Québec’s annual Winter Carnival is a calendar highlight both for locals and international visitors. Held annually over 17 days from the end of January through to February, this snow-filled festival has been celebrated for the last 62-years and is today the largest winter carnival in the world. Despite the chilly temperatures (minus 28C when we visited!), some 500,000 visitors come every years, with nearly half of those arriving from outside Québec City.
It’s a fantastic family event with non-stop activities for kids young and old. During our time in Québec we saw babies being pulled along on toboggans, young children seemingly oblivious to the cold, families and friends, and tourists from around the world – including a group of Chinese visitors who decided to brave snow tubing in running shoes and NO socks! I felt cold just looking at them.
Events take place throughout the city over three weekends during Carnaval with highlights including the Canoe Race, when teams navigate the frozen waters of the Saint Lawrence River in large canoes, and the Snow Bath, when crazy festival-goers roll around in the snow in just their swimsuits! There are also two night parades, an International Snow Sculpture Event as well as other events. You can see more of Quebec’s Winter Highlights here and see the official calendar here.
The main Carnaval site is on the Plains of Abraham, just outside the city walls and the entrance to Old Québec. We visited on the festival’s final weekend and had a wonderful time enjoying all the rides and activities. As long as you are wrapped up warm then you can easily spend hours tubing, sliding, dog-sled riding and more – all punctuated by regular breaks in the main cafe where hot chocolate and caribou (Québec’s winter punch that is brilliant at keeping the cold at bay!) are served.
Here are our 10 favourite things to do at the La Carnaval de Québec.
1. Sleigh Bells Ring, Are You Listening…
What better way to enjoy the pastoral winter scene than from a traditional horse drawn carriage? Rides take place around the snowy Plains of Abraham, the site of a pivotal battle on 13 September 1759, when the British army defeated French troops in a battle that marked the beginning of the end of French rule in Canada. Rides last around 20 minutes and blankets are provided to keep you warm!
2. See the Snow Sculptures
My son loved the fantastical snow sculptures that sat centre stage in the festival site. Every year, La Carnaval holds an International Snow Sculpture Competition that sees local and international sculptors create magical sculptures around a theme of their choice. We particularly liked this accordion-playing snowman.
3. Spin Down the Mountain
We were first introduced to snow tubing at Village Vacances Valcartier and were delighted to find that we could try it again at the carnival site. Pull your tube up the slope and wait for one of the volunteers to push – or spin – you down the gentle slope. It’s A LOT of fun. You can see my eight-year-old spinning his way down the slope in the video above!
4. Drive a Dog Sled
I’ve always wanted to try dog sledding and although my visions of careering miles across open wilderness, led by a pack of white huskies was not quite realised, this was still a highlight for both myself and my eldest. Especially when I realised I got to drive the sled! Well, in reality, the dogs knew exactly where they were going (around a small, circular track) and I merely had to keep my balance!
5. Play a Game Of….
In addition to traditional fairground rides including a ferris wheel and an ‘elevator’ (one of those lift-you-up-slowly, drop-you-down-quickly rides), La Carnaval de Québec offers some fun alternatives including human bowling, human table football and a miniature ice hockey rink (of course, you’re in Canada, there has to be ice hockey!).
In human bowling, you’re placed within a large zorb ball at the top of a gentle slope. From here you have to roll your way down to the skittles and try and knock them over. Human football requires a few more participants but that shouldn’t be a problem, the game was packed when we visited!
6. Eat (a lot of) Maple Taffy
Even if you do nothing else in Québec you have to try Maple Taffy. This was a first for us; chewy but not sticky, cold but melts easily, sweet but not overly so. Just as good, is the way in which it is made. Maple syrup is heated to an incredible 234 degrees Fahrenheit before being poured in strips along a packed snowy surface. Leave it to cool for 25 seconds and then roll the taffy up using your lollipop stick. Voila! A delicious sweet treat that we ate a lot of during our time in Québec.
7. Slip Slide Away
The festival site has something for all ages including this mini playground for younger kids. Not surprisingly, the ride with the biggest queues was the icy slide. One thing I loved about Québec City, is that these slides were seemingly everywhere. Find a patch of ice and inevitably someone will have created a slide for kids. Another good reason for wearing ski pants!
8. Meet Bonhomme In His Ice Palace
The official mascot of the Carnaval since 1954, images of Bonhomme can be seen everywhere during the festival; at the airport, in shop windows, in hotel lobbies and, of course, at the festival itself. He is, without doubt, the star of the show. His home during the festival period is an Ice Palace that sits opposite the Parliament Building on Rue des Parlementaires. The Ice Palace is built using 300lb ice blocks and each year features a different theme; this year Bonhomme’s home displayed the history of the arrow sash, the belt that Bonhmme wears around his waist. We particularly enjoyed hanging out in Bonhomme’s living room that came complete with fireplace, sofas and even a pool table, all made from ice. You may get lucky and see Bonhomme while you are there but if not, watch out for him during the parade (see below).
9. Fall in the Snow
Although there was plenty enough snow to roll about in when we visited, the festival organisers had also put together these fun blocks of snow wth ready made snow shapes. The easiest way to make snow angels ever!
10. Watch the Parade
The Défile du Carnavale de Québec, the Night Parade, takes place on the final weekend of the festival. Colourful floats, marching bands, dance troupes, musicians, acrobats and, of course, Bonhomme, wind their way through the city streets towards the Ice Palace. It was cold when we saw the parade and so we didn’t see the entire procession but what we did see was fantastic. Another, more family-orientated, parade takes place on the second weekend of the festival. It takes place in a more residential neighbourhood, starts earlier and there’s a lot of interaction with the kids.
Need to Know
You will need a Carnival Effigy, an official miniature pendant, in order to access the main festival site. Wearing the Effigy is obligatory for visitors 8 years of age and over.
Information on how to buy festival tickets and your Carnival Effigy can be found here.
The official hotel of the festival is the Hilton Quebec, located just minutes away from the main festival grounds.
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For more ideas on enjoying Québec during the winter, take a look at this post.
Disclosure: My son and I were guests of Tourism Québec and Québec City Tourism during our three-day stay in Québec. All opinions are, as always, entirely my own and I will happily return to the city during winter, next time bringing the rest of the family!