There are so many wonderful things to do in Ottawa in the Winter. Come December, Canada’s capital is lit up with Christmas lights, hot chocolate inexplicably tastes better, and everyone is waiting for the Rideau Canal to freeze over. I’ve lived in Ottawa for most of my life, and love winter in the capital. The variety of things to do in Ottawa in the winter makes it the perfect weekend getaway, or addition to any winter trip to Canada.
I know what you’re thinking – it’s so cold. Yes. Yes, that is true. But with some warm weather gear and cozy nights in to balance out the brrrr factor, it’s nothing you can’t handle. In fact, it’s straight up magical when the city is covered in snow and lights. (Or, you can choose to stay inside with this list of cozy, indoor things to do in Ottawa. That’s right, I’ve got you covered on all fronts).
Here are my favourite things to do in Ottawa in winter! Winter 2019 – 2020
Things to do in Ottawa in Winter
Go Skating at one of Ottawa’s Outdoor Rinks
When you’re thinking of things to do in Ottawa in winter, skating comes to mind right away. There are so many beautiful outdoor rinks open across the city every year winter, for every level of skater. Go on an adventure through the forest, across the city, or twirl around on a rink. I love skating, and make a point of visiting a couple rinks every year. Make sure you check out my Canada gear guide to stay warm! Here’s what’s open in winter 2018-2019:
Rideau Canal Skateway
Ottawa’s greatest claim to fame is the Rideau Canal. It’s the longest skating rink in the world, and a UNESCO world heritage site. If you meet any one from Winnipeg that tells you differently, you can share this link to the Guinness World Records website with them.
Skate through the Forest at Lac de Loups
There’s a beautiful skating trail in Gatineau Park that I’m excited to visit this winter. The trail opened in December this winter season, and stays open through until March, weather and ice conditions permitting. This 3km trail wraps through the trees. Skate around, or snowshoe a trail alongside the ice. The trail is open daily from 10AM to 4PM, and there are evening skating events scheduled for January and February. Details on the skating trail website!
The Governor General’s Skating Rink
The Rideau Hall grounds are beautiful in the winter, and if you visit during the afternoon on a weekend, the skating rink is open, too! Off to the side of Rideau Hall and slightly concealed by the trees is a beautiful little skating rink. It’s open from 1-5PM every Saturday and Sunday, with some extra opening hours during the holidays.
The SENS Rink of Dreams at City Hall
The SENS Rink of Dreams in front of City Hall is free, and open daily from 6AM to 11PM, so you can even catch a sunset on the ice. Skate rentals and sharpening are available. City Hall is right across from Confederation Park, too, where the trees are covered in beautiful lights throughout the holiday season. Come February, it’s also a Winterlude venue decked out ice sculptures.
The Skating Court at Lansdowne Pavilion
Skating at the Lansdowne Pavilion is free, and open from 6AM to 11PM daily. Lansdowne is also home to a wonderful Christmas Market throughout December, and year round there’s a movie theatre, great restaurants, and a market on Sunday mornings.
Rideau Canal Skateway, the Governor General’s Skating Rink, the SENS Rink of Dreams, and the Skating Court at Lansdowne are all available by public transit.
Enjoy the Lights at Night
Every winter through December and in to early January, Ottawa is covered in beautiful Christmas lights. I absolutely love this time of year! Unfortunately, light shows in and around Ottawa only last until early January so make sure you get out to enjoy the lights before they’re gone.
Glow Around the World
Glow Gardens is coming to Ottawa this year with a new take on Christmas lights. They’re indoors. It’s taking place at the EY Centre throughout December and will feature glow gardens, handing picture frames for all your photo-op needs, vendors to shop at, and food and drinks for sale. This event is for all ages and tickets can be purchased here.
Christmas Lights Across Canada
This Magical Winter Lightscape multimedia show projects on to the Parliament Buildings at 5:30-11PM every night, and until midnight on New Year’s Eve. The capital region is covered in Christmas lights during the time, too. Major’s Hill Park and Confederation Park are a couple of my favourite places to go for an an evening stroll and see the lights! Lights go on at 4:30PM every evening, until 2AM. Getting out to see the lights is one of my favourite things to do in Ottawa in winter, and all you need is some warm mittens!
This event begins the first week of December and ends January 7. View details.
Alight at Night at Upper Canada Village
One of the biggest outdoor light festivals in Ontario is at Upper Canada Village until January 5th. Heritage buildings, trees, and fences are decorate with hundreds of thousands of Christmas lights. Get your tickets in advance and arrive early. Alight at Night has grown in popularity over the years, and it gets incredibly busy. New this year there’s a carousel! It’s for kids, but I’m expecting it to be beautiful either way!
If you want to stay in your car, there are also drive-through Christmas Light’s at Wesley Clover Park (admission $20) and on Taffy Lane!
Catch a Live Show
I love live performances and Ottawa is a great place for them, with a mix of great local performers and out-of-town talent coming to visit. Take in a classic ballet performance, laugh so hard it hurts, or hum along to symphony versions of your favourite movie soundtracks this winter. If you’re looking to enjoy a live show this winter in Ottawa, here a few places to go:
The National Art Centre
The National Art Centre always has various plays and performances on the go. The NAC offers everything from original local performances to Broadway favourites. While you’re there, enjoy the Equator Café before the show and explore the facility. Find tickets here.
Have a laugh at Absolutely Comedy in Little Italy. I’ve been several times and it’s a great night out. The Little Italy location is close to lots of great bars and restaurants too, so you can make a night of it! Choose your seat carefully… if being pulled on stage isn’t your thing, you will want to sit at the back!
The Meridian Theatre at Centrepointe
Meridian Theatre is near Algonquin College, and they have an awesome line up of plays and musical performances by local orchestras and acting groups. I’ve been to several symphony performances, and Beauty and the Best the Musical, and all were incredible!
Museums and Tours in Ottawa
The snow is lovely, but sometimes you just want to take off you coat! Things to do in Ottawa in winter don’t have to be cold: Ottawa is home to some incredible museums, and important buildings that offer tours of the inside.
Many of the museums have free access times that you can take advantage of! On Thursdays, admission to the National Gallery of Canada, the Canadian Museum of History, the Canadian War Museum and the Canadian Museum of Nature are free from 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. This does not include special exhibits, only the permanent collections. The Aviation and Space Museum and the Science and Technology Museum offer free admission daily between 4:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m.
Here are some of the special exhibits on in Ottawa this winter:
The Canadian Museum of History
The Canadian Museum of History is located on the Gatineau side of the Ottawa River. Check out visiting exhibits, or explore the permanent collections that will walk you through Canada’s history, beginning with the First People.
The Canadian Museum of Nature
Permanent galleries here include the fossil, earth, mammal, bird, and nature galleries, just to name a few! This winter there’s a Butterfly Exhibit on until April, and an exhibit called Survival of the Slowest (sloths, iguanas, hedgehogs, etc) will be on December 21 to April 22.
Ottawa Art Galleries
Other great places to this winter include the National Art Gallery, with visiting photography and art exhibits, and permanent collections from all over Canada and the world. The Ottawa Art Gallery is also downtown, and always free to enter.
Go on a Tour of Parliament’s West Block
West Block is open for tours and is easily one of Ottawa’s most beautiful interior. Book a ticket for a cold day and spend some time indoors taking in the stunning renovations. You can also visit the Senate, located a former train station across from Chateau Laurier. The Senate and House of Commons tour tickets are free and can be booked separately. More details to come once it’s open and I’ve visited myself!
Nature Nocturne at the Museum of Nature
The Museum of Nature hosts an event called Nature Nocturne on the last Friday or every month, for 19+ only. That’s right, drinks and dinosaurs. Best of both worlds, right? I’ve been to several Nature Nocturne events since they started up a few years ago. Every event has a different theme, and it’s a great chance to get dressed up, have a fun night out, and see one of Canada’s most beautiful museums.
Once you buy your Nature Nocturne ticket, you have access to everything going on in the museum that night: multiple dance floors, all exhibits (including special exhibits that you would normally pay extra for), and whatever fun, extra activities are going on that night. Get your tickets in advance! This event sells out.
Cozy Up Indoors with a Game Night
Ottawa locals have developed a loving for game nights in recent years. Escape Rooms and board games have really caught on, and I think the cold weather does have a bit to do with it – that, and they’re awesome.
If you are looking for more cozy, indoor activities check out this post!
Loft Board Game Lounge
Loft is board game lounge located near Rideau Centre. This place is always packed, so get there early in the evening. Loft has 2 stories of board games, video games, and big tables and cozy couches for game play. Cover is $5.50, and you can stay for up to 3 hours when there’s a wait list. They have great hot chocolates and lots of snacks available for order, too. This place is a favourite for my friend’s and I, and one of our favourite things to do in Ottawa in winter when we’re looking for a night out that is still a little low-key.
There are few things more fun than being locked in a room with 5-11 other people, and no way out but your wits… (kidding, of course you’re not really trapped, but it’s all in the fun). Escape Manor sprang up in downtown Ottawa a few years and now has locations of Queen’s Street, Hintonburg, the Byward Market, and even hosts escapes in the Museum of Nature. I have done several Escape Rooms over the year, including the ones at the museum (highly recommend Framed) and it’s always fun! Book for yourself, with a partner, or a big group of friends. If you don’t have enough people in your group to fill up the booking, other groups of people will book alongside you.
Discover a Winter Wonderland at Omega Park
Omega Park is a true winter wonderland. Yes, it’s open in the winter! It actually never closes: there are always cute animals in want of carrots and visitors. 365 days a year, including Christmas Day and New Year’s. Omega Park is one of my absolute favourite places. The animals here have many acres of land to roam on, so they’re free to choose whether they interact with people. You stay in your vehicle, and they come to you. Make sure you have lots of carrots!
Omega Park is a 1.5 hour drive from Ottawa, in Montebello, Quebec. Come first thing in the morning, for opening at 10AM. That’s when the animals are most playful! Entry is $26/adult in the winter.
Winter activities at Omega Park include sleigh rides, visiting the sugar shack, sleigh rides, visiting the wolves, and there are beautiful walking and snowshoe trails. Make a getaway out of it, and sleepover in one of Omega Park’s cabins. Of all the things to do in Ottawa in winter, this is the most “winter wonderland” experience to be had!
Relax at the Nordik Spa
Here’s another place that many people don’t realize is open in the winter: The Nordik spa is and it’s wonderful in the snow. Of all the things to do in Ottawa in winter, this is by far the most relaxing. Soak heated pool or unwind in steamy sauna while the snow comes down. The only time you feel the winter chill is when you’re moving from one pool to another. Otherwise, everything is warm and cozy.
Winter transforms the spa, so that it looks like hot springs up in a mountain somewhere. Lounge around in the hot tubs and saunas, or try the essential-oil infused Aufguss ritual to cleanse and revitalize. Entry is $55 Monday-Thursday, and $65 Friday – Sunday, and it’s really nice to have lunch on site at one of the spa’s restaurants.
The Nordik Spa is the perfect little getaway for a day. There are no phones or cameras allowed inside, so you can completely relax and disconnect.Once inside, the spa is divided in to 3 sections. Enjoy peace and quiet in one, whisper in another, or chat with friends in an infinity pool.
Warm up with Winter Desserts, Tea, and Hot Chocolate
Zoe’s Chateau Laurier
Zoe’s lounge in Chateau Laurier has beautiful, wide windows offering a beautiful view of the snow-covered downtown while you stay warm. Enjoy a 3 tier assortment of scones, sandwiches, and delicious desserts. Chateau Laurier is a historic and stunning hotel, and it’s worth taking a little bit of time to explore while you’re there too. In December the lobby is covered in Christmas trees, and any time of year you can explore the main floor, and one level down. Skip lunch- afternoon tea will fill you up! Afternoon tea is offered from 2-5PM Monday to Friday, and 12-5PM on the weekends. Thank you to Zoe’s for hosting me for afternoon tea!
Moulin de Provence
Moulin de Provence is one of my favourite places for a big hot chocolate and themed cookies. There are two locations in the downtown (30 Metcalfe Street and 55 Byward Market Square). Get something to warm you up, and have a delicious maple leaf, snowman, snowflake – or whatever other cute cookie they’re serving that day! The Metcalfe location is only a block away from Parliament, so it’s a great place to go before or after a tour.
This is a classic, and it’s must-do activity. This is one of those things to do in Ottawa in winter that the locals repeat every year, multiple times a year. PSA: no beavers were harmed in the making of this delicious dessert. Beavertails are like fried dough covered in sugar – only they’re inexplicably better. There’s a stand in the Byward Market open year-round, and during the winter you can also buy beavertails at stands along the Rideau Skateway, and at any Winterlude venue. Visitors to Ottawa: don’t leave without getting a beavertail!
Visit Ottawa During Winterlude
If you’re visiting from out of town, you may want to come during Winterlude. Locals, get outside and enjoy this fun winter festival! Bundle up in snow pants, mittens, coats, and toques to spend the day outside in the snow. This year, Winterlude runs from February 1 to 18. There are 3 official Winterlude venues, but keep an eye out for ice sculptures all over the city in February!
My favourite Winterlude location is in the Byward Market. During Winterlude it becomes Crystal Gardens and is decked out with beautiful ice sculptures. It’s worth going back more than once, because different sculptures sometimes come and go! The sculptures are lit up at night, making for a totally different experience than visiting during the day.
This venue is basically a massive playground made of snow. Slides, games, and dog sled rides take place here. Snowflake Kingdom is the best Winterlude location with children, but it’s worth stopping by either way to see the snow sculptures. When you’re sufficiently chilly, step in to the dining tent for hot chocolate and beaver tails.
The Rideau Canal
While open outside of the Winterlude dates as well, the canal is considered a interlude venue. During Winterlude, you might run in to mascots or come across special performances and events happening on the ice.