Break a Sweat in Québec City

1. Where to Stay

Intrepid travelers can curl up by a fireplace (or in a heavy-duty sleeping bag) at the Hotel de Glace.Photo: Luc Rousseau

Rest up before hitting the snow at the elegant Manoir Victoria (doubles from $135) in the heart of Old Québec. Dating back to the 1830s, it was completely destroyed by a fire in 1902, but an $8 million renovation gave new life to the historic property. Skip the unremarkable (though cheaper) traditional rooms in favor of those in the contemporary category, with minimalist-chic gray-and-white color schemes, flat-screen TVs, and, in the suites, heated bathroom floors and sleek ambiance fireplaces. After a day out, curl up in a purple high-backed chair with one of the books in the airy lobby’s library, then grab dinner at the hotel’s Chez Boulay. Opened in 2012, the upscale bistro has become a go-to spot among locals for Nordic-inspired, seasonally driven cuisine such as confit bison cheeks ($25) and seared black cod ($32), plus desserts like black-currant crème brulee ($7).

Immerse yourself in the culture of the province’s First Nations people (descendants of the original inhabitants of Canada) at the Hotel-Musée Premieres Nations (doubles from $143), about fifteen minutes east of downtown. Run by the Industry of Tourism of Wendake, the imposing boutique hotel was designed to look like a longhouse native dwelling. All 55 rooms have views of the Akiawenrahk River from French-style balconies, plus authentic First Nation décor (dream catchers, beaver-fur cushions) juxtaposed with contemporary touches like flat-screen TVs and iPod docking stations. Take a guided tour of the small but well-curated museum for a quick overview of the area’s Huron-Wendat natives (free for guests), or stroll along the nearby trails and gardens. End your day at the hotel’s award-winning La Traite restaurant, which showcases traditional local ingredients like forest berries, bison, and house-smoked salmon (three courses, $36; six courses, $67). After dinner, sip a nightcap by the outdoor fire pit and glowing ice bar under a starry sky.

For some serious bragging rights, chill out—literally—at the Hôtel de Glace, or Ice Hotel (rooms from $199 per person), a 30,000-square-foot expanse of interconnecting, Game of Thrones-esque caves that’s built anew every year out of snow and ice. The indoor temperature hovers between 19 and 26 degrees Fahrenheit, but have no fear—you’ll learn how to stay warm during a mandatory orientation before soaking in communal hot tubs and eventually snuggling into sturdy North Face sleeping bags (rated for -22 degrees) that top mattress-covered, ice-base beds. Standard rooms are sparsely decorated, so choose one with frosty features illustrating this year’s theme, “Myths and Legends of the World.” The Pegasus room has a Greek-columned ice bed frame and depictions of the Greek myth carved into the wall; if you’re bringing little ones, try the recently unveiled “Frozen” suite, modeled after the bedrooms of Disney characters Anna and Elsa.

2. Where to Eat

Mix and match imaginative appetizers and exquisite French desserts at communal table favorite Le Bouchon du Pied Bleu.Photo: Courtesy of Le Bouchon du Pied Bleu

Hunker down with hearty burgers and tricked-out variations of the French-Canadian classic poutine at Le Chic Shack. Opened in 2012, the diner highlights the growing local trend of restaurants incorporating unfussy, French-inspired fare. Try the bison-meat Le Robuste ($11), topped with Roquefort cheese and mushrooms, with a side of homemade chips sprinkled with maple pepper ($3), or the coq au vin poutine ($10), heaped with Bordelaise chicken, shallots, and red wine sauce. Save room for a decadent milkshake in flavors like salted maple-caramel ($4.50)—with a boozy float of Yukon Jack Whiskey for an extra $5.

Get to know your tablemates at Le Bouchon du Pied Bleu. Married team Louis Bouchard Trudeau and Thania Goyette expanded their popular charcuterie counter into the restaurant in 2012, and the result feels like the dining room of a laid-back foodie friend thanks to its open kitchen, communal tables, and homey touches like lamps made from metal pails. The Lyonnais-inspired menu, written on a chalkboard, is a carnivore’s delight, with appetizers like pistachio-studded sausage in a brioche crust ($10) and foie gras-stuffed artichoke hearts ($14), followed by mains including slow-cooked tripe in tomato sauce ($15) and blood pudding served over apple crumble ($17). Several multi-course options are available, along with sommelier-suggested wine pairings, but for a budget-friendly way to sample the diverse menu, choose three appetizers for $25, then gorge on Goyette’s decadent, self-serve desserts—$9 for an all-you-can eat selection of homemade pies, tarts, and chocolate confections that stand up to those in any of the city’s French pastry shops.

Mingle with Québec City’s artsy crowd at Le Cercle, a restaurant/art gallery/music venue hybrid in the buzzing Saint-Roch neighborhood. The space’s soaring ceilings, exposed brick and beams, and multimedia projections make the perfect backdrop for casual tapas-style plates designed for sharing, like lobster risotto ($18) and salmon tartare with fennel ($17). Stay late for a glass or two from the 250-label wine menu (almost all privately imported) and a show in the adjacent concert space, where the eclectic calendar features D.J.s, dance parties, and live performances by artists like rapper Ghostface Killah (prices vary).

3. What to Do

A nearly five-mile-long sled route isn't just for kids at Le Massif.Photo: A. Blanchette

Strap on some crampons and a helmet for ice canyoneering (also known as canyoning) down the frozen Jean-Larose Falls near Mont-Sainte-Anne, a resort town just 30 minutes from downtown. Run by an English-speaking veteran outdoorsman, the Canyoning Québec excursion (from $77) includes a lesson on the navigational challenges of maneuvering down a waterfall. After learning the basics, you’ll be ready to tackle the majestic frozen Montmorency Falls with the pros from climbing school Roc Gyms (day-long initiation course from $103). Located about fifteen minutes northeast of the city, these 272-foot falls are the highest in the province, topping Niagara Falls, and even a simple stroll across the suspension bridge above them is a thrill.

Relive the childhood joy of sledding at Le Massif, a nearby ski resort with a 4.6-mile sled route for those who’d rather slide than schuss down the mountain. The excursion (from $33) takes about two hours, with a break midway down. For more fun in the snow, head to Valcartier Vacation Village (passes from $23), a water park during the summer, but in the winter, a wonderland of snow-covered slides perfect for bombing in a raft or inner tube. Come after 4 p.m. for discounted tickets (from $17) and fewer families, or on a weekday, when kids are in school.

Make a two-wheeled foray into the city’s snowy surrounding landscape on a fat-tired bike (designed for riding on the snow and ice) from Vélo Passe-Sport ($18/hour). Québec City’s vibrant cycling culture doesn’t stop in the winter: Québecers still commute to work and ride for recreation on an extensive network of trails and bike lanes. Join them along the Boulevard Champlain, a flat stretch with gorgeous views of the St. Lawrence River (it’s approximately a 30-minute ride south from the rental shop to the beautiful Promenade Samuel de Champlain, a nearly mile-long waterfront park inaugurated in 2008 for the city’s 400th anniversary). Serious cyclists can opt for a more rigorous ride to Montmorency Falls; go with a guide (from $35 for an hour and a half) to avoid getting lost on snow-covered trails.

4. Insider’s Tip

L'Erabliere le Chemin du Roy, a traditional Quebec sugar shack, stays open beyond the maple syrup season.Photo: erwan.lher, via Flickr

Quebec is known for its sugar shacks, or cabane à sucre, where about 75 percent of the world’s maple syrup is produced. Most are only open during the warmer sugar season (March and April), but some welcome guests year-round—and offer attractions beyond cutesy gift shops with maple-sugar leafs. Visit L’Érablière le Chemin du Roy, where a rib-sticking meal (pea soup, maple ham), sleigh ride, and, yes, some take-home candy is just $26 (call ahead for reservations), or, nearby, L’Érablière du Lac-Beauport, which features exhibits highlighting the industry’s history and trapping heritage.

5. Oddball Day

Kick back with an artisanal beer (and some tunes) at La Korrigane, one of many microbreweries to recently open in the city.Photo: courtesy of La Korrigane

Unwind weary muscles the best way outdoorsy types know how: with a pint (or several) of locally brewed beer during a self-guided tour of Québec City’s burgeoning microbrewery scene. Fuel up for the day at Buffet de L’Antiquaire (no website; 95 Rue Saint Paul), a no-frills spot in the Lower Town serving consistently solid staples like fluffy eggs, bacon, sausage, and poutine to a largely local clientele. Walk off your meal in the Petit Champlain quarter, chock-a-block with galleries and boutiques, like artist Isabelle Malo’s glass studio, and Boutique Transparence, for hand-painted plates by Canadian artisans ($23-$112). Make your way to the funicular ($2) an elevator-like car in operation since 1879, which will haul you up a 45-degree incline to Upper Town (sparing your tired quads what’s known as the Breakneck Staircase). From there, it’s an easy walk to La Barberie, the first microbrewery to open in Québec City. Opt for its Carousel dé Gustation: eight drafts (recent flavors have included a cherry-and-vanilla stout and a Scottish ale) served in a nifty little sampler, perfect for sharing (5 oz. samples for $15; 10 oz. samples for $25; cash only). About a ten-minute walk away, La Korrigane offers artisanal brews right from the cask ($4 a glass), like local favorite Kraken IPA. Break from drinking for lunch at pint-sized Café Crack Grill-Cheese in the trendy Vieux-Limoilou neighborhood (about a twelve-minute ride on the 801, 802, or 3 bus on Québec City’s RTC system) where the ultimate comfort food (a Quebec favorite, of late) gets a makeover in variations like Le Maccro ($8), overflowing with braised beef and mac-and-cheese. Post-lunch, walk about fifteen minutes to La Souche, the city’s newest microbrewery, in Vieux-Limoilou. The ruggedly handsome tasting room (think cut-log tables, dim lighting, and hanging plants) draws a jovial, young-ish crowd with artisanal pints ($6) like Wee Heavy Scotch ale (aptly named: it’s infused with maple syrup and packs an alcohol content of 8.2%). Hop in a cab to Cartier Street’s Le Graffiti, for dinner, a welcome respite from the club-thumping beats of nearby Grande Allée. Generous portions of artfully presented French and Italian cuisine, plus attentive but not hovering service, have made the restaurant a longtime local favorite. Head downstairs to marvel at the 9,000-bottle wine cellar before closing out the day with rich lobster bisque ($9), venison medallions with oyster mushrooms ($24), and “Graffiti-style” linguini, or deer flank with blueberry ($18).

6. Links

Québec Region has a comprehensive list of seasonal activities, updated events, and resources in and around the city.

Local journalist and blogger Allison Van Rassel shares her tips (in English) on the latest and greatest in the city’s culinary scene at Foodie in Québec City.

Find out news and updates from one of Canada’s most popular winter festivals from the website of Québec Winter Carnival, the 17-day fete that takes over the city from Jan. 31-Feb. 16 this year.

Break a Sweat in Québec City