The Québec Winter Carnival takes places in Québec City, Québec, Canada and is the largest winter carnival in the world with over 200 activities to take part in and is one of the top 50 Winter Signature Experiences in Canada, as chosen by Flight Network experts in December 2016, for best exemplifying the natural beauty, cultural uniqueness, and adventurous spirit of Canada and its people. In addition, Québec City was voted North America’s Best Winter Wonderland among 20 destinations by USA Today for 10BEST – Readers’ Choice 2016. It is easy to see why, as Québec City is magical and enchanting when covered in snow, and an extremely romantic destination. What’s more, Québecers’ warm hospitality is very welcoming.
The first large-scale Québec Winter Carnival began in 1894 and helped locals to come together and embrace winter despite the harsh climate. The Carnival occurred off-and-on until 1955, when the first edition of the modern Québec Winter Carnival commenced with Bonhomme Carnaval selected as the ambassador. Soon after, the Québec Winter Carnival became a must-see for local residents and international visitors. Over the years the Carnival program has expanded to promote winter tourism and includes numerous winter sports, artistic competitions, and family and folklore activities inspired by the traditional Québécois way of life.
Today, this 17 day festival takes place in late January to mid-Februrary and is a delightful celebration of winter. There is a diverse array of fun activities for all ages at the Québec Winter Carnival, including cultural, family, adult, gourmet (food & drink), music, sports, night, festive, indoor, outdoor, challenge, those suitable for the mobility-impaired, and more. However, with so many wonderful activities to choose from, it can be a bit daunting to navigate. Thus, I’ve compiled a list of 9 activities you need to do at a minimum, essentially the reasons why you need to go to the Québec Winter Carnival:
1. Visit Bonhomme’s Ice Palace
Bonhomme Carnaval is a snowman clad in the distinctive red touque and arrowhead sash of Québécois heroes, and is the official Representative of the Québec Winter Carnival. The arrowhead sash was originally used in the late 18th century to tie around the waist and keep loose clothing close to the body in order to prevent cold air from seeping in, as well as it helped lumberjacks and voyageurs to support the back during heavy physical activity.
Every year on the opening night of the Carnival, Québec City’s mayor gives Bonhomme the key to the city, therefore symbolically confirming him as King of the Québec Winter Carnival. Bonhomme embodies fun, which is what these winter festivities are about. He is much beloved by all, especially the children of Québec who adore him even more than Santa Clause. Each year an Ice Palace is built for Bonhomme that is different than the previous years, so it is always new and exciting to visit!
Bonhomme’s Ice Palace is usually located opposite the Parliament Building, at Place de l’Assemblée-Nationale. It is a structure made of ice with corridors, rooms, ice walls (some of which have designs), and no roof. You can walk through the ice palace and see beautiful ice sculptures (this year they were created by M. Lepire) and graffiti works by talented muralists. On the weekends (Saturday and Sunday) you can view the graffiti artists working live and may even see an ice sculptor at work. Next to the ice palace is a bistro that you can warm up in if need be, as well as an ice bar that you can get drinks served in a glass carved from ice.
2. Meet Bonhomme Carnaval or Take a Photo With a Bonhomme Statue
Bonhomme can be found at many Québec Winter Carnival activities, such as at the opening of the Carnival with the Crowning of the Queen at Bonhomme’s Ice Palace, the night parades, and the St. Hubert Snow Bath. However, if you would actually like to see and interact with him up close there are specific scheduled times that you can do a meet and greet with Bonhomme at Bonhomme’s World (Parc de l’Esplanade) or snap a selfie with Bonhomme at Lotto-Québec Zone in front of the Parliament Building.
Alternatively, on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7:00-7:45 pm you can go ice skating with Bonhomme on the outdoor ice rink at Place D’Youville. (Make sure to check the Carnival schedule in case the day, times, and locations of any of these places change in subsequent years).
The Ville de Québec Snow Globe, that showcases around 30 artists and about 45 performances, is also located at this site next to the ice rink. These include storytellers, choirs, violinists, dancers, and more.
If you are not able to attend those scheduled times to meet Bonhomme, keep on the lookout for him as he often visits the Québec Winter Carnival sites or take a photo with one of several Bonhomme statues, located all around Québec City. These can be found at the Québec City Airport, in the Quartier Petit Champlain, outside the Fairmont Le Château-Frontenac, inside the Fairmont Le Château-Frontenac and other hotels, among other locations.
3. See the Snow Sculptures
There is a national and international snow sculpture competition every year (for the last 45 years) where dozens of sculptors from across Canada and around the globe transform massive blocks of snow over several days into beautiful works of art based on a theme. The artists can be found at work in the Parc de l’Amérique-Française during the first six days of the Québec Winter Carnival, after which the completed snow sculptures are displayed for the remainder of the Carnival. The park therefore becomes like an outdoor museum.
A fantastic addition not to miss is there is a control box in the park in the centre of the snow sculpture display with four buttons that the public can choose to press for different light effects, which are then projected onto all the snow sculptures as well as an ice sculpture, and transforms them. There is a choice of boreal, sparkly, kaleidoscope, and carnival. This gives different perspectives of the sculptures and is a very cool effect, especially at night. The buttons are only functional from 4–11pm, so if you visit the snow sculptures during the day, make sure to pass by at night as well for a different experience.
This year the theme of the snow sculptures was around Canada’s 150th anniversary and there were several Canadian teams and nine international teams from eight countries including Argentina, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Morocco, Peru and the USA. Teams usually consisted of three members. There were competing for audience awards (voted on by the public), judges’ awards (snow sculptures are evaluated on their technical, creative, and thematic merits), artists’ awards, awards of excellence from the Québec Winter Carnival, awards of excellence from Québec City, awards of excellence from the government of Québec, and awards of excellence from the national capital.
The snow sculpture at the beginning of this section after “See Snow Sculptures” was created by a team from Italy and titled “Oh Canada.” It was meant to represent a small part of Canada’s national anthem as the musical score looks like a flag waving in the air. It received the judges’ award, the public’s award, and the award of excellence from the Québec Winter Carnival in the international category.
A team from Canada called its snow sculpture “Maple Flower” as it replicates the incredibly rare maple flower that is said to come to light only once every 150 years and only in optimal conditions that only the keenest observer could notice, as it hides in groups of three among the lilies in Québec. Maple Flower received the public’s award and the award of excellence from the Québec Winter Carnival in the national category.
This snow sculpture was also entered in the national category as it was by a Canadian team. It was entitled “A Bottle at Sea” with the Bluenose ship (a Canadian symbol) replicated inside.
“Migrations” was a snow sculpture created by a team from France to symbolize migration and the circle of life. It won the award of excellence from the government of Québec in the international competition.
The Peru team’s snow sculpture depicts how the animal species offer us an example of harmonious living in order to convey the message that it’s important to preserve the delicate balance of the ecosystem through their re-creation of a scene from the Canadian forests, a bear carrying a fish in its mouth. It was entitled “survive.”
These are just a few of the fantastic snow sculptures created. All of the snow sculptures were very different, but equally impressive!
4. Try Maple Taffy
A traditional sugar shack is located at Jos’ Camp (Parc de la Francophonie) and offers classic maple sweets made from maple syrup. Maple syrup is a Canadian favourite. It is a sugary syrup made from the sap of maple trees, of which the province of Québec is the world’s largest producer (they are responsible for 75% of the world’s maple syrup production). Maple syrup is often eaten with pancakes, waffles, French toast, used in baking, made into candies, and occasionally used in cooking.
You can try authentic maple taffy at the Québec Winter Carnival, which is maple syrup poured onto snow to cool for a couple of minutes, and then rolled onto a stick to eat and enjoy, whilst listening to traditional Québécois music. Maple taffy is simply delicious! Especially when it’s from Québec!
5. Drink Caribou
Caribou is a sweet Québécois alcoholic beverage comprised of red wine mixed with alcohol (typically either brandy, whiskey, or vodka) and spices. The drink may be served hot or cold and got its name from the dark red colour that essentially looks like Caribou blood. You can try Caribou at Jos’ Camp (Parc de la Francophonie), from vendors selling it along one of the night parade routes, or at some of the food and drink establishments in Québec City. The Caribou drink may be different if you try it at different places, as many people use their own recipes, which may have a few varying ingredients and spices. (Some people may add maple syrup and cinnamon or anise).
6. Explore the Québec Winter Carnival at Night
At night many Québec Winter Carnival sites and streets in Québec City are lit up with many different colourful lights, creating a completely different setting, atmosphere, and ambience than during the day. So even if you have been to all the Carnival sites during the day, make sure to also visit them at night and walk along some of the streets in the old town. Some places you should definitely visit are Bonhomme’s Ice Palace, the snow sculptures in Parc de l’Amérique-Française, Place D’Youville, Jos’ Camp, the street of Grand-Allée East, and Quartier Petit Champlain. The city becomes even more magical when lit up at night and is something you definitely don’t want to miss!
7. Check Out the Ice Sculptures in the Quartier Petit Champlain
During the Québec Winter Carnival there are over 30 different ice sculptures to discover along the street from the Quartier Petit Champlain to Place-Royale. This is a very picturesque and quaint street that you can walk through in the old town of Québec City. It is known for artists and craftsmen with many stores and restaurants and is even more enjoyable to walk through with the ice sculptures. On Saturdays from 1–4 pm there are games and live entertainment, for what is known as Frosty Saturdays.
8. Attend a Night Parade
There are two night parades you can attend, the Charlesbourg Night Parade which takes place in Charlesbourg (the Lower Town) usually the second Saturday of the Québec Winter Carnival, or the Upper Town Night Parade, which takes place in Old Québec (Upper Town) usually the last Saturday of the Québec Winter Carnival.
Both night parades takes over the streets from 7–9 pm with a world of fantasy and imagination through giant animals and iconic characters, music, decorated floats, lights, and more.
I had the pleasure of attending the Upper Town Night Parade, whose route is mainly along René-Lévesque, Grande Allée and Honoré-Mercier. It was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had, as the colourful lights, sights, sounds, excitement, and electrifying energy combined were so amazing, it is indescribable! I have been to many wonderful parades, but nothing is quite like one at night!
Here are some more highlights from the Upper Town Night Parade:
Bonhomme Carnaval is featured on the last float of the night parades and is someone everyone looks forward to seeing!
9. Participate in the St-Hubert Snow Bath
The St-Hubert Snow Bath takes place at Jos’ Camp on the last day of the Québec Winter Carnival. It is an opportunity to frolic in the snow in your bathing suit with Bonhomme. Usually there are about 80 participants, who are split into three groups. They must first go through an intensive warm-up indoors that consists of dance aerobics for about 90 minutes before going outdoors. The first time groups went outside to brave the cold it was for 2-4 minutes before coming back inside to warm up with more dance aerobics. The second time groups went outside for 4-8 minutes before returning to do dance aerobics once again, and the third time all participants joined one group and stayed outside for about 15-20 minutes (although some may not have done all three snow baths, the choice is yours)!
Many people come out to see the participants of the St-Huber Snow Bath who dance in the snow, play in the snow, throw snow around, jump face first into the snow, lie down in the snow, throw snow on themselves, and in some cases roll around in the snow and cover themselves in snow while listening to upbeat music. Basically they “bathe” in snow. It is entertaining to watch their excitement and enjoyment of the snow, which becomes like a giant snow party.
The participants don’t feel the cold that much due to the high level of physical activity before and in between the snow baths and because the snow bath itself is a huge adrenaline rush! It is definitely a unique and fun experience!
Tip: Stay at the Hilton Québec City Carnival Host Hotel
If you are visitng Québec City for the Québec Winter Carnival I recommend staying at the official Carnival host hotel, the Hilton Québec City. It is conveniently located just a few blocks from the Old Town so that you can easily take part in a multitude of activities that the Carnival offers, as well as being close to historical sites, major attractions, and Grand-Allée, known for the city’s best restaurants and nightclubs.
What’s more, if you have a room on one of the upper floors of the hotel, you will have an amazing view of Québec City and the Québec Winter Carnival sites. From our room on the 22nd floor we were able to see Bonhomme’s Ice Palace and Bonhomme’s World.
This hotel also has many amenities such as complimentary wifi, its own restaurants and bar, fitness center, year round heated outdoor pool, meeting rooms, and an Executive Lounge that I found delightful due to it being on the top floor of the hotel with floor to ceiling windows on two sides, therefore offering breathtaking views, as well as a quiet and relaxing atmosphere.
The Hilton Québec City is in the heart of the action of the Québec Winter Carnival and is sure to help you get the most out of the festivities during your stay!
The Québec Winter Carnival is the largest winter carnival in the world and a wonderful celebration of winter! There is a huge multitude of fantastic things to see and do, however the activities not to miss out on and reasons to go to the Carnival are to visit Bonhomme’s Ice Palace, meet Bonhomme Carnaval or take a photo with a Bonhomme statue, see the snow sculptures, try maple taffy, drink caribou, explore the Québec Winter Carnival at night, check out the ice sculptures in the Quartier Petit Champlain, attend a night parade, and participate in the St-Hubert Snow Bath. Also, make sure to stay at the Québec Winter Carnival host hotel, the Hilton Québec City, as it is well-located close to the Carnival sites. This winter festival is truly a fun and enjoyable experience! The festive spirit warms your heart. Although previously I was not a big fan of winter, the festivities from the Québec Winter Carnival changed all that and made me fall in love with winter! The Québec Winter Carnival is an amazing experience and something that should definitely be on your bucket list!
Check Out My Québec Winter Carnival Experience!
Map of Québec City
What is your favourite winter festival and why?
These were complimentary experiences courtesy of Québec City Tourism. As always, all opinions are 100% my own.
(Photos 1, 22, and 29 courtesy of Randy Smith).