The Rideau Canal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that runs from downtown Ottawa to Kingston. The 202 km long waterway is famous for its historic locks and famous skating rink, but there are so many things to do on the Rideau Canal, it takes a couple of weeks to truly explore it.
The oldest continuously run locks system in North America is filled with towns dotting its route, vineyards, historic sites, and incredible scenery. We have visited the Rideau Canal several times in Ottawa and Kingston, but it wasn’t until we spend two weeks this past summer and autumn driving a houseboat with Le Boat that we had the opportunity to explore everywhere in between.
See what it’s like on a Le Boat Tour
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We loved Le Boat so much we did it twice in 2021 and have plans for Europe in 2022! You can book your own Canada or Europe tour in your own private luxury cruiser. What we loved is that we had our own little travel bubble with our family (including my parent’s cats) on our Horizon 4 with four bedrooms 4 baths. Imagine cruising the canals of France while discovering its historical sites and indulging in French food and wine next summer. What a dream. Read all about our Le Boat Trip on the Rideau Canal.
Places to visit on the Rideau Canal
The Rideau Canal was such a spectacular vacation, we often wondered why more Canadians don’t explore this beautiful region of Ontario. However, I don’t think it will be long before the waterways are flooded with visitors from around the world once they see all the incredible places to visit on the Rideau Canal.
It is truly a bucket list item to spend a week on a boat cruising through locks. We learned how to drive the houseboat, and how to navigate through these historic locks that can reach heights of 7.9 m (26 ft.) at Smiths Falls. It can be intimidating and exhilarating all at once going into a lock for the first time.
Rideau Locks and Lock Stations
The most interesting places to visit in the Rideau Canal are all the Rideau Locks. There are 24 lock stations housing 47 locks on the Rideau from Ottawa to Kingston. We have been to or boated through every single one of them. What makes the locks of the Rideau Canal so special is that they are operating the same way that they have since 1832.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site is all hand cranked (except for two locks) by Parks Canada Staff. There are original lockmasters’ houses at lock stations and the massive wooden locks and swing bridges are turned by hand by the intrepid staff.
It opened in 1832 and is the oldest continuously operated canal system in North America. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is a unique experience to yacht through. All locks (except for 2) are operated by Park’s Canada staff who crank the lock gates by hand. Taking a trip along the Rideau Canal is like going through a living history museum. The 45 locks in 23 lock stations have barely changed in 200 years with the original lockmasters’ houses and blockhouses still intact.
Ottawa is by far the best place to experience the Rideau Canal for tourists. Many of the city’s top attractions are located on the Rideau Canal from the Fairmont Chateau Laurier to Parliament Hill and the Bytown Museum overlooking the set of 8 incredible locks connecting the canal to the Ottawa River. The Ottawa Locks are by far the most picturesque of the Rideau Canal Locks with the Fairmont Chateau Laurie framing one side and the Parliament buildings on the other.
With boat cruises taking visitors from downtown to Dows Lake to cycling paths running along the Rideau, there are plenty of things to see on the Rideau when visiting Ottawa. If you want to cycle the Rideau Canal check out Escape Bicycle Tours for rentals and guided tours.
Rideau Canal Cruise
We have taken a guided Rideau Canal Cruise from downtown to Dows Lake but it was while on Le Boat that we moored directly in front of the Westin Hotel and National Arts Center on our luxurious houseboat that we truly experienced what it is like for boaters to ride through the locks. In the past, we have always watched in envy as boaters sipped wine on their decks under the summer sun, and now all of a sudden we were doing so! It is incredible to watch the twinkling lights of the city dance on the water as we stayed in the prime location. A great thing is that Parks Canada offers free docking and you can purchase electricity (if you need it) for 9.20 per night.
Downs Lake is another stop in Ottawa on the Rideau Canal. We not only had the chance to boat it, we have also raced dragon boats on this lake in the middle of winter while it was frozen. There is a pavilion on the lake where boaters can moor for the night. It has restaurants and rentals for kayaks, paddleboats, and bicycles. You can also skate on Dows Lake in the winter.
We had never heard of Merrickville before cruising the Rideau Canal, but once we explored this charming downtown, we named it one of the prettiest little towns in Ontario. We then found out that Communities in Bloom once named it the most beautiful village in Canada. This surprising town located directly on the Rideau Canal has a lot to see and you should spend at least a day here.
Start the morning with fresh coffee and pastries at Stella Luna Cafe. And make sure to return in the afternoon for fresh Gelato as you stroll the storefronts. Owners, Tammy and Alessandro met in Rome and after knowing each other for just a short time, decided to get married. Tammy moved from the Ottawa area to Italy for more than a decade and when they decided to move to Canada, they brought the best darn gelato with them. It was one of our favorite places to visit in Merrickville.
There are several things to see in Merrickville besides the cafes and shops though, one of the most interesting attractions is the ruins located beside the Merrickville locks. The Merrickville Ruins are stone ruins dating back to the 1800s. Located at the sight of an old mill, these ruins are as pretty as a picture and make for the perfect Instagram stop. You must also stop at the Merrickville blockhouse. It is the largest blockhouse on the Rideau Canal and is a National Historic Site.
Nearly every lock you stop at on the Rideau Canal is worth seeing. Whether they have a museum or blockhouse, a Parks Canada house, or interactive signs, they are worth seeing. Burrits Rapids is an interesting stop to see the Burritts Rapids Swing Bridge. The Burrits Rapids Park area also attracts many locals to hike its Tip to Toe Trail, a lovely four km walk, and make sure to stop at the nearby Rideau Woodland Ramble.
The Rideau Woodland Ramble is not only a renowned garden center, but you can stroll through the gardens that have been meticulously designed to create a serene environment. Enjoy the displays throughout the artist’s walk and make your way to the labyrinth for some quiet contemplation.
Smiths Falls is where all Le Boat Tours begin and end and with good reason. Smiths Falls is located in the middle of the Rideau Canal and is an amazing hub for exploring the Rideau. This town houses the highest locks on the Rideau and one of only three hydraulic locks on the Rideau. The rest of the locks on the Rideau Canal are filled, opened, and drained by hand with Park’s Canada Staff working the historic cranks. In Smiths Falls there are several hiking and biking trails along the canal and plenty of eateries and shops downtown.
A highlight of visiting Smiths Falls is the Railway Museum of Eastern Ontario. This incredible museum takes you back through time as you walk through the old train stations, cabooses, and railway cars. There’s a replica of an old Dentist Train that was once used to reach rural communities in Canada and you can even stay overnight in a vintage caboose. You can also take train rides and try your hand at the hand car. It is an amazing museum to visit.
Canoeing and Camping at Beveridges Lock
Upper Beveridges Lock Station is a popular lock station on the Rideau Canal with Otentiks available for rental from Parks Canada. This lock station connects the Rideau Canal with the Tay River leading toward the community of Perth. Something we highly recommend doing is renting a canoe from Park’s Canada (or bringing your own kayak or canoe) to Beveridges to go through the locks in a non-motorized vehicle. It was thrilling to be inside a lock on a canoe while having it fill up with water. This is a popular paddling route that is filled with birdlife.
The Rideau Canal isn’t all narrow waterways and channels. In fact, there are plenty of lakes on the Rideau. In fact, the Rideau Lakes is considered one of the best small boat cruising destinations in Canada. With so many communities and marinas, this waterway is definitely the place to have a boat!
Colonel By Island
Located on Big Rideau Lake, Colonel By Island is a National Historic Site that is run by Park’s Canada. This island is steeped in history. Back in the day, it was frequented by the rat pack, Paul Anka, and New York’s elite. It was once owned by the owner of New York’s Yellow Cab Company and he used to bring all his socialite friends out to the Canadian wilderness for a remote escape.
The house, tennis courts, and large fireplaces are still standing albeit in a state of disrepair. You can only look at the building from the outside, but it is still a fascinating example of how the rich and famous used to spend their weekend retreats. There’s a fantastic hiking trail and it’s a great place to go kayaking and swimming.
Wine at Westport
Westport is another picturesque comminute on the Rideau Canal. With plenty of ice cream shops, shopping, and even a brewery it’s the perfect place to spend the night. The bustling marina is an inviting place to spend the night on a boat. I think the star attraction of Westport is the Scheurmann Vineyard.
The vineyard is set in a picturesque setting making it the perfect dining option for sunset. Just a 20-minute walk from town, it seemed that everyone from the Marina and local BnBs made their way to the restaurant for the evening. Another place we recommend going to in Westport is up Foley Mountain for views of the town and Upper Rideau Lake.
Chafey’s Lock is another must-visit lock station on the Rideau Canal. There is a marina and place to moor your boat for the evening and the famous stop here is the Opinicon Restaurant. This historic restaurant and retreat dates back to the 1950s and feels as if you have stepped right into the movie Dirty Dancing. There’s an ice cream shop and there is also a museum.
Kilborns at Newboro
Another fun town to visit on the Rideau Canal for shopping is Newboro. We had heard of the interesting department store they had there, but it wasn’t until going inside that we learned just how special it is. Kilborn’s is a department store set within three historic houses that have been blended together. Take a walk through the different displays to buy some one-of-a-kind local art or simply stock up on snacks and food.
Our favourite lock on the Rideau Canal was Jones Falls. It is often considered one of the most attractive locks on the Rideau Canal with a total of four locks. There’s a large turning basin between one and the other three that are connected. What makes Jones Falls special to us is all the historic plaques, lock houses, and its 16 km (10 miles) long hiking and biking trail.
One of the most beautiful locks on the Rideau Canal is Kingston Mills. Located just 15 minutes outside of Kingston this lock station has a turning basin, three-step locks, and another detached lock. A cool fact is that this set of four locks was the location of the first mill on the Rideau Canal dating back to 1784.
Rideau Canal Mansions
Cruising along the Rideau Canal doesn’t only offer beautiful natural views, it also is an amazing place to go house hunting. Well, house hunting for houses that you’ll never be able to afford. The closer you get to Ottawa the more massive the mansions become. We thought we saw a beautiful waterfront home when cruising south from Smiths Falls, but when we took a trip north, the homes hit an entirely new level. Some look like hotels while others have their own seaplanes parked out front along with their multiple boats and kayaks. Ah to dream.
History of the Rideau Canal
Even though Britain won the war of 1812, Canada was left feeling very vulnerable to another attack from the United States. With Canada and America now splitting the St. Lawrence River, the powers that be were tasked with a safe route to the Great Lakes in case another war broke out. It was decided that the Rideau River would be a good route between Ottawa what was then Bytown and the St. Lawrence River.
The difficult work started in 1827 and was completed in 1932 but not without taking a toll. The person tasked with overseeing the construction of the Rideau Canal was Colonel John By. After the completion of the Rideau Canal, with many delays and extra costs, Colonel By was summoned home to explain himself. More than 500 men died of malaria and the cost was more than England wanted to spend. Instead of being lauded for his accomplishment, he was put on trial and had to defend himself. In the end he lost his military career.
Skating on the Rideau Canal – Winter
One of the more famous things to do on the Rideau Canal when in Ottawa is to go skating on it during Winterlude. I know this isn’t part of a boat cruise, but if you make your way back to Canada in winter, don’t miss this iconic Canadian activity. When the ice freezes, the Rideau Canal turns into the world’s largest skating rink with shops, restaurants, and warming stations dotting the route. It is a truly unique Canadian experience to skate on the Rideau and a trip to Ottawa in winter is worth it just for the chance to hop on the ice! Make sure to grab a Beavertail and fresh frozen maple syrup while you are out on the ice. Read more Winterlude Itinerary – The Ultimate Guide to Ottawa
Don’t forget to check out Le Boat for great Black Friday savings to France and Canada
And these are some of the most incredible things to do on The Rideau Canal. It truly is Canada’s hidden gem. If you have a chance to visit our nation’s capital make sure to take a cruise along the Rideau Canal. It is spectacular.