Don’t let the cold weather get you down! There are lots of things to do in Ottawa in winter.
Updated: February 2019
Even though it was my third trip to Ottawa, I hadn’t ever had a proper visit. Not as an adult, anyway.
My first trip to Ottawa was my grade eight class trip. It was my first time staying overnight away from my parents, other than sleepover parties with girls. I traveled to Ottawa with a bus load of my 13-year-old classmates. As you can imagine, I don’t remember too much from this trip other than goofing around with my friends. We visited the Parliament buildings and a few museums. The memory that stands out from this trip was meeting a boy that I rather liked. I spent the whole bus ride home listening to music with him on his Discman. When I got off the bus with a boy, I’m sure my parents thought, “Oh, boy…here we go.”
On my second visit to Ottawa, I only spent part of a day there. My old band stopped in Ottawa to play a show that night at local venue, Zaphod Beeblebrox. I walked around Byward Market with my band mates and enjoyed a meal on a patio there. Other than that, we were back on the road by morning.
Needless to say, it was time for a real trip to Ottawa. My main purposes for travel included exploring the city for two full days and visiting friends. However, it was winter…in Ottawa. Were there things to do in Ottawa in winter? Were there places to visit in Ottawa in winter? Could I survive the frigid temperatures?
Things to Do in Ottawa in Winter: Winterlude
I absolutely loved all of the winter activities in Ottawa. One of the best things to do in Ottawa in winter is attend Winterlude. Winterlude is a celebration of Canada’s northern climate and culture. The primary reason to visit Winterlude is to marvel at the magnificent ice sculptures at Confederation Park. These carvings are created by artists from all over the world. You can find most of the ice masterpieces in Confederation Park, though many businesses in downtown Ottawa have their own commissioned pieces in front of their buildings.
Winterlude at Night
I was lucky enough to go to Winterlude on the opening weekend. On the first night, I witnessed the finishing touches being put on many ice sculptures. There was also a stage with live music and an outdoor dance party. Different events happen every weekend, such as ice dragon boat races and the village bed race (teams dressed in costumes race decorated hospital beds across frozen ice). As I was there all weekend, I checked out the ice sculptures once during the day and once at night. Confederation Park was packed on opening night, though it was a unique experience to watch the artists at work. I went to Winterlude with some friends from high school that now live in the Ottawa area.
Winterlude in the Daytime
A couple of days later, I visited the sculptures at Winterlude during the day and we had the whole place to ourselves (it was a Monday). I finally got to meet some of my favourite travel bloggers in person: Hannah of Eat Sleep Breathe Travel, Vanessa of Turnipseed Travel, and Sandi of Canadian Blog House (we first met at TBEX in Fort Lauderdale).
Skating on the Rideau Canal
One of the best things to do in Ottawa in winter is skate on the Rideau Canal. It’s the most iconic of all the Ottawa winter activities. Skating on the world’s largest skating rink was high on my bucket list, and I was determined to make it happen. It just has to be cold enough outside to make sure the canal remains frozen.
In the days leading up to my visit, Ottawa was experiencing warmer than seasonal conditions. The Rideau Canal was fully closed. I silently wished for snow and ice…and my wishes were granted! It was cold enough outside to skate on the canal by the time I reached the city. Every night, the canal is flooded with water. It’s important to maintain the ice surface and remove the snow for safer skating conditions.
Tips and Information
The Rideau Canal, a UNESCO World Heritage site, holds the Guinness world record for the largest naturally frozen rink. It’s 7.8 kilometres in length, the equivalent of 90 Olympic-sized rinks. It’s usually open from January to March.
I rented skates at the Rideau Canal – $20 for two hours of skating. There are change rooms, rest areas, washrooms, and places to buy food along the canal. Try a famous Canadian treat, the Beavertail (buy the cinnamon sugar flavor and ask to hold the butter, and it’s vegan!).
I went skating on the Rideau Canal with my friend, Gary. I have a really interesting and funny story to tell you about how I met Gary. Sometimes you meet new friends in unlikely places.
I was waiting at the Miami airport with my sister, Robyn, after our Fathom cruise to the Dominican Republic. While we were waiting, my sister was scanning a list of connections on her phone looking for Wi-Fi. She noticed a Bluetooth connection on her list called Heady McHeadphones. We both giggled a little over the name and looked around. As we noticed a guy sitting across the room wearing headphones, we wondered if those were the ones with the funny name.
Robyn and I boarded the plane and I agreed to take the middle seat. After all, she had to sit in the middle on our flight down to Florida, so it was only fair. There was an empty window seat next to me, though I knew it was a full flight. Eventually, someone approached to sit in the seat next to me. It was the guy wearing the headphones.
As it was a full flight, some passengers were having a difficult time figuring out where to put their carry-on bags. Some people managed to bring mammoth backpacks on board that I’m sure exceeded the allowed baggage size. It was funny to watch some passengers attempt to shove their luggage into the already packed overhead compartments. I couldn’t help but laugh, and so did the guy next to me. Gary and I started chatting and quickly hit it off.
At some point during the flight, he showed me the awesome pair of noise-cancelling headphones he owned and even let me try them on. Later, Robyn told me that she found it hilarious that I somehow ended up with Heady McHeadphones on my head after we had laughed about the name earlier that day.
In the moment, I forgot to ask if he named his headphones that crazy name. After the plane landed and we gathered our luggage, Robyn and I stayed in Toronto and Gary continued to Ottawa. The two of us stayed in touch. In a later conversation, I told him all about this story. And yes, his headphones are named, Heady McHeadphones.
Gary was my skating buddy at the Rideau Canal. I was grateful that he was just as bad at skating as I was. Gary is from England and didn’t grow up ice skating. On the other hand, I have no excuse.
Skating on the canal isn’t the easiest place in the world to skate. It had snowed that day, and a layer of snow covered the ice. There were bumps and ruts in the ice that I couldn’t see due to the layer of snow. I cautiously skated across the icy surface, very slowly. People were flying all over the place, landing on their butts left and right. I had a few close calls. In one instance, I felt like I was falling forwards and backwards and sideways all in slow motion.
However, I actually never ended up falling. It was a miracle that I never fell! Actually, neither of us ended up falling, which was pretty awesome. Skating on the Rideau Canal is a truly unique experience and something that you have to do at least once in your life. It’s one of the top Ottawa winter activities for good reason, and one of the best free or inexpensive things to do in Ottawa in winter.
Tour the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa
It’s free to take a tour of the Parliament buildings, and you need to visit this important Canadian site. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to do the full tour (next time!), but I did make it to the top of the Peace Tower. Be sure to pick up your free tickets at the information desk across the street. There are a limited number of tickets for each hour, so make sure to get there as early as possible to grab yours. On a Sunday in the winter, it was no problem to get tickets for that same hour.
As for things to do in Ottawa in winter, seeing the city from the observation deck at the top of the Peace Tower is a great choice. You can enjoy scenes of Ottawa from above that are stunning all year round. Take the elevator to the top of this clock tower to witness spectacular views.
The Peace Tower
About the Peace Tower:
Following the Great War (1914-1918), Canadians decided to create a monument like no other in memory of the service and sacrifice of the men and women who died serving their country. By standing here, you become a part of that remembrance.
And here are some facts about the Peace Tower:
- It is 302.5 feet (92 metres) tall
- Home to the first inclined elevator in Canada (at a 9 degree angle)
- 8 years to complete The Peace Tower (finished in 1927)
- Contains a time capsule in its cornerstone, laid in 1919
- Features almost 200 sculptures, including gargoyles and grotesques
- The original clock no longer works, but it is on display in the observation deck
After a trip to the Peace Tower, I walked through the Memorial Chamber. The Memorial Chamber is a national monument, serving as a tribute to those who died in military service in Canada. It is a quiet and reflective space, symbolizing both sacrifice and loss. Many construction materials for the Memorial Chamber were removed from the battlegrounds where Canadians fought in World War I.
One of the most important pieces in the Memorial Chamber is the Book of Remembrance. This book commemorates over 118,000 Canadians who lost their lives serving their country, during times of both war and peace. Every day at 11 o’clock in the morning, the pages of the book are turned according to a schedule. This ensures that every name inside the book is displayed outwardly at least once a year.
Explore the Property
Even in the winter, it’s a good idea to walk around Parliament Hill, especially if you enjoy discovering gorgeous architectural works. Take a stroll around the property to admire all of the old buildings. It’s one of the best free places to visit in Ottawa in winter (and all year long).
Ways to Tour Around Ottawa
For an even more unique experience with a local flair, take a guided tour around Ottawa with a local resident. You’ll learn lots of insider information from someone who lives in Ottawa. Plus, he or she can show you all of the best spots around town. If you’re looking for what to do in Ottawa in winter, why not try a private tour – it’s not just for the summer months.
Another enjoyable way to tour around Ottawa is using the hop-on-hop-off bus. It might seem touristy, but you’ll get around town and learn lots about the city, too. You’ll visit all of the important sites, like Parliament, galleries, museums, and more. You can leave the bus when you want to check out an attraction and hop back on when you’re finished.
Though I didn’t end up spending too much time here, the Byward Market neighbourhood has many independently-owned shops and restaurants. It’s worth adding this to your list of things to do in Ottawa in winter. Take a stroll around Byward Market, stop at a coffee shop for a warm beverage, and visit the market itself. Next time I visit Ottawa (oh yes, I will be back!), I’ll be sure to spend some more time here.
Wandering around Byward Market is even one of the great things to do in Ottawa in winter. I spotted a snow sculptor at Byward Market, creating a visual representation of the Fathers of Confederation in snow. I don’t think it gets any more Canadian than that!
Visit the Museums of Ottawa
Ottawa is the perfect place to visit for museum lovers. If it’s really chilly and you don’t feel like spending much time outdoors, it’s the best time to explore a local museum. It’s truly what to do in Ottawa in winter because it’s educational, interesting, and a way to escape the cold. I highly recommend checking out the National Gallery of Canada. There’s also the Canadian Museum of History, the Canadian War Museum, and the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum to name a few. You can even take a trip to the Royal Canadian Mint to learn about the technology behind coin and money production in Canada.
Play Arcade Games at House of Targ
I love classic arcade games and pinball machines. They remind me of my childhood, and I still love them to this day. House of Targ is a bar and an arcade all wrapped into one. It’s a little known local gem, and I highly recommend that you check it out if you love any of the following: video games, live music, or perogies. Also, it’s also one of the fun and inexpensive things to do in Ottawa in winter. House of Targ is indoors and it’s a great way to escape the cold.
There’s a whole row of pinball machines lining one wall, and the other wall has tons of retro arcade machines. You’ll find shooting games, racing games, and even a Super Mario cabinet. Furthermore, classics like Pacman and Tetris are there, too. Try your hand at the classic Canadian game, bubble hockey, which also happens to be one of my favorites. When I visited on a Sunday night, you can play unlimited games for $5 after 9:00pm. You can’t beat that deal.
On some nights, there’s live music and DJ sets. And there are always perogies. The vegan perogi offering is described as, “faux cheddar & bacon made with a traditional Polish dough, served with a dill cashew cream sauce and a generous portion of wine sauerkraut.” As the room can get quite noisy from the games, a voice announces when your perogies are ready. A deep voice, much like the voice of God, sounds over the speaker: LAUREN, YOUR PEROGIES ARE READY.
My First Airbnb Stay in Ottawa
I rented my first Airbnb room in downtown Ottawa. I’ve stayed in apartments many times in the past on my travels, but had yet to book an Airbnb. Well, I can tell you that I had a wonderful experience and I wouldn’t hesitate to book an Airbnb again. I’ll be writing about this experience in greater detail soon. For now, that picture above shows the view from my condo. Pretty spectacular, eh!
Thinking about getting outside of the Ottawa to explore more of the Great White North? You’ll want to check out these recommendations for the best vacations in eastern Canada.
Looking for more photos of things to do in Ottawa in winter? Check out the entire Ottawa photography album!
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