Heading to Ottawa in Winter? You’re in the right place. With the largest outdoor skating rink in the world, and the heritage buildings downtown, Ottawa is one of the most picturesque Canadian cities to visit in winter.
While Ottawa is a bit colder than other major Ontarian cities, its one of the best places to visit in Ontario in winter. Its historic buildings, outdoor winter activities, fascinating museums to escape the cold and the famous Winterlude make it one of the most exciting winter destinations in Ontario.
Whether you’re exploring activities in the downtown, heading to the outskirts of the city for skiing, or catching an Ottawa Senator’s Game – there’s lots to do around Ottawa in winter.
Ottawa in winter has a completely different feel from Toronto, its counterpart. Its a treat to venture to Ottawa to see all it has to offer in winter, including a beautiful winter wonderland setting.
So, let’s jump in – what you need to know about Ottawa in winter!
Things to Keep in Mind about Ottawa in Winter
Like the rest of Ontario, Ottawa’s weather can be unpredictable. The weather can be all over the place, so be sure to look up the forecast and dress for the weather.
The coldest month in Ottawa is January.
|December|| High: -2°|
|January|| High: -6°|
|February|| High: -4°|
|March|| High: 2°|
Ottawa temperatures have been warming up over the past few years, presumably due to climate change but they can also fluctuate quite a bit.
In 2023, it was too warm to open the Rideau Canal for ice skating, so it was closed all season. And then it was too cold for outdoor winter festival activities in February – how ironic. All the more reason to prepare for the weather when you visit Ottawa – bring layers, so that you can always add or take away if its colder or warmer than you expect.
Does Ottawa get a lot of snow in the winter?
Ottawa locals will tell you that there isn’t as much snow, or as brutal winters now as there used to be a couple decades ago, but it is still quite cold. There’s also more snow in Ottawa than in Toronto.
Ottawa has about 75% chance of a white Christmas, and there is reliably usually at least 1cm of snow on the ground throughout the winter. So you should expect, and prepare for some snow.
However, when planning activities (skiing, ice skating, etc) keep in mind that the weather can be unpredictable sometimes.
How to Prepare for Winter in Ottawa
The two main things to keep in mind for preparing for winter in Ottawa is how to dress, and also, how you’re going to get around (transportation.)
If you plan to drive, be sure that your car has winter tires. If you’re not driving, then Ottawa has a bus system, as well as Uber being available.
I’d recommend having the following items to prepare for winter in Ottawa:
- A warm winter hat – this one‘s great if you’re looking for a ‘Canada’ themed one
- Scarf, or a face-mask like this one
- Sunglasses (the glare of the snow on sunny days can be very bright)
- Snowpants, if you’ll be doing winter sports
- Winter skates, for ice skating
Things to Do in Ottawa in December
Like Toronto and other major Canadian cities, Ottawa has a lot of special celebrations and events during the month of December only to celebrate the Christmas and holiday season. Here’s what you can check out in Ottawa in December.
1. Ottawa Christmas Market
November 24th to December 23rd, 2023
Take a stroll through the Christmas Market on Aberdeen Square. There are nearly 50 vendors, live festive music, a stage for entertainment. You can take a stroll through the vendor market, and warm up to a drink of mulled wine or hot chocolate.
There is also a Santa’s Workshop for kids at the Christmas Market, where they can do crafts – completely free of charge.
2. Christmas Village at Stanley’s Farm
Stanley’s Old Maple Farm offers holiday activities leading up to Christmas in December. You can choose between a daytime Christmas village, or a lit-up holiday stroll at night.
Stanley’s Old Maple Farm is about a 30 minute drive from downtown Ottawa. Dates for 2023 are still TBA, and reservations to visit the Christmas Village are required. Check their website for updates and to buy your tickets.
3. Winter Lights Across Canada
From , you can see the Parliament Buildings in the heart of Ottawa lit up with festive colours. This is a campaign put on by the Canadian government to celebrate the arrival of winter in Ottawa, and bring some cheer to the downtown area.
The 2023 dates are still TBA, but when they are updated, they can be found on the Government of Canada website here.
Things to Do in Ottawa in Winter
Here are the best things to do in Ottawa in winter. Some of them are located in the outskirts of the city, but are well worth the experience of the magic Canadian winters
1. Go skating on the Lac de Loops forest trail
The Lac de Loops is a 3 km skating trail through the forest (called Patinage en Forêt in French.)
Forest skating trails have become really popular all over Canada in recent years, and are one of my favourite ways to enjoy winter. I love hiking, and wizzing through the forests on skates is the next best thing.
Lac de Loops skating trail is located in Quebec, a 45 minute drive from the downtown core of Ottawa. You can bring your own skates, or rent them onsite. There’s a heated cabin to try on skate rentals or change into your own skates.
Buy your tickets on their website here.
2. Take a tour of Ottawa’s ‘haunted’ jail
Ottawa can be chilly in winter at night, but this is something fun to do to escape the cold. The Ottawa Country Gaol was the first jail in Ottawa, built in 1862, and formally closed in 1972. The jail is now a hostel that many claim to be haunted.
Tours of the Old Ottawa County Jail run year round, including in the winter. Its lead by people in costumes who will share some gruelling details of the dark side of Ottawa’s past – hangings, executions, and accounts of hauntings and other paranormal activity.
If you believe in the supernatural, or at least enjoy it, then you’ll like the tour of this historic Ottawa building.
Book your tour of the Old Ottawa Jail here
2. Downhill snowboarding and skiing
Skiing and snowboarding are among the most popular winter sports in Canada. If you’re looking to learn how to ski or snowboard, or simply want to do some of it while you’re in Ottawa ,then there are a few different options within an hour of Ottawa.
For all level (beginner to advanced) skiers and snowboarders:
There are two hills located about 1 hour west of Ottawa by car – Calabogie Peaks is the tallest hill in eastern Ontario, and Camp Fortune has 20 different slopes ranging from easy to difficult. If you’re an intermediate level snowboarder, you have a car and want to do some skiing in Ottawa, then these are good palces to go.
For beginner skiers and snowboarders:
- Ski Vorlage, Wakefield, Quebec, focused on beginner adults and children and is only 30 minutes from downtown Ottawa
- Snowhawke’s Snow School right in Ottawa (15 minute drive from the downtown core) is focused on teaching beginners ranging from child to adult how to downhill ski and snowboard. So if you’re completely new to the sport, this is a good option!
3. Go tobogganing
Tobogganing is another Canadian tradition, most commonly with kids and families.There are countless toboggan hills around Ottawa, and around most residential areas throughout Ontario.
Toboggan hills can be in public parks, in subdivisions, or on nature reserves. So while this isn’t by any means all of them, here are a few ideas of places to go tobogganing in Ottawa:
- Walter Baker Park – man-made hill, and one of the longest in the city
- Mooney’s Bay – tallest toboggan hill in Ottawa, and offers a nice view from the top
- Carlington Park – fastest, steepest hill in the city.
- Marcel Lalande Park – perfect for smaller children, there is a small man-made hill
- Westboro Kiwani’s Park – better for older children who can handle a bit more of a thrill
4. Cross country skiing
The closest area to go cross country skiing near Ottawa is Gatineau Park, only 15 minutes from downtown Ottawa. It has over 200 km of land used for trails in the wintertime.
There are a few trails you can take at Gatineau Park which are laid out on their website, the shortest being 3 km, and the longest being 35 km. This makes it a good activity regardless of age or level of experience.
You will need to buy a day pass ($22 for adults if you’re skiing.) You can also borrow one from a local Ottawa library. There are several of them that lend out passes to Gatineau Park.
Another great place to cross country ski near Ottawa is Brittania Winter Trail (completely free of charge) which is only 15 minutes from downtown. It has a well-maintained 17 km trail that’s open for hiking, snowshoeing and cross country skiing along the Ottawa River.
Tip: Don’t have cross country skis? You can rent them from LaFleur Ski Rentals in south Ottawa. (About a 20 minute drive from downtown.)
5. Go skating on the Rideau Canal
The Rideau Canal is a 202 km canal that connects to the St. Lawrence River. Its a UNSECO World Heritage Site and the largest outdoor skating rink in the world.
Best of all? Skating on the canal skate way is completely free! The Canal is typically open from January to mid March, depending on the weather conditions. Its usually open 7 days a week.
The Rideau Canal Skateway extends from downtown Ottawa to the Hartwells Locks, and there are about 30 staircases in between where you can access the rink, so you don’t have to look for any specific entrance point – you can enter from wherever you want. Simply grab your equipment, tie up your skate laces and head onto the ice!
Unfortunately, the Rideau Canal is subject to closures if the weather isn’t cold enough. Last winter in 2023, the Rideau Canal did not open for ice skating at all – let’s cross our fingers for a different outcome this season in 2024! In the event it doesn’t open, you can still stand along the ledge and get views of the Rideau Canal.
Other outdoor Ottawa skating rinks (besides the Rideau Canal)
Besides the Rideau Canal, there are two other outdoor Ottawa skating rinks that are open all day, every day. Entrance to both is free of charge!
- Rink of Dreams at City Hall. This idyllic round skating rink is open from 7am to 11pm each day for as long as the skating season lasts.
- Landsdowne Pavillion Skating Court. Small rink located right downtown on Princess Patricia Way, beside the historic Aberdeen pavilion. Not the best place to learn to skate because of its size and how crowded it can get, but its a beautiful rink. Open from 6am to 11pm.
Indoor skating rinks in Ottawa
6. Go dog-sledding
Dog-sledding has been done in Canada since the early 1900s and many people look at it as an iconic Canadian activity.
I was a bit hesitant to recommend this activity, because I often avoid recommending things where animal labour is involved. However, Chien à Traîneau Gatineau is a small business that provides short rides with their dogs, who are very friendly and well socialized and enjoy the exercise. The rest of the time is spent drinking hot chocolate, and having a typical Quebec lunch.
The dogs are happy for the company, and the family for the business for this eco-friendly activity. So if you’ve always wanted to try dogsledding, this is a great place to do it.
Book your Ottawa dog-sledding adventure here
7. Celebrate in Winterlude
Winterlude is a winter festival held in Ottawa in early February year. There are ice sculptures, snow games and activities, live music, food and Canadian treats like maple taffy and hot chocolate.
Winterlude is the the perfect way to beat the February blahs and enjoy winter. I love winter festivals for this reason. 2023 will be the 46th annual Winterlude, and it’ll be held from February 2nd – 19th (weekends only) in downtown Ottawa.
If you’re downtown near the Rideau Canal, then you’re within walking distance of all the action and events.
There is usually a pedestrian-only street (Sparkes Street) lined with ice sculptures during Winterlude. Visit at night time to see the sculptures lit up in different colours. There’s also Snowflake Park, a playground made entirely with snow!
You’ll find food trucks selling fast food such as French fries, poutine as well as maple-flavoured sweets during Winterlude.
While the exact plans for Winterlude 2024 are still underway, you can check their website for the schedule once its been updated.
8. Admire the Parliament buildings in winter
You can’t go to Ottawa without seeing the Parliament Buildings, which are the most iconic attraction in Ottawa. The parliament buildings are known as Centre Block, East Block and West Block, as well as the famous Peace Tower (the tall tower in the middle.)
Parliament Hill consists of a large park with the historic buildings overlooking the Ottawa River. In my opinion, they’re even prettier to look at in the winter; especially when its snowy.
Parliament Hill home to the Canadian government administrations, and is where laws are passed and where the Prime Minister works.
If you want to escape the cold and learn more about Canadian parliament and how Canada is run, then you can do a tour of the House of Commons! Tours are offered in English and French, and can be scheduled on their website here.
We took all the photos and selfies we could on Parliament Hill, as well as the small fire that they have out front.
Fun Fact: The small fire is called the Centennial Flame, and its a monument built to commemorate Canada’s100th anniversary as a confederation. It was first lit in 1967, and today is energized with biogass which can’t freeze – even during the wintertime.
9. Take selfies in front of the famous Ottawa sign
You can’t visit Ottawa without getting your photo taken in front of the famous “Ottawa” sign. Almost every city has a sign name now, but one thing I like about Ottawa’s is that its located in a pedestrian-only area. At night, the sign is usually lit up different colours.
The area the sign is located in is called Inspiration Village and its right near the ByWard Market, which is one of the most popular attractions year-round in Ottawa.
You’ll find the sign at York Street Plaza at the corner of York and Sussex streets.
10. Go see an Ottawa Senator’s game
Ottawa Senators are the NHL game from Ottawa, and their ‘home’ stadium at the Canadian Tire Place in east Ottawa. Unlike the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, the Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa is much smaller and tickets are quite a bit cheaper!
If you love hockey, or if you want to experience Canada’s most popular sport, then Ottawa is a good place to see an NHL game. In fact, my husband and I once drove all the way to Ottawa just to watch a Maple Leaf’s game.
Tickets to Ottawa Senator’s games can be bought on Ticketmaster, Canada’s largest online ticket retailer. You can view and select tickets for upcoming games here. Be sure to select Canadian Tire Centre if you want to watch the game in Ottawa.
11. Watch the Ice Dragon Boats race
Most Canadians know of Dragon Boat races being a thing, but how about an Ice Dragon Boat festival? That’s not something you hear about every day.
Ice dragon boating is like dragon boating, except sailing across ice. Gather in in front of the Dow’s Lake portion of the Rideau Canal to watch teams of people race their dragon boats across the frozen canal. The festival is sponsored by Beavertails, and takes place in February.
The Ice Dragon Boat Festival happens during Winterlude, but is its own event separate from Winterlude. More information can be found on their website here
12. Take a tour of Ottawa’s breweries
A taste of cold beer can be satisfying, even in the winter. In Ottawa, you can experience the variety of flavours of Canadian beer through local craft breweries in downtown.
Some of the Otttawa breweries include Bicycle Craft Brewery, Tooth and Nail Brewing, Dominion City Brewing, among others.
This tour includes your bus transportation and brings you to a minimum of 3 Ottawa breweries, where you’ll receive snacks, samples, tastings and sometimes a short tour.
Book your tour of Ottawa’s breweries here
13. Go snowshoeing
There are lots of areas around Ottawa to go snowshoeing. Gatineau Park which we mentioned for cross country skiing, is also a good place to snowshoe. Admission to Gatineau Park is free, but you need a daily pass in order to use the grounds for snowshoeing ($12 per adult for snowshoeing only – cross country skiing is extra.)
Another great place to snowshoe in Ottawa in winter is Brittania Winter Trail. Only 15-minutes from downtown, the 17 km trail winds along the Trans-Canada Trail along the Ottawa River shore. Best of all? Its completely free!
The Brittania Ski Trail is well maintained, and you can either hike, showshoe or cross-country ski on it. Afterwards, warm up to coffee, cookies and hot chocolate in the nearby Britannia Coffeehouse .
14. Pay Tribute at the National War Memorial
The National War Memorial is an important landmark in Confederation Square, in the heart of downtown Ottawa, built to honour the sacrifice of Canadian soldiers and their fight for our freedoms.
The monument is just a few minute walk from Parliament Hill, and in the middle of a courtyard with picturesque views of parliament buildings, as well as other heritage buildings. So, its worth it to take a walk past and take a look at.
In the summer months, there is a Changing of the Guard’s ceremony which happens once an hour but unfortunately, this isn’t running during the winter months.
Things to do Indoors in Ottawa in Winter
We’ve covered a bunch of ways to enjoy the great outdoors in Ottawa in winter – what about the indoor activities if its too cold or the weather doesn’t cooperate? Here’s some great ideas
1. Escape the cold at a museum
While Toronto is home to the largest museum in Canada, Ottawa holds some of the most intriguing museums that the country has to offer. In fact, Ottawa is known as the City of Museums for a reason – its home to 7 of Canada’s 9 national museums.
Visiting museums the perfect way to duck in from the chilly weather if you need to warm up, and learn the most fascinating details of Canada’s history first-hand.
Here are some of the museums to consider:
Diefenbucker Canada’s Cold War Museum
The Diefenbunker is more than just a museum, it’s a historic artifact in itself. Built between 1959 and 1961, the Diefenbuncker is a 4-storey underground bunker located 75 below that showcases Canada during the cold war.
Dress warmly, as it will be especially chilly underground in the bunker in wintertime!
The Difenbunker is about a 40 minute drive from downtown Ottawa. Its open daily from 10am until 3 or 4pm, and you can buy tickets on their website.
Canadian Museum of Nature
The nature museum located outside of the downtown core. It is a large building with beautiful architecture, and you can learn all about Canada’s geological history – the terrain, and wildlife – all the way back to the dinosaurs.
There are 5 floors with a lot to see, so I would budget a minimum of 3 hours to see everything. Its open from 9:30am to 4pm daily, and tickets can be bought here.
Canadian Museum of History
At the Canadian Museum of History, you can learn about Canada’s history from the earliest recorded times to the present day. There are exhibits to teach you about the indigenous people and how they ran the land, while on the second floor, as well as the population expansion since the mid-1800s.
There are artifacts that were used on early Canadian broadcasting television shows, such as Today’s Special, Big Comfy Couch or Mr. Dressup, which many Canadian and some American millennials would remember.
The Canadian Museum of History can engage you for hours, whether you’re from Canada or abroad. The museum located across the river in Gatineau. 5 minutes by car, or a 30-minute walk from Ottawa’s downtown
Canadian Children’s Museum
The Canadian Children’s Museum is located in Gatineau, and is Canada’s largest exhibition centre. Its designed for children from toddlerhood up to age 14; there’s lots of pretend- lay and interactive activities. Give yourself 2-3 hours to have enough time here. Buy tickets on their website here.
2. Take a tour of Rideau Hall
Rideau Hall is the official residence of the British Royal Family, and the Governor General (the representative of the British Monarchy in Canada.) Its about a 3.5 km (2.1 mile) walk from Parliament Hill.
Rideau Hall offers free tours to the public that last 45 minutes. During our guided tour, they showed us staterooms, and some famous paintings by Canadian artists. It was a unique way to get to know a bit about Canada’s past as a British state.
Tip: During the winter, tours of Rideau Hall are usually only offered by reservation, which can be made on their website here
3. Take a tour of the Supreme Court
The Supreme Court makes decisions about some of the most controversial cases in Canada that are often not able to be decided by lower courts.
When decisions can’t be reached, they go to the Supreme Court. The fate of some of the most famous cases in Canada have been decided here.
During our tour, we learned about how Canadian law has changes over time, which was very eye opening! I’d recommend doing the free 30-minute guided tour. It can be booked on their website here.
4. Visit the Byward Market
The Byward Market is a large farmer’s market in downtown Ottawa, and one of the city’s most popular attractions. There are hundreds of small businesses selling things like artisan groceries, crafts, artwork. There are as many as 50,000 visitors on summer weekends.
Luckily in winter, you can enjoy the Byward Market without too many crowds. In addition, quite a bit of the market is indoor, so you can browse in warmth!
The Byward Market is right downtown, just a 10 minute walk from Parliament Hill. Its open every day of the year, except for Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
Where to stay in Ottawa in the winter
Here are the best places to stay in Ottawa that are centrally located (so you can beat the cold!)
- Budget: Holiday Inn Express Downtown Ottawa Located right downtown near attractions, with all the amenities you need, including a complimentary breakfast
- Mid-Range: Hyatt Place Ottawa West Features an indoor swimming pool, restaurants on-site, and a free breakfast
- Luxury: ByWard Blue Inn Right down town, within walking distance of attractions including the ByWard Market. Free breakfast and afternoon tea is included (perfect way to warm up from the cold)
Ottawa in Winter: FAQs
Here are the most commonly asked questions about visiting Ottawa in winter, and what you need to know
What can kids do in Ottawa in the winter?
There are lots of great activities for kids in Ottawa in winter. Winterlude is a family-friendly winter festival. In addition, there are several ice-skating rinks (indoor and outdoor) in Ottawa, and several toboggan hills throughout the city. Don’t forget that Ottawa is the city of museums and has a large children’s museum, across the river in Gatineau.
Is Ottawa worth visiting in winter?
Ottawa is absolutely worth visiting in winter. The downtown heritage buildings are beautiful to see in winter, when they’re often topped with snow. The Rideau Canal is often open for iceskating and is the largest outdoor ice rink in the world. There are countless other skating rinks and toboggan hills in town. There are also plenty of things to do to escape the cold during winter in Ottawa too
Is it worth going to Ottawa in December?
Ottawa is absolutely worth a visit in December. You’ll be dazzled by the festive lights that light up the Village Square, near the Ottawa sign, the Ottawa Christmas Market, and the Winter Lights Across Canada on Parliament Hill. In addition, you can enjoy many of the other Ottawa winter sports and activities in December.
Ottawa in Winter: Conclusion
Ottawa is a beautiful city to visit anytime of year, and one of the best places to live in Ontario. It has a particularly special charm in winter with the snow-covered grounds, outdoor skating rinks and the ice sculptures during Winterlude.
For these reasons, Ottawa is one of my favourite cities to spend winter in Canada. I love snow sports and winter festivals, but I also love the chance to go to museums and have opportunities to learn more about my country. I hope that you’ll enjoy Ottawa in winter as much as I do. Remember to dress warmly, enjoy the fresh air and grab yourself a hot drink (and a Beavertail) to warm up!
If you’re looking for a road trip in Ottawa, consider driving out to Algonquin Park, which is 2.5 hours from Ottawa and Toronto and its the largest conserved land in Ontario.