There are so many amazing things to do in Ottawa in winter that will make you fall in love with the season. While there are lots of other awesome cities to visit in the winter in Canada, like Niagara Falls, Quebec City , Mont Tremblant and Toronto, Ottawa has its own winter celebrations that make it a special time of year to visit.
While I mainly wanted to visit Ottawa to catch up with some friends and explore the city, I fully intended on making the most seeing Ottawa in the winter. There are so many winter activities in Ottawa that should be on every Canadian bucket list. This city really knows how to embrace the icy temperatures as a frozen winter wonderland.
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Where to Stay in Ottawa
I stayed at a vacation rental in the perfect location, right downtown in Ottawa. I had a wonderful experience and I wouldn’t hesitate to book a vacation rental. It felt like I had my own condo in downtown Ottawa.
There are lots of amazing hotels and accommodations in Ottawa. You can easily browse one or the other for the best prices, depending on the kind of accommodation you enjoy the most. In the map below, you can see all hotels in one convenient place. Enter your travel dates for more accurate information, and click each property to learn more.
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.
Marveling at the magnificent ice sculptures at Confederation Park is one main reason to check out Winterlude. 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.
Visiting Winterlude at Night
I was fortunate enough to attend 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. Whether you’re going to Winterlude during the day or night, it’s one of the best things to do in Ottawa in winter. I urge you to see it both ways, if possible.
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.
As you can see, Winterlude is impressive by both day and night. Checking out the Winterlude festival is one of the best things to do in Ottawa in winter. And here’s another great event associated with Winterlude…
Ice Dragon Boat Festival
The Ottawa Ice Dragon Boat Festival is the world’s largest ice dragon boat race, featuring over 1,200 athletes from all over the world. Competitors will race across the frozen surface of the Rideau Canal Skateway, the world’s largest skating rink. The boats have skate-like blades and the participants will propel themselves across the surface of the ice.
For nearly all of February, the event also hosts a free indoor concert series called “Live @ The Rainbow”. It takes places at Ottawa’s legendary live music hall, The Rainbow Bistro. There’s an exciting and eclectic list of bands, musicians and performers.
Ottawa Winter Activities: 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. Be sure to check the Rideau Canal Skateway website for ice conditions before heading out.
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 About the Rideau Canal
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, and it’s one of the best outdoor activities in the city of Ottawa.
I rented skates at the Rideau Canal – $20 for two hours of skating. You can also bring your own skates. 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!).
Skating on the Rideau Canal
Another friend of mine from Ottawa, Gary was my skating buddy at the Rideau Canal Skateway. 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. Even if you decide not to skate on the Rideau Canal, it’s still one of the top places to visit in Ottawa in winter. You can go people watching or grab a snack or warm beverage from a food truck.
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. It’s one of the top things to do in Ottawa in winter because the views are beautiful and it’s not as busy as during the summer months. Consider the Parliament Buildings and the Peace Tower as one of the most interesting places to visit in Ottawa in winter.
As for all the 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. If you’re visiting the Peace Tower on your itinerary of things to do in Ottawa in winter, don’t miss spending some time here.
Things to Do in Ottawa in Winter: Explore Parliament Hill
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).
Take a Guided Walking Tour of 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.
Getting Around Ottawa: Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus
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.
Things to Do in Ottawa in Winter: Byward Market
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.
See Snow Sculptures at Byward Market
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!
Warm Up in Cozy Coffee Shops
For all the coffee lovers out there, escape the cold in one of Ottawa’s best cafes. There are so many coffee shops in Ottawa serving delicious espresso beverages, specialty drinks and more. When I traveled to Ottawa, I tried as many coffee shops as I could over the course of a few days.
A few of my favourite coffee shops in Ottawa include The Ministry of Coffee, Bridgehead Roastery, Little Jo Berry’s Bakery (for the vegan treats, too!) and others. Visit as many of them as you possibly can during your winter travels to Ottawa. If you aren’t into coffee, be sure to order hot chocolate, tea or apple cider.
Visit the Museums of Ottawa in Winter
Canada’s capital city 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 the winter season because it’s educational, interesting, and a way to escape the cold. I highly recommend checking out these museums while you’re in town:
- National Gallery of Canada
- The Canadian Museum of History
- Canadian War Museum
- The Canadian Aviation and Space Museum
- Canadian Museum of Nature
- Royal Canadian Mint
Catch an Ottawa Senators Game
Any hockey fans visiting Ottawa? Catch an NHL game in Ottawa. Watch the Ottawa Senators play against another team in the NHL, perhaps their rivals the Toronto Maple Leafs or Montreal Canadiens. After all, hockey is a beloved sport for Canadians, so it’s only fitting that you go to a hockey game at the Canadian Tire Centre.
Self-Care at the Nordik Spa-Nature
It’s time for a spa day! The Nordik-Spa Nature Chelsea is the largest spa in North America and the ultimate relaxation experience. It’s nestled on the outskirts of Gatineau Park in the picturesque village of Old Chelsea (Outaouais region).
Soak in one of 10 outdoor baths, unwind in 9 distinct saunas, enjoy the yoga and meditation room, take advantage of several relaxation areas, experience the infinity pool and enjoy four different restaurants on site. Visiting this nordic spa in Ottawa is one of the best things to do in winter.
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.
Things to Do in Ottawa in Winter: Gatineau Park
Gatineau Park is home to 11km of hiking and walking trails in the National Capital Region. These trails are open year round. One of the best things to do in Ottawa in winter is go hiking or cross-country skiing at Gatineau Park. Some parkways are closed to traffic and used as cross-country ski trails.
Some of the best hiking trails in the winter are the Pioneers Trail (1.3km), Capital Pathway (3.2km), Sugarbush Trail (3km) and the Lauriault Trail (4.5km). Be sure to check out this interactive trail map to plan your trip in advance.
Things to Do in Ottawa in December: Ottawa Christmas Market
The Ottawa Christmas Market has got it all: thousands of twinkling Christmas lights, local vendors selling their wares in wooden booths, holiday entertainment, live music, and Christmas-y flavours. Located in Aberdeen Square, there are 16 days of programmed events across five weekends in November and December (Friday through Sunday, and more dates the week leading up to Christmas).
There are 35+ vendors selling holiday gifts, unique food and beverage items, and handmade wares. Of course, you’ll have the chance to meet Santa as well! This is one of the best Christmas markets in Ontario for the sheer amount of holiday events and size of the festival itself.
There are also workshops (including online workshops), kids activities, and screenings of Christmas movies. This is one of the top Christmas markets in Canada, and it happens across four weekends leading up to Christmas.
Thinking about getting outside of the Ottawa to explore more of the Great White North? Looking for more winter fun in Ontario? Here are even more wintery guides:
- Amazing Things to Do in Stratford, Ontario This Winter
- Stay at a Yurt at Pinery Provincial Park in Winter
- Thunder Bay in Winter and Sleeping Giant Provincial Park
- 5 Epic Waterfalls to See Frozen in Hamilton, Ontario
- Northern Edge Algonquin Eco-Resort in Winter
Regardless of whether you’re staying within Ottawa or traveling across Canada, there are lots of fun things to do in Ottawa in winter and all seasons. Have fun visiting this amazing city!
Lauren is the full-time travel blogger and content creator behind Justin Plus Lauren. She started Justin Plus Lauren in 2013 and has travelled to 50+ countries around the world. Lauren is an expert on vegan travel as one of the very first vegan travel bloggers. She also focuses on outdoor adventure travel, eco and sustainable travel, and creating amazing travel itineraries for cities and small towns.