There’s More to Ottawa in Winter Than Just Frigid Weather

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When people begin planning winter vacations that don't involve skiing, Canada probably isn't likely to be at the top of their lists. Unless they want to hit the mountains for some fresh powder, most people gravitate toward warm destinations during the chilly, grey winter months.

I know I usually do.

But this year I decided to try something a little different. Instead of using my winter vacation to head south for the tropics, I went north — to Ottawa.

Visit Ottawa

I'll admit that Canada's capital city had barely even been on my radar before this trip. Sure, I knew it was there, and I had heard that it was pretty nice as far as Canadian cities go. But I didn't really have any idea of what you could do there — especially not during the winter months.

Imagine my surprise, then, to discover that Ottawa has plenty to offer, even when it's cold and snowing out.

If you're considering a visit to Ottawa in winter, here are some things you can consider adding to your itinerary.

Things to do in Ottawa in winter

Skate on the Rideau Canal

The most popular winter activity for both locals and visitors alike in Ottawa is putting on a pair of skates and taking to the Rideau Canal, which runs through downtown Ottawa. Once the ice gets thick enough, the canal turns into the world's longest skating rink, with the skate-able part stretching for an impressive 4.8 miles (that's roughly 90 Olympic hockey rinks!).

Rideau Canal, Ottawa, Canada

Thousands of people each year enjoy skating on this UNESCO World Heritage site, but sadly I didn't get to try it out myself. With the relatively “warm” winter Ottawa was having this year, the ice was not quite all the way frozen yet during my visit.

Tour Parliament for free

The second must-do in Ottawa is taking a tour of Canada's gothic-revival Parliament buildings. Hour-long tours of Centre Block run daily and are completely free. They include glimpses into the Canadian Senate and House of Commons, a peek into the beautiful Library of Parliament, and access to the top of the Peace Tower, which gives you great views out over Ottawa.

Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Even for someone like me who doesn't really love politics, this tour was well worth my time. If you're not interested in the tour, however, you can still go up to the observation deck of the Peace Tower for free.

If you're in Ottawa around the holidays, be sure to stroll by the Parliament buildings at night, too, when they're all lit up.

Parliament Hill, Ottawa at Christmas
Parliament around the holidays

Explore the Byward Market neighborhood

The Byward Market neighborhood is one of the oldest in Ottawa. And I think it might also be the most charming. You could easily spend the whole day here.

Byward Market, Ottawa, Canada

While in the neighborhood, make sure to:

  • Visit the market building itself, where you can browse artists' work, get some “curry in a hurry,” or pick up a delicious pastry.
  • Eat a BeaverTail (a deep-fried, sugar-coated pastry) from the original stand near the market building. (Though I'm told they're really best enjoyed while skating on the Rideau Canal, where there are a number of BeaverTail stands right on the ice.)
  • Go shopping, whether at one of the neighborhood's many bookstores, or at the boutiques of local, up-and-coming designers.
  • Eat just about any kind of food you could be craving.
  • Set eyes on the neo-gothic architecture of the nearby Notre Dame Cathedral.

Ottawa, Canada

Go to a museum

If it gets too cold to be outdoors, don't worry. Ottawa has a large selection of museums to choose from.

Museum of Civilization — Across the Ottawa River in Quebec, the Museum of Civilization is often touted as the best museum in Canada. With artifacts, artwork, and life-sized exhibits (including a sprawling village), this museum takes visitors through thousands of years of Canadian history. Definitely worth checking out.

Museum of Civilization, Ottawa

The Canadian War Museum — Even though this museum is geared toward Canadians and telling their war stories, it's an interesting walk through military history, from before the Europeans arrived up to the present day.

Canadian War Museum, Ottawa
Hitler's parade car

The Bytown Museum — Curious to know more about Ottawa? Then check out this little museum right on the edge of the Rideau Canal. Located in the city's oldest stone building, visitors here can learn more about Ottawa, it's founder John By, and the canal.

Rideau Canal, Ottawa, Canada

The Canadian Museum of Nature — Popular with kids, this newly-renovated museum is filled with dioramas and exhibits highlighting creatures from insects to dinosaurs.

National Gallery of Canada — If art is more your speed, you can't miss the National Gallery of Canada. This museum is striking in its architecture, and houses works from both Canadian and international artists.

National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa

Take a walk

One of my favorite things about Ottawa is how compact and walkable the downtown area is. I love discovering new cities on foot, and was excited to be able to get everywhere I wanted to go in Ottawa by using my feet instead of a car or bus (though there's a good bus system, too).

If you're walking around downtown, don't miss:

The National War Memorial — Originally built in remembrance of Canadian soldiers who fought in WWI, the monument was re-dedicated in 1982 to also include WWII and the Korean War.

Canadian War Memorial
Canadian War Memorial

Artwork around town — There's a lot of really cool artwork scattered around Ottawa. See how many unique sculptures you can find!

Ottawa
My favorite sculpture on the way to the War Museum. I love that someone gave them some winter gear!

Great views — Despite being a city, Ottawa has a lot of green spaces and parks scattered throughout its downtown area. And, due to Ottawa being on a river and being divided by the canal, this means that there are a lot of great open spaces to to visit — many of which have some very pretty views.

Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

See a movie

After a long day of walking and sightseeing, you can always enjoy a film at the historic Bytowne Theatre, which plays independent and foreign films and has delicious popcorn. I saw “The Artist” here.

Bytowne Theater, Ottawa

Get scared at a haunted jail

Or, if you require a bit more excitement from your evening, take a prison/ghost tour of the Ottawa Jail Hostel, which served as Ottawa's main prison from 1862-1972 and has a very interesting and spooky history.

Ottawa Jail Hostel

And these are just the normal, everyday things you can see/do in Ottawa during the winter time. There are plenty of other things to enjoy, too, such as festivals like Winterlude in February each year, and the Maple Sugar Festival in March.

Even without the ski slopes, Ottawa makes a surprisingly good winter destination — so long as you remember to bundle up.

READ NEXT: Enjoying the Canadian Tulip Festival in Ottawa

Have you ever visited Ottawa in the winter? If not, would you?

"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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39 Comments on “There’s More to Ottawa in Winter Than Just Frigid Weather

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  1. Wow…the skating canal looks awesome. Did you get a sense that it’s mostly ‘just for fun’ or do some locals use it for transportation?

      I was SO bummed that the canal wasn’t open yet when I was there.

      And I feel like it’s definitely a “just for fun” type of thing for the locals. 😉

        Actually, when I went to school and worked at Carleton University, on the canal, I knew a number of people who lived downtown and skated to work every day. Of course, those people are probably just 1% of the users of the canal.

      People definitely use it to get to and from places. Better than walking. 🙂

    I do love visiting a good winter city in cold weather! They’ve always got ice skating, good museums, good places to curl up with a mug of hot chocolate. It’s the pretty beach cities that are awful in frigid weather with nothing to do but stare at the beach you can’t enjoy!

      Agreed! Ottawa knows it’s a cold city in the winter, and has adapted accordingly! Plenty of things to do, both indoors and out.

    I enjoyed Ottawa once in the spring and once in the summer. Would definitely go back again!

      I’d love to see it in the summer, too, to see how it compares!

        I would recommend late May through early June. The weather is really nice. Cool evenings and warm (but not too hot) days. July & August are challenging. Heat and humidity. Lots of both. And it doesn’t cool down much at night.

        The *average* low temperature in January is 5 degrees F, and the average high in July is 79F. That’s almost an 85 degree spread in the *average*. The extremes are more extreme. You got to see the cold extreme. Imagine the hot extreme. And then imagine it worse, because it’s really humid.

          Sounds like the extremes in weather we have here in Ohio. We get cold winters, too, and very hot and humid summers. So that I’m used to!

    I’m sure I’ve seen that giant spider in London. Two explanations for this come to mind. Either there are lots of giant spiders around the world, slowly preparing themselves to take over the planet, or there is one giant spider capable of moving itself vast distances in secret, to pose outside art museums. Neither of these options fills me with pleasure.

      Hahaha. You probably have seen the spider elsewhere. In fact, the Wikipedia article Sarah posted said the first one appeared at the Tate Modern. I’m told Ottawa was very proud to be able to get one of their own.

        Oh, they’re proud now. Wait till we’re all worshipping at the feet of our new spidery overlords..

        ps, yes, it was outside the Tate Modern 🙂

    Ah! Ice skating would have been epic, bummer you didn’t get a chance. Maybe next time if you ever go back! I love all of the interesting sculptures, one of the big reasons I am in love with Wellington. Nice trip!

      I’m bummed I didn’t get the chance to go skating, too! It would have been fun. But yes, maybe next time.

      And yeah, all the random sculptures were fun trying to find. Very much like Wellington in that respect!

    That’s funny, I’m not a skier either and was just in Victoria BC for their heaviest snowfall thinking… maybe I should have gone south and not north :). It was beautiful though and I am so glad that I was able to see it. (here are my pictures on Flickr if you want to see: http://www.flickr.com/photos/74815531@N03/sets/72157629050631611/ )

    Ottawa looks like a beautiful place during the winter especially with the canal and the architecture… capital cities get all the pretty buildings don’t they!

      Well that’s great you were able to enjoy Victoria even as a non-skier! I love that little city; it’s so pretty!

      And yes, Ottawa is quite striking in the winter, especially thanks to all the old gothic-style buildings. I had a field day taking photos there!

    My typical itinerary in frigid weather: wake up and complain about how cold it is, take a scalding hot shower, put on four layers of long underwear and a hat, complain about how cold it is, stay inside all day and drink hot cocoa, take a scalding hot shower, fall asleep shivering. Your itinerary sounds much more adventurous and, dare I say, interesting! But still cold, though. 😛

      Hahaha, while I commend your frigid-weather itinerary, I think I much prefer mine! 😉

    Despite living in Toronto for most of my life, I have yet to visit Ottawa… even though its a mere 4-5hrs away. Definitely need to get there and go skating on the Rideau Canal.

    There are a couple ski hills within an hours drive of Ottawa that are pretty nice to go up to for the day. Spring is really my favorite time of year in Ottawa, the hiking trails in and around the city are gorgeous.

    Great article! Ottawa is one of Canada’s most under-rated places to visit. And, another plus, particularly for those of us from Toronto: NO traffic, even at rush hour!!!

      Thanks, Allyson! I haven’t traveled a whole lot in Canada, but it does definitely seem as though Ottawa is highly underrated!

    Hello I’m planning to travel to Ottawa in the beginning of January 2015 by myself to kick off being 25 years old but I was getting freaked out about the snow. Did you go to Ottawa in January?

      Yup, I was there in early January! It WAS really cold and there was snow. But as long as you pack some warm layers, you should be fine – there’s still plenty to do there, even in the winter!

    […] phase me. In fact, I actually kind of love it! In the past few years, I’ve traveled to both Ottawa and Manitoba in the depths of winter, gone to Scotland for New Years, and have been to Iceland not […]

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