My Favorite Winter Festivals

By Andrew Zimmern

Andrew Zimmern_squareA lot of people think I’m nuts when I tell them I live in Minnesota. Yeah, it’s cold here. However, the difference between Minnesotans and most other folks is that we embrace the cold. We ski, ice fish, skate and sled. We even still cook outdoors. We pack our weekends with loads of outdoor events all winter long. And yes, people go even when it’s below zero. The cold brings us together.

Here are some of my favorite winter events:

Ice Fest (Breezy Point, Jan. 6-7)

Everyone thinks of Breezy Point as a great summer destination, but it’s pretty fantastic come winter, too. If you’re looking to venture outside a cozy cabin, schedule your trip during Ice Fest, the weekend of Jan. 9-10, for free horse-drawn trolley rides, a pond hockey tourney, sled dog rides, snow golf and more.

IceBox Days (International Falls, Jan. 19-23)

Ever wanted to bowl with a frozen turkey? Win a can-crushing contest? Dominate in a toilet seat toss? Me neither, until I heard about IceBox Days in International Falls. I think people in that way northern part of the state are either the craziest in Minnesota, or perhaps just the most creative.

U.S. Pond Hockey Championships (Minneapolis, Jan. 26-29)

Minneapolis Pond Hockey championships This is hockey the way it’s meant to be played: outside on a lake in the dead of winter. Every January, hockey enthusiasts flock to Minneapolis’ Lake Nokomis for a weekend-long tourney. More of a benchwarmer than a player? No problem—spectating might be just as fun. Drink beers on the sidelines while trying to spot the perfect hockey mullet.

Winter Carnival (St. Paul, Jan. 26-Feb. 5)

The crème de la crème of Minnesota festivals, this annual event has a near evangelical following. I like to think of it as winter’s answer to the Minnesota State Fair. Must-see events have to be the ginormous snow sculptures, Torchlight Parade, Beer Dabbler, Red Bull Crashed Ice (that would be ice cross downhill skating… it’s insane) and the Vulcan Victory Dance. Oh, and if you’re really crazy, try hunting for the medallion—whoever finds it wins up to $10,000.  

WinterFest (Rochester, Jan. 26-Feb. 12)

Home to the Mayo Clinic, Rochester dedicates the first two weeks of February to outdoor fun in the name of fundraising for local charities. Ski by candlelight, do a polar plunge (aka jumping into a subzero lake) and warm up at one of the seven outdoor ice bars downtown.

City of Lakes Loppet (Minneapolis, Feb. 3-5)

Lakes Loppet ski race Minneapolis Americans never quite attached to Nordic skiing like our European and Scandinavian pals did, but experiencing the Loppet will leave you searching for cross-country skis on Craigslist. Cheer on spandex-clad skiers as they sail into town, and don’t miss skijoring, where dogs are supposed to pull their skiing people behind them (in reality, the exact opposite often happens). If you do have your own skis, sign up for the Luminary Loppet—a leisurely 5K lit entirely by candles.

Well-deserved drinks and partying await participants at the finish line.

Eelpout FestivalInternational Eelpout Festival (Walker, Feb. 23-26)

Named after a notoriously ugly, bottom-dwelling fish, the Eelpout Festival draws loads of people for subzero debauchery. Ice fishing? Check. Beer pong? Yup. Eelpout fish fry? You bet your bippy. Chicks in bikinis? I can’t believe it either, but it’s true! Book your accommodations now—it’s an insanely popular event.

Grumpy Old Men Festival (Wabasha, Feb. 25)

Which is the more iconic Minnesota movie: "Grumpy Old Men" or "Fargo"? Trick question, they’re both awesome. But since a wood-chipping festival would be a bit off-putting, we Minnesotans stick to celebrating the Walter Mathau and Jack Lemon classic. There’s the obligatory ice-fishing contest, polar plunge and minnow races.

Bock Fest (New Ulm, March 4)

This German-inspired hamlet knows how to throw a party, no matter the temperature. Hosted at the historic Schell’s Brewery, there’s beer, brats, live music, bonfires, and if you’re so inclined, post-festival barhopping in downtown New Ulm.

Find even more winter events in the Festivals & Events calendar.