Last updated: February 25th, 2020
With snow covering the ground and temperatures reaching far below zero, Canada may not seem like a desirable place in the winter. But that’s truly not the case. Not only is there fewer crowds and cheaper prices, but winter is also an incredibly beautiful time to visit and Ottawa is one of the best places to do so.
Canada’s capital is a great place to visit in the winter. Not only is it a great place to experience winter activities such as skating, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing, but it’s also very beautiful to see the frozen Rideau Canal, the snow-covered Ottawa River, and the stunning gothic-style parliament buildings surrounding by a white blanket.
What To Do in Ottawa in the Winter
Whether you split your days into indoor attractions and outdoor attractions or go full out in winter fun, below are some of the best things to do in Ottawa during the winter months.
Skating on the Rideau Canal
Few things conjure up the magical winter spirit than a skate on the largest skating rink in the world. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is an icon of Ottawa and sets the scene for winter in the nation’s capital. Depending on the climate, the Rideau Canal is often closed around the parliament buildings, which is a shame, but out further into the neighborhoods, it’s usually open for a long skate. In total, the Rideau Canal Skateway is 7.8 kilometres (4.8 miles) and is FREE day and night. We visited during Winterlude and saw some small shops set up on the canal selling things like BeaverTails and hot chocolate.
However, there are also some events that happen on the canal during Ottawa’s Winterlude such as:
- Winterlude Triathlon: Athletes will skate, ski and run at Dows Lake.
- BeaverTails Ottawa Ice Dragon Boat Festival: Dragon boats outfitted with special blades race down the frozen canal at Dows Lake. You’ll also find free concerts inside the Dows Lake Pavilion.
Ottawa’s largest winter celebration is called Winterlude, a mostly free event that brings a variety of indoor and outdoor activities and events to the city, including an international ice carving competition, a culinary event, and the popular Snowflake Kingdom over in Gatineau, which is very popular with kids. The festival highlights Canada’s cultural, artistic, and culinary diversity.
Ottawa’s Winterlude typically takes place during the month of February with most activities and events occurring on the weekends. Some of the popular events include:
- Snowflake Kingdom over in Jacques Cartier Park provides a giant winter playground with tube sliding, skiing and snowboarding lessons, a kiddie zone for toddlers, a zip-line, indigenous performances, snow sculptures, and more!
- Sparks Street: Located in the heart of Ottawa, you’ll find an international ice carving competition, interactive lights and urban fun, the Winterlude kick-off party, and various live performances.
In addition to the main events above, you’ll also find other areas and sites throughout the city hosting special Winterlude programming, including the ByWard Market, Downtown Rideau, Bank Street, and the Glebe. In addition, there are events happening at national and local museums, performances venues and historic sites.
Nordik Spa Ottawa
Quite possibly one of our favourite places in the country, Nordic Spa-Nature is a paradise for adults. It’s the perfect place to relax in all seasons, but it’s spectacularly beautiful in the winter when snow blankets the ground as you sit in a hot pool overlooking Gatineau and the natural beauty surrounding the spa. Sure, it’s a little harder to make the cold plunge in the winter months, but it’s still refreshing after spending 30 minutes in the hot sauna or the eucalyptus-infused steam room.
This relaxation and wellness centre is mainly focused on thermotherapy and relaxation techniques from Scandinavian countries, offering a multisensory experience in a natural setting. It’s become so popular that they’re expanding across the country with spas now open in Winnipeg, as well as new spas opening in Calgary, Edmonton, and beyond.
If you read our blog or watch our YouTube channel, you’ll see how much we love the Nordik Spa. We can easily spend the whole day here, enjoying a massage, their 9 distinct saunas, the infinity pool, the unique saltwater flotation pool, some of their 10 exterior baths, the exfoliation room, the steam rooms, the variety of restaurants, or just relaxing in one of the numerous resting places, whether it’s lying down on a heated mat indoors or relaxing around a campfire surrounded by snow. Summer or winter, this place is a must-do when you’re in the area.
Parc Omega (Omega Park)
This natural and historic reserve in the heart of Canada is a must for all wildlife lovers, allowing you to discover Canada’s wildlife such as moose, elk, bison, wolves, and bears all within their natural habitat. It’s open year-round and there are essentially two parts to the experience. The main attraction is the driving tour. Basically, you drive your own car around the park, witnessing the animals from the vehicle and even feeding carrots to some of them from your car window. Yes, the animals will come right up to the car and demand their carrot, which you can buy at the on-site shop. It’s such a wonderful experience to roll down the window (partially – I don’t recommend rolling it right down) and have a massive elk stick its head in the car, hoping that you will stick a carrot in its mouth. Whether its wild boars frolicking around or big turkeys, it’s a really enjoyable experience for adults and kids alike. In addition to the driving route, there’s also the First Nation’s walking trail, which features 11 totem polls from various tribes, Land of the Pioneers, which features a “living village” to walk around and enjoy, and the popular wolf presentation, which give you an up-close and personal experience with one of the wolf packs.
However, perhaps the most spectacular thing to do here is to spend a night sleeping with the wolves in one of their beautiful cabins. These cabins feature floor to ceiling windows overlooking the wolf dens, allowing you to safely spend a night with a wolf pack, falling asleep to their howls. For me personally, this was one of the most magical experiences of my life. To lie in bed with a wood-burning oven next to me, peering out of the window to a pack of wolves wandering around and coming up close to look at us is about as special as it gets.
Although Parc Omega is not in Ottawa, it’s only a one hour drive from downtown Ottawa and only 1.5 hours from Montreal, making it a great place to visit from Ottawa or during a road trip.
Ottawa Indoor Attractions in the Winter
Now, of course, like any city in Canada, you don’t have to be outdoors. There are plenty of things to do indoors, giving you plenty of things to do in all seasons. For example, due to Ottawa being Canada’s capital city, it’s home to a variety of incredible museums, all of which are warm and toasty year-round. Some of our favourites include:
Canadian Museum of History
This Canadian Museum of History is one of our favourite museums in the whole country. If you visit just one “indoor attraction” in Ottawa, let it be this one. Not only will you learn so much about Canadian history but you’ll also see one of the most beautiful buildings in the city, designed by an incredibly talented indigenous architect. Plus, you’ll get incredible views of parliament, which is on the other side of the Ottawa River.
Tip: The museum is FREE between 5 pm and 8 pm on Thursdays!
National Gallery of Canada
Another beautiful building is the National Gallery of Canada, which is one of the largest art museums in North America! The museum’s permanent collection includes over 93,000 works from European, American, and Asian, Canada, and indigenous Canadian artists. However, it also hosts a number of travelling exhibits as well and also has great views of the city.
Tip: The museum is FREE between 5 pm and 8 pm on Thursdays!
The National Arts Centre
Collaborating with artists and arts organizations across Canada, the National Arts Centre creates a national stage for the performing arts, fostering performance, creation and learning across Canada. It hosts the NAC Orchestra, English Theatre, French Theatre and Dance, and much more. It’s also the only bilingual, multidisciplinary performing arts centre in Canada, and one of the largest in the world.
The Aviation and Space Museum
If you love space or aircraft, I can’t think of a better place in the country to visit than the Aviation and Space Museum. This place is spectacular. The museum’s collection contains a wide variety of civilian and military aircraft, representing the history of Canadian aviation from the pioneer era before the First World War up to the present day. You’ll find everything from vintage bush planes to the Space Shuttle Endeavour’s Canadarm. In addition to the above, you’ll find a bunch of interactive activities.
Tip: This museum offers free admission daily between 4:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m.
Want to visit many museums? Consider buying the Museum Passport, which offers 3 museums over 3 days for $35.
Where to Eat in Ottawa
From cheap grub to fine dining, you’ll find it all in Ottawa. We’ve tried a few places during our trips to Ottawa and below are our favourite so far.
Corazon De Maiz (Budget): If you’re wandering around the Byward market and looking for some great Mexican food, you won’t anything more delicious than Corazon De Maiz. We try to eat here every time we visit Ottawa. It’s very authentic, quite cheap, very filling, and super delicious.
Sansotei Ramen (Budget): I always thought that Ramen just wasn’t my thing, but after visiting Sansotei Ramen, I now love it. It took us a few days to finally eat here as every time we tried, the line up was too long – even in the winter! But if you can make it inside, you’re in for one of the most delicious bowls of Ramen you can find, all for about $13.
Zoe’s Lounge (fine dining): Located in the Fairmont, Zoe’s is a great place to go for fine dining. From their Braised Beef Gnocchi to their Pork Belly, the food is really good. However, my top memory from Zoe’s is one of their cocktails – “The Statesman”, which is one of the best Old Fashioned’s I’ve ever had. Not only was it delicious (it even has maple syrup) but the presentation is the coolest thing I’ve ever experienced in a bar as it comes served in a glass casing filled with cedar smoke.
Restaurant 18 (fine dining): Located right next to the massive Ottawa sign in the Byward Market, Restaurant 18 is a great place to experience contemporary fine dining. Not only is it located in a beautiful heritage building, e18hteen mixes traditional French with seasonal Canadian influences paired with an extensive wine collection. Another great feature is that they focus a lot on using ingredients from local farms, which means the menu can change seasonally. This is one of our favourite spots for fine dining in Ottawa.
Where to Stay in Ottawa
Like any city we visit, we try to stay in a different hotel each time, giving us more experience to share with you. It would take years for us to stay in all the hotels, but here are our favourites so far.
Alt Hotel Ottawa: We love Alt hotels. Not only are they Canadian-owned, but they offer a trendy and comfortable stay in one of the best locations in the city. Just a short stroll from Parliament Hill, you’ll find everything you need at Alt, including affordable luxury, a cool bar and restaurant, a pool table, and much more. We really loved the vibe of the place and having a Nespresso machine in the room was a great way to wake up.
Best Western Plus Gatineau-Ottawa: If you watch our YouTube videos, you’ll know that we’ve worked with Best Western a lot and we love their hotels. Not only will you find one almost everywhere, but they always offer clean, comfortable, and spacious rooms, along with free breakfast, free parking, and free WiFi. However, what we love about this hotel is that it overlooks Parliament Hill from across the river in Gatineau. If you can score a room on the upper level facing the front, you’ll literally have one of the best views in the city, right from your bedroom.
Hotel Fairmont Château Laurier: If you’re looking for luxury, Fairmont Chateau Laurier is the place to stay. Located right next to Parliament Hill, this incredibly beautiful historical building is a must-visit, even if you’re not spending the night. However, if you do spend the night, you’re in for a treat. As with all Fairmont’s, you’ll feel luxurious whether you’re relaxing in the room or exploring the hallways and restaurants.
Ottawa in Winter
As you can see, winter in Ottawa is a wonderful time to visit. You can enjoy winter activities one day, a variety of museums the next, and then take a day off at one of North America’s biggest spas. From winter festivals to world-class museums, there’s no shortage of things to do in Ottawa during the winter months.
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