Winter in Canada may be notoriously frigid, but that doesn't mean the season isn't packed with ice sculpture exhibitions, light shows, group ice skating rendezvous, cold-weather culinary events, and more. Despite the inescapable sub-zero temperatures, Canadians hold some of their largest and most popular events of the entire year between November and March. Learn which festivals are worth braving the chill.
Keep in mind that many events have been canceled or altered for the 2020-2021 season. Check the websites of individual organizers for updated information.
Every February, Quebec City, Quebec, plays host to the world's largest winter carnival, a highlight on the area's event calendar since 1894. This nine-day celebration normally features ice carving, night parades, tubing slides, sleigh rides, even a zip line, not to mention a grand Ice Palace where the mascot, Bonhomme, has been known to hang out. One of the most anticipated events of Winter Carnival is the annual canoe race in which participants alternate between paddling and carrying their boats across the frozen-over Saint Lawrence River. The 2021 festival will be held from February 5 to 14 and be split into seven neighborhood event sites to promote social distancing.
Canada's capital city of Ottawa, Ontario, holds its own snow-covered extravaganza, typically taking place over the first three weekends of February. Winterlude is home to the world's largest skating rink, the Rideau Canal, measuring a whopping 5 miles (7.8 kilometers) in length. It also features snow sculpture contests, concerts, and a Snowflake Kingdom at Jacques Cartier Park where horse-drawn sleigh rides, a snow maze, and tobogganing are offered—and most of it is free. Winterlude is hosted by the Department of Canadian Heritage and will take place from February 5 to 21, 2021.
From mid-November until the end of January, Niagara Falls holds the largest free outdoor lights festival in the country, featuring an impressive 3 million lights. The Ontario tradition illuminates a 3-mile route along the Niagara Parkway, Dufferin Islands, and across Niagara Falls. It typically features fireworks displays over the falls, concerts, and children's performances. This season, the festival will take place from November 14, 2020, to January 10, 2021.
The Montreal Highlights Festival, or Montréal en Lumière, is on its way to becoming one of the most popular winter festivals in Canada. The Quebec festival, which lasts 10 days and kicks off around the end of February, shines a spotlight on arts and culture, the celebration of light, and the culinary scene.
The food and drink aspect is a major draw for this festival. With more than 800,000 people attending the event annually, it is considered to be one of the largest culinary celebrations in Canada. In 2021, it will be held from February 18 to 28.
When the dates for Winterlicious are announced, you'll want to book reservations as soon as possible—openings are a rare and coveted treat. Ontario's biannual culinary festival is where the city's top chefs strut their culinary stuff each January or February. Nearly 200 restaurants, featuring wide-ranging styles and cuisines, open their doors and drop their prices on prix fixe menus for two weeks. 2021 dates have yet to be announced.
Festival du Voyageur, Saint-Boniface (Winnipeg French Quarter)
The Festival du Voyageur pays tribute to this Manitoba area's fur-trade era and French-Canadian heritage with snow sculptures, dog sledding, skating, and plenty of delicious food and drink. Its tagline is, aptly: "We don't hibernate, we celebrate!" The festival, held on the lands of the Anishinaabe, Ininew, and Dakota peoples, typically lasts a week in February. In 2021, the event will feature virtual concerts, French–Canadian meal kits, altered versions of classic Festival du Voyageur contests, and more. It will all take place online from February 12 to 21, 2021.
Ice on Whyte, Edmonton
The Ice on Whyte international ice carving competition in Edmonton, Alberta, highlights the sculptural creations of artists from all over the world. The masterpieces are typically complemented by a giant ice slide, interactive kids zone, live music, food, ice carving lessons, and other activities, but in 2021, it's been canceled.
For almost 50 years, Toronto, Ontario, has kicked off the holiday season with a series of free events: concerts, ice skating, the illumination of Nathan Phillips Square and a giant Christmas tree with 100,000 lights. Perhaps the best way to witness this spectacular sight is by ice skating on the famous Nathan Phillips Square rink. All Cavalcade of Lights activities—including ice skating—are free. In 2020, the event has been canceled.