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Guide to WinterLude

The Winterlude festival in Ottawa, Canada, is a winter celebration beyond compare, attracting 600,000 visitors each year. This iconic event unites winter sports, ice sculpture competitions, and cultural performances in a city-wide celebration that spans three fun-filled weeks.

So if you're planning a winter escape, Ottawa’s Winterlude Festival in 2024 is where you'll want to be.

Evening view of people skating on the Rideau Canal in Ottawa

The local travel experts at Canadian Train Vacations help create unforgettable trips in Canada. We put together personalized itineraries suited to your needs and interests. Here is our guide to WinterLude Festival, in case this is an activity you would like to plan your trip around.  

What is Winterlude Festival?

In essence, the Winterlude festival is Canada's spirited response to the heart of winter. This annual festival, typically taking place during February, gives Ottawa a burst of energy during the crisp winter months, turning the city into a festive winter landscape. 

Since its start in 1979, the festival has evolved into a significant tourist attraction. It highlights Ottawa's rich cultural and artistic landscape, boosts the city's winter tourism and local economy, and encourages community participation. 

With a mix of indoor and outdoor events, including skating competitions, ice sculpture displays, and thrilling snow sports, the Winterlude festival 2024 provides countless opportunities for adventure.

History of Winterlude

The Ottawa Winterlude Festival began in 1979 as a community event to celebrate the beauty and joy of winter while promoting Canada's spectacular capital, Ottawa. Over the years, the festival has grown to become a beloved and must-visit event for snow enthusiasts from around the globe.

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Origins of the Festival

The Winterlude festival, with its rich historical background, began as a modest event in Ottawa. Here are some key aspects of the festival's origins and the milestones that have contributed to its development.

Historical Background

Winterlude was born in 1978 as a simple day of winter celebration in Ottawa. A few hundred people were drawn by the curiosity of witnessing a bed race and meeting ByTowne Bert, a magical creature believed to have come from beneath the ice on the Rideau Canal. 

The National Capital Commission (NCC) later formalized Winterlude as a week-long event in 1979, aiming to create an iconic winter festival that reflected Canada's rich cultural heritage.

Key Events and Figures

The early stages of Winterlude saw the introduction of its first mascot, Ice Hog, an ancestor of the now well-known Ice Hogs. As the festival increased in size and scope, the NCC played a significant role in organizing and overseeing the development of its program over the years. 

In 2013, the responsibility for Winterlude shifted from the NCC to Canadian Heritage, which continued to foster the festival's expansion and innovation. 

With its commitment to celebrating winter in all its frosty glory, the Winterlude festival has stood the test of time, adapting and evolving to remain one of Ottawa's most anticipated annual events.

Evolution of the Festival Over Time

The Winterlude festival Canada has demonstrated significant growth and adaptation, both in size and scope, since 1978. 

Originally a one-day event, Winterlude has transformed into a nationally recognized extravaganza, setting itself apart with unique additions and milestones.

Growth in Size

As mentioned, Winterlude started modestly in 1978, drawing only a few hundred spectators. 

In 1980, this number grew to approximately 100,000 visitors, and by 1985, the count had shot up to about half a million. The festival hit a record in 2007, attracting an impressive 1.6 million visitors, showing its tremendous growth over the years.

Changes in Location

Initially, most Winterlude activities took place around Dows Lake. However, as the festival expanded, additional venues were incorporated. 

By 1985, activities extended to multiple sites, including the Rideau Canal, Dows Lake, Confederation Park, Jacques-Cartier Park, and, as of 2019, to new destinations such as ByWard Market, Sparks Street, Downtown Rideau, and the Glebe.

New Events and Activities

Winterlude has been adding new, diverse offerings to its roster. This started in 1982 with an attempt to break the Guinness World Record for the longest human chain, followed by the inception of the international snow sculpture presented by Italy in 1983. 

The festival introduced its first international competition in 1984 with the arrival of 400 Dutch skaters. 

In 2019, indigenous culture featured prominently during the first weekend, with the LGBTQ2+ culture, history, and pride highlighted during the second weekend.

Notable Milestones

Winterlude achieved several milestones throughout its history. 

  • In 1993, it celebrated its 15th anniversary and built Canada's tallest snowman, at a staggering 16 meters. 
  • A major shift came in 1994 when the 10-day event strategy was replaced by three consecutive weekends of activities. 
  • The celebration of its 40th anniversary in 2018 was another remarkable moment. 
  • In 2021, another first occurred when an Ice-Carving Championship was held simultaneously across seven cities. 

Lastly, responding to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, Winterlude adapted to the circumstances in 2021 and 2022 with virtual celebrations and national webcasting. These subtle tweaks have helped to sustain the festival's popularity and enable its continual evolution. 

Where Does Winterlude Take Place?

Winterlude sweeps through multiple locations across Ottawa and Gatineau, each offering a unique piece of the winter-fun puzzle.

  • Rideau Canal Skateway: Notably, the festival utilizes the Rideau Canal Skateway, the world's largest naturally frozen skating rink. Stretching over 7.8 kilometres (4.8 miles) through the heart of Ottawa, the Skateway offers festivalgoers a unique blend of winter charm and cityscape views. 
  • Jacques Cartier Park: The Snowflake Kingdom at Jacques Cartier Park in Gatineau turns into a snow-based playground during the festival. Known for massive snow slides and snow sculptures, the Snowflake Kingdom is Winterlude's jolliest family-friendly destination. 
  • Confederation Park: The Crystal Garden at Confederation Park becomes the stage for Canada's most prestigious ice-carving competition. Talented artists from around the globe converge here to transform blocks of ice into icy masterpieces under the magical glow of floodlights. 

Other destinations include the ByWard Market, Sparks Street, Downtown Rideau, and the Glebe. Navigating through Winterlude's various venues is easy, thanks to the OC Transpo in Ottawa and the Société de transport de l'Outaouais in Gatineau. These transport operators offer reliable and frequent connectivity between destinations. 

Be it bus or rail, Ottawa is well equipped to get you from one Winterlude site, helping you maximize your time. 

When is Winterlude?

Typically set in the biting cold yet lively heart of the Canadian winter, Winterlude primarily takes place in February. The festival spans three fun-packed weekends — usually aligning with the first three weekends of the month. 

Although the dates and specific activities can vary from year to year, one thing's certain — the city of Ottawa transforms into a wintry wonderland during this period.

Events and Activities at Winterlude

The Ottawa Winterlude festival's diverse line-up of events and activities ensures there's no shortage of ways to embrace the season's cold-yet-cosy charm across various locations.

Confederation Park

As one of Winterlude festival's main hubs, Confederation Park is the perfect spot to lace up your skates and hit the ice. Feel the rush of adrenaline as you slide down an icy track on a sled or take a casual stroll, soaking in the winter air. 

Confederation Park is more than just a playground for winter fun. It's a stage for live performances, with music and shows adding to the festive spirit. Not to mention, it hosts an international ice carving competition that turns the park into a gallery showcasing incredible talent and creativity. 

With everything from ice skating and sledding to amazing performances, Confederation Park during Winterlude wraps you up in a unique celebration of all that a Canadian winter embodies.

Family-Friendly Features

Winterlude places a strong focus on being a festival fit for all ages. It has a variety of activities specifically designed for families and kids that mix education, fun, and winter adventure. Below are some of the high points for families visiting the festival. 

  • Snowflake Kingdom: This location in Jacques Cartier Park is a highlight for families. It offers snow slides, live performances, and interactive play zones. Safety and child-friendly entertainment are top priorities in this vibrant Winterlude hub. 
  • Youth-Oriented Performances and Workshops: From street performers to workshops teaching wintry skills, children won't have a moment of boredom. It's a perfect mix of excitement and creativity, encouraging children to engage with winter in new ways. 
  • Evening Activities: Winterlude has its share of nighttime entertainment. Kids can marvel at gorgeous light displays, elevating the festival's enchantment. 
  • Tip for Families: Dress warmly, plan ahead, take care of your children, and make use of the free transportation options for a comfortable and enjoyable Winterlude experience. 

Accommodations and Where to Stay

Planning your stay for Winterlude means choosing accommodation that meets your budget, comfort and convenience needs. Given the festival's widespread footprint, it's practical to choose a lodging option that gives you easy access to the city's public transport and Winterlude venues. 

Here are some recommended accommodations.

  • Downtown Ottawa: Staying downtown puts you in the heart of the action with easy access to Confederation Park and the Rideau Canal Skateway. Hotels like the Fairmont Château Laurier and the Westin Ottawa provide luxurious comforts and are just a short stroll away from the festival's hub.
  • Centretown: For value-conscious travelers, Centretown offers the perfect blend of affordability and convenience. Check out the The Business Inn & Suites, which provides a modern stay at wallet-friendly prices, while keeping you close to the Winterlude festivities. 
  • Glebe District: This charming neighbourhood has a variety of bed-and-breakfast options for those seeking a home-away-from-home atmosphere. While these places might not offer comprehensive hotel services, they make up for it with their warm, personalized care.  
  • ByWard Market: If you're looking to splurge a bit, the Andaz Ottawa ByWard Market is your go-to choice. This upscale boutique hotel, situated in a buzzing shopping and dining area, offers rooms with beautiful city and Ottawa River views.

Regardless of your choice, remember to book your accommodation in advance to secure your spot, especially during the Winterlude period. After all, having the right place to rest and recuperate can make your Winterlude experience even more memorable.

Eating and Dining at Winterlude

Enjoy the comfort of hearty local food while you experience the thrill of the festival. If you're a foodie, they each add a unique flavour to your Ottawa Winterlude experience.

Winterlude Staples

No Winterlude experience would be complete without a taste of the festival's star winter treat — maple taffy. It's a simple delicacy made by pouring hot maple syrup onto fresh snow, creating a soft toffee that is delightfully sweet and utterly Canadian. 

Also, satisfy your sweet tooth further with a BeaverTail, a classic Canadian pastry that's essentially fried dough topped with a variety of delectable toppings like chocolate, apple cinnamon, or the traditional mix of cinnamon and sugar.

Local Cuisines

For more substantial options, the festival has food trucks and stalls serving up local Ottawa eats — from poutine and specialty burgers to french fries and hot dogs. Also consider grabbing a plate of shawarma — a mouth-watering local staple. 

The nearby ByWard Market has dozens of restaurants serving meals from around the globe, from sushi to Neapolitan pizza. From the Glebe neighbourhood you can also find pubs serving locally brewed craft beer.

Dining Tips

Though it's hard to single out just one must-try, don't leave the festival grounds without having a bowl of the hearty local specialties — poutine (fries, cheese curds, and gravy combo) and beaver tails with hot chocolate/hot toddy. 

They're the perfect accompaniment for a winter festival, delighting your taste buds, while giving you warmth and energy during Winterlude. 

For budget-friendly options, the food trucks around the festival offer lower-cost options like soup, hot dogs, or chili.

What to Wear and Packing Essentials

Attending a winter festival like Winterlude calls for careful planning, starting with the right attire. The weather in Ottawa during the festival can be unpredictable, with temperatures ranging from mild to cold. Given these conditions, comfortable and warm attire is a must for your comfort.

Dressing for the Weather

Layer your clothing to adapt to changing weather. Start with a moisture-wicking base, add an insulating middle piece like a fleece, and finish with a waterproof outer shell.

Packing Essentials

Pack important items such as warm hats, scarves, gloves or mittens, and warm socks. Waterproof, insulated boots are also crucial for warmth and stability. Don't forget sunglasses, sunscreen, and lip balm to protect against the winter sun's glare off the snow.

Staying Warm and Comfortable

Consider carrying reusable hand warmers for extra warmth, and pack protective gear, like a helmet or knee pads, if participating in physical activities. Keep hydrated and maintain energy levels with regular snacks. 

Take these steps to ensure that your Winterlude experience is comfortable, safe, and enjoyable.

Entertainment and Performances

Winterlude Ottawa 2024 promises a roster of exciting performances and diverse street artists that will liven up the Canadian capital region:

Interactive performances

Winterlude has an eclectic mix of music genres, energetic dance shows, fun-filled busker performances, and vibrant drag shows: 

  • ARCTIC: Our Frozen Planet 
  • OLG Buskerfest (free) 
  • Drag Storytime with Oceane Aqua-Black (free) 
  • Drag performance by Karamilk, Aimee Yonce Shennel and Oceana Aqua Black (free) 
  • Winterlude Indigenous artisans' market and art demonstrations (free) 
  • Meet and Greet with Ice Carvers (free)

Family shows 

  • There's a fine line-up of family-friendly events for all age groups: 
  • Toddler Tuesdays (18 months to 4 years) (free) 
  • Hip Hop Headucatorz (free) 
  • Eiffel Bridge Illumination (free) 
  • Winterlude's Breakdance Battle (free) 
  • Chinese Canadian Children's Choir of Canada (free) 
  • BeaverTails Ottawa Ice Dragon Boat Festival (free) 
  • BIG BANG Festival (free) 

Indigenous Art 

Indigenous arts are an important part of Winterlude, giving you the opportunity to immerse yourself in indigenous cultures and histories: 

  • The Seven Sacred Laws 
  • Indigenous Performances on Sparks (free) 
  • Unikkaaqtuarniq –Stories from the North (free) 
  • Nunavut Sivuniksavut (free) 
  • The Spirit Horse Returns 
  • Winterlude mini pow wow (free)

Talented Performers 

Expect exceptional talent on your Canadian Winterlude visit. Here are some of the artists that will grace your Winterlude festival 2024 experience. 

  • M.T. Walker (free) 
  • Steph La Rochelle (free) 
  • Wintersleep (free) 
  • Asuquomo 
  • William Prince 
  • Craig Cardiff (free)

Street Artists 

As you stroll through the festival area, keep an eye out for a variety of street performers who will keep you entertained with their spontaneous acts. 

Catch the various entertainment options by staying updated with the festival's official schedules through the Winterlude 2024 page(1). With over 200 activities lined up, make sure to visit the designated venues on time, and, where necessary, reserve spots in advance for popular shows.

COVID-19 Safety Measures

Based on the 2023 public health guidance(2) as per the Canadian government, here's what you can expect for the Winterlude 2024 festival on COVID-19 regulations: 

  • Proof of COVID-19 vaccination is not necessary. 
  • No mandatory pre-boarding or pre-entry COVID-19 tests. 
  • Masks on planes and trains are not required by law, but it's strongly recommended to wear a well-fitted mask or respirator while in transit. 
  • If you're feeling unwell or have symptoms of COVID-19, it's recommended to stay home and avoid the festival. 

Despite the lifted restrictions, the festival encourages safety and respect for fellow attendees: 

  • Ensure good personal hygiene practices, including regular hand sanitization. 
  • If you begin to feel unwell during the festival, alert the festival staff immediately.

Remember, your actions can affect the health and safety of others. Let's work together to create a safe and enjoyable festival experience for all. 

Winterlude 2024 — Celebrate Canada in Winter!

Winterlude Ottawa 2024 is an absolute must-do for anyone wanting to experience the best of Canada in a whole new way — right in the heart of winter. Enjoying the festival is like stepping into a living, breathing postcard of Canadian tradition and charm. 

Make your trip to Canada even more unforgettable by extending your stay beyond the festival. Our local experts at Canadian Train Vacations will help you plan an amazing journey through Canada's breathtaking landscapes. 

Come and experience the excitement of Winterlude 2024 and share your stories with others. We can't wait to see you there!

#1 Travel Tip: Visit ByWard Market

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Worth a stroll at any time of year,the pedestrian-friendly ByWard Market neighbourhood is especially inviting during WinterLude. Ottawa’s oldest neighbourhood offers many unique boutiques, coffee shops, restaurants and bars — plenty of options when you need to warm up.

Blog Author - Athena McKenzie
Athena McKenzie
Content Manager

#2 Travel Tip: Stay at one of Canada’s Castles

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Elevate your WinterLude experience by staying at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier. One of the country’s iconic castle-style hotels, this luxury property is located in Ottawa’s downtown core, near the ByWard market.

Louise Weiss
Director of Legendary Hospitality

Frequently Asked Questions

Are there any admission fees for Winterlude Festival 2024 events?

Most events and activities at Winterlude are free of charge. Some special performances or attractions may require a ticket purchase

What should I bring or wear when attending Winterlude Festival 2024?

Dress warmly, wear waterproof footwear, and bring any necessary accessories, such as hats, scarves, and mittens. Don't forget a camera to capture the beautiful ice sculptures and memorable moments!

Is there an official website for Winterlude Festival 2024?

Yes, you can visit the Canadian government Winterlude page for further information about Winterlude Festival 2024.

About the author: Louise Weiss is Director of Legendary Hospitality with Fresh Tracks Canada. Having worked in the Canadian travel industry for more than 25 years, she enjoys sharing her local expertise with visitors. She is based in North Vancouver and has spent time... Read more

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