What are the top winter activities in Ottawa? After four different winter trips to Ottawa, we've rounded up the best Ottawa winter attractions that you cannot miss.
Many people think of going south in the winter, but Canadians have learned to embrace the cold. And no place does it better than our nation's capital.
Ottawa Attractions - Winter Activities to Embrace the Cold
We've created a guide to help you discover the best places to visit in Ottawa in winter to get outdoors and make the most of the snow.
If you aren't sold on that, we have many suggestions for indoor fun in Ottawa too!
If you are visiting Canada in the summer, you may want to check out our Complete Ottawa Travel Guide for summertime fun in the sun.
Ottawa is a winter city. Temperatures can dip well below freezing during the cold months, but that doesn't stop visitors or residents from bundling up to enjoy all the activities and adventures to be had.
Here are our favorite things to do in Ottawa in winter.
We've experienced an Ottawa winter four times and counting, and these are our tips to see the top winter attractions in Ottawa. You don't have to go anywhere else!
Where to Stay in Ottawa Winter
Best Time to Visit Ottawa in Winter
December is an exciting time to visit Ottawa as it is alive with lights and Christmas celebrations.
The Christmas Lights Across Canada is on display at this time, Byward Market is lit and there is plenty of shopping for the holidays.
The skating rinks also start to open in December. However, usually, the Canal doesn't open until later in the season.
January is a time where you will find great deals in Ottawa as things slow down a lot after the holidays.
The first week of January is still in holiday celebration mode, so you will have a lot of the same activities going on you had in December.
But it is important to note that during the second week of January, most museums are closed for cleaning and reorganizing.
The Rideau Canal Skateway is partially open at the beginning of January and then opens up completely as the month goes and the weather cools.
February is the optimal time to visit Ottawa in winter as for three weeks, Winterlude is taking place.
There are several events taking place during this time.
Many special food stalls open in the market and on the canal.
The canal is usually in full swing and filled with skaters.
Hotels are at a premium during Winterlude and may sell out.
Outdoor Ottawa Attractions
1. Skate on the World's Largest Skating Rink
When the cold weather hits, the Rideau Canal freezes over and it's time to break out the blades and go skating on a 7.2 km track of groomed ice.
The Rideau Canal skate way is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that attracts millions of visitors each year.
The locals love it too! When the water freezes, they commute to work each morning by skating along the canal.
Forget hopping on transit, they wake up each day enjoying the brisk air and a fast skate to downtown.
There are skate rentals, warming huts, hot chocolate and Beaver Tails for sale!
If there is one bucket list item for things to do in Canada, it is this!
For conditions and information visit http://www.gg.ca/en/visit-us/rideau-hall/what-see-and-do/skating-rink
2. Sens Rink of Dreams
If you are looking for a more controlled environment for skating, Ottawa has many outdoor arenas.
There is an outdoor arena at city hall where rentals are available and Beavertails can be enjoyed!
Sens Rink of Dreams is always busy and open all day from 6:00 am to 11 pm.
3. Rideau Hall Historic Arena
Our favourite skating rink has to be at Rideau Hall.
This historic arena was built in 1872 and is located on the site of the residence of Canada's Governor General.
Its newly renovated winter pavilion offers skaters a chance to warm up by the woodstove while browsing the history of skating and winter in the area.
The rink is maintained by hand. We were told there isn't a Zamboni to clear the ice. It's all done the old fashioned way of pushing machines with meticulous care.
4. Stroll the Byward Market
Take a photo of the Ottawa sign in the heart of the Byward Market and then set off to explore one of Canada's most famous markets.
The Byward Market is several square blocks downtown Ottawa willed with some 600 businesses. There are several bars, boutiques, eateries, and retail stores to browse.
Just because its winter, doesn't mean it closes down. All restaurants and stores stay open. A large portion of the market is indoors as well.
Be sure to stop for a Beavertail to enjoy the sweet and gooey goodness of an Ottawa institution.
Pop into one of the many pubs for a local brew and grab some dinner at the delicious Italian restaurant, Stella Osteria.
5. Watch Sunset from Andaz
The Andaz Hotel in Byward Market has one of the best views of the Ottawa skyline in the city.
Head up to the 16th floor for a sunset view of over the Parliament buildings while enjoying one of its signature cocktails.
They serve an incredible charcuterie plate that we highly recommend.
6. Take in the Beauty of Notre Dame
I don't know what it is that makes Dave and I turn religious when we travel. We never go into a church in our hometown.
But when visiting Ottawa it is worth going into the beautiful Notre Dame Cathedral.
Dating back to 1841, it is a National Historic Site of Canada and is free to enter. But we very quiet it is a church that it used by the public and ceremonies and masses are held here.
Ottawa Events in Winter
When planning a visit to Ottawa in winter, it is a good idea to plan your trip around Winterlude. This nearly three-week event is an Ottawa institution now in its 41st year.
Beginning February 1st, Canada's biggest winter party takes place each and every day for 18 days.
There are a ton of activities from ice sculpting competitions, cross country ski races and the ice dragon boat festival.
Stay tuned for Dave and I taking part in a dragon boat race on ice!
8. Christmas Lights Across Canada
From the beginning of December to January 7, downtown Ottawa is alive with colourful lights!
The star of this display is a 15 minute light show on the Parliament Building's Centre Block projecting a multimedia light show of Canada's history and culture.
It is free to watch and is on a continuous loop from 6 pm to 11 pm nightly.
9. Gatineau Loppet
This international cross country ski event attracts more than 2000 skiers from 20 different countries!
This weekend race includes 8 different races from 2k ski races to epic 51 km races.
Anyone can take part, but it is also fun to watch. The energy across the river in Gatineau is contagious and even if you didn't' register, you just may be inspired to sign up next year!
How cool would it be to be a part of one of the top 20 long-distance cross country ski races in the world?
Enjoy our video: The Best Things to do in Ottawa during Winter
Winter Activities Near Ottawa
10. Parc Omega
If you are fascinated with Canadian Wildlife, Parc Omega is the place to see it!
Parc Omega is a 2200 acre natural habitat for Canadian and Arctic Wildlife. Visitors can self drive through the park to witness animals like the arctic fox, arctic wolf, bison, caribou, and elk.
Visiting in winter is the best time to see Canadian wildlife because that is when they are most active. Arctic animals love the cold and to see them play on a blanket of snow is breathtaking.
A visit to Parc Omega was such a highlight of our visit to Ottawa, we're going back next year to see it again in the summer and autumn.
You can stay overnight at Parc Omega to hear the howl of the wolves and the sounds of nature.
There are several different types of accommodation from yurts and teepees to luxury lodges overlooking the wolf enclosure.
It's worth spending a couple of days at Parc Omega.
Located 50 minutes from Ottawa, you not only get to see the animals, but you can also hike around the lake to explore the Aboriginal culture.
There is a restaurant and warming lodge where you can buy gifts and stock up on carrots to feed the deer and elk.
11. Patinage en Foret
There is no shortage of places to skate outdoors in Ottawa, but not many are as unique or cool as Patinage en Foret.
It's located 30 minutes from Ottawa, but definitely worth the drive.
Imagine skating through a forest trail weaving 3km through trees.
The ice conditions are outstanding offering visitors a uniquely Canadian experience.
If you don't skate (which you should give a try anyway) you can snowshoe or hike along the designated trails.
We hear there is a local wolf that hangs out in these parts. Don't worry, he's friendly and goes by the name of Loupie.
There are skate rentals in the chalet and you can order a snack and hot chocolate to warm up between rounds.
For hours and information visit https://www.patinageenforet.com/
12. Snowshoe Gatineau Park
One of the easiest Canadian winter activities to try for the first time is snowshoeing. It's something you can quickly get the hang of, but don't let that fool you, snowshoeing is an excellent workout.
Gatineau Park in Quebec rents snowshoes by the hour or day giving you the opportunity to hike the groomed trails.
There are 60 km of trails in Gatineau and it's a beautiful thing to hike through a quiet forest witnessing the sound of silence.
Trails range from easy to difficult and range from 1.6 km in length to 12.7 km.
Pack a lunch and take a day to explore. You're going to love it!
13. Cross Country Skiing
Speaking of Gatineau Park, there are many places near Ottawa where you can go cross-country skiing. Many of the trails that offer snowshoeing also have separate groomed cross country trails.
Gatineau Park has 190km of cross country ski trails in the winter that are groomed regularly. Be sure to choose a trail that suits your experience.
It may be a cross country, but many expert trails have steep inclines and drops.
If you are not an avid skier, you could injure yourself. But don't worry, there are plenty of easy and intermediate runs that you can take a spin on too!
The truly spectacular trails are a little bit out of town, but Ottawa proper has some cross country trails too. Sir John A Macdonald trail is a 16 km trail along the Ottawa River.
From what I can tell, you'll need your own skis or you can rent from downtown Ottawa.
14. Old Chelsea Pub
When you are finished snowshoeing, pop across the street for a bit at the Old Chelsea Pub.
It feels like a local establishment with many outdoorsy types sipping cider and slurping soup. A bilingual establishment, there are as many French as English sitting inside enjoying the atmosphere.
If you want to experience a bit of French Canada, it's fun to get outside the Capital and cross the bridge to Gatineau. It feels like a completely different world.
15. Nordik Spa-Nature
We included this in our Summertime Ottawa Activities list but it is even more magical to visit in the winter.
Located just 20 minutes from downtown Ottawa, the Nordik Spa-Nature is a unique spa experience taking in the Scandinavian practice of going through the spa rituals of heat, cold and rest.
What makes winter a special time to visit is that you get to sit in hot pools outside in the cold while snow falls.
There are fires burning in sitting areas where you can bundle up in a robe, sip a tea and meditate by the fire.
A bonus for me is that you don't have to jump into a cool pool or waterfall for the cold part of the ritual, instead, I just had to walk outside after a soothing sauna.
I immediately cooled off and then could pop into a hot pool for some rest.
If you have never done a Scandinavia Spa, you must go to Nordik Spa-Nature during your winter travels to Ottawa.
Read all about our experience here.
How to Dress for Ottawa Winter Travel
Ottawa gets very cold in winter. It can dip well below freezing with high wind chills. We have been there when it is below minus 20.
It is also unpredictable and can hover around zero during the winter as well.
If you dress properly you can spend hours outdoors enjoying everything an Ottawa winter has to offer.
Dress in Layers
When packing for a trip to Ottawa in winter, think about layers.
When skating on the canal, cross country skiing or snowshoeing, you will work up a sweat, even on the coldest of days. So bring a day pack to be able to take off layers or add as you go.
- Ottawa Winter Packing Guide
- 1 base layer - merino wool long johns and a merino wool base layer shirt to wick up moister and breath.
- 1 mid layer - this is usually a fleece jacket and fleece pants. We like our Canada Goose Hybridge jacket which is a lightweight down jacket.
- 1 outer layer - pants and jacket. This is a windproof layer outer shell that helps seal in the warmth.
- Mittens - We suggest mittens over gloves as they are warmer. Plus you can put in hand warms to distribute heat easier.
- 1 set of liner gloves - cold weather can freeze fingers quickly if you need to take your mittens off to take a photo, the liners will protect your fingers.
- Hat - It is imperative to wear a hat when exploring Ottawa in Winter. Most of your heat exits through your head!
- Boots - A good set of boots is all you need. We're fans of Sorels. Look for thick rubber souls that keep insulated from the cold ground.
- Socks - Wool socks will keep feet from sweating and keep them warm.
- Liner socks - Dave is a fan of liner socks. I feel good with one heavy set of wool socks.
Scarf, Dickie or Balaclava - I pack all of the above because they take up little room and I can mix and match depending on the cold.
- A balaclava covers the entire face which offers optimal coverage.
- A dickie is a fleece neck warmer
- Scarf - I like a scarf because I can wrape in around my neck and chin and then bunch it up around my chest for extra warmth.
- Hand and Toe Warmers - These warm packets last anywhere from 6 - 12 hours (depending on what you buy) and keep your fingers and toes super warm. It is amazing how comfortable you can be in the cold when your hands and feet are toasty.
Other recommended items for winter:
Lip Balm, sunscreen, (yes, even in the winter you can get a sunburn), moisturizer (winters are very dry), sunglasses
Indoor Places to See in Ottawa - Winter
16. Rideau Hall
Rideau Hall is a fascinating tour giving visitors a glimpse into the life of one of the most important figures in the Canadian Government. The Governor-General.
Group and private tours are offered daily to explore the quarters of our Governor General.
Many people don't have a clue what the Governor General does in Canada, but she has a very important role that you will learn all about on this tour.
Currently, our Governor General is "Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette." We learned that is her official title, but our guide Riley said for ease of speaking he will just say "Her Excellency." Whew.
A former astronaut, she is appointed as the official representative of the Queen.
Whatever the Queen's duties are in England, the GG does the same here in Canada.
After going through security, you'll be taken through the State Rooms where official visitors are welcomed by our Governor General.
It is the guides that make the tour and our guide Riley was well informed and entertaining. We couldn't stump on anything when asking questions. (not that we were trying. wink-wink.)
We had the opportunity to see the beautiful facade that has welcomed dignitaries, we saw the sitting room where many television addresses occurred, we saw the Order of Canada and learned how medals and awards are appointed.
The most impressive rooms were definitely the Tent Room and the Ball Room.
Check out how to book a tour at the Rideau Hall Website
17. Canadian Museum of Nature
I cannot believe that Dave and I have never heard of this museum, let alone have never been there.
This is one of Ottawa's most fun buildings to visit!
The Canadian Museum of Nature will remind you somewhat of the displays from A Night at the Museum with Ben Stiller.
But it is so much more than that!
Beautiful displays of fossils, dinosaurs, Canadian wildlife and life in the Arctic teach you all about history and life in Canada.
Galleries and Exhibitions
Our favourite display was the Canada Goose Arctic Gallery explaining the way of life in the Arctic and showcasing the flora and fauna of the Arctic.
There is an amazing display of ice when you enter. It is a constant moving showcase of art.
When I first looked at it I didn't think it was real but you can touch it let your fingers slide across the cold damp ice sculpture on display showcasing moving images of Arctic wildlife and Inuit art.
Another impressive display is the dinosaurs. What makes this one unique is a mock-up of seven lifelike and life-size dinosaurs reenacting a battle.
We've seen many dinosaurs at other museums, but it was impressive to see a display that looked more like something from Jurrasic Park than bones in a museum.
There are also temporary displays that rotate throughout the year. When we were there, we walked through the Butterfly Pavilion to see hundreds of freshly hatched butterflies fluttering around the climate controlled enclosure.
If you are very still, they just might land on your shoulder.
We also visited the Survival of the Slowest gallery celebrating animals that don't necessarily have a lot of movement in their lives.
Things like sloths, hedgehogs, and snakes move slow, but it is precisely that fact that keeps them alive by eating less, saving energy and hiding easily.
Something we want to note is how the historic building has been renovated with a flare of contemporary design.
As our guide Dan Smyth said, the architect said it is important for a renovation on historic buildings not to copy the era that it was built in, but to add on with a new and contemporary look.
It doesn't do a building justice to pretend that addition was built during the same era.
We love that idea and it creates a beautiful flow to the building where exhibitions are in the historic part while the Queens Lantern addition offers an excellent Instagram opportunity.
18. Canada Science and Technology Museum
It's Ottawa's answer to Toronto's Science Centre. Okay, now I know you are mad at me, Toronto is not the centre of the universe! The I grew up with the Science Centre, so I always compare science museums to it.
One would say, Toronto copied Ottawa since, this one is Canada's Science Museum.
It is a fun museum for the whole family with presentations, interactive exhibits, and cool experiments.
A showstopper for the kids was the Crazy Kitchen Museum where a kitchen looks level, but it is built on a slant causing everyone to roll down the floor!
A highlight for us was Sound by Design where we checked out the evolution of sound from the past 150 years!
There are antique instruments, interactive sound displays, a quiet room, and a giant turntable. If you love sound like we do, you'll get a kick out of it.
Kids these days would be shocked to see the evolution of the telephone. While everyone has a cell phone in hand, I was even surprised to see how quickly we've gone from a rudimentary phone that is almost like a speaker on a string, to the high tech cell phones of today.
Get lost in the many displays showing the evolution of science and technology and see what the future has in store!
19. Ottawa Museums
Being Canada's Capital, Ottawa is a city filled with museums. You could spend a week in Ottawa just visiting all the museums of Ottawa.
We have visited several and highlighted more of them in our summer Ottawa travel guide, but besides the ones listed above.
Other Favourites Ottawa Museums are:
- Canadian Aviation and Space Museum - Amazing collection of Vintage planes and aircrafts dating back to 1909.
- National Gallery of Canada - Even if you just go out front to see the famous spider sculpture by Louise Bourgeois
- Canadian Museum of History - Celebrating Canadian history, but also an excellent spot for pictures of Parliament and Ottawa skyline from across the river.
20. Warm up inside Fairmont Chateau Laurier
It's the centerpiece of the Ottawa Skyline. The Fairmont Chateau Laurier is the Grand Dame of Ottawa dating back to 1912.
Whether you stay there or not, you must pop in to see it.
It's located right at the Rideau Canal allowing people to stop in after skating on the canal.
There is also a mini museum (another great Ottawa museum suggestion) right inside on the main hall.
It showcases the history of Ottawa's railway, the Chateau Laurier, and pictures of the famous people that have stayed at the Chateau.
The Fairmont has three restaurants and a bar, so it is worth spending some time in there.
Getting Around Ottawa in Winter
Ottawa is a very walkable city.
Many of the major attractions are located downtown and you can easily walk from the Byward Market to the Parliament Buildings to downtown shopping.
For attractions outside of Ottawa, you will need a car.
For Museums outside of downtown Ottawa, we suggest Uber. It is easy and affordable.
Note: Uber is not available in Quebec, so if you are going across the river to Gatineau (which is located in the province of Quebec) you can take an Uber there, but will have to taxi back.
We found taxis to be almost double the price in Ottawa of an Uber.
Public Transport is available, but it is only buses. No water taxis in winter operate.
Our trip to Ottawa is in partnership with Tourism Ottawa. All opinions are our own. Visit their website for more information on travel to Ottawa.
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