February 2019 was our first time to explore Canada and my very first time on the American continent. The preparation for the trip was one of the most exciting. We wanted to make sure we have the right papers, we book everything in good time and we have the right clothes. We visited Ottawa in winter so ensuring we have the right gear was paramount. As the end of the trip, we came to realise that winter can be a lot of fun when exploring Canada, especially if you plan for a fun festivity like the Ottawa Winterlude.
We spent close to a week exploring Ottawa and the surrounding areas and had an amazing time. Here's everything you need to know about planning a trip to Ottawa (tips which apply to explore Canada as a whole).
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Prepare to Explore Canada (plus useful tips) - Contents
Best time to explore Canada
Canada is huge and each province has something unique to offer throughout the seasons. Figuring out the best time to explore Canada is no easy answer as it really depends on what you personally like.
For example, we both love autumn and winter. Autumn is a fantastic time to visit for the foliage. But like I said, autumn may mean something really different depending on the location you pick. September to the beginning of November tends to be comfortable months with nice weather and gorgeous colours. Imagine Nova Scotia with its gorgeous colours during autumn! It must look stunning.
Winter is our second favourite season. I was born at the end of December so to me, it's all about the snow. Well, if you ever wanted a white Christmas, Canada is the place to be. Winter illuminations, fun festivities and glowy atmosphere, all surrounded by that white fluffy snow. Sounds incredible! And then there is the New Year's Eve and of course, Valentine's Day. We visited Ottawa during Valentine's Day and what a treat that was! We skated on the Rideau Canal, held hands while exploring the snowy city, ate in some of the greatest restaurants in Ottawa and chilled in the largest Spa in North America (looking at you, Nordik Spa).
Ok, so might be a little biased but we think Autumn or Winter are the best times to explore Canada.
Spring starts becoming greener and prettier with its gorgeous flower blooms. Just make sure to visit a little later in Spring if you prefer milder weather. It can take a while for all the snow to melt, so plan accordingly. Spring is also a good time to see bears. If that's your thing (and we totally understand as we love bears too) just make sure you hire a local guide as bears are dangerous, guys. I mean, they look cute and adorable, but really, stay away from wildlife!
Alas, summer! Most travellers love exploring Canada during the summer. The great outdoors with stunning mountains and gorgeous forests! What's not to love? Well, know that in the cities, the temperatures can get close to 30-35C. It's totally normal, so that's probably why summer is best spent in nature. Summer is also a good time to do a long road trip around Canada. We are road trippers so for us, exploring Canada while constantly on the road seems perfect.
Flying to Canada
If you live in the UK, flights to Canada are nice and easy. For example, you can take a direct flight with Air Canada and get from London to Ottawa in 7 hours. That's pretty cool.
When we flew to Ottawa we did Budapest to Ottawa. That was a lengthier flight with two stops: Frankfurt and Montreal. But you know what's awesome? We kinda left in the morning and with all the flying, connections and all, we arrived late afternoon to Canada. So we had a mild jet-lagged but arrived on time for dinner and long night sleep.
Generally, we recommend booking your flights about 2-3 months in advance. As mentioned, we flew Air Canada and we were very satisfied with the service and the level of comfort on their planes.
Visas for Canada
Most people need a visa OR an Electronic Travel Authorization to travel to Canada – not both. Some people may only need a valid passport. As we travel with our British passports, we needed to apply for an ETA. It takes around 5 minutes to apply and it costs less than 10 Canadian Dollars.
To see if you need a visa we recommend you check this official government website here.
To apply for an ETA online, only use the official Canadian government site here.
What to wear in Canada
It all depends when you decide to explore Canada. Although many imagine Canada to be this big, white, cold place, the reality is Canada actually has four seasons. However, the seasons in Canada are super real: I mean winter is REALLY winter! So be prepared to face some -25C during the day.
While this may seem a little scary, with the right gear, you won't even notice the cold. As previously mentioned, we visited Ottawa during winter and we had a lot of fun. Check out this little video we created so you can see that a little snow can make for more adventures, and it shouldn't hinder your holiday.
So what we recommend you wear in Canada? Let's have a look at basic items, season by season.
What to wear in Canada in Spring
Depending on where you decide to visit and when during Spring, you might find yourself in-between seasons. So expect some thin layers of snow, some rain and cool weather. We recommend bringing your winter jacket with you, with waterproof trousers and a sturdy pair of hiking shoes. Layers are your friends here so some merino base layers and a couple of wool jumpers will do the trick. Bring an umbrella with you and make sure you have a waterproof, windproof jacket handy as well.
May is a lovely time to explore Canada. By then you'll find heaps of blooms and wonderful greenery. The weather will be nicer so you can venture out in warmer clothes. Thinner trousers or jeans, with sneakers, a few shirts and T-shirts. Get a denim jacket with you for the colder Spring evenings. Make sure you have long sleeves for fussy weather and we always recommend at least a couple of jumpers.
What to wear in Canada in Summer
Summer dresses, beautiful shorts and short-sleeved shirts! It's time to celebrate summer in all its glory. You can wear sandals and fun canvas trainers. Bring a pair of jeans and a long sleeve shirt, with a cardigan and a denim jacket. You never know when those summer evenings might cool down a bit. But overall, expect excellent temperatures where you can run around in skirts and shorts.
What to wear in Canada in Autumn
Ah you beautiful season, how can you be so glorious? The weather will be cooler now, but still manageable and lovely. At the beginning of autumn, you can get away with jeans, trainers, a waterproof pair of shoes and a waterproof jacket. Make sure you bring some sweaters with you too. The weather can be a bit of a mixed bag, with warm summer days but cold chilly nights. So a mix of short and long sleeves are a must.
When you explore Canada during late Autumn, the game changes a bit. Be prepared for some snow and cold nights. Bring waterproofs, warm layers and a warm down jacket. It's better to overdress and get rid of some layers throughout the day than freeze during your awesome trip.
What to wear in Canada in winter
Dress well! Grab snow trousers, snow boots (absolutely essential!), waterproof down jackets, woolly sweaters, merino base layers, warm hats and gloves. We dressed in layers and survived winter without being cold.
Bring lip balm with you, lots of moisturising and drink a lot of water. During winter, dehydration is your main enemy. Because your body is cold, you never really feel too thirsty, but the reality is, that's part of the reason why your skin and lips get so dry. So drink plenty of water (and hot tea).
Ottawa: Canada's capital city
When picking a country in Europe, most people decide to start by visiting its capital city. Say you want to visit France, you probably start with Paris, right? So we wanted to do the same with Canada. We know that Canada is huge and every part of it has something unique to offer, but the capital city has a lot of stories to tell.
Besides, we were very excited about spending Valentine's Day discovering the Ottawa Winterlude so it worked out really well.
Would we recommend Ottawa? YES! It was a lot of fun and had plenty to offer. There is actually a lot going on in the capital. We noticed that everyone was pretty outdoorsy and eager to experience the elements regardless of the temperature outside. Ottawa is also strategically located, so close to the Nordik Spa. To be fair, we'd go back to Ottawa just so we can eat oysters in the Whalebone Restaurant and chill in those crazy cool pools at the Nordik Spa.
So we recommend starting in Ottawa and making your own itinerary from there. If you want to spend a couple of weeks exploring the cities of Canada maybe do Ottawa, Gatineau City (just 10 minutes away from Ottawa) and Montreal (a short flight away).
Where to stay
For romance, of course, we are going to recommend the Fairmont Hotels. They are stunning, glorious and oh so photogenic. We stayed in Hotel Fairmont Château Laurier during out time spent in Ottawa and we fell in love. We can't recommend it enough, especially in their Club Rooms where you have access to the special lounge upstairs.
There are 19 different Fairmont hotels in the whole of Canada, so plenty to pick from. Here are all the locations which have one:
Banff, Calgary, Charlevoix, Edmonton, Jasper, Lake Louise, Mont Tremblant, Montebello, Montreal, Ottawa, Québec City, Toronto, Vancouver, Victoria, Whistler, Winnipeg.
Ready to explore Canada? We LOVE Canada so please let us know your travel plans in the comments section below. We love hearing stories from one of the coolest countries in the world.
Practical Information: We partnered up with Destination Canada in order to bring this post to you. We spent 4 days exploring the Ottawa Winterlude and extended our stay at our own accord for an extra couple of days as we fell in love with the city.
Some of the flights, activities, accommodation and meals were provided by Destination Canada. We covered some expenses on our own, including all tips to staff.
Destination Canada provided us with the playground; the post above is our labour of love and a true representation of how much we loved spending romantic time together during the Ottawa Winterlude.