The Quebec Winter Carnival brings Quebec City to life with sub-zero merrymaking every year, typically in late January or early February. Known as the world's largest winter carnival, it's been giving Quebeckers and thousands of visitors a reason to celebrate amid the city's characteristically cold, snowy winters since 1894. The 2021 Quebec Winter Carnival will take place from February 5 to 14. All activities will be decentralized, instead spread throughout seven neighborhood sites. Check the event website for updated information and to learn about health and safety measures.
History of the Quebec Winter Carnival
The Quebec Winter Carnival reportedly began when the inhabitants of New France—now Quebec—had a rowdy tradition of getting together just before Lent to eat, drink, and be merry. Even after more than a century, some traditions persist. Red clothes, certain songs, ceinture fléchée (the arrow sash worn around the waist), the plump snowman mascot Bonhomme, and the little shot of Caribou that keeps you warm are all time-honored traditions going back to the origin of the carnival, at least the 1890s if not earlier.
What to Expect
Today, the Quebec Winter Carnival is the biggest winter carnival in the world. Think: Mardi Gras, but during winter. It typically includes a zip line, night parades, a frozen slide behind the Fairmont Chateau Frontenac, concerts, snow sculptures, sleigh or dogsled rides, an Ice Palace, and ice skating. There's usually an adventurous canoe race across the Saint Lawrence River that requires paddlers to alternate between paddling and carrying their canoes across patches of ice.
In 2021, some of these activities have been pulled, but the event will feature a new Scotiabank Sculpture Spree, a walking route featuring 100 ice and snow sculptures conjoining the seven event districts. A special phone app will allow visitors to acquire points for every sculpture they log. The Palais de Bonhomme will be divided into—and decorated after—the seven neighborhoods, and each site will have a slide.
This year's event will feature none of the usual indoor activities, so expect to be out in sub-zero temperatures and bitter winds the entire time. Temperatures generally range from about -17 to -3 degrees Celsius (1 to 27 degrees Fahrenheit), not including the wind chill. The goal when dressing for a day at Carnival should be to stay warm, but avoid getting hot and sweaty, which can, in turn, make you even colder.
The wearable Bonnehomme figure (or "effigy") tag is your entry ticket to the carnival, and it can be purchased from kiosks and Couche-Tard convenience stores around the city for $15.70 ($20 CAD) apiece. This grants access to most but not all Winter Carnival events. The effigies are also available for presale, online only, for just $7.85 ($10 CAD). Sales of this figurine are the event’s main source of funding.
The Quebec Winter Carnival will take place at various locations in 2021, and the organization has laid them out on an interactive map. Place Jean-Béliveau, Limoilou, Saint-Roch, Saint-Sauveur, Place D'Youville, Saint-Jean-Baptiste, and Montcalm are the seven designated event sites. Each has its own set of unique offerings. All are within a 3-mile (5-kilometer) radius.
Tips for Visiting
With the harsh conditions characteristic of Quebec mid-winter, the Winter Carnival is not the most comfortable fete to visit. Make it easier for yourself by dressing for the weather and preparing a plan of action.
- Dress in layers, starting with a thin, wicking layer—like polyester or nylon, not cotton—topped with fleece and a waterproof shell. Be sure to wear layers on your legs as well. Feet should be equipped with wool socks and water-resistant, insulated boots with good traction.
- Carry a thermos of hot cocoa or coffee, or keep hand and feet warmers in your gloves and socks for extra warmth.
- Ice spikes, which can usually be strapped to your shoes or boots, may also come in handy. Old Quebec City streets are extremely steep and can get icy.
- Get into the spirit by wearing the official red carnival sash around your waist. You can find them at convenience stores and souvenir kiosks around town.
- Parents with children younger than 4 years old may want to bring a toboggan, heavy-duty stroller, or wagon with blankets. The snow and hills can tire kids out.
- Don't try to tackle the whole festival in a day. The 2021 carnival is spread out with locations that are up to an hour's walk from each other, so explore at a slow pace.
- About 20 minutes away, Valcartier Villages Vacances Winter Playground contains acres of hills, ponds, and play structures, all constructed and groomed with slip-sliding in mind, whether by tube, raft, skates, cart, or bum.