-- On charm alone, Quebec tops almost any other Canadian city. Fortress walls and cobblestone streets tell the story of a city steeped in history – it’s one of the oldest European settlements in North America – while new development and a thriving arts and culinary scene give it cosmopolitan flair. For many, Quebec City is as close to Europe as you can get on this side of the Atlantic.
Skip the Goose Down Pillows, Sleep on Ice
A chance to stay at the famous Hotel De Glace comes once a year. Located just 15 minutes outside Quebec City, North America’s only ice hotel is erected when the weather permits – when it gets chilly enough to turn 30,000 tons of snow and 500 tons of ice into a frozen spectacle. It takes dozens of workers close to six weeks to build this icy inn, which features more than 50 beds – all made of ice, plus mattress and sleeping bag – and a chapel that’s become a very popular nuptials spot. You can find some heat here: the bathrooms, in a separate insulated structure, are heated, and the Nordic relaxation area features an outdoor sauna. Stays include breakfast and there’s cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and dogsledding nearby. For 2016, reservations are available only between Jan. 4 and March 17; after that, the warmth of spring will melt it all away.
Skip Your Own Hotel, Visit the Frontenac
Skip the Inn, Stay Holistic
Quebec’s newest hotel may offer the city’s most introspective stay. Le Monastere des Augustines opened in the summer of 2015 inside what was once a monastery run by nuns. The order of sisters, who were also nurses, once operated this property as North America’s first ever hospital north of Mexico. Now, after a $40 million renovation, it’s a 65-room hotel centered on holistic programs, wellness classes and sustainable cuisine. This is not a stay for everyone: breakfast is served in silence and rooms have no TVs. Then again, who couldn’t use a daily meditation session?
After Mass, Visit the Door
Skip Mont-Tremblant, Ski Local
Skip the Coq au Vin, Go Native
This is a city teeming with world-class restaurants, and where French cuisine, in particular, thrives. Chrysanthou’s own list of don’t-miss eateries goes on and on: Le Café du Monde (“An authentic Parisian café that offers spectacular views of the St. Lawrence River”), Buffet De’Lantiquaire (“Home-style meals – try the cipaille, a deep dish layered pie with poultry, meat or seafood”) and Aux Anciens Canadiens (“Try French-Canadian cooking and order the ourtière meat pie, and maple-syrup pie with fresh cream”). But don’t miss the chance to expand your palate by tasting what’s known as First Nations cuisine, traditional foods of Canada’s Aboriginal people. Game meats and fish feature prominently, along with tasty accoutrements like black spruce, fir jelly and wild berries. Check out eateries like La Traite and the traditional Huron Site’s NEK8ARRE, both about 10 to 15 minutes outside city center. Order delicacies like bannock, a crunchy bread made by crisping dough wrapped around a stick over a fire, and sagamité, a hearty stew of game meats, corn and beans.
Skip Dessert, Indulge in Chocolate
Then again, because the French influence is inescapable here, you might as well give in to chocolate temptation. There are a variety of amazing chocolatiers peppered throughout Quebec. La Fudgerie has a couple of storefronts where chocolate makers use pure cocoa butter and pure extracts to hand-craft chocolate, fudge and nougat. Chocolaterie de l'Île d'Orléans is set inside a 200-year-old ancestral home and produces high-end chocolates, truffles and pralines with ingredients imported from Belgium and France. And at Érico, savor brownies and hot chocolate, or perhaps ice cream dipped in chocolate, before you visit the quaint chocolate museum and scope out the confectioners’ techniques on display in the kitchen.
Skip the Museum, Visit the Wall
Art and history buffs rejoice: Quebec is teeming with wonderful museums. Chrysanthou especially likes the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec, “featuring 25,000 works created in Quebec by Quebec artists, some dating back to the 18th century.” But for a historical throwback, all you have to do is walk the three miles of walls that surround Old Quebec. This is, after all, North America’s only fortified city north of Mexico, and these dramatic fortifications built under the French and British regimes offer both a dose of history and beautiful views of the city and the river. The wall consists of four gates, three Martello towers and the star-shaped Citadel -- outfitted in cannons and loopholes, it’s the largest fortress ever built by the British on this continent. Guided tours are offered year-round, with changing-of-the-guard ceremonies in summer and night tours in summer and fall.
After the Wall, Hit the Hill
Parliament Hill is known as the oldest historic site in Quebec. Erected between 1877 and 1886, the historic Parliament Building here was inspired by the Louvre Palace in Paris, making it the only French-style building in the entire city. Check out the 26 bronze statues here, dedicated to key historical figures. And for another look at Quebec’s French-inspired past, make your way to Place Royale and the Petit-Champlain District, the site of the first permanent French settlement in North America. “Visit during the holidays for an unforgettable site of illuminated streets and festive holiday decorations,” Chrysanthou recommends.
Skip the Walls, Visit the Falls
At 275 feet high, the Montmercy Falls trump their Niagara counterparts by 100 feet! This natural spectacle just a few minutes outside downtown Quebec is well worth a visit. Stairs allow you to climb the side of the cliff, while a stroll on the suspension bridge or a ride on the gondola offers sweeping views. In summer, scope out the falls from Parc de la Chute-Montmercy, where you can really feel their force – and spray. In the winter, check out the phenomenon dubbed Sugarloaf, when the spray freezes at the foot of the falls to form snowy, powdery mounds. Want another water-inspired place to visit? Check out the Aquarium du Quebec in Sainte-Foy, a 40-acre attraction housing 10,000 animals that represent 300 species.
Skip the Tour, Download the App
A new mobile app makes it easy to explore Old Quebec at your own pace. “Trails of Old Quebec” is free and is downloadable ahead of time, so you don’t have to worry about a Wi-Fi connection during your tour. It’s also customizable, based on how much time you have and what sights you’d most like to see. The app is available through Apple’s App Store or Google Play in both French and English.
Gabe Saglie is senior editor for Travelzoo, which features Canada and the other Top 5 Wow Deal Destinations for 2016 on its website.
Any opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author.