What to do in winter in Ottawa

By: Rachel Ingram

January 13, 2016

Summer in Ottawa may be beautiful, but winter is when the city really comes to life. When temperatures plummet and snow falls several inches thick, the Canadian capital comes into its own. The Rideau Canal freezes over and becomes a giant skateway and Parliament Hill becomes the picture of winter wonderland perfection. Far from deterring activity, the weather is a catalyst for seasonal events such as the highly anticipated Winterlude festival, attracting thousands of visitors. Whether you’re an adventure seeker, a culture vulture or a foodie, there’s plenty to do in winter in Ottawa.


Ice skating

What to do in winter in Ottawa | Rideau Canal
Make the most of winter and go skating on the Rideau Canal © Ottawa Tourism

When the waters freeze over, the Rideau Canal transforms into a giant 7.8km skating rink stretching all the way from downtown Ottawa to Dow’s Lake. The boats that usually bob along the scenic canal migrate to warmers waters and are replaced with thousands of skaters showing off their skills on the ice. But you needn’t worry about collisions as the skateway covers an incredible 165,000 sqm – that’s 90 Olympic-sized hockey pitches. And best of all, entry is free.


Thermal baths

What to do in winter in Ottawa
Escape the freezing temperatures at the Nordik Spa-Nature © Ottawa Tourism

If you need a break from the winter chill, warm up with a dip in a steaming hot thermal bath. The best baths in the city can be found at Nordik Spa-Nature – an alpine lodge-style spa with a variety of outdoor thermal baths and fire-fuelled saunas. Visitors can swim in the baths or book in for a thermotherapy treatment and immediately start reaping the physical and psychological benefits of a full-body cleanse.



What to do in winter in Ottawa
For top skiing, take the two-hour drive to Mont Tremblant © iStock/Cybernesco

There are six resorts in the Ottawa area, giving ski enthusiasts plenty of snow-capped slopes to choose from. At up to 580m, Mont Ste-Marie has the greatest mountain elevation, while Camp Fortune has the largest surface area, with 23km of runs ranging from beginner to expert. If you’re a dedicated skier, take a two-hour drive to Mont Tremblant in Quebec. Largely considered the best ski resort in the province, this adventure playground has over 90 runs through the wintery landscape of Mont Tremblant and its imposing peak, Manitonga Soutana – also known as “˜the mountain of the spirits’.


Winter festivals

What to do in winter in Ottawa | Winterlude
Winterlude festival is a highlight of Ottawa’s seasonal calendar © Ottawa Tourism

A highlight of winter in Ottawa is the annual Winterlude festival. Each year, Confederation Park is taken over by artists, who create fantastical sculptures out of ice – a beautiful sight to behold in the winter chill. There’s also a series of events including hockey tournaments, a winter triathlon and, of course, skating at Rideau Canal. Another seasonal highlight is the Ottawa Winter Jazz Fest. Taking place each February, the winter edition of the event welcomes some of the most dynamic musicians from around the world to the National Arts Centre.


Ice hockey

What to do in winter in Ottawa
Catch the Ottawa Senators at Canadian Tire Centre © Andrea Cardin Freestyle Photography

Ice hockey is a big deal in Canada. Just as the British love their football, hockey is the country’s national sport, and there’s no better way to soak up modern Canadian culture than by sitting side-by-side with locals at a live game. The Ottawa Senators are the capital’s home team and seats to see the “˜Sens’ battle it out against their rivals at Canadian Tire Centre are the hottest tickets in town, especially during the winter playoffs. Just remember to show your support by dressing in the team’s colours – red, white and black.


Warming local food

What to do in winter in Ottawa
You can’t visit Ottawa in winter without trying traditional Canadian poutine © iStock/Fudio

Ottawa’s culinary delicacies may not be the healthiest, but they sure are tasty. Take beavertails, for example. These popular sugar-laden treats are essentially flat donuts that are deep fried and finished with your topping of choice, be it chocolate spread, apple and cinnamon, cookies or maple syrup. While you’re treating yourself, it’s also worth sampling traditional Canadian poutine – French fries covered with cheese curds and gravy.


Winter hiking

What to do in winter in Ottawa
Get out into Gatineau Park for a wintry walk © iStock/brightmotion

When the snow falls, head to Gatineau Park, where over 200km of trails through beautiful snow-covered forests await. A picturesque area for hiking, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, the park in winter guarantees an action-packed day out. Those brave enough to spend the night can camp out in a lakeside tent, yurt or wooden cabin – large enough to share with up to 17 friends. All come with a wood stove and a stockpile of ready-cut firewood to get the fire burning and keep you toasty all night long. Bookings can be made through the National Capital Commission.


Museum visits

What to do in winter in Ottawa | Canadian Museum of History
The Canadian Museum of History is a great place to shelter from the cold © Ottawa Tourism

If the wind picks up, shelter in one of Ottawa’s many cultural museums. The castle-based Canadian Museum of Nature is one of the city’s premier institutions and presents exhibitions on all manner of topics, from dinosaurs and fossils to mammals through time and the world underwater. Elsewhere, the Canadian Museum of History takes visitors on an insightful journey through the heritage of Canadian civilisations, folk culture and archaeology. If you’re looking for cultural explorations, the National Gallery of Canada houses an exceptional collection of pieces ranging from centuries-old paintings to contemporary sculptures.


Animal magic

What to do in winter in Ottawa
Set out on a sleigh ride to really make the most of winter in Ottawa © Stanley’s Olde Maple Lane Farm

On a crisp winter’s day, wrap up warm and take the whole family on a sleigh ride. A number of local companies offer rides in the Ottawa Valley area, such as Smithvale Stables and Stanley’s Olde Maple Lane Farm – a fully-functioning maple farm that organises horse-drawn sleigh trips through snow-covered forests for couples and groups of up to 20. If you prefer a canine friend, the Outaouais region is a hub for dog sledding. Escapade Eskimo offers a range of packages from short 2km sprints to four-day camping expeditions.


Cosy bars

After a busy day of adventure seeking in the snow-capped city, relax in one of Ottawa’s many cosy bars. Vineyards Bar & Bistro is an award-winning venue famed for its selection of fine wines. Located in the must-see ByWard Market, the bar presents some of the rarest bottles from across the globe alongside a tempting food menu, and hosts frequent live jazz evenings. If whisky is your tipple of choice, warm up from the inside out at Ottawa’s premier Scotch bar, The Highlander. The Scottish-themed pub stocks over 200 varieties of single malt Scotch, including special selections such as 1981 Glenmorangie Pride.


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Have you visited Ottawa in winter? How did you spend your time? Let us know in the comments section below.


Written by Rachel Ingram


Rachel Ingram

A globetrotter by heart and a journalist by trade, Rachel has lived across the globe, from the UAE to New Zealand. From her current base in London, she works as an editor and freelance writer specialising in travel and luxury lifestyle. When she’s not writing, Rachel can be found holiday planning, consuming her weight in Asian cuisine and trying out the latest cocktail bars – all for work, of course.

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