If there is one country associated with winter, it is Canada. It does not matter that our country enjoys the four seasons and several climatic zones. When people think of Canada, snow and ice come to mind, not spring flowers or sunny days! And you know, that’s fine with us. We are a warm people and we are proud of our winter heritage. If you are lucky enough to visit Canada in the winter, here are a few activities you should be looking for.
1. Skate hard
If there is a Canadian community without an ice rink, I haven’t found it. Even small hamlets have a homemade outdoor ice rink that is maintained by volunteers. Skating is as Canadian an experience as it gets, and most municipal recreation centers rent out equipment. If you are in my hometown of Ottawa a visit to the frozen Rideau Canal is a must. In winter, this outdoor waterway becomes the largest skating rink in the world. Vendors set up next to the ice cream sell tasty treats like beaver tails, a sweet and fried pastry.
Pro tip: Don’t worry if you can’t skate (I’m horrible at that!) This video will help you with some basic techniques.
2. Have fun ice fishing
As I discovered firsthand, ice fishing involves very little ice. Sure, you’re set up in a portable cabin above a frozen river or lake, but you’re surprisingly warm and cozy, not icy at all. And the fishery basically takes care of itself. Certainly, skills and experience are needed if you are to hope to get a generous hold. But amateurs can happily hang their line and hope for the best – a strategy that paid off well for me, as I caught a fish on my very first excursion. Thrilling!
Pro tip: Ice fishing is practiced across the country, from coast to coast. Here are some of the most popular destinations.
3. Party at the Quebec Winter Carnival
The Quebec Winter Carnival, Quebec’s annual winter carnival, is one of the oldest and largest winter festivals in the world. Taking place at the beginning of February (yes, it’s cold), the animations are animated by Bonhomme, the cheerful mascot of the city. Visitors can expect everything from a masked ball and ice canoeing to snow sculpting competitions.
Pro tip: Accommodation in Old Quebec can be booked quickly. Be sure to read the fine print regarding parking availability. In almost all cases, this means that you will leave your car in an underground municipal parking lot. You can find a good overview of the hotel options here.
4. Winter wonder during Winterlude
Winterlude is Ottawa’s annual winter festival, which takes place over three weekends in February. As you can imagine, skating on the Rideau Canal takes center stage during the festivities, but that’s just the tip of this winter iceberg. A world-class ice sculpting competition, music concerts, and artistic experiences are an integral part of the celebrations. Sporty visitors will want to experience the city’s winter “triathlon,” which consists of skating along the Rideau Canal, running along the canal and cross-country skiing in Mooney’s Bay Park.
Pro tip: When researching your accommodation options, check out the Westin Hotel. In recent years, she operated a skate rental program and guided skates on the Rideau Canal.
5. Celebrate the Bon Soo Snow Show
Since 1964, Bon Soo has been Sault Ste. Marie (affectionately known as “the Soo”). This lively event includes a swim with a polar bear, “bumslides”, concerts and indoor performances, family dances, chess tournaments, snowmobile rides, pancake breakfasts and more.
Pro tip: Sault Ste. Marie is home to some of the best food in Canada. The town is famous for the “Italian Sault” cuisine, a legacy of Italian immigrants in the 1940s. This is the place to eat pasta laden with red sauce.
6. Admire the beauty of the Northern Lights
It is possible to see the Northern Lights all year round and across the country, but your chances of enjoying good vision are better in winter and in the north. Long dark nights and clear, cold weather provide good viewing conditions, as do small communities where there is little risk of light pollution. With around 240 viewing nights per year, the Northwest Territories is the best place in Canada to catch the show (possibly worldwide!)
Pro tip: Want to better understand what you are seeing? This article describes exactly what the Northern Lights are.
7. Fly with dog sleds
Under the command of an experienced musher, dog sleds seem to hover above the snow. You can witness some of the action by boarding as a passenger. Dogsled teams across Canada invite visitors to join them for a walk when the dogs go out for exercise. It’s an exhilarating way to explore a part of the wilderness that would otherwise be almost inaccessible.
Pro tip: Sometimes you will fall off the sled and that’s okay! This article tells you what to do when it inevitably happens.
8. Soak in hot steam
No matter how much you love winter, the time inevitably comes when you want to thaw out a bit. One of the many natural hot springs or Nordic-style spas across the country is a lovely way to soak up the hot steam. Some luxurious places to visit are the Temple Gardens Spa in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, Le Nordique in Chelsea, Quebec, and the Canadian Rocky Mountain Hot Springs located in Banff, Jasper and Kootenay, Alberta.
Pro tip: We all know there are rules to follow in a spa, but did you know that there is a label that also applies to natural hot springs? This is what you need to know before you go.
9. Sleep in an ice hotel
The Hôtel de Glace in Valcartier, Quebec, is the only ice hotel in North America and one of the few in the world. Yes, every aspect of your stay is covered in ice. There’s a chic ice bar, an ice and snow chapel (weddings are popular), and even an ice “mattress” where your super-warm sleeping bags sit for the night.
Pro tip: I haven’t stayed at the Hôtel de Glace yet but my friend Lauren has stayed there and here you will find her helpful and honest review (including advice on using the bathroom. Thanks Lauren!)
10. Drink in an ice-cold bar
What could be better than being in a wonderful winter? Drink in one, of course! Don’t despair if you can’t make it to the Hotel de Glace, as ice bars pop up across Canada during the winter, often as part of winter festival activities. Some cool places (see what I’ve been doing there?) Over the past few years have included the Bodega Ice Bar in Regina (a seasonal offering from Restaurant La Bodega, which donates profits to charities), the CHILL Ice House in Toronto and the Cyr Restaurant in Montreal.
Pro tip: Want to drink Canadian spirits when you throw away your glass made of Canadian ice? You can find out more about all the various distilleries across the country here.
11. Help with the ice wine harvest
If you find yourself in Niagara Falls or western Nova Scotia at the right time of year, you may be well positioned to help with the annual Icewine harvest. Icewine is a tricky business. Assuming the grapes have survived the elements and greedy birds through winter, conditions must be perfect for the harvest to take place. When that day arrives, everything is on deck! Volunteers and friends of the estate work through the night, picking the grapes by hand, then celebrating their efforts with hot, hearty food. Yes, it is manual labor. And it is perhaps the most memorable thing you do all year round.
Pro tip: If you just want to drink ice wine (I’m with you!), Here’s a look at what exactly makes this alcoholic drink so special.
12. Play (or watch) pond hockey
There is perhaps no greater honor than being invited to participate in a game of community pond hockey. Even if you’re not particularly good at sports, consider giving it a try. It’s guaranteed to be a lot of fun! Otherwise, grab a hot chocolate and watch a game. Plaster Rock, New Brunswick, hosts the World Pond Hockey Championships each year. It celebrates its 20th season in 2023.
Pro tip: One of the most important pieces of Canadian literature is a children’s tale called The hockey jersey. It immortalizes Canadian pond hockey!
13. Visit a maple sugar shack
If there’s one quintessential part of every Canadian winter, it’s the end! Canadians might be pretty good sports in the winter, but we love the coming of spring. One of the best ways to mark the end of one season and welcome another is to visit a sugar shack. When the weather warms up a bit, the sap starts flowing through the maple trees again, ready to be tapped and turned into delicious syrup, sugar, candy and more.
Pro tip: Be sure to try the homemade maple taffy, created by pouring syrup over clean, white snow and rolling the creation around a lollipop stick. Divine!
Winter doesn’t slow down activities in Canada, of course. To consider: