With so many things to do in Ottawa, it's easy to see why the Canadian capital is becoming an increasingly popular destination. We wanted to visit Ottawa in the winter to really show you how many incredible outdoor activities there are. There's so much to see, experience and eat in Ottawa. Downtown Ottawa is a joy to explore, and the Rideau Canal is a highlight for all outdoor enthusiasts who want to skate all day long.
Winter is a superb time to take a trip to Canada's capital city. All winter activities in Ottawa were excellent and full of life, with locals clearly embracing the season and turning every single element into an opportunity to go out and have fun.
We spent time enjoying the Ottawa Winterlude, where we braced ourselves for -20C temperatures. But what we came to discover is that a good winter jacket, some waterproof boots and some warm attitude are all you need to go out in the snow and take part in the local winter activities. Here are all the coolest things to do in Ottawa in winter.
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Ottawa in winter preparation
Ottawa in winter is cold. We mean it! But it's easy to prepare for your visit to Canada. When we visited, the temperatures plummeted to -20C (-4F) during the day. That's totally normal for Canadians, but not so normal for us, UK folk. We honestly thought we'll freeze our tails, but with a bit of preparation, you'd be surprised to see how quickly you can adapt.
To begin with, we recommend shopping around for an excellent winter jacket. Think down jacket or something made from professional synthetics from specialised sports shops. Parkas are always a good option. Check Patagonia online, which specialises in winter apparel. These nations know how to create wonderful clothes which withstand great winter temperatures.
For us, getting a pair of snowshoes made all the difference. Not only they are waterproof but extremely comfortable and super light. They keep your feet warm for up to -35C (-31F), ideal for a Canadian winter experience.
Underneath the jacket, make sure you get some thermal and layer up with sweaters. Get a hat, a scarf and some thermal gloves, and you are good to go. Ottawa looks stunning during winter, so make sure to have your camera ready whenever possible. For easier portability or to get some fun selfies in the snow, get your GoPro with you as well.
Now that you have your clothes sorted, let's see what are the best things to do in Ottawa.
Want to experience the quintessence of Canadian winters? Then the Winterlude festival is for you. Held in the first three weeks of February, you'll be able to mingle with locals, enjoy street food, see beautiful ice sculptures and have some family fun with craft drinks and funky outdoor sports.
Winterlude is one of the most popular winter events in Canada, and has been taking place in Ottawa since 1979. The popular event includes stunning ice sculptures made from competing carvers from all over the world.
Make sure you also visit the Snowflake Kingdom. Take the kids to the tubing and zip lines located just across the Ottawa River in Gatineau. Read more about it on Ottawa's official website.
Ice Dragon Boat Festival
Want to see something unconventional in Ottawa? During winter, the world's largest Ice Dragon Boat Festival is held in Ottawa on the Rideau Canal. You'll be able to see boats equipped with skate-like blades, racing against each other. The festival offers free concerts, all sort of outdoor fun, and it is suitable for all ages.
Snack on Beavertails
We are foodies, so we'll take any excuse to try local snacks. I mean one of the best things to do in Ottawa is to eat your way around the city.
Beavertails are fried pastries served with sugar, cinnamon and lemon. You can also have them with chocolate or other toppings if you prefer. When the temperatures are so cold, a bit of a sugar rush is definitely needed to keep you going. Packed with calories, these pastries are absolutely spectacular for snack breaks during winter.
Ice Skate on Rideau Canal
The Rideau Canal which freezes during winter is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. During the winter the best thing to do in Ottawa is to grab your skates and ventures on the icy canal for 7.8 km.
In fact, the Rideau Canal is so long and well maintained, that during winter in Ottawa, locals use it to commute to and from work. We thought that was wonderful.
During the day or weekends, it becomes a magnet for those interested in a fun family activity. You can bring your own skates or just rent them on the spot. Skate away and enjoy the true outdoors joys of winter in Canada.
Cross country skiing
This is not your ordinary outdoor sport but it sure is one of the best activities in Ottawa. We have never heard of it before visiting Ottawa in winter. You basically use your ski to move across the snow-covered terrain. You don't actually use any ski lifts, you just sort of use your ski as means of transportation. Think of it as an outdoor cross trainer, as you'll be doing pretty much the same movement. We found it fascinating and incredibly enjoyable.
To try this, we recommend heading to the Gatineau Park, a 361-sq.-km. Conservation area.
So much fun, snowshoeing allows you to tackle deep and fluffy snow without sinking in. We did this in Gatineau Park, which has special paths where you can just relax in nature. What a brilliant way to spend an afternoon outdoors, doing what the locals do in Ottawa.
Again, this really proves that Canadians embrace winter and make the most of it. We never realised how many remarkable outdoor things we can actually do during winter. Ottawa is the place to visit for outdoors activities.
Visit Le Nordik
Le Nordik is the largest spa in North America and the best things to do in Ottawa for couples who want a day of relaxation.
Nestled in the picturesque village of Old Chelsea, Le Nordik Spa is a relaxation and wellness centre focused on thermotherapy techniques from Scandinavian countries. We chilled in warm pools and relaxed in saunas. You'll find 10 exterior baths, 9 different saunas, 4 restaurants, a panoramic pool, a saltwater floating pool, meditation rooms and many, many relaxation areas. Not going to lie, this really was the highlight of our trip. It was incredible.
Spend the whole day in a warm pool surrounded by snow, eat lunch at the restaurant with views and just enjoy the superb day together.
Eat at the ByWard market
If you love street food, then you'll love ByWard market. Set indoors, the market features several restaurants serving a variety of casual dishes. You can pick and mix what you want to eat or if not hungry this market is a great place to find souvenirs for your family and friends.
Whether you are vegan, vegetarian or fancy some fish, you'll find the right dish to match your mood and preference.
The ByWard Market is the number one tourist attraction in Ottawa, and it's perfect for shopping, dining and shopping for souvenirs.
You've got to try maple-infused chocolates, Canadian cheese and get a delicious cocktail from one of the bars.
Visit Gatineau Park
Gatineau Park is a 361 square kilometres park offering public facilities including beaches, camp grounds, picnic areas, trails, and parkways. The park boasts 165 km (103 mi) of hiking trails and 90 km (56 mi) of trails for mountain bikes, guaranteeing that you will not run out of roads to walk. Ottawa tourism is right to promote this gorgeous winter playground located close to the Ottawa city.
As an added bonus, the Trans Canada Trail also passes through the park. Whether you fancy cross country skiing, snowshoeing, or just hiking, Gatineau Park is a great place to be.
Enjoy the lights
Winter in Ottawa is not gloomy, but bright and fun. Ottawa has a myriad of fairy lights all around the city, to bring some colour and joy to otherwise dark winter nights. Take your camera out and have lots of fun with your family.
Visit the Major's Hill Park after dark and admire all the lights around the park. You can capture some marvellous pictures there as well, with the beautiful castle-like Fairmont Château Laurier in the background.
Take a tour of the Parliament
Head to the Parliament Hill and take a guided tour around the Parliament and learn about how politics work in Canada. Your guide will show you around different rooms and will explain how debates work. You'll also get to see the beautiful interior architecture and get to ask questions about different roles in the Parliament.
As a law graduate, I was very keen to take a tour of the Canadian Parliament. It was an information-packed tour. We recommend it.
Just behind it is the Canadian war museum, where you will learn about Canadian military history. Buy your tickets online.
Get a luxury maple massage in Holz
Indulge in a romantic couple treatment at the Holz Spa and have a relaxed afternoon together. Ask for a Maple Luscious Body Scrub and enjoy a full-body exfoliation with maple sugar. Then get wrapped in maple shea butter and float in a cocooning bed. Pure relaxation awaits.
Holz Spa is a luxurious downtown spa right in the city center of Ottawa and the largest full-service day spa. Feel your stress and tension melt away, which let's face it, it's one of the best activities to enjoy year around.
Photograph the frozen Ottawa River
Cross the bridge over Ottawa River from Ontario to Quebec and admire how beautiful the Ottawa skyline looks like during winter. Entirely frozen, the river is beautiful and white, creating a stunning background for a wintery photograph. Winter in Ottawa is straight out of a fairy tale book.
Nearby is the Canadian Museum of History, which you should definitely add on the must-visit list.
Enjoy funky cocktails at Zoe's
Zoe's is a cocktail bar and lounge located in the Fairmont Château Laurier. Try the special cheese board and indulge in their unique smoked cheddar cheese. All varieties of cheeses taste incredible and work perfectly with a Statesman, a string cocktail served in a little cage with cedar smoke. For a lighter option, try the Aurora cocktail, which changes colour. Great fun!
Alternatively, if you fancy an afternoon tea, book a table for two and sample delicious sandwiches and tea specialities and cosy up indoors while the snow covers the city.
Try Tobogganing in the Snowflake Kingdom
Visit the Snowflake Kingdom and try tobogganing on the huge snow slopes, specifically built for the occasion in the park. These are mainly family-friendly activities with a focus on the kids having fun, but nobody says you can't allow your inner child to enjoy some winter fun.
Did you know that the toboggan (the sled) was a traditional form of transport used by the Innu and Cree of Northern Canada?
Visit the Ottawa Art Gallery
If you are an art lover like us, then escape the winter cold by visiting the Ottawa Art Gallery. The gallery has a permanent collection of over a thousand works and provides various public programs. Entry to the gallery is free, but you can donate or become an annual member to support artists.
This is a great opportunity to see Canadian art and purchase a wonderful souvenir, such as a beautiful coffee mug with art from a First Nations artist.
The gallery is open from 9 AM to 9 PM.
National Gallery of Canada
The National Gallery of Canada is an absolute must during your visit to Ottawa. Not only the building itself is incredible, but it houses a variety of collections and exhibitions you'll love.
Learn about Canadian Art, Indigenous Art, European, American and Asian Art and see several prints and canvases. There are also interactive exhibits. We went to see the Anthropocene Project, but the contemporary exhibitions are ever-changing, making it exciting to visit over and over again.
Try Canadian oysters
One of the things we love about our visit to Ottawa was the food scene. We didn't quite know what to expect, but we were so pleasantly surprised.
We visited Whalebone, a restaurant famed for its fresh oysters, and fell in love. They have a great variety of oysters, served with a selection of sauces, fish and other seafood dishes.
We recommend booking a table for Valentine's Day, so you can try Canadian oysters with a nice glass of wine. Whalebone is clearly is a very popular restaurant in Downtown Ottawa, so book your table in advance to avoid disappointment. The address is 231 Elgin Street, Ottawa.
Visit Ottawa's oldest Tavern
Also lovingly known as The Laff, Chateau Lafayette opened its doors in 1849. You can pop in for a drink and enjoy live music. The establishment went through many changes throughout the years, nowadays, it operates as pub and tavern.
This is not the place to be fancy but to enjoy a regular good old Canadian lunch. The atmosphere and music gives the place its charm, and it's a must-do while in Ottawa.
Enjoy some Taffy
Maple taffy is a sugary treat made by pouring boiling maple syrup on top of ice. It is then rolled on a stick until it cools. It's slightly chewy and resembles a nice and warm toffee candy. Not only that, but it's delicious and part of the traditional culture in Ottawa, as well as Québec, Eastern Ontario, New Brunswick and northern New England
As you walk around the city enjoying what Ottawa has to offer, you'll come across these lovely stalls selling delicious taffy made on the spot. Try it, and you'll keep on coming back for more. The great news? Taffy is fully vegan as it's basically 100% maple syrup, so everyone can enjoy it.
Taste everything maple
Since we are talking maple here, we believe you need to try everything maple during your visit to Ottawa. Winter is all about comfort foods, and for us, that means eating sweet snacks.
Fall in love with maple biscuits, maple syrup candies and maple syrup bacon. We left Canada with a suitcase full of maple syrup after trying so many tasty foods.
We recommend trying a maple cupcake with the best icing you'll ever try. Maple ice cream is another fantastic invention. Essentially, maple foods are worth travelling to Ottawa for.
See the carving figurines
Join the fun at the Snowflake Festival and see a master carving figurines live. His precision was pretty incredible, making fantastic wooden sculptures like stunning bears, birds and gnomes. All the pieces, no matter how elaborate they may seem to us, are carved from one piece of wood. You can tell there is talent and passion involved, for sure.
Admire the massive winter full moon
Have you ever noticed that during winter, the moon seems to be higher up? Full moons of winter are so high in the sky, making it very bright in the snow. It looks beautiful. This is because the Earth's North Pole points away from the Sun, so the Sun looks as if it's low in the sky. The full moon, on the opposite side of the Earth from the Sun, is now high in the sky. Because of this, the full moon looks better and more beautiful during winter.
Photograph gorgeous snow statues
The Snowflake Kingdom features some of the most beautiful and intricate snow statues I've ever seen. They are colossal as well, about three times taller than me. These are scattered all around the festival ground, so you can admire them while you enjoy the other activities. Here's a picture of one of my favourite ones.
Go on a chocolate tour
C'est Bon is a company in Ottawa which prides itself in offering excellent cooking classes for people to learn new skills and meet new people. But when they are not busy teaching us how to make exquisite cakes, they lead chocolate tours around the city, so we can taste the best sweets Ottawa has to offer. We started with a professional chocolate cake made by the French-trained chef, then went on a chocolate walk to discover cupcakes, gelatos, chocolate bites and more.
Poutine is a Canadian dish which originated in Quebec. It consists of French fries, topped with cheese curd and gravy. We thought we need to try it since we were in Ottawa (literally next door to Quebec). It reminded us of chips from a local chippy in England. We'd say try it, especially during winter as it's a calorie heavy, hearty dish.
See a real bed race
Ottawa knows how to entertain its locals and visitors: every year there is a bed race, where teams dress up a bed, pimp it up with wheels and run with it in a real competition. It's something really unusual and one of a kind, so make sure to add it to your wish list for when you visit Ottawa in winter.
Did you know that a small town of Knaresborough in England, also has a bed race?
Other things to do in Ottawa
As Ottawa is the capital of Canada, you can appreciate that you'll always have new fun things to do in the city.
Visit the Rideau Hall, which is the official residence of the Canadian monarch. Admire the impressive 175-room mansion a somewhat equivalent to the English Buckingham Palace. Rideau Hall is a National Historic Site of Canada, dating back to 1867.
See a game of hockey at the Canadian Tire Centre, a state-of-the-art entertainment facility and a multi purpose indoor arena.
Visit the Canada Aviation and Space Museum to learn about the Canadian aviation history.
As you can see, there are so many wonderful things to do in Ottawa, and you won't run out of activities during your visit to the Canadian capital. So get ready for an adventure of a lifetime!
Where to stay in Ottawa in winter
Make sure to sort out your accommodation on time. With so many things to do during winter, Ottawa can get fully booked. Think Christmas, New Year, winter festivities like Winterlude and the romantic Valentine's Day. To cosy up and enjoy winter in Ottawa in style, we recommend booking a room at Fairmont Château Laurier.
The rooms at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier are magical, spacious and comfortable. The hotel itself looks like a castle, and during winter, it will make you feel like you arrived in a fairy tale. It was definitely the right romantic choice for us, and we truly recommend it.
Practical Information: We partnered up with Destination Canada to bring this post to you. We spent 4 days exploring the Ottawa Winterlude and extended our stay on our own accord for an extra couple of days as we fell in love with the city.
Some 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.