When it comes to winter festivals, there’s none better than Quebec’s winter carnival, which is one of the largest winter festivals in the world. Held annually during the month of February, the Québec Winter Carnival, or Carnaval de Québec as it’s known in French, is an annual festival that brings thousands of visitors together to celebrate the winter in Quebec. Created way back 1894, the festivities were inspired by the harsh winters as a way to create a fun celebration to warm the hearts of its citizens. The modern version of the festival started in 1955 and is now one of the biggest events of the year for French Canada. From ice sculptures to ice slides to an absolutely massive parade, it’s a great experience for kids and adults alike.
We had been wanting to visit the Quebec Winter Carnival for years and finally made it happen in 2020. For those looking to experience the winter festival themselves, here is your must-do guide to making it happen.
Quebec’s winter carnival tends to take place over two weekends. The first weekend will see the initial opening ceremonies and the opening parade whereas the last weekend will see the closing parade. You’ll also find heaps of activities and events along Grande Allée near Old Québec as well as separate events throughout the city, such as balls, brunches, and the infamous Ice Canoe Race held on the St. Lawrence River.
10 Ways to Experience Quebec Winter Carnival Activities to the Fullest
Attend the Night Parade
You simply cannot fully experience Quebec’s Winter Carnaval without seeing the massive night parade, which takes place along Grande Allée. They put on quite the show with a variety of floats, acrobatics, costumes, a rock show, pyrotechnics, and DJs spinning electronic tunes. Like all parades, the public can watch for free by just standing along the streets and waiting for the show to begin. Another option is to buy a VIP pass, which includes bleacher seating, a blanket, and alcoholic drinks.
What does “400 pounds” of snow love look like? Well, it looks like Bonhomme! Okay, in reality, he is not 400 pounds, but he is the jolly snowman of a mascot for Quebec’s Winter Festival and he’s quite famous! Everyone, including locals and tourists, wants to meet Bonhomme and have a photo with him. There are a variety of events throughout the festival to do this and you’ll also find many Bonhomme statues throughout the city, including inside the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac and out by Au 1884.
Visit Bonhomme’s Ice Palace
If you want to meet Bonhomme, you’ll want to go to his ice palace. Bonhomme’s Ice Palace is actually one of the main attractions of the festival and so even if you don’t want to meet him, there’s plenty of things to do here, including admiring the incredible and massive snow sculptures as well as the ice castle itself, which is created from more than 30,000 pounds of snow and more than 3,000 blocks of ice. During our visit, we slid down the ice slide, felt like we were inside an arcade game in PIXEL (this is a new immersive experience that makes you feel like you’ve stepped inside various games from the ’80s and ’90s), and played some cool games as well. Nearby, you’ll also find warming fires, food, and drink.
The Ice Palace is also spectacular at night when it’s lit up with bright LED lights, and the area around it transforms into a nightclub of sorts (see below). DJs spin beats as locals and tourists dance to keep warm, fuelled by alcohol served from nearby huts.
Dance to the Music
From electronic music in the parade to live music throughout the event, there’s plenty of ways to get your groove on. There are even trucks blasting music on the streets during the day, giving you all the reason to bust a move. However, if you really want to move, consider attending one of the outdoor raves! For 2020, these included The Pepsi Hip Hop Evening during the first weekend and the Sapporo Electro Frette during the second weekend.
Tip: To really get into the spirit of things, head to one of the on-site bars and purchase some Caribou (this is a drink, not the animal). However, rather than have it in a cup, buy one of the hollow sticks shaped like a candy cane and have it filled to the brim with strong red wine.
Ride the Ice Slide
Located right on Grande Allée, we found a really cool ice slide that was completely free to experience. Day and night, both kids and adults lined up to slide down the sheet of ice on a tube. It’s not a very big slide but it’s definitely fun to try. In fact, we went three times!
From ax throwing to outdoor floor hockey, there are all sorts of ways to have fun with other people during the winter carnival. One night, we heard a lot of commotion happening at Jo’s Camp by Videotron, so we went over and found people playing “goon hockey”. This is basically outdoor floor hockey but everyone has to wear massive foamed jersey’s. It looked like a blast so we joined in on the fun. Just next to this was a live band performing folk music as well as free ax throwing! There’s also a variety of warming fire pits, as well as food and drink.
Eat Some Delicious Maple Taffy
Maple taffy is easily one of my favourite “desserts” on the planet. Ever since I was a kid, I remember how much I loved maple taffy. This is a french sweet, which consists of boiled maple sap poured over snow. As it cools on the snow, it begins to form into a taffy. You then stick a popsicle stick on it, roll it up, and voila – a maple taffy popsicle! It’s a truly Canadian sweet and it’s super good, as long as you like maple syrup.
You’ll see this pop up all over the place but one of the most popular places to get it is right in front of Jo’s Camp in Place George V at the Godin Family Sugar Shack.
Witness the Ice Canoe Race
Canoeing can be challenging on its own, so now imagine doing it through frozen ice chunks! Despite the dangers, hundreds of hardy souls participate in the annual ice canoe race on the semi-frozen St. Lawrence River. Lasting up to three hours, a variety of canoes race to multiple spots along the course while battling moving ice chunks. As the rowers approach the frozen ice, they actually have to stick their feet into the freezing cold water to keep the canoe in the water. I was cold just watching it!
The event sees four different types of competitors, including pro, semi-pro, amateur, and women competitors. Perhaps if you’re brave enough, you can join in on the amateur competition. If you do, let us know!
Admire the Friendly Ice Sculptures
When it comes to winter festivals, there’s always ice sculptures to be found. In the case of Winter Carnaval 2020, the theme seems to be “childhood cartoons” and they are all placed in the lower part of Old Quebec. We found all sorts of characters that we grew up with including Bullwinkle, Babar, Paddington Bear, and Ratatouille, just to name a few. There was about 30 altogether and they could be found outside the various shops in the charming little neighborhood of Petit Champlain.
Drink at an Ice Bar
Have you ever had a shot of alcohol or a cocktail served in a glass made of ice? If not (or even if you did), make your way to one of the ice bars and enjoy the splendors of a drink that stays cool. There are two main ice bars at the event itself, including the Bar le Coureur des Bois at le Camp à Jo and the SAQ Ice Bar in the Zone Loto-Québec. There are all sorts of drinks to enjoy but if you want to try the most iconic, ask for the classic Caribou, which is like strong red wine.
What to Wear for Winter in Quebec City
Held in February, the winter carnival is typically a cold experience. As you might know, Canada is quite cold in the winter and Quebec is no exception. In fact, Quebec’s winter can be very cold and humid, which means you’ll need to dress warmly to fully enjoy the winter carnival. We highly recommend wearing thermal underwear, snow pants, warm boots, a variety of layers, a winter jacket, gloves, and a toque. You may also wish to buy a festive Winter Carnival toque, which is what we did! For more on what to wear, check out our article about what to wear during the winter in Canada.
In addition, if you really want to look festive, you could purchase an arrow sash, which is a traditional garment tied around the waist.
How Much Does it Cost to Experience the Quebec Winter Carnival?
If you’d like to enter the festival sites where you’ll find all the games and events, you’ll need what’s called an effigy. This little trinket looks like a Christmas ornament and can be purchased for $20. You should then tie it to your jacket and then keep it as a souvenir! With this effigy, you can enjoy the festival sites for the entire duration of the festival.
Another option is to buy the Carnaval Passport for $45, which includes the effigy mentioned above plus a Carnaval toque, a stick of maple taffy, hot chocolate or coffee, a Ponce de Carnaval drink, as well as vouchers for coffee, soda, a free hot dog, grand-and-go meal, and even a pastry from Couche-Tard. There are other coupons as well that you might use. The toque alone is worth $20 or more, so if you’re thinking of buying one of these, you may as well as buy the Carnaval Passport and enjoy everything else for free!
You can purchase the effigy/passport in-person or online via the official website.
Where to Eat in Quebec City
When it comes to food, there are all sorts of places within the carnival itself, selling everything from poutine to actual meals. However, if you’d like to eat at a restaurant, there are hundreds to choose from. We’ve only tried a few but we can certainly recommend the ones we experienced.
Restaurant La Buche: Located near the gate where Quebec Carnival is held, you’ll find this charming French restaurant serving traditional Quebec cuisine with a modern twist, such as decomposed shepherd’s pie, old paw stew, meat pie croquettes, and deer tartare. We tried the scallops and the Tourtière (Meat Pie), all of which were very good.
Ciel! Bistro-bar: If you’re looking for fine dining with an incredible view, look no further. Also located on the same street as the Quebec Carnival Parade, this rotating restaurant offers unbeatable views of the city both day and night. It’s actually located at the top of the ___ hotel, which may make it a great place to stay as well. They serve elevated bistro fare and a great selection of cocktails. We had scallops and beef shoulder, as well as a Migneron cheese and broccoli risotto. We loved it all but the risotto was our favourite.
Paillard – St-Jean: This is a pastry shop that also serves decent meals (sandwiches, soup, etc) as well as good coffee and lattes. Actually, our favourite thing here is the mochas. It’s quite popular with both locals and tourists and is located within Old Quebec.
Where to Stay During the Québec Winter Carnival
When it comes to accommodation, there is something for everyone in Quebec City. From luxurious hotels to Airbnbs and guesthouses, there should be something for everyone’s budget. However, do keep in mind that the winter carnival is a popular event and therefore, you may want to book well in advance to guarantee a place to sleep.
If you want to be walking distance to the events, you’ll want to stay in or around Old Quebec. The parade takes place on Grande Allée, which is a great place to stay and most activities happen around Porte Saint-Louis, which is one of the gates into Old Quebec.
Le C3 Hôtel: During our stay, we spend two nights at Le C3 Hôtel, which is right on Grande Allée. From the hotel, it was just a 10-minute walk to the Porte Saint-Louis gate and all the winter festival activities. The hotel is built inside a historic house and is quite beautiful. We really loved our room, which felt like we were sleeping in Europe. Yet, despite its historic age, it’s very modern. We had quite a bit of space, a big bathroom, a desk, and a closet. The hotel also includes a decent breakfast, with hard-boiled eggs, a waffle maker, yogurt, cheese, bread, and much more. We can definitely recommend it when staying in Quebec City at any time of year.
Things to Do in Quebec City in Winter
Quebec’s winter carnival is a great time to visit the city. You can still do all the other things to do in Quebec City in Winter, but with the addition of one of the largest winter festivals on Earth. If you’re looking to experience a snowy winter in Canada, Quebec is a great place to go.
For more things to do in Canada, check out these articles below:
- Ottawa in the Winter
- Things to do in Quebec
- Banff Festivals in the Winter
- Tadoussac Whale Watching in Quebec
- Things to Do in Ontario
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