Louise Bessette
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40 ways to spend your holidays in Canada’s most alluring cities

As the holidays approach, it’s time to start planning. While this festive season often means time at home with family and friends, the break from work in December and January can also give us the opportunity to explore new, exciting Canadian destinations.

When you’re deciding where to enjoy some holiday cheer, consider putting some of the country’s most vibrant cities at the top of your wish list: Québec City, Charlottetown, Ottawa, Calgary and Victoria.

Need help planning your holiday escape? Check out our mini-guides to these five fantastic cities that are even better in the wintertime:

Québec City

Holiday vibe Picturesque luxury

There’s no place in Canada like Québec City. Its history and heritage are just the half of it—this UNESCO World Heritage site will captivate you with its luxurious beauty. As the cradle of French North America, Québec City is the only fortified city north of Mexico and a never-ending celebration of Québecois culture. It’s the kind of place where you embrace the winter weather, whether it’s taking part in scenic skiing or staying in a hotel made of ice.

1.STAY + DO Hotel de Glace at Village Vacances Valcartier

A popular destination in the sun and the snow, Village Vacances Valcartier transforms itself according to the seasons. In winter, it’s home to the world-famous Ice Hotel (Hôtel de Glace), an experience that’s unique in North America. Its 21 beautiful rooms carved from ice provide a peaceful night under the stars as you snuggle in your comfy sub-Arctic sleeping bag. (Prefer to stay indoors? You can book a visit to the Ice Hotel and stay in contemporary comfort at Hôtel Valcartier.) There’s an outdoor winter playground on-site featuring skating and inner tubes, as well as an indoor waterpark. You can also unwind at the hotel’s spa, a Nordic-style relaxation area featuring steam baths, outdoor hot tubs and a sauna.

2.STAY Hôtel-Musée Premières Nations

Deep and beautiful Indigenous traditions meet the pinnacle of luxury at the Hôtel-Musée Premières Nations (or First Nations Hotel & Museum). The hotel is located in Wendake, part of the Huron-Wendat Nation, whose people have lived in this area for thousands of years. Here, on the edge of the Akiawenrahk’ River, visitors feel far from city life though they are only 20 minutes from Old Québec. A choice of packages include elevated meals inspired by Indigenous terroir, craft workshops, a “Myths and Legends” evening or a visit to the Huron-Wendat Museum on-site and the Ekionkiestha’ National Longhouse.

3.SHOP Quartier Petit Champlain

You can stroll through this charming outdoor pedestrian mall at any time of the year, but it's most magical in winter, with its snowy eaves and twinkling lights. The Quartier Petit Champlain abounds with galleries, boutiques, Québécois crafts (visit Boutiques métiers d'art du Québec), jewellery and restaurants, many featuring regional specialties. Try Bistro L’Orygine for inventive, organic cuisine (think beet risotto or duck with cherries), then stop at La Nougaterie for artisanal candy. There’s also Théatre Petit Champlain, featuring Québecois musicians and comedians.

4.EAT Restaurant Sagamité

This inventive Indigenous restaurant takes its name from a staple at the heart of the Huron-Wendat diet—sagamité, a game soup made with squash, corn and red beans. The restaurant, opened in 1999, was created out of a desire to share the culture of Wendake with visitors through delicious, and satisfying meals. The house specialty, Yatista, features meats like elk and deer coated in a reduction and lit on fire right at the table, a dish created to show the importance of fire in Huron-Wendat culture.

5.EAT Le Chic Shack

Who doesn’t love poutine? For almost a decade, Le Chic Shack has been offering a fresh, innovative take on the quintessential Québécois treat. Try the elevated La Forestière poutine, with mushroom ragout, aged cheddar and shallots or La Braisée poutine, with red ale-braised beef. Every poutine is crafted from fresh, high-quality ingredients carefully sourced from local purveyors, as are the all-Canadian beef burgers and creative salads on the menu. Top off your meal with a cider or local beer on tap.

6.DO Ski Stoneham

Québec City is a marvellous destination for skiing enthusiasts of all skill levels, with multiple ski hills within 20-60 mins of driving. Located about a half-hour from downtown, Stoneham boasts a 345-metre vertical drop and 43 ski runs, 19 of which are lit up for night skiing. It also offers snow parks for beginner, intermediate and advanced riders as well as an Olympic half-pipe open seven days a week.

7.DO Strøm Spa

The spectacular Strøm Nordic Spa in Old Québec aspires to be the most magnificent spa in the province. It feels as though it’s at the very edge of the world, perched on the mighty St. Lawrence River with an infinity pool hugging the shore. Strøm features North America’s largest flotation bath, surrounded by candles, a marble steam bath, waterfalls and an indoor bath that allows you to journey from darkness into light. Its Nord Restaurant serves boreal-inspired cuisine that highlights local artisans and fresh regional produce.

8.EAT Taniere³

Taniere³ is more than fine dining—it’s a one-of-a-kind experience in a place steeped in history. Located in the cellars of historic houses between the St. Lawrence River and Place Royale, Taniere³ pushes the boundaries of true Québécois cuisine. It keeps the menu a surprise until you arrive, focusing on local ingredients and a commitment to connect guests with Québec history. Count on three hours to savour the full experience and expect a culinary adventure.

Charlottetown

Holiday vibe Arty and charming

A capital city with a quaint, small-town feel, Charlottetown is home to historic buildings, creative artisans, vibrant entertainment and delicious seafood. Quirky, charming and brimming with picturesque views, any season is a good season to visit Prince Edward Island, but the holidays are an extra-special time to explore. Here’s how to experience Charlottetown this holiday season, with places and activities that are beloved by locals and tourists alike:

1.STAY Great George Hotel

Nestled snugly in the heart of Charlottetown’s Historic District, this colourful, 4.5-star boutique hotel seamlessly combines modern luxury with old-school whimsy. Constructed in 1846 by local carpenter James H. Downe, the property includes 54 well-appointed spaces to rest your head—from single rooms to multi-room suites—spanning 17 thoughtfully-restored, brightly-painted heritage row houses. Discuss a personalized touring itinerary with Ian Cheverie, the only concierge on PEI recognized with the prestigious Les Clef d’Or title, then check out popular eateries such as the cheerful Gallery Coffee House & Bistro and friendly Gahan House, which are just steps away.

2.SHOP Victoria Row

Victoria Row is a network of well-curated shops on cobblestone streets tucked into stunning Victorian architecture. Do some holiday shopping at Northern Watters Knitwear for the coziest, high-quality lambswool sweaters made on antique Swiss knitting looms. Next, celebrate local art with a stop at Details Fine Art Gallery. This 25-year-old shop showcases prominent Islander artists and a selection of contemporary fine art from near and far, with smaller jewelry, glasswork and ceramic items that are the perfect size for your carry-on.

3.EAT Water Prince Corner Shop

When you’ve come to the ocean, seafood is a must, and there’s no shortage of East Coast hospitality at the welcoming Water Prince Corner Shop. Located in a 100-plus-year-old building that was originally a grocery store, this renowned establishment has been serving up seafood sourced from the nearby wharves for the last 30 years. Deep sea delicacies take up most of the menu’s real estate with items like seafood chowder and scallop burger, but what they’re most famous for is the lobster dinner. It’s a sizeable feast of tender lobster with mussels or chowder and your choice of spud. Local tip: make reservations before you go, the place fills up quickly.

4.SHOP Centre for Craft Retail Gallery

Celebrating all crafts and mediums, this gallery-style gift shop is a supportive hub for local PEI makers to highlight their unique wares. The quality of the merchandise goes well beyond craft, with exquisitely constructed quilts, intricate silver jewelry, wheel-thrown pottery and prints depicting the Island’s splendor, all available for purchase. The Centre is also a prime place to take a workshop, such as indigo dyeing or basket weaving. Channel your inner artist and learn a new skill, then take home a unique souvenir to remind you of your PEI sojourn.

5.EAT The Culinary Institute of Canada

A place to try imaginative eats, the delicious meals at the Culinary Institute are created by the master chefs of tomorrow under the direction of renowned instructors. The dining room accepts afternoon and evening reservations with a focus on sophisticated surf and turf options. Try the foie gras torchon, cod gratin or local North Shore haddock fish tacos. Don’t want to dine in? Opt for their takeout catering menu or curate your own spread from the grab-and-go coolers.

6.EAT & DO Olde Dublin Pub

PEI has deep Irish roots (it was proposed in 1770 that it be renamed New Ireland), and the Olde Dublin Pub is where that lively culture comes to life with an Island twist. The city’s original Irish pub is known for frothy pints of local craft beer, classic shepherd’s pie and daily oyster deals. But the real attraction is the pub’s roster of live local music and open mic nights on a stage that’s been ringing with laughter and song for over three decades. It’s a great place to warm up post-holiday shopping. Sláinte!

7.DO Charlottetown Christmas Festival

Running from November 26 to December 24, this European-inspired, open-air market is a highlight of the city’s holiday season. Stroll through the bustling booths lit by strings of lights, ticking each lucky person off your gift list. Try a cooking workshop, take part in a wine-tasting session, or explore the scenic charms of the local area with a walking tour. Hop aboard a complimentary horse and wagon ride, listen to live carols and enjoy the eats, drinks and ambiance of an old-fashioned Christmas

8.DO Ice Fishing for Oysters

Slurping up oysters with all the fixings from a platter is a treat, but have you ever considered fetching your own? You may think of ice fishing as a hole and a pole, but this all-ages excursion will show you how to scrape the ocean floor for the tasty mollusks. A perfect activity for the adventurous at heart, the experience includes an afternoon on Tranquility Cove Adventures’ private oyster lease, where instructors will show you how to tong, separate, clean, measure and shuck your bounty. Then, you and your group will warm up around a bonfire, enjoying a pot of fresh-steamed mussels and an abundance of oystering tales.

Ottawa

Holiday vibe Fun and family-friendly

If you’re looking for a kid-friendly destination to explore this holiday season, Ottawa has you covered. From skating on the Rideau Canal to exploring the National Gallery of Canada and popping into a cozy bakery for a tempting treat, the nation’s capital offers an abundance of activities that people of all ages can take part in. Bundle up and head outside to enjoy some festive Ottawa fun:

1.STAY ALt Hotel

If you're travelling with kids in tow, the Alt Hotel Ottawa is a comfortable, convenient option. Located in the heart of the city’s business district, this child-friendly (and pet-friendly!) hotel features contactless check-in and is just steps away from many of Ottawa’s most popular attractions. Grab a quick breakfast and coffee at the hotel’s Happy Goat Café to start your day, and enjoy spacious rooms to stretch out in after a day of sightseeing.

2.DO National Gallery of Canada

One of Canada's most renowned museums, the National Gallery of Canada boasts over four million pieces of art in their vast collection. Stroll through audio artist Janet Cardiff’s incredible sound sculpture Forty-Part Motet, or get lost in the Indigenous and Canadian art collection. Current exhibitions include Rashid Johnson’s soaring, plant-filled metal structure Capsule and Tau Lewis’s pink floral garlands of leather and textiles. Take a guided tour, or pick up an activity kit packed with fun ways for families to explore the museum on their own.

3.EAT Fairouz Café

Ottawa is also home to plenty of great restaurants showcasing the city’s diversity, and one of the best is Fairouz Café—a modern, Middle Eastern destination located in Ottawa's historic Byward Market. It’s an inviting, cozy spot well-suited for families, serving up dishes ranging from traditional baba ghanoush and mouth-watering seared halloumi to fried cauliflower and spicy beef kofta. Be sure to end your meal with sweet, nutty baklava or orange and cardamom sponge cake. (Note: This is a fantastic, convenient choice if you’re looking for takeout to bring back to your hotel room.)

4.DO Skate the Rideau Canal

If you're looking for the ultimate Ottawa winter activity to create memorable moments with friends and family, lace up and hit the Rideau Canal, the world’s largest skating rink. Glide through the city on this scenic route that locals have traversed for decades. Even if you don’t own skates, rentals can be found at spots on the route such as Dow's Lake Pavilion and Fifth Avenue. You can pop by for a sweet treat at BeaverTails along the way or grab a hot chocolate to keep you nice and toasty.

5.DO Christmas Lights Across Canada

Each holiday season, Ottawa launches Christmas Lights Across Canada, a tradition dating from 1985. The event features thousands of twinkling lights that illuminate the night sky, showcasing Parliament Hill, embassies and other historic sites. It’s a magical evening spectacle, completely free and a great way to get into the holiday spirit while taking in some of the city’s grand architecture.

6.DO Escape the Diefenbunker and Canada’s Cold War Museum

Looking for a slice of history with a little bit of mystery thrown in? The Diefenbunker is a unique stop on your Ottawa itinerary, a National Historic Site and a vestige of the cold war. In 1959, the Diefenbunker was commissioned as an underground bunker to house members of the Canadian government and military in case of a nuclear attack. These days, you can choose to take a tour or tackle the puzzles in the country’s largest escape room, a thrilling, award-winning experience in a space that measures over 2300 square metres (25,000 square feet).

7.EAT Art Is In Bakery

Inspired by the boulangeries of Paris and the cafés of Brooklyn, Art Is In Bakery is a funky spot for legendary baked goods. Treat yourselves to a buttery croissant or cinnamon bun, or sample the bakery’s famous O-Towner—a cross between a filled donut and a croissant. If you're looking for something more substantial, try savoury items such as a croque monsieur or the Big “K” Burger (named after owner and pastry chef Kevin Mathieson).

8.SHOP Byward Market

If you’re in search of holiday gifts, Ottawa's bustling Byward Market is the perfect place to browse… and find! This outdoor market contains shops of all sorts, from farmer’s market stalls to specialty food shops to boutiques featuring local designers and artisans. One of the newest additions to the market is Milk Shop—a stylish, one-stop-shop filled with cute and trendy clothing, jewelry and accessories. Adorit boutique is another highlight of the market, offering sustainably-made, Canadian-designed clothing for women and men.

Calgary

Holiday vibe Cool and contemporary

In search of a holiday escape that’s sleek-and-chic? Look no further than Calgary for a cool, contemporary break this festive season. With a wealth of things to do, this modern Alberta city offers something for foodies and culture vultures alike. The fact that the Rockies are on your doorstep (Banff is just 90 minutes away) feels like nothing short of a holiday miracle. Here’s how to eat, shop and play your way around Calgary:

1.STAY Le Germain Calgary

Located right in the heart of the action with a décor that’s best described as tastefully-appointed luxury, this chic hotel is a great spot to start your city exploration. Just across the street from the iconic Calgary Tower, Le Germain Calgary is steps from restaurants, shopping and the Arts Commons performing arts centre. Be sure to carve out some time for a facial or hot stone massage in the RNR Wellness spa.

2.STAY Grey Eagle Resort and Casino

While it’s just a few minutes outside downtown, this 4-star resort feels a world away from the busy city. Located on the Tsuut’ina First Nation, the airy, Scandi-feeling rooms have panoramic views of the Rocky Mountains and have the feeling of a retreat after a busy day of merry-making. Dinner at Little Chief is a must: located in the hotel, this restaurant is renowned for its contemporary spin on the traditional cuisine of the Tsuut’ina First Nation. Highlights on the menu include the smoked maple salmon, the smoked bison Reuben and spiced beef “tacos” that use frybread in place of a tortilla.

3.EAT Sensei Bar

Skip the eggnog and elevate your festive tipples with a sophisticated sip from this ultra-hip bar off 17th Avenue (an area central to much of the city’s nightlife). Nestle into a cozy corner with a chai-infused bourbon Red Lantern, or nurse a Bizarre Brandy, made with Kahlua, espresso and gold leaf. Then nibble on the bar’s signature Korean and Japanese-inspired small plates. A “Little Mac” on a bao bun inspired by that famous chain burger? Truffle dumplings? Yes and yes, please.

4.DO Studio Bell, Home of the National Music Centre

The story of this fun attraction begins with a pipe organ, which birthed a festival, which led to a collection of piano keyboards, and eventually became a home for celebrating Canadian music. This skyline-enhancing masterpiece, built in 2016, contains a collection of over 2,000 rare instruments and musical ephemera. Visitors get a chance to interact with the space, exploring sound through movement, singing along in a recording booth and trying out drums, guitars and keyboards. Next door is the King Eddy, a historic music venue that hosts local acts. Studio Bell is also a great springboard for exploring the rest of the East Village, an eclectic, artsy neighbourhood filled with historic gems like Fort Calgary and newer arrivals like the stunning Central Library.

5.EAT Orchard Restaurant

With a vibe that feels opulent but never uptight, this quietly stunning restaurant on 10th Avenue evokes the romantic feel of a European supper club, located in the heart of the Design District. There are crystal chandeliers, warm brass accents and booths made private by lush plants and vines, the backdrop of a menu that blends Asian and Mediterranean cuisine. Our suggestion? Start with the grilled asparagus with yuzu aioli, have the duck breast with spicy chirizu sauce for main, and finish with the white chocolate tiramisu.

6.DO Flourish Wellness

The mantra at Flourish Wellness is “be well,” designed to bring visitors into “integrated wholeness.” Sounds like a pretty good way to start the New Year, doesn’t it? Leisha Laird, the founder of this holistic spot, draws on Chinese herbal medicine, acupuncture and mindfulness to create custom treatments tailored to your body’s unique needs. You can’t wrap inner peace and put it under a tree, but a visit here might come close.

7.SHOP Market Collective

What’s the holiday season without a holiday market? This one, a tradition since 2008, is a must-do on any Calgary festive bucket list. Market Collective is a great spot to pick up a last-minute gift or keepsake for yourself from a local creator who gets to keep 100 per cent of their profits. The market also hosts a plethora of delicious food vendors and live music acts, two things guaranteed to make the season bright. This year, catch the Market Collective popping up December 10 to 12 and December 17 to 19 at the BMO Centre.

8.DO WinSport Adventures

If all you ever wanted for Christmas was to be an Olympian, you can get a taste of the real thing via a visit to this winter sport wonderland. Located in Calgary’s Canada Olympic Park, this sprawling facility played host to the 1988 winter games. Fly down one of eight lanes in the tube park—apparently among the fastest in Canada—or practice your ollie in the snowboarding terrain park.

Victoria

Holiday vibe Upscale relaxation

Canada’s westernmost capital is a highlight of any trip to British Columbia. There’s an easy elegance to Victoria, along with breathtaking vistas that will make you wonder what took you so long to get here. There’s fine dining, but there’s also a dainty cup of four o’clock tea. You can choose to discover amazing Indigenous art or relax in an ultimate spa. And if you’re still on the hunt for holiday gifts, there’s a prime shopping district close at hand.

1.STAY Oak Bay Beach Hotel

First built in 1927 in the style of an English Manor House, Oak Bay Beach Hotel was completely redone and reopened in 2012. This upscale hotel now ranks consistently among the top luxury resorts in the Pacific Northwest and Canada. Its Boathouse Spa is the only oceanfront spa in Victoria, a seaside oasis with three heated mineral pools nuzzling the Salish Sea. A full range of massages, European facials, pedicures, body wraps and salt glows are available to fulfil your dearest wellness wishes.

2.SHOP Lower Johnson Street (LoJo)

Lower Johnson Street (LoJo) is Victoria’s epicentre of fashion, a picture-perfect place for retail therapy. Head to the entrance of Market Square and check out Oscar and Libby’s, home of gifts for the upbeat and offbeat. You won’t find a better collection of hot sauces, puzzles, housewares or socks than at this weird, wacky and whimsical place. Then, visit Smoking Lily, where a team of talented people design, sew and silk-screen in-house, producing stylish, well-priced clothing and housewares using sustainable methods that “leave no scrap behind.”

3.EAT Nourish Kitchen & Cafe

Housed in a highly photogenic 19th century heritage building, Nourish Kitchen & Cafe is the perfect place to meet for brunch, lunch or simply to cocoon with a good book while enjoying a beverage. Their “signature sips” include cardamom cocoa and the “Canadiano” (an Americano with maple syrup). “Eat with people you love” is the cafe’s slogan; when you try the pancakes or the Golden Benny eggs (with roasted veggies and turmeric cashew hollandaise), you may just fall in love too.

4.DO Legacy Art Galleries

The University of Victoria’s art gallery showcases a huge collection of Indigenous art, reaching across disciplines to engage visitors in the rich cultures and heritage of Indigenous Peoples. Until December 23rd, you can catch a special exhibit called Qw’an Qw’anakwal – To Come Together, featuring 12 artists and their collaborators from the Salish nations on Vancouver Island. In January, two new exhibitions will open, including Body Language: Reawakening Cultural Tattooing of the Pacific Northwest, on loan from Vancouver’s Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art.

5.EAT Don Mee Seafood Restaurant

Don Mee has been the heartbeat of Victoria’s Chinatown for more than 80 years, establishing a much-beloved tradition that has passed through generations. Celebrities and visitors from all around the world flock to Don Mee whether it’s for one of the restaurant’s famous dim sum lunches or to celebrate a special occasion. With a wide array of Cantonese, Szechuan and Western dishes and a vibrant atmosphere, it’s a sure bet for a lively and tasty night out.

6.EAT Little Jumbo

Named after a legendary 19th century New York saloon where mixology (professional, creative bartending) was perfected, Victoria’s Little Jumbo emphasizes the fine craft of preparing fresh contemporary fare and pairing it with fine wines and interesting cocktails. The décor is cool and rustic, with a laid-back atmosphere and friendly servers. Dishes change daily and weekly, so check their Instagram to discover the latest menu. Little Jumbo may be small, but the vibe is major.

7.DO Butchart Gardens

A tranquil site to enjoy beauty and solitude, Butchart Gardens is an oasis of nature year-round, and visitors can enjoy much of the Gardens’ 55 lush acres in the quiet of winter. During the holidays, this National Historic Site is transformed with thousands of colourful lights to create a nighttime holiday wonderland. Be sure to take in the Twelve Days of Christmas displays throughout the gardens, then warm up in front of the fireplace with a hot chocolate and festive gingerbread in the Coffee Shop.

8.DO Tea at the Fairmont Empress

Take your four o’clock the way the Royals do at this stunning, iconic hotel. A grand tradition for more than a century, the Empress serves and celebrates the beloved British afternoon ritual in their sophisticated Lobby Lounge. Choose from some of the finest and most exotic varieties of tea in the world, ethically-made and not available in stores. The food is divine, with options such as prawn salad tartlets, raspberry opera cake and rhubarb macarons. It’s a taste of refinement in the posh backdrop of the Empress’s upscale décor. There’s even a “Prince and Princess” menu to suit the tastes of patrons aged 5-12. Reservations are strongly recommended, and mind the dress code—hats are prohibited, except for fascinators and “fancy tea hats.”

This content was produced by The Globe and Mail’s Globe Content Studio on behalf of Destination Canada. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.

CREDITS: Concept and oversight by JESSICA ROBINSON; Editing by SHELLEY WHITE; Art direction, design and development by JEANINE BRITO; Project management by CHRISTINA LIPPA

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