can walk all of Vieux-Québec (the Old Town) where the majority of tourist sites are located. Vieux-Québec is the oldest part of Québec City and home to the most charming streets and the Château Frontenac. Vieux-Québec is split into two parts: the Upper Town and the Lower Town.
The Lower Town (the “Basse-Ville”) is located right on the St. Lawrence River and is home to many touristic shops and restaurants and tons of art galleries, as well as the Musée de la civilisation and Rue du Petit Champlain – the most charming street in Canada! Plan to spend at least an hour walking around the Basse-Ville, much more if you plan to eat, browse the shops or go into the museum! Also, take your camera. La Basse-Ville is extremely photogenic. I only spent about an hour strolling around. I found the shops too touristy for my taste and the restaurants catering to tourists and overpriced, but the area is incredibly gorgeous and picturesque!
The Haute-Ville and Basse-Ville are connected by the Breakneck Stairs and a Finicular. The Breakneck Stairs are not has horrible as they sound, but should be avoided by anyone with mobility issues. The funicular is open daily from about 7:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. and costs $ 2.25 CAN per person per ride. Here are your options: stairs or funicular. I took the stairs.
Also, don’t miss THE quintessential pictures of Rue du Champlain from the Breakneck Stairs (bottom or mid-way up yields the best pictures):
The Upper Town (the “Haute-Ville”) is located above la Basse-Ville and is home to the famous Château Frontenac, its Dufferin Terrace, many museums, the oldest French Embassy in the world and La Basillic de la Nôtre Dame de Québec! Again, I would allow at least an hour + to explore the Haute-Ville, more depending on what you want to do! Note that the Château Frontenac is not actually a castle, but a hotel! You can freely walk in to check out the interior and it has several restaurants that are open to the public, including the 1608 Wine and Cheese Bar, which has a quite reasonably priced wine flight given the surroundings!
While most tourists will spend most of their time in Vieux Québec, of interest to many will be the St. Roch neighborhood. The St. Roch neighborhood is about a 20 minute walk from Vieux Québec(further inland) and is a hip and trendy area that home to lots of design and artisinal shops, restaurants and bars. St. Roch embodies modern Québec while retaining a lot of history and I recommend a visit, whether it be on a guided tour or on your own. The neighborhood is totally safe and lots of people are out and about during the day and night. One of the main thoroughfares in St. Roch is Rue Saint-Joseph, which makes for a good street to start your stroll through St. Roch and includes the below Église St. Roch (St. Roch church). In addition to being beautiful, St. Roch is the patron saint of dogs and the church is super dog-friendly, with benches outside for them to wait while services are on-going and a statute of a dog with Saint Roch on top of the church! St. Roch also contains some of the famous “post-it” wars, where companies compete by making post-it characters on their windows (yes, that cartoon is made from post-its!!)!
What Did We Do In Québec?
We arrived late on Wednesday night and checked into the Auberge St. Antoine. Auberge St. Antoine is located in la Basse-Ville, right next to the Musée de la civilization, and rivals the Château Frontenac as the “best hotel” in the city. It is certainly a nice place to stay, but I am not sure if I would stay there again. There seemed to be similar options at lower prices, and there was this horrible construction going on right outside the hotel (although that was not the hotel’s fault and they gave us a chocolate plate when we complained!).
On our first full day, we took a walking tour of the Old Town with Tours Voir Québec, The Grand Tour. Unfortunately, neither Dan nor I were satisfied with the tour. I found it not well organized, somewhat boring and emphasizing quantity over quality. I think I would have gotten more out of a walking tour with just a guide book…lesson learned. After our tour, we checked out Érico, a famous (and delicious) chocolate shop and chocolate museum, and J.A. Moisan, the oldest grocery store in North America! These two are located just across the street from each other and are must-dos for foodies or those looking for foodie gifts! Note – J.A. Moisan has an excellent selection of craft beer from Québec!
On our second day, we took a ferry across the St. Lawrence River to Lévis, a suburb of Quebec. Ferries leave every 30 minutes and take 20 minutes to cross the river. We had planned to walk around Lévis but it was raining, so we settled on lunch and drinks at the Corsaire Brewery, a stone’s throw from the ferry port! Corsaire serves surprisingly good lunch food; I had a duck grilled cheese and Dan had sweetbreads! A fun and unexpected surprise! Note – the ferry offers some of the best views of Chateau Frontenac. You can kind of see it below, but the rain made pictures tough… This is must-do on a clear day!
On our third day, we took a food tour of St. Roch with Quebec City Food Tours. This tour was way better than our prior walking tour and included both food and history. In three hours, we tried fish, tea, chocolate, beer and poutine, among other dishes! Recommended!
After, and again on our final day, we checked out Québec City’s Two Christmas markets (full post here)! The Marche de Nöel Allemand (the German Christmas Market) is located right at City Hall (Hôtel de Ville) and the Basicila de Nôtre Dame de Québec and is a traditional European Christmas market! We enjoyed fondue cheese and glüwein!
We also checked out the Old Port Christmas Market, which is actually Quebec’s year-round market done up for Christmas. I recommend visiting here year-round to see the variety of foods that come in from Québec! I especially recommend the Old Port Market if you do not have a chance to visit the Île de Orleans (Quebec’s “garden” island located about 20 minutes from Québec). Both markets make for a fun lunch stop!
Where Did We Eat And Drink?
Québec really surprised me with the quality and deliciousness of its food! I love eating in Montréal, but for some (unfounded) reason I expected Québec to be less sophisticated. I was wrong. We ate excellent, creative, fresh food and at least two of the restaurants made it onto my “top restaurants” list! Specifically, L’Affaire Est Ketchup and Bistro IX! Both restaurants are tiny places that serve a small and always changing menu based on local ingredients.
L’Affaire Est Ketchup, of Bourdain fame, is located in the St. Roch neighborhood and does traditional Québecois food with a modern twist. Favorite dishes there were the carrot cake and bone marrow, but it was really hard to choose!
iX pour Bistro is a bit further out, in the up and coming Limoilou neighborhood, and just does excellent food. Period. My favorites? Again, hard to choose but the foie gras dessert (below left) and cod with dill (below right) stand out in my mind! Definitely make reservations for both restaurants!
Thoughts on Traveling in Off-Season (AKA in Winter)
- Many tourist attractions, including tours, run limited hours or even close for the off-season (Christmas – Spring). If there is something that you really want to do, check hours before booking and certainly make reservations well ahead, as there may only be one tour running a weekend, etc.
- Be prepared for snow, but snow is not guaranteed. We had a warm streak and it was in the 40s.
- Definitely layer clothing! Outside is cold and indoors is warm! We found that the Québecois have really nice (and warm) outerwear and dress normally underneath. For example, most all of the restaurants, shops, etc. are well-heated and we were often warm in our wool sweaters. All the Québcois were sporting normal clothing (no wool sweaters).
- In addition to layers, bring socks, boots, gloves, a scarf and a hat.
- The Île de Orléans, which is Québec’s “garden” island about 20 minutes from Québec and also home to Montmorency Falls, is sparse this time of year. Farms are obviously not growing or harvesting and many restaurants and producers keep very limited hours. As such, I would avoid it. Check out the Old Port Market instead, which offers lots of products from the Île de Orléans, including the delicious Mona et filles crème de cassis!
- Skiing and dogsledding opportunities abound as long as it is cold enough. If this is your reason for going, make sure that you are going late enough in the season to ensure snow. We we visited in late November; there was no snow.
- You can get some great deals on hotels. Rooms at the Château Frontenac go for as low as $140/night in January and February
- Christmas! The Christmas season is very festive in Québec, with almost all stores, restaurants, public buildings dressing up for the event. If you are looking to experience the Christmas season in Québec, note that the Christmas season generally starts around U.S. Thanksgiving and closes down a few days before the actual Christmas holiday.
STEAL OUR TRIP
Auberge St. Antoine – 8 rue Saint-Antoine, Québec City, Québec, Canada, G1K 4C9. E: firstname.lastname@example.org. T: 418-692-221 or 888-692-221. Upscale hotel in Vieux Québec. Reservations can be made online.
Château Frontenac – 1 rue des Carrières, Québec City, Quebec, Canada, G1R 4P5. T: + 1 418 692 3861 or 1 866 540 4460. E: email@example.com. The “castle.” Entrance to general areas, including restaurants, free. 1608 Wine & Cheese Bar is located inside the Chateau Frontenac and is open from 4:00 p.m. to 12:00 a.m. every day and longer on weekends. No reservations required, although it does get crowded on weekends. Reservations for hotel rooms can be made online.
iX pour Bistro – 1104 18e Rue, Québec City, QC G1J 1Z1, Canada. T:+1 418-914-8525. Open Wednesday – Sunday from 5:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. Reservations essential and must be made by telephone. No website.
L’Affaire Est Ketchup – 46 Rue Saint-Joseph E, Québec City, QC G1K 3A6, Canada. T:+1 418-529-9020. Open Tuesday – Sunday from 6:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. Two seatings nightly. Reservations essential and must be made by telephone. No website.
Quebec City Food Tours – T: 1(418) 431-0195. $50.00 CAN a person, includes all tastings and tour. Reservations are necessary, as this tour is limited and fills, and can be easily made online. I recommend securing your reservation a few weeks in advance to ensure that you get your desired reservation.
Tours Voir Quebec – 12 Rue Sainte-Anne, Québec City, QC G1R 3X2, Canada. T:+1 418-694-2001. Reservations can be made online. Again, I do not recommend this company. It seemed very large scale with a focus of quantity over quality.
Auberge J.A. Moisan – 695 Rue Saint-Jean, Québec City, QC G1R 1P7, Canada. T:+1 418-529-9764. The oldest grocery store in North America. A very interesting visit for foodies and those looking for food-based souvenirs! This store had a fabulous selection of Québec craft beers!
Érico – 634, rue Saint-Jean, Québec, QC, Canada G1R 1P8 (directly across from Auberge J.A. Moisan). T: 418 524-2122. Famous chocolate shop and chocolate museum! Free entrance. Definitely buy some bon bons! Open daily 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., later on Friday and Saturday.
Lévis Ferry – Québec City Ferry Terminal. 10 Des Traversiers St., Quebec City QC, G1K 8L8. T: 418 837-1812. $3.50 CAN each way. Ferries leave about every 30 minutes and you need to arrive about 10 minutes prior to purchase your ticket and board. Best views of the Château Frontenac!
Corsaire Microbrasserie Pub – 5955, rue Saint-Laurent, Suite 101, Lévis, Québec, G6V 3P5. T. 418-380-2505. Open daily from 11:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. Serves wine and spirits, in addition to its own beer. Surprisingly great food with an interesting menu! Recommended!
ON A BUDGET
A visit to Québec is a great option for travelers on a budget. First, you can drive to Quebec City, and driving is particularly easy if you live in the Northeast of the US. If you live further, you can usually get pretty decent deals if you are willing to connect in Toronto or Montréal. Try Porter airlines, a Toronto-based airline and one of my all time favorites! And Porter has great sales!
Further, right now there is a great exchange rate for US visitors. The going rate is about 1.3 USD to 1 CAN. As recently as 2011, it was 1:1. As such, this is an ideal time to travel to Canada.
Québec is also a much smaller city than Montréal, and much much smaller than other East Coast cities such as NYC or Boston. Thus, prices are consistently lower and you can find some good deals in terms of food and drink.
Going off seasons ill certainly save you money in hotels, but there are also a wide range of hotels, hostels and AirBnB if you are going another time. Instead of the mentioned restaurants try Le Chic Shack, an inexpensive restaurant specializing in swanky poutine, milkshakes and burgers! Really, really good! Also, check out the St. Roch neighborhood for cheaper food and drink (all prices in the Old Town are increased for tourists!).
Finally, take the ferry for the views (inexpensive) of the Château Frontenac!