• Photo: National Capital Commission

Most Canadians know Ottawa is home to Parliament and numerous national museums. Some know that The Royal Canadian Mint is located there (and in Winnipeg). But fewer still will have heard of Winterlude, now in its 35th year. First organized in 1979 to celebrate the uniqueness of Canada’s northern climate and culture, it has grown to be the largest winter festival in North America. Today, Winterlude sees more than 600,000 guests venture into the snow castle at Jacques-Cartier Park, examine the ice sculptures in the Crystal Garden at Confederation Park or glide along the world’s largest skating rink.

Winterlude is held in the Ottawa-Gatineau region for three weeks each February, sprawled across the central core and surrounding region. The festival opened its doors this past Friday, February 1, with a stunning display of fireworks, to mark its thirty-plus years of providing Ottawa-Gatineau with winter memories. Thursday, one night before the public opening, Canadian Geographic had the pleasure of viewing the rehearsals at Marion Dewar Plaza. The weather might have been frigid, but we did enjoy the aerial performers as they repelled down the face of City Hall in a dance number that resembled astronauts bouncing about in zero gravity.

But Winterlude is not just ice, cold and snow; there are a slew of activities both indoors and outdoors to be enjoyed throughout the festival. From putting your skills to test in the winter obstacle course to an intimate evening with sommelier Veronique Rivest at Les Fougères in Chelsea, Quebec, Winterlude celebrates Canadiana until February 18, 2013.

In celebration of the centennial for the first Canadian Arctic Expedition, the Canadian Museum of Nature has organized “Extraordinary Arctic,” a program of events that will run for the entire year. The museum will be launching the program this Winterlude with a stunning exhibit of Arctic photography in the “This Is Canada’s Arctic!” exhibit. This exhibition features the work of Can Geo Photo Club member and Canadian Geographic-published photographer Michelle Valberg. For more on Valberg and her work, check out this Photo Club interview we did last year.

Thirty-five years later, Winterlude continues to captivate Ottawa-Gatineau and promote the rich art culture inherent to our nation’s capital. From skating along the Rideau Canal Skateway to picking up a "Beavertail" in the Byward Market, Winterlude has been with some since childhood. Even after thirty-five years, it continues to thrill and entertain Ottawans and visitors alike — so go on, embrace the one season we can truly call our own.

Unable to visit the Capital region? Follow @CanGeo on Twitter for live updates from the events, and @Winterlude to stay informed on the festival

Want to plan your Winterlude outing? Explore the complete list of festival activities.