(This article may or may not contain affiliate links. What does that mean?)
While browsing through the endless stream of travel photos floating through the internet one October, something amazing made me pause. Enormous snow sculptures, stunning in detail, made me want to know where I could find them.
Intrigue turned to joy when I realized they were in Quebec City, part of its annual Winter Carnaval, held at the beginning of February, and just a 6‑hour drive from my house in Massachusetts. When I saw everything else the city had to offer, I knew my husband and I were heading for a weekend road trip.
Just one of the many snow sculptures to greet us when we arrived at the Carnaval.
More research told me to be prepared for the weather. It is winter in October in Quebec, which means layers of warm clothes, snow pants, boots, hats, mittens, and whatever else you think might keep you warm. Temperatures can drop below zero at night, but with the festive party atmosphere and the right clothing, you’ll be set. Don’t worry about being underdressed; guests wearing snow pants and boots while eating in restaurants is a common sight in Quebec City during winter months.
Heading out to visit the activities at night at the Carnaval.
While browsing through the endless stream of travel photos floating through the internet one October, something amazing made me pause.
With the purchase of an Effigy Pass for under $9, this 9‑day celebration will keep you entertained from morning to night. The Effigy Pass will give you access to most attractions and events.
Make sure to admire the ice sculptures scattered throughout the venue and visit the Carnaval mascot Bonhomme’s ice palace. You’ll find ice chairs to lounge in, an ice track to sled down, games and more. Parades on Saturday nights (Feb. 8 and 15 in 2020) rival those seen at Disneyland and Disney World with circus acts, lights, music, and roaming performers. Stand on a ferry and watch the canoe races on the partially frozen St. Lawrence River as the athletes maneuver their canoes through water, slush, and sometimes land where water is too frozen. Or try your hand at badminton or mini-golf. Take in a concert or two and join in the dancing fun.
Many ice sculptures are themed like this crowd-pleasing Game of Thrones chair from 2015.
Tobogganing down an ice shoot is both exhilarating and terrifying at the same time!
When you’ve had your fill of Carnaval, there’s still plenty to do to fill your days (that also gets you out of the cold for minimal or no cost!). You could spend more than a week in the city and not run out of things to do! Here are a few of the best activities within walking distance of the Carnaval, so you don’t even need to rent a car.
Who doesn’t love a good cup of hot chocolate on a cold winter day, especially one of the ten varieties served at Erico Chocolaterie which can include everything from a pinch of hot pepper, to honey and other spices. For the candy-loving child, and adult, the store’s little museum with chocolate creations and the history of chocolate, beginning with the Mayan civilization, is an added bonus. You might also be able to get a peek at the chocolate-making process in the store.
One of the chocolate sculptures on display at Erico.
If you’ve traveled to the Louvre in Paris, or seen photos of it, you might see a resemblance to Quebec’s Parliament Building since the Louvre expansion inspired it. Recognized as a Quebec National Historic Monument in 1985, the building is architecturally beautiful, inside and out. The building, including the library, is open seven days a week and visitors are free to explore on a self-guided tour at their own pace. For more in-depth information and history, guided tours of the building and library are also free, but reservations are required.
Don’t forget to look for Quebec’s motto, “Je me souviens” (I remember), engraved above the main entrance.
One of the rooms in the Parliament Building where Quebec’s legislators meet.
Musee de la Civilisation (Museum of Civilization)
Exhibits rotate, but there are also some permanent or reference exhibits as well. “Quebec Then and Now” showcases 375 fun and interesting artifacts and documents from the beginning of Quebec’s history to the present. “Observe — More than Meets the Eye” challenges visitors to make it through the entire exhibit without missing anything. At the same time, “This is Our Story” highlights the Aboriginal culture and includes 450 pieces of contemporary Aboriginal art. There is a nominal fee to enter the museum ($29 USD for a family of five with three children ages 12–17 or $13 for adults over 31 and $8.50 for ages 18–30 online; add $2 to buy onsite).
One display at the Museum of Civilization explains the phrase “False as a Canadian diamond” gets its origin from Jacques Cartier bringing back to France what he thought was gold and diamonds. Sadly for him, it was just iron pyrite and quartz crystals.
Look for the Murals
Look for three eye-catching, life-like murals as you walk toward Old Town depicting life in Quebec. These murals, begun in 1999 to celebrate 400 years of Quebec life and history, are so life-like you will do a double-take when you come upon one.
La Fresque des Québécois was the first mural to be completed in 1999 and is located near Place Royale, on the wall of Soumande House on Notre-Dame Street with 15 historical figures and over a dozen famous Quebec artists and writers included in the design.
Sample the food
Most places have unique foods specific to their locale, and Quebec is no different. Yes, there are crepes and meat pies (tourtière) and drinks, but there are also some fun, family-friendly food items that everyone should try at least once, and maybe more than once. Let’s start with poutine, a strange name for a delectable dish. While there is some dispute about where it was created, Quebec claims the title of first serving the combination of French fries, cheese curds, and gravy. It may sound odd, but it tastes fantastic, and there are so many varieties (including vegetarian options) that you’re bound to find something to please every palate.
Another must-try is beaver tails. It’s not what you think. In the mid-western United States, it’s called elephant ears, while in New England, it’s called fried dough, which is the best description. If you head to the Winter Carnaval, you can purchase a large piece covered in any number of toppings, including cinnamon and apples or Nutella and Reece’s Pieces.
Lastly, maple taffy can be found at the Carnival or any restaurant or café you happen to see with a stand set up on the sidewalk. It’s made by pouring warm maple syrup on snow, which might sound a little strange, but with a popsicle stick in hand, you can roll your own maple taffy lollipop.
Beaver tails were one of my favorites in Quebec City, particularly at the Carnaval.
How to get there
Getting to Quebec City is as simple as boarding a plane in LAX. Though sometimes that’s not easy with freeway traffic. Most flights have one stopover, but typically within 8–9 hours, you’ll be on the ground at the airport in Quebec City (YQB). While there are buses that could take you from the airport to the city, they take way too long, over 90 minutes for what should be a 25 min ride in a car. Uber is now available in Quebec (download the free app on your phone), or you could also take a taxi.
Where to stay
If you are looking to stay close to the Carnaval grounds, the Hotel Chateau Laurier can’t be beaten for the location; however, during Carnaval time, the rooms sell out quickly. Two other hotels close to the Carnaval and other sites mentioned in this article are Le Concorde Quebec and Hotel Chateau Bellvue.
Who needs one? If you are just exploring Quebec City and the Winter Carnival for the weekend, save your money by choosing a centrally located hotel and walking everywhere.