Take A Stroll Around One Of The Largest Winter Festivals In The World At This Canadian City

With its severe, snowy winters, not for nothing is Canada often referred to as the "Great White North". In short, blizzards can strike at any moment, temperatures frequently fall well below zero, and severe weather warnings are par for the course. It's perhaps no surprise then that the annual winter festival, Winterlude, held in the Ottawa region, has become one of the most hotly anticipated events of the year.

Staged over the first three weekends of February, at a time when Christmas has become just a distant memory, it brings with it some much-needed winter cheer to warm the cockles. Not only loved by locals, however, it is also considered one of the flagship events of the winter tourist season — with many attendees visiting especially for the event. In all, the festival attracts some 600,000 people each year.

So, for those who haven't attended before, what's in store at this seasonal spectacular? Well, from ice skating, snow slides, and toboggan courses, to the all-important food stalls, despatching hot snacks, Maple Syrup treats, and steaming hot chocolates, there is much to delight any ardent admirers of winter. In fact, frankly, there is much here to delight even the most reluctant winter enthusiast.

The many wonders of Winterlude

Launched back in 1979, the Winterlude festival was created as an annual celebration of the season — and as a nod to the get-togethers once staged by our ancestors to bring a bit of much-needed merriment to the colder months. Today, the festival has grown into one of the largest celebrations of its kind. In 2021, it was listed in the Top 100 Events in the United States and Canada, according to the website BizBash.

At the heart of all the action is the Rideau Canal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, regarded as one of the greatest engineering feats of the 19th century. Come wintertime, however, the canal is transformed into the world's largest skating rink. At almost five miles long — and connecting with the wider expanse of Dow's Lake — this fairy-tale freeway is unlike anything else you will ever experience. On a more prosaic level, as well as changing-room chalets along the way, there are three locations where you can rent skates and sleighs or sharpen your own blades.

Also, dotted along the sides of the canal, there are shacks selling warming food and drink where skaters can stop off for a bit of much-needed sustenance. Look out especially for the favored local treat, "Beavertails" — a deep-fried pastry that is shaped, unsurprisingly, like a beaver's tail. Alongside all this is a packed program of events, which usually includes everything from ice hockey matches, a dragon-boat race, and a triathlon, among other attractions.

Ice sculptures to warm the soul

Another one of the many highlights of the Winterlude festival is the chance to see the spectacular ice sculptures on show. Focused along Sparks Street, they are created by artists from all over Canada as part of a prestigious ice-carving competition. These breath-taking creations have to be seen to be believed — and their transient nature only adds an extra resonance to their beauty.

Little ones haven't been forgotten in all this, either, with a gigantic winter playground, the "Snowflake Kingdom", awaiting them. Located in the Jacques-Cartier Park, just across the river, this true winter wonderland includes everything from snow slides and a zip line to sliding corridors. Trust us, there is no better way to burn off any excess energy resulting from one too many Beavertails.

The other great thing about the Winterlude festival is that most of the activities are also free. Just be sure to pick a hotel close to the main sites, pack for the cold temperatures, and pray that the Gods of winter weather comply. In 2023, some of the events had to be cancelled or postponed because the temperature was too warm, such as the skating on the canal, and then others because it was too cold. Conditions permitting though, this celebrated winter festival really is, well, pretty cool all round.