Lighting Up Winter in Quebec City
By Kathleen Broadhurst
Winter Carnival in Quebec City is a three week long snow covered festival that celebrates and delights in the weather of the season. If the winter blues are starting to get you down, don’t go south, go north where the light of Quebec will be sure to thaw you out.
Originally designed to boost the economy the Winter Carnival has exploded into a cultural event like no other, hosted in a city like no other. With delicious foods, picturesque streets and lively nightlife this one of kind festival, will inspire you to embrace winter and shake out any cabin fever.
Perched above the St. Lawrence River, with commanding view of the seaway and the mountains all around Quebec City has been inhabited for centuries. It was used as a trading post by Amerindians, and was settled by the French when they first landed in the New World. It is one of the only fortified cities in North America.
Once a major North Atlantic port, a gateway for traders and immigrants alike, the city slowly fell in importance after airplanes and better railroads took over transportation. Recently however Québec City has been experiencing a revival, as a new tech boom starts to rejuvenate the city.
Home to under a million people Quebec City is easy to navigate on foot, even during the cold winter months. With distinct neighborhoods, hundreds of restaurants, shopping, clubs and museums this is a small icy gem that will not disappoint.
Sante! – Cheers!
“This is not the place you come to go to the newest restaurant in town,” Paule, a lifelong Québec resident, tells me, “this is where you come to savor tradition.”
The streets of Quebec are lined with eateries and restaurants that have grown up with Carnival. Many of the established restaurants in town have been in business since the 1950’s when a large population of Italians emigrated to Quebec and infused the city with their cultural traditions. Mixing the Italian gourmet sensibility with the already established Québécois culinary scene was a recipe for deliciousness and evidence of this fruitful union lay scattered around the menus in town.
That doesn’t mean that the new food movements haven’t had an impact on the region, far from it. The hipster grottos of St. Roch and Jean de Baptiste are filled with new food bistros which celebrate the Québec traditional love of well raised, slow cooked food and look towards the future of dining.
In the farmer’s market, near the train station, you can sample the local harvest year round. In summer expect an abundance of farm produce, in winter you can still pick up cured meats, cheese, and bread in addition to traditional maple products and delicious ice wine.
In the artsy neighborhood of Jean de Baptiste, you can stop in for lunch at The Hobbit. The menu is simple, but the specials are the way to go. Sit and enjoy the street scene as you warm up with some hot borscht soup, or dive into something more classic, like a flank steak, braised in beer.
If you’re looking for something to take home, or want to a chance to sit and sample loads of pate and terrine, look no further than J.A. Moison. One of the oldest continually operating grocery stores in all of North America this rustic little space will delight your inner foodie.
Local and imported cheese, pate, and sausage are only the start. Here you can browse through dozens of types of mustards (lavender mustard anyone?), sample balsamic vinegars, and take home terrines of caribou.
With the blend of British and French colonial influences, Italian gourmet and modern hipster connoisseurs it doesn’t get much better than eating in Quebec. Pick your way around, go slow, this food is made to keep you warm!
At the Carnival itself you can explore some traditional Quebec winter fare. From ” Beaver Tails” fried dough smeared with anything sweet imaginable to smoked fish. Maple products are of course in abundance throughout the city; stop by the Carnival’s maple shack to get warm maple taffy. The hot maple syrup is poured over fresh snow, you then have to race to get it on a popsicle stick before it freezes, sticky memories ensue.
For more adult fun have grab a warm mug of ‘caribou’. This isn’t the animal we are talking about but a hot mulled wine that is spiked with brandy, port, vodka or whatever else a person wants to put in it. Caribou is the traditional drink of carnival and people begin their caribou weeks in advance. It’s on offer both at the carnival grounds and at most establishments during the season
The history of Carnival is more practical than mystical. In the 1954 businessmen of Quebec realized that in the winter months people, depressed by the winter weather went out less. They didn’t go out to eat, they didn’t go out to shop and so business suffered. In hopes of inspiring resident to go out in the bad weather than formulated a plan, for activities and events that would inspire people to get outside.
What began as a humble plan to get more shoppers in the streets blossomed over the decades into one of the most iconic events of Quebec. A chance for locals and foreigners alike to celebrate Quebecois culture and heritage with a host of activities designed to showcase the beauty of winter.
The central character of the carnival is the mysterious Bon Homme. Bon Homme is a snow man, sort of, he lives at the North pole most of the year and eats a diet of ice cream. He comes to Carnival and lives in his ice palace in front of parliament for three weeks, hosting the events, and generally drawing hordes of small screaming children to him.
To Canadians Bon Homme is more than just a mascot of the festival he is the very embodiment of the joys of winter. He is more celebrated than Santa and adults as well as children will give you a sideways glace if you ask who is in the suit. “No one,” is the correct answer, “Bon Homme is Bon Homme.”
You’ll see Bon Homme’s smiling snowy face in shop windows, on the effigies that get you into the festival and on posters around the city. Spot him in person by look for the 7 foot tall snow giant with a red hat and festival sash.
A team of 12 men working 7 days a week for three weeks constructs his palace, which you can visit during the day. The blocks of ice weigh 300 pounds each and are made of special oxygenated water for extra clarity. At night the palace is lit up in Technicolor and serves as a good landmark for festival events.
There is no bad weather is Quebec, just bad clothes. Quebecois are hearty folk, putting even New Englanders to shame with their love of winter. From babies in protected sleds to grandparents in snow pants the whole family joins in celebrating the winter wonderland that the city becomes.
The carnival grounds are conveniently located right with in the city. You can gain access by purchasing an ‘effigy’ of bon homme. Not all of the events of the carnival take place on the main grounds, some are spread around the city so it best to check before you go out.
Out on the grounds you find a wide array of traditional Canadian outdoor activities brought to city scale. Try dog sledding on their track, or bring the kids for ice fishing. You can bring your catch home to cook or for a small charge have it smoked or grilled on site. If you’re going back to a hotel room, donate it to a local soup kitchen.
On the final weekend of Carnival the whole city is in full swing, outdoor dance parties are going on in various locations, the Bain de Neige takes place on Saturday and Saturday night culminates with a massive artistic parade that pours into the ice palace grounds for a concert.
It seems every store, restaurant, and venue is hosting something special to honor the festival. This is the weekend to be here to see Carnival in its glory.
Bain De Neige
I was ready to get wet! The Bain De Neige (snow bath) is a celebration of Bon Homme’s birthday and is not to be missed.
Every year 80 lucky (or insane) participants strip down to their swimsuits and boots, and whitewash each other with fresh snow in front of hundreds of carnival goers in 19 degree weather.
To enter the challenge, you’ll need to have luck on your side, many participants wait years to join and you must enter via a French Canadian radio show contest. However the joie de vive of the participants alone is worth turning out for. Watch them scream and cheer and throw snow balls at each other!
I was lucky enough to get to participate in this years Bain De Neige. I prepared by having a caribou or two then got suited up, or down, putting on a lap suit, a furry hat and boots. Then I joined the rest in a tiny trailer where the heat was cranked to sauna levels.
All eighty of us jumped and danced and moved for forty-five minutes, sweat drenching us, and steam fogging the windows. We begged to crack a door but alas, we had to keep dancing. Finally the whistle blew and as three separate groups we streamed out into the 19 degree weather. Sweat froze as snow balls were thrown.
This isn’t the type of game with rules and pummeling people into snow banks was par for course. We made three laps, alternating between the sauna and the snow. By the end our skin was red and raw, our faces frozen and our spirits through the roof.
I felt like an Olympian.
Carnival is more than just about winter, it’s about conquering the winter darkness and reigniting the light within us. It’s a celebration of everything we delight in and a way of passing on cultural traditions to new generations. It is Quebec at its best, no matter what the weather, and it is one of the happiest of winter destinations.
Trust me, when you get home, you’ll feel warmer.
If You Go
Quebec Carnival happens for three weekends every year. Check for exact dates next season. Quebec Tourism (Quebec Original) has the most up to date information about the exact dates of events.
The Hilton Quebec is the hotel located closest to the Carnival grounds and commands the best views.
Accommodations throughout the city fill up very quickly as carnival often coincides with other events. Book early.
There are currently no direct flights to Quebec from any major American city. Air Canada has the best options and given the unpredictable weather of the season, the least chance of being grounded in a storm as they have the most experience with inclement winter weather.
Kathleen is a writer and photographer based in Boston. She focuses her lens around the globe on issues of sustainability, tourism, and the environment. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @kat_abroad