Love the idea of heading to Europe but not so crazy about the long flight and potential language issues? Or, perhaps you’re looking to practice some French? Canada, our neighbor to the north, offers a year round family-friendly vacation destination with both European flair and offerings unique to the Great White North. Read on to discover the best things to do with kids in Quebec City.

photo: Mimi O'Connor

Reasons to Love Quebec City, Family Edition

We came away from our excursion to this northern city wondering how, exactly, we'd never been told how it was such a great place to visit. 

It's got authentic old world charm and it's beautiful. The historic city is big enough to offer lots to explore and experience, but it's also a manageable size. There's a lot happening: from festivals and free art shows to impressive museums for kids and adults. Great food is everywhere, as are ways to work off those hearty meals—parks, trails, etc. Plus: a bit of European influence and language, while also being welcoming and pretty much bi-lingual. (You don't need to worry about not speaking French.) 

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Lots of Ways to Get There

You can arrive in Quebec almost any way you want. It’s a quick plane ride under two hours from New York City. Most flights are from Newark, and they’re not cheap—$500 round trip is not uncommon. Another more affordable (and potentially fun) option is to fly into Montreal (also a lovely Canadian city worth a day or two of exploring) and take a roughly three-hour train ride into Quebec City, arriving in the historic and gorgeous Gare du Palais station. 

Quebec City is also a popular port for cruises of all sizes, and has the added bonus of the ships pulling right up to the historic and charming old city, or Old Quebec. You can walk off the boat and start enjoying the city immediately. Quebec City is a stop on a wide variety  of itineraries that may include Montreal, Nova Scotia, Halifax, Prince Edward Island, Portland Maine, Boston, and New York. (So, for example, you could fly to Montreal and end up in New York or Boston.) 

photo: Mimi O'Connor

History and Culture 

The Quebecois are a proud people who will tell you that Quebec City is one of the oldest European cities in North America. Established as a French settlement in 1608, it is the only fortified city on the continent north of Mexico, with its colonial core preserved. (The historic district of Old Quebec, filled with cobblestone streets and centuries of history, is a UNESCO World Heritage site.) 

The good news is, you can take in all that history by strolling the charming streets stopping to shop, eat, take in public art and street performers, etc. Bonus: several streets in QC are car-free, which makes for walking with little ones much less stressful. 

If you want to do a deep dive on the city’s history, you can go on any number of historic tours (including fun “ghost tours” led by costumed guides), and visit The Citadelle, an active military base dating to 1820, and the nearby Plains of Abraham, where the French and British clashed in battle.

photo: Mimi O'Connor

It’s an All-season Option 

Quebec City truly is a destination you can visit and enjoy year round—it really just depends on what you’re into. Summer, when we visited, is high season for festivals and events, such as the Festival d'été de Québec, a popular (and affordable) music festival that attracts major acts from around the globe; the New France Festival, a four-day celebration of the region’s 17th and 18th North American history (shown here); Plein Art, the largest summer arts and crafts show in Quebec. Our visit also coincided with Passages Insolites , a free public art exhibit with fun and impressive pieces found throughout the city. Fall brings stunning foliage to the area; the city provides lovely views of the landscape along the St. Lawrence River. 

Winter turns the area into a picturesque wonderland and these Canadians embrace the chilly temps with gusto. A festively illuminated German holiday market with a family zone with free activities for kids takes over the city hall's square, you can hop a toboggan on nearby ice slide the Les Glissades de la Terrasse, snow sculptures rise, and an ice hotel is open for business—to sleep in, if you’re brave, or to just have a hot cocoa or cocktail at the bar. 

photo: Mimi O'Connor

Farm to Table and More

While you can, of course, get delicious, often inspired poutine here, the food scene in Quebec City serves up plenty of creative cuisine of other varieties. 

For true farm-to-table experiences, a visit to Île d'Orléans (the Island of Orléans) is a must. A 20-minute drive from the city center, the island is home to local farms and wineries. It’s worth the trip to get lunch at the Cassis Monna & Filles, a gorgeous restaurant and ice cream shop and blackcurrant  farm that specializes in the production of award-winning creme de cassis. Have lunch on the upper level or deck, where there's a kid's area stocked with games and toys, then check out the factory on site, where the history of the farm and production process is explained. Head to the on-site ice cream parlor to grab a cone and take in take in the view on a giant pillow or at picnic table. (Don't leave without taking a picture of the kids on the restaurant's giant pink tractor!) 

The Chocolaterie de Île Orleans is  also a popular spot for chocolate and ice cream on the island, located in a 200-year old building. Note: your best bet for visiting the island and Cassis Monna & Filles is to get there early and/or go on a weekday to avoid crowds.

It gets chilly in Quebec City in the winter, and the Quebecois know how to do savory comfort food right. For tasty and hearty brunch and beyond, check out La Buche or “the log” where the menu includes pork ribs, shepherd’s pie, deer tartare (!), poutine with a topping of the day and more, in a cozy, wood-filled dining room meant to recall Canadian sugar shacks, where Maple syrup is made. There's a special kids' menu here, complete with games and puzzles. 

Love melted cheese? (Who doesn’t?) This is a town that is very familiar fondue and raclette, both casual and fancy. (For example, you can get 15 kinds of fondue here.)

Real foodies will want to head to Le Grand Marche, a giant food market where local vendors sell their fresh products, from cheese, to pastries, to charcuterie and more. (There's a Family Zone with programming for kids.) 

photo: Mimi O'Connor

Outdoor Fun 

Quebec City is also a place where you can explore and be as active as your crew desires. The Promendae Samuel-De Champlain is a popular park with a low-impact walking/running/bike path that runs along the city’s edge and the St. Lawrence River, providing great views of both, with gardens and fun public art along the way. If your family wants a biking excursion, Quebec city delivers, with urban routes easy, flat, and stroller-friendly, or more challenging options a bit outside the city.

For fresh air and natural splendor, head to Parc De La Chute-Montmorency, or  Montmorency Falls Park, where you can have your pick of how to enjoy the green space. Home to a waterfall that is actually taller than Niagra Falls (true!), the park has several trails of varying difficulty, and you can get to the base and the top of the falls via stairs, cable car, and a suspended footbridge. (All provide amazing view of the falls and beyond.) For those with strollers or mobility issues, there's a scenic route to the falls with no stairs. Adrenaline junkies? You can also zipline in front of the falls, which sounds crazy, but it pretty incredible. (Yes, we did it.)  

Of course, in the winter, there’s skiing of both the cross-country and downhill variety, ice skating, snowtubing and more.

photo: Mimi O'Connor

Inside Fun 

Weather not cooperating? No problem. Quebec City has plenty of things to do inside. We loved the Museum of Civilization, located in historic Old Quebec not far from the port. This Moshe Safdie-designed museum good for kids ages three and up features both visiting and permanent exhibits about Quebec society and humans’ relationship to the world that are engaging and artfully-designed. (The exhibit “Venenum: A Poisonous World” felt like a cross between an American Museum of Natural History show and an Anthropologie store around Halloween time, in the best way.)

Little kids will love Once Upon a Time on the lower level, where they can dress up as both well-known and more under-the-radar characters from classic fairytales in beautiful costumes custom-made for the museum. When they're done, they can explore, build and play with a castle, witch's cauldron, Jack's beanstalk and more. 

Older kids will enjoy Observe: More Than Meets the eye, which puts kids’ powers of observation to the test, as well as MLAB, where visitors can create with tech like 3D printers and robotics. The museum also has a terrace (shown here) where you’ll find spots to sit and engaging art installations. Other highlights include the museum’s gorgeous presentation of everyday objects from all eras (trust us), an exhibit exploring the First Nations and Inuit in the 21st Century, and 

For fine art, head to the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, where a large Miro show was happening when we visited, and kids 12 and under get in free. The museum has a dedicated Family Gallery, where independent exhibits designed to engage young children through play, sensory experience and exploration are staged. 

Yet another family-friendly indoor spot is the Quebec Aquarium , located 15 minutes from downtown, and if a toy store is what’s needed, head to benjo in the Saint-Roch district. No matter your kid’s thing, this fantastic toy store will have something for them; don’t miss taking a ride on the store’s mini train! 

For Quebec's answer to the Mall of America, head to Mega Parc  , an 18-attraction amusement center inside shopping Mall Galeries de la Capitale. 

photo: Nancy Raca

Grown-up Time

If you’re lucky enough to be travelling with some grandparents, or one of you wants to take the kids for an afternoon, head directly to Strøm Nordic Spa , a relatively new wellness retreat on the water offering, among other things—such as treatments, an infrared sauna, and float bath—a thermal experience consisting of various hot and cold baths indoors and out. (The infinity pool looking out onto the St. Laurence will help you achieve maximum Zen. We imagine the view and experience is stunning in fall or winter.)

For a special meal out, consider Champlain, or Bistro le Sam, both located in the iconic Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, the late-nineteenth century beauty in Old Quebec that anchors the city. The former is the fine dining option (there’s a cheese cave on site), with new takes on regional cuisine from celebrated chef Stéphane Modat; the later offers casual sophistication (and food that is kid-friendly as well). Both provide great views of the river and activity the lively public space Dufferin Terrace, below. Even if you don't dine in either, it's worth taking a walk around the Château, for its lovely and historic interiors. 

Feeling adventurous? Leave the kids at home and dine at Chez Bouley-Bistro Boreal, where celebrated chefs employ regional ingredients to create upscale Nordic cuisine. (Think fir tree essence, Trout carpaccio with seaweed, and pickled daisy capers.)

photo: Mimi O'Connor

Louise Penny Fan Bonus

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that Quebec City is also the setting for wildly-popular mystery author Louise Penny’s Bury Your Dead, and yes, you can take a tour  devoted to the sites featured in the novel. (A central one, the Morrin Cultural Center, which is the site of the city’s oldest jail, also hosts teatime and storytime in its charming library, which you can register for.) 

photo: 71

Where to Stay

Of course, you can stay in the Le Château Frontenac, but it won't be cheap, and might be a bit formal for your brood. 

We were guests of boutique property Hotel 71, which is located in the heart of Old Quebec and provides a fantastic home base. Comfortable and sophisticated without being stuffy, the hotel has suites, lofts, and junior suites for families and larger groups. Conveniences include lively Italian restaurant Matto (good for everything from tasty breakfast to a late dinner), and serve-yourself wine and spirits bar in the lobby. Also of note: one of the best showers we have ever had the pleasure to experience. It was that good. 

Another popular option with families is also the Loews Concorde Hotel , offering junior suites starting at $299, as well as a pool and spa. It’s located near the Citadelle, which is both an active fort and museum; the colonial battlegrounds the Plains of Abraham; the Beaux Arts Museum, and lively neighborhood Saint-Jean-Baptiste, home to famous large hanging streetlights featuring the work of local painters. (It also has a revolving restaurant, Ciel!, which provides fantastic views of the whole city.) 

Don't Miss This!

Filling your days with activities is not a challenge in Quebec City. Whatever your family’s interest, check out some of these other hidden gems or fun spots during a visit. 

Ride the funicular: There are only so many cities with funiculars, and Quebec City is one of them. Hop it for a quick way up the hill and a cool view. 

Look for some gnomes: Located about an hour outside of the city, but likely worth it,  La Vallee Secrete, or "The Secret Valley" is a charming interactive puzzle adventure in the woods that ends with a gnome show! There are options for all ages and skill levels and is offered in French and English.

Get a lick of Chocolat Favoris: This regionally-grown Insta ice cream sensation continues to expand across the country, and we can see why. The chain offers ice cream dipped in a variety of chocolate sauces (mint, hazelnut, salted caramel, etc.) and then gives customers the opportunity to “kooky” up their cone with mix ins ranging from marshmallows to nuts to cotton candy and beyond. They’re also famous for their sweet poutine creations (made with pastry, not fries) as well as fondu in cans to go.  

Climb the Old City Wall: It’s not as daredevil as it sounds. The wall itself is deep enough that it’s more of an elevated walkway than safety hazard. (Still: keep an eye on the kids.) Head up for nice views of the surrounding city and a different perspective. 

Do a maze: Quebec City clearly likes a maze. Visit Domaine de Maizerets , one of Quebec City’s large parks, for a hedge maze, as well as an arboretum and free programming and events. Further afield across the river is Adventure Inushuk , which is home to the “Super Labyrinthe.” It’s stroller-friendly, but plan on spending at least an hour-and-a-half getting out of this one. 

Online: quebec-cite.com

—Mimi O’Connor

main photo: Robert Greffard

We were guests of Quebec City Tourism, the Port Authority and Hotel 71, but all opinions expressed here belong to the writer.

 

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