Planning to book winter flights to Canada? If there’s one thing you don’t want to miss it’s the Québec Winter Carnival. Locally known as the ‘Carnaval de Québec’, it’s the world’s largest winter carnival, attracting thousands of families, couples and individuals annually.
The event takes place at the beginning of the year at various locations across Old Québec—all conveniently located within walking distance of each other—and honours long-time traditions in a fun, festive way.
The province’s aptly cold surroundings make both snow and ice-orientated activities the main part of this celebration. From exploring ice palaces to human foosball, here’s everything you need to know to make the most of the Québec Winter Carnival.
Although the Carnival officially began in 1955, the tradition originated much earlier in 1894 when early inhabitants of New France got together before Lent from the end of January through to the middle of February to celebrate. In the later part of the 20th century, festivities were organised specifically to provide a winter boost for the tourism industry.
Now recognised around the world, it has become one of the largest winter events in the world and is a celebration of all things French-Canadian.
Given the duration and sheer size of the event, it would be almost impossible for us to mention absolutely everything taking place at the Carnival. Here are just a few of our favourite activities you may want to add to your list.
First up is arguably the most unique event at the Carnival. Become one of the players inside the game as you strap yourself to a pole and work with your teammates to try to score the most goals (but keep in mind that no hands are allowed!)
Snow and ice sculptures
Witness works of art being created during the Carnival’s opening weekend as sculptors carve huge chunks of snow and ice lining the promenade into the fairgrounds. The International Snow Sculpture Contest takes place each year at the Carnival and features artists from countries across the globe.
You might not know it, but the sport of ice canoeing dates back to the 1600s as the only way to cross the area’s famous St. Lawrence River. It was, in fact, part of the first-ever Carnival in 1894 and sees teams attempt to push and paddle their boats across the half-frozen landscape.
Tour the Ice Palace
If you’ve read anything about the Québec Winter Carnival (or visited previously) you’ll likely have come across its official ambassador, Bonhomme—a giant snowman wearing a red hat and a traditional chevron sash. The Ice Palace has been Bonhomme’s official residence since the first Carnival in 1955 and is located opposite the iconic Parliament Building of Québec.
As well as becoming an entertainment venue at night, beautifully lit up with bright lights, visitors can also choose to tour inside, with many sticking around for a photo op with Bonhomme himself. Each year, the theme of the Ice Palace is slightly different and is one of the best places to learn about the Carnival’s history through various exhibits.
Where to stay
Due to the popularity of the Carnival, it is recommended that you book your accommodation as far in advance as possible. Hotel prices tend to get higher as the event draws closer, with rooms being filled quickly.
- The Hilton Québec – located just a five-minute walk from the fairgrounds, this hotel offers incredible views of the Ice Palace (particularly spectacular when lit up at night). Other stand-out features include a heated indoor/outdoor pool open year-round and two on-site restaurants.
- Fairmont Le Château Frontenac – the city’s castle-like hotel (which is reportedly the most photographed in the world) is not only incredibly beautiful but will take you right to the front door of the Carnival by toboggan slide at a speed of 70km/hour!
- Hotel de Glace – to make your winter carnival experience extra special, choose to stay in a hotel made from ice (also open for tours)!
What to wear
With winter temperatures in Québec between -4 and -16 °C, you’d better make sure you wrap up warm, especially since the vast majority of events are outdoors. We recommend wearing multiple layers so you can adapt accordingly, ensuring gloves, scarves hats and winter boots are all packed in your suitcase
And if you really want to look the part, don’t forget the ultimate Carnival accessory—the arrow sash. These can be purchased in various shops across the city and are traditionally tied around the waist with the knot on the left side.
What to eat
As well as being a great place to enjoy a host of winter activities, the Québec Winter Carnival is also a great place to enjoy quintessential Canadian treats. Here are just a few of our favourites.
If you’ve visited Canada previously, you’ll likely know about these sweet treats. A flat doughnut-type pastry sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, >Beaver Tails are served up with a variety of delicious toppings, from apple cinnamon to Nutella and banana. Enjoy with a hot chocolate on a cold winter day to warm up the insides!
Another Québec favourite is maple taffy—a tasty treat made from boiled maple syrup which turns soft in texture when drizzled over snow. For the most authentic experience, visit a cabane à sucre (sugar shack) to witness it being made first-hand.
Carnival celebrations are traditionally fuelled with warming shots of ‘caribou’—a mixed drink very similar to mulled wine which is made using red wine or port, whisky and maple syrup. It is traditionally enjoyed warm (a great solution to the cold weather) with cinnamon sticks, cloves and, of course, maple syrup.
Fancy making it at home? Combine the following ingredients in a small pot and simmer for 5-10 minutes.
- 750 ml red wine
- 250 ml rum or whisky
- 1 tsp ground cloves
- 1 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1 star anise
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 3 tbsp maple syrup
To gain access to most Carnival sites, you’ll need to wear an ‘Effigy’—a collectable plastic charm with Bonhomme’s face on it. For the best value, purchase in advance online for $10CAD (you can also purchase at the door for $15CAD). The good news is, buying the Effigy once gets you access to the festival site for the entire two weeks.