Winter in Ottawa is more of a spectacle than a season. If you are looking to explore Canada’s capital, consider going in winter for some one-of-a-kind experiences. I find that staying downtown and near the activities makes the trip more manageable and more enjoyable. Hotels and restaurants are more expensive the closer you are to downtown, but you can offset the costs by choosing free and low-cost activities. Here are some free and fun things to do with kids outdoors.
Skating on the Rideau Canal is a family favorite and your kids will love this experience. The canal freezes over from late December to late February. Check with your hotel each morning and they will let you know if the canal is open. The Rideau Canal is a UNESCO World Heritage site and, when frozen, becomes the world largest skating rink. The great thing is the Canal is open 24 hours and entry is free. Don’t want to pack your skates? Skate and sleigh rentals are available during the regular business hours.
Another great place to skate is the Sens Rink of Dreams. Located just in front of Ottawa City Hall, this rink is a bit more predictable in availability to skate because it’s a refrigerated surface and not as dependent on weather conditions the way the canal is. It’s also open longer, from December to March. The rink has a heated change hut, picnic tables and benches. At night it’s lit up with multi-coloured LED lights. Skate rentals are available but hours are limited.
The Skating Court is another refrigerated ice rink located at Lansdowne, a bit out of downtown but easily accessible by transit. This rink provides skating lessons and programs. Similar to the Sens Rink of Dreams, it’s open from December to March. The only downside of this rink is that skate rentals are not available. While in the area, there are some great restaurants and craft beer places for a break.
There is a lovely skating rink at Rideau Hall. It was originally built in 1872 by the Earl of Dufferin, Canada’s third Governor General. This historic site is home to Canada’s Governor General. You can book a free guided tour during opening hours in the winter from 8:00 a.m. to one hour before sunset. Skating is available on Saturdays from early January to early March.
And, of course, Ottawa's winter gem is Winterlude! This winter festival runs for three weekends in February and is pure joy for the whole family. Even if you are not a winter person this is a fun experience to see and be a part of at least once. It’s considered North America’s greatest winter festival and has a bit of everything. You’ll see beautiful ice carvings, the kids can explore the playground made of snow and, depending on what time of the day you go, there is music, food and treats.
Ottawa offers spectacular hiking options, and the most gorgeous place to do it is at Gatineau Park. This park is stunning all year round but in winter it becomes a winter wonderland. You’ll have the feeling of being in a snow globe and it’s a great way to get the kids out and burn off some energy before doing a quieter afternoon activity. What makes this park so great for a family hike in winter is that once it starts snowing, the trails are groomed and compacted once a week for winter hiking. The trails are free to use.
Cross-country skiing is a popular recreation activity, as well. Gatineau Park is a great place to do it but you’ll need your own skis and a cross country skipass to use the trails. Another place to cross-country ski is at Sir John A. Macdonald Winter Trail. You can use the trails for free and it’s suitable for beginners as well. If you're not a fan of lugging equipment with you there are also several tobogganing hills in Ottawa.
Sometimes you need a break from the harsh Canadian winter climate. Fortunately, Ottawa offers many fantastic indoor activities. Here are some great free things to do with your kids indoors.
Visit the interior of Parliament Hill with a free guided tour, available almost every day of the year across the street at 90 Wellington Street (tours can be cancelled or rescheduled due to Parliamentary activity). Be sure to check out the Peace Tower where you can get a bird’s eye view of downtown Ottawa and beyond.
The Ottawa Art Gallery is free to enter and was recently reopened with new space and exhibits. This is a great activity for the whole family. The National Arts Centre also offers free programming, and, depending on when you go, they also offer events like Toddler Tuesdays, music shows and meditation.
I cannot recommend the Canadian Museum of Nature enough. On Thursdays, there is free entry from 5 to 8pm but the entrance fee is fairly low at regular times so it’s well worth the visit. Some other free options are the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum, the Canada Aviation and Space Museum and the Canada Science and Technology Museum which offer free admission daily between 4:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m.
All after exploring and playing with the kids, no doubt the entire family will be worn out and in need of some downtime at your hotel. If you are looking for a boutique hotel the Alt hotel is a great option that is walking distance from the market. If you are looking for something right in the market, the Courtyard by Marriott is an excellent option. If it's the ultimate luxury experience you're seeking, the Fairmont Chateau Laurier is your spot.
By Claire Kerr-Zlobin