With its inaugural edition taking place in 1894 and held continuously since 1955, the Quebec Winter Carnival has always been a celebration of all things truly French-Canadian. Freezing temperatures aren’t enough to scare away the over one million visitors who trek to the charming city every February for what has become one of the largest winter festivals on the planet.
They come for the ice sculptures and slides, the multiple parades and the great programming and sporting events which define the carnival. They stay for the exceptional food, drink and general joie de vivre which make Quebec a unique destination in North America.
The walled city with its narrow, winding streets and centuries-old architecture gives you the feeling of having escaped to provincial France, all while being only a few hours’ drive from the Maine-Quebec border, and with the Canadian dollar lower than it has been in a long time (1 USD buys C$1.33 as of publication), you’ll get great bang for your greenback. So tie up your winter boots, put on your tuque and your mitaines and let’s take a look at what’s made this festival a fan favorite over the years.
Activities | Hotels | Restaurants | Tips | Caribou Recipe
The Quebec Winter Carnival is renowned for its unique events taking place during the three weeks of celebrations. Among them are the ice canoe race, where teams attempt to push and paddle their boats across the half-frozen landscape of the St. Lawrence River wearing shoes with spikes to get extra traction on the ice. Tracing its history back to the early days of New France in the 1600s as the only way to cross the Saint Lawrence River, ice canoeing was part of the first ever edition of the carnival in 1894 and has remained one of its most popular events ever since.
Another stalwart of Quebec’s carnival are the many ice structures which are built around the Old Town and on the Plains of Abraham. A full-sized ice palace acts as the official home of festival mascot Bonhomme and the surrounding festival grounds become an open air art gallery, showcasing snow sculptures from artists from across the country. Ice slides are built next to the Terrasse Dufferin, overseeing the lower part of town and the river with rides costing $3 CAD ($2.15 USD).
Bonus: if you stay at the Château Frontenac, the city’s emblematic castle-like hotel, the slide will take you right to your front door!
Skating rinks are set up at various locations in the city center, along with other classic winter pastimes such as dog sledding. A daily breakfast is offered to the first few thousand visitors, sponsored by another great Canadian festival, the Calgary Stampede. Bistro tents along the way serve the traditional drink of Carnaval called Caribou. A deadly mixture of red wine, liquor and spices, it’s Quebec’s interpretation of mulled wine and will warm you up on the chilliest of winter nights.
Where to Stay
In order to be close to the action and enabling a pop in to warm up, we recommend staying at one of the many luxurious yet affordable hotels in Old Quebec. Here are our picks for the best accomodations to experience the carnival. Be sure to compare prices on trivago first to find the lowest possible price!
8 RUE SAINT-ANTOINE
Set in three buildings dating back to the 17th century, the Auberge Saint-Antoine recently took home the top prize in the trivago Awards 2017 4-star category and a quick look at its fact sheet explains why. Seamlessly blending refined luxury with French-Canadian rusticity, the Saint-Antoine perfectly embodies the unique character of Quebec City. The stylish boutique hotel is also bathed in history, with artifacts from the city’s earliest days displayed throughout the place, giving it an almost museum-like feel.
Hôtel Le Germain Québec
126 RUE SAINT PIERRE
At Le Germain Quebec, you’ll be staying in a century-old building in Quebec City’s Old Port where it retains all the cachet and contagious charm of days past. They have preserved the original woodwork and stone to create a mix of classic and contemporary architecture, all while offering luxurious textiles and amenities. You’ll be both impressed and seduced by the warm, luxurious and welcoming atmosphere as well as the unparalleled service of the dedicated staff.
Fairmont Le Château Frontenac
1 RUE DES CARRIERES
The one and only: the defining mark of Quebec City’s skyline also happens to hold the title of most photographed hotel in the world. Originally built in 1893 by the prestigious Canadian Pacific Railway company, the 253-feet high central tower was added in 1924, growing the hotel’s capacity to over 600 rooms. This National Historic Site offers everything you’ve come to expect from the Fairmont brand: impeccable styling and materials, round-the-clock concierge service, amazing dining options ranging from the more laid-back Sam’s Bistro to the highly-rated Champlain Restaurant. Perched atop a 100-foot hill, the Château Frontenac treats its guests to sweeping panoramic views of the St-Lawrence river and the city. Even if you end up staying somewhere else, a tour of this iconic institution is a must-have on your list.
Hôtel Le Concorde
1225 COURS DU GENERALE DE MONTCALM
Hôtel Le Concorde Quebec is a futuristic-looking skyscraper hotel located across from the Plains of Abraham, where many of the carnival’s events take place, meaning you can get there first and skip the lines and you’ll also have a short walk to get back to your room at the end of the day. Most of the other major touristic attractions, such as the Museum of Civilization, the Place d’Youville and Quebec’s parliament building, are also very closeby. After an unforgettable day discovering Old Quebec, you can take the elevator to the top floor, where the Concorde’s revolving restaurant Le Ciel offers affordable and savory meals with the best view in Quebec City.
Where to Eat
Quebec has gained a reputation for being a top culinary destination and with good reason. With chefs pushing the boundaries of gastronomy with new restaurants popping up on a monthly basis, time-honored institutions serving up old-school French cuisine in lavish settings and classic Québécois Câsse-croûtes (diners) comforting their guests with greasy yet timeless classics, the diversity of cuisines is astounding. The city being surrounded by fertile agricultural areas means chefs in Quebec have an almost endless supply of high-quality local ingredients to work with. Here are some of our suggestions of where to eat in Quebec City:
26 RUE SAINT LOUIS
Le Continental is as classy and timeless as it gets. Virtually unchanged in the past 50 years, this is a dress-up-in-your-Sunday-best kind of restaurant. The waiters are extensively trained which translates to impeccable service for guests and the food is straight out of 1950’s Paris establishments. Chef-turned-TV-host Anthony Bourdain visited this Quebec City institution a few years ago on his show Parts Unknown and was thrilled with his experience, as he attests in the clip above.
No trip to Quebec is complete without a stop at a diner for a poutine and a steamé (steamed hot dog) and Chez Ashton is one of the oldest and best in the Quebec region. The diner’s origins can be traced to a traveling snack cart started by Ashton Leblond in 1969. It was not until 1972, however, that poutine, an artery-clogging combination of french fries, gravy and curd cheese, was first offered.
Chez Ashton is also famous for its winter promotion scheme, wherein the price of poutine drops with the temperature. If the temperature is −30 °C (−22 °F), the customer receives a 30% discount on poutine. Legend has it Ashton hooked his first customers by initially giving free samples of his poutine. They kept coming back for more and his eponymous chain of restaurants have now achieved province-wide recognition and are a true Quebec institution.
1027 3e AVENUE
A relative newcomer to the Quebec restaurant scene, La Planque serves modern interpretaitons of traditional Québécois dishes along with European classics. The restaurant also offers fresh Canadian oysters, which are regarded as some of the finest in the world. It has made a name for itself through its cozy interior, somewhat removed from touristy Old Quebec and its exceptional wine selection and service. Its popularity with the locals means you might have a hard time getting a table so make a reservation.
- Dress warm and wear many layers; the temperatures in Quebec City can go down to -30°C (-22°F) on winter nights!
- Bring hand & feet warmers and don’t be afraid to use them.
- Protect your face from the wind and the cold with lip balm and vaseline.
- Remember that Quebec City is predominantly French-speaking. Signage and announcements in public transit are only in French. Most Quebecers do speak English quite well, but a Bonjour! (Hello) or a Merci! (thank you) will definitely go a long way with the locals.
Here is a recipe for Caribou, the official drink of Carnaval. It is sure to warm you up on even the coldest of Canadian winter nights!
- 750 ml Red wine
- 250 ml Rum or Canadian Whisky
- 1 tsp ground cloves
- 1 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1 Star anise
- 1 Cinammon stick
- 3 tbsp maple syrup
Combine all ingredients in a small pot and simmer for 5-10 minutes.
For more information on all Quebec City has to offer, visit quebecregion.com.