Ottawa is the ultimate winter wonderland and the perfect city escape for when the temperatures drop. Explore the best of Ottawa in winter – including top things to do and travel tips – with this guide.
Canada is a gorgeous country with some of the most scenic national parks and coastlines you’ll find anywhere in the world. But when the temperatures drop and the flora and fauna freeze over, it might seem daunting to plan a trip.
I’m here to tell you that I just got back from Ottawa in December and few places capture the spirit of winter more perfectly.
Learning more about indigenous cultures through artwork and history, going on a holiday lights walk, or ice skating on a frozen canal are just a few things you can do in the winter in Canada’s capital city.
Dust off your snow boots and best winter coat – it’s time to check the top things to do in Ottawa in the winter.
Why You Should Visit Ottawa in the Winter
If you’re looking for an affordable city break with tonnes to do when the temperatures fall well below freezing, you’ll want to take a long look at Ottawa.
The long and short of it? Ottawa knows how to show you a great time even when the weather is scary cold outside. It’s also a relatively affordable winter destination.
But my favourite reason for visiting in the winter is that Canada really knows how to embrace the season. From festivals of lights to warming up with a heaping plate of poutine, Ottawa just hits differently in the colder months.
Here’s a look at which museums to visit, what outdoor activities to try, and the many fun events you won’t find at any other time of the year.
Best Things to Do in Ottawa in Winter
Walk Along the Winter Lights Across Canada Circuit
Winter is a time of celebration and tradition; Winter Lights Across Canada manages to highlight both. The long-running display of 300,000 holiday lights along some of Ottawa and Gatineau’s most famous locations is a must when you visit in the winter.
So where can you see the city streets (and monuments) lit up all shades of the rainbow? Follow this pathway of lights map, and you’ll see some of the city’s most iconic landmarks in a new light.
Since 1985, the event has showcased holiday cheer, and the decor changes slightly from year to year – but it’s always an impressive holiday event.
A few of the most well-known sites along the trail include Parliament Hill, Portage Park, and the Supreme Court of Canada. You might not be able to walk the entire circuit (depending on the weather), but you can cover most of the stops in around 1-2 hours.
It typically runs from early December to early January, so you’ll want to plan your trip for sometime around Christmas or New Year’s for the best chance at seeing the lights.
I recommend starting this circuit after visiting the Canadian Museum of History since you’ve already crossed the Macdonald-Cartier Bridge to Gatineau.
Local And International Art at the National Gallery of Canada
Museums are always one of Ottawa’s biggest draws – pretty fitting for Canada’s capital. The National Gallery of Canada is the city’s most prestigious art museum.
Outside, the building is a magnificent display of Postmodern Architecture designed by Moshe Safdie. The sprawling granite walls create cavernous environs, while light spills through the glass walls and tower in the front. That light allows the artwork to shine, especially when you visit on a sunny morning.
Inside, the National Gallery of Canada offers visitors a chance to see a collection of over 90,000 pieces of artwork selected from local and international artists, with many names you’ll recognize and more than a few you may not.
Walk through the property and the 4 floors of photographs, paintings, and sculptures to see an impressive collection, including Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire, over 100 pieces from Canadian artist Tom Thomson, and the imposing Maman by Louise Bourgeois (a 30-foot arachnid outside).
Be sure to walk through the wing dedicated entirely to indigenous art. It features around 800 examples of indigenous artwork, some dating back 5,000 years.
Do take a walk outside in the garden on your way in or out. The famous landscape architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander designed a verdant masterpiece influenced by Terre Sauvage, a painting by A.Y. Jackson.
Skating on the Rideau Canal
The gorgeous 202-km (125.5-mile) stretch of waterfront has been an integral part of Canada’s capital for nearly 200 years. It’s also home to one of its best outdoor activities – ice skating.
If I’m being completely honest, I skipped this on my last trip (I kinda, sorta hate skating and the canal wasn’t frozen enough anyway). But by all means, you should give it a try.
The nearly 5-mile section of the historic canal (just south of downtown) is a great place to get into the holiday spirit in Ottawa. Why? It comes particularly alive during the annual Winterlude Festival.
Looking for things to do at the famous winter festival in Ottawa? Check the calendar for fun events like a winter triathlon (skating, cross-country skiing, and running) or the 2SLGBTQ+ friendly Capital Pride Ice Parade.
Even if you miss the festival, I recommend heading to Rideau Canal. The views of Parliament Hill, in the beginning, are special. Plus, you’ll have plenty of chances to warm up or use the bathroom at any of the 5 rest stops along the way.
The canal usually isn’t cold enough to skate until mid-January, so plan your trip later in the winter for the best skating conditions.
Dinner at Play Food & Wine
Play Food & Wine is one of those really cool neighbourhood restaurants you hope you’re lucky enough to find when exploring a new city. I found it.
The 40-person restaurant is stylish but low-key, so it’s a perfect place to have a relaxing lunch or dinner near ByWard Market.
Chef Shane Brown puts out creative dishes emphasising local ingredients and culinary techniques with longstanding roots in Canada.
The concept is cool (and really affordable). For just $30 CAD (£18 / $25), you can pick 2 small plates, which is a good amount of food. But you can also order as many additional plates from the menu as you want. Why not?
The menu changes frequently, but if my meal was any indication, you’re in great hands.
I tried the crispy fishcake and slow-cooked beef. The fish came with a nice tartar sauce and an addictive house slaw, and the beef was paired with truffle fries. Drool.
See Wildlife (Indoors) at the Canadian Museum of Nature
Looking to get out of the cold weather while still enjoying the best of the great outdoors? Visit the Canadian Museum of Nature.
The 200,000-square-foot building has all sorts of things to keep you busy on the coldest days, no matter your age or interests.
Permanent exhibits cover anything from dinosaurs to geology, each with a wide range of artefacts and replicas that are entertaining and educational.
The fossil gallery walks you through the history of dinosaurs and how plants and animals evolved after their extinction and has a whopping 30 different (fully assembled!) skeletons from prehistoric times.
More interested in geology? Check out the Earth Gallery, which has literally thousands of rocks collected from around the world (and even the moon).
My favourite part was the basement, which has one of the more unusual (and really cool) exhibits – a vast collection of creepy crawlies, like leafcutter ants, giant beetles and stick bugs.
You can learn a lot about Canada’s local wildlife here, too (if taxidermy doesn’t freak you out too much). You can get closer to grizzly bears and mountain lions than you hopefully ever will in the Rocky Mountains.
Cocktails at Jackalope
You don’t have to convince me twice to head inside and warm up with a negroni or well-made whiskey sour after a chilly day of museum-hopping and ice skating.
Thankfully, Ottawa has a sneaky great cocktail scene. Jackalope is the best of the best. How do you find it? When you approach The Rabbit Hole on Sparks Street, look very carefully for a secret doorway (there’s no sign). Enter Jackalope.
Make your way down the staircase, and you’ll partake in a perfect example of what many bars have tried to perfect over the past couple of decades. Jackalope is the speakeasy most try to be.
The subterranean cocktail haven is an experience that’s nostalgic, atmospheric, and, best of all, serves up some insanely good drinks.
I think one of my favourite aspects of their approach is that you’re 100% in the hands of the bartenders. There are no wordy cocktail descriptions you need to strain to see in a dimly lit room; it’s just a one-on-one chat with an expert mixologist.
To be fair, there is a small but well-curated list of classics, but I recommend putting yourself in their hands and talking them through what you like.
After a bit of dialogue with the friendly staff, they mixed some of the most memorable drinks I’ve ever tried (real talk). It warmed me right up on a chilly December evening.
VR Tour at Parliament the Virtual Experience
Have some time to learn a bit more about the history and culture of Canada? Head into the Parliament the Virtual Experience and take a “tour” of the capital buildings through a VR headset.
I admit, I was slightly bummed when I learned that the actual buildings on Parliament Hill are closed for construction. But taking this virtually guided tour was the next best thing. Take a peek into the buildings and the stories held within its walls in this cool, immersive experience.
Canada has been a democratic confederacy since 1867, and the Parliament buildings have been the headquarters for its laws and leaders ever since.
So what does this tour include? A lot.
First, you “enter” the House of Commons, where politicians meet to debate and pass laws for Canadian residents. Then, “walk through” The Library of Parliament (which is actually the only original structure left in the Centre Block).
It’s a fun, free 45-minute VR tour of the capital, but you must book your spot ahead.
Be sure you go to the Sparkes Street location, not Parliament Hill.
Shop and Eat at ByWard Market
Visiting ByWard Market in the winter is something I can’t recommend enough. The historic marketplace has a collection of 600 stands, restaurants, and cafes. It’s been an essential part of local culture since 1826.
Shopping here was a treat. You can find some gems from the upscale Chapeaux de Madeleine hat shop to indigenous artwork and clothing at Quichua World Market.
There’s also a lot to eat and drink in and around the market.
Check out Ottawa classics like Zak’s Diner, which serves up amazing burgers, poutine, and monster boozy shakes. I tried the My Canadian Shake – and the combo of rye, maple syrup, and caramel (with cream on top) was seriously good.
BeaverTails Byward Market serves the donut-like fried pastry and tops them with a vast selection of toppings that will satisfy any sweet tooth. So. Good. Stick with something simple like homemade “Nutella” or go big with the Avalanche, a cheesecake and caramel concoction topped with Skor candy.
And don’t worry; the outdoor market is still going strong in the winter (this is Canada, after all). Events like Winterlude in February let you partake in Canadian traditions like sleigh rides and ice carving on site.
Book a Spot at the Oh, Canada Eh! Dinner Theatre
Ottawa winters can be pretty brutal, with cold temperatures and dreary weather a constant for weeks on end. This allows creative people to focus on their craft, spending hours inside perfecting their songwriting, dance, and comedy.
Oh, Canada Eh! Dinner Theatre showcases some of Canada’s best entertainers performing wildly entertaining renditions of pop hits spanning decades. The production actually started in 1994 in Niagara before closing, but this location, which former cast members opened, keeps the tradition going strong.
It’s a 2.5-hour show, so you’ll have plenty of time to hear hits from Justin Bieber and Céline Dion while discovering that some of your other favourite pop stars, like Shania Twain, hailed from Canada.
I went in not really knowing what to expect, but I had a fabulous time. The show consisted of singing, dancing, and lots of laughs. But the food was really good, too.
We were served a large spread that included local favourites like split pea soup, haddock and roast beef. Wave that Canadian flag high and proud.
Spend a Day at the Canadian Museum of History
If I had to pick one activity you can’t miss anytime you visit Ottawa, it’s the Canadian Museum of History. But I’m particularly fond of the idea in the winter when you can really take your time exploring the 300,000-square-foot museum without being in any rush to get back outside.
The museum is dedicated to learning more about indigenous cultures and colonial rule, and they do an excellent job of telling the story in an honest fashion.
Queen Victoria was responsible for the original museum opening, but it’s evolved quite a bit in the decades since. In the late 1980s, it split into 2 museums, and the Canadian Museum of History (as we know it now) opened in 1989.
It does an excellent job highlighting indigenous cultures, starting with the architecture and design. The stunning facade was designed by Blackfoot ancestry Douglass Cardinal, evoking the arctic white tundra of Alberta. And the entryway (which symbolises canoes) pays homage to the most important mode of transportation for indigenous people in Canada.
Pay special attention to the literature around the museum (or if you’re lucky, get a tour from Chantal Amyot), who explains how totem poles told stories through the colourful engravings.
A highlight for me was seeing Spirit of Haida Gwaii by Bill Reid, a Haida artist who described the trying but rewarding canoe journey that he sculpted into a near-living form. Another gorgeous piece of artwork is Morning Star, just down the Grand Hall. 7 stories high, it’s a mural portraying 4 colours that symbolise the seasons or stages of life.
Lastly, one of the other most interesting areas of the museum is the full-sized St. Onuphrius Church. It’s a Ukrainian Orthodox cathedral that’s not just an exhibit! They occasionally hold real-life weddings and baptisms inside.
Meet the Ojibwe Spirit Horses at Mādahòkì Farm
Taking a day trip south to see the Ojibwe Spirit Horses at Mādahòkì Farm was one of the most memorable aspects of my last trip to Ottawa.
The 165-acre farm is located on Algonquin Nation land, the indigenous culture that first settled in Ottawa and the surrounding areas. It’s known for traditional pow-wows, celebrations, and education events throughout the year.
If you plan your visit for early December, you can attend the Pibòn Festival to experience indigenous song, dance, artwork, and cuisine.
But one of the highlights of the winter festival (and any visit to the farm) is a chance to see the Ojibwe Spirit Horses. It’s a rare chance to meet the only native Canadian horse breed. It’s truly a treat, considering the horses were nearly extinct as recently as the 1970s. Tragically, farmers killed off most of the population as the wild horse grazed their fields to eat.
A group of Lac La Croix First Nation members took the surviving horses to Minnesota and slowly got the population back to the 180 that remain today.
Stop by the farm to meet horses like Kita. She’s the daughter of Penny – one of the 4 remaining horses who were saved.
Happy Hour at The Rabbit Hole
I’m up for sundowners during any season. But sipping on a warming spirit and enjoying a snack is particularly satisfying when the temperatures dip below freezing.
Ottawa has a lively bar scene (especially downtown), and The Rabbit Hole is likely the most famous place to share drinks and conversation after a long day at the office or sightseeing.
Best known as a cocktail bar, this local haunt on Sparks Street is all about serving the freshest food and drink. It shows.
The drink menu was legit. I went with the Bad Bunny cocktail and loved it. It was a citrus-forward tequila drink with Martini Fiero, orgeat and ginger. Yum.
But the experience really took off when I let the bartender riff on what I typically like to drink. It was honestly the loosest description of flavours, but they somehow nailed it with the exact cocktail I was hoping for.
My biggest surprise of the evening? The pizzas here are absolutely fire. I wasn’t necessarily expecting an emphasis on pizzas, but the light, fluffy dough and tasty toppings were one of my favourite experiences of the whole trip.
If you grab a table towards the back of the restaurant, you can see the pizzas come straight out of the oven – ready to be gobbled down by you and your new friends.
Practical Tips for Exploring Ottawa in Winter
- Plan to spend between 2-4 days in Ottawa in the winter to fit in the best activities and holiday events.
- Days are shorter in the winter, so wake up early. In December and January, the sun often sets as early as 4:30 pm (and some days stay dark until nearly 8 am). February stays light later but still gets dark before 6 pm.
- December is my favourite month to visit. There are numerous holiday events, restaurants are full of locals (but fewer tourists), and the holiday lights are spectacular.
- Bring warm clothing like sweaters, winter jackets, and pants. You’ll also want a scarf, beanie, and gloves (it’s really chilly).
- I strongly suggest getting a Visit Ottawa Pass, which gives you access to the city’s best museums at a reasonable price. Winter is the perfect time to see as many as you can.
- If you visit in February, check out Winterlude, a festival with live music, art installations, and performances.
- Ottawa Christmas Market is a fun winter festival with shopping, dining, and entertainment in Aberdeen Square that runs for several weeks before Christmas Day.
- Alternatively, Noël dans le Vieux-Aylmer (in Gatineau) is home to a Christmas parade and market in December.
- Local museums and venues often host holiday concerts. The National Arts Centre hosts a popular event with Cantata Singers of Ottawa, who’ve performed there for over 50 years.
- Hotels also get in on the holiday spirit. Lord Elgin (my favourite hotel in Ottawa) hosts a popular Christmas dinner, but you need to book well in advance.
- Located at Wesley Clover Parks, Magic of Lights is another holiday event to put on your radar. For around £20 (£24 on the weekends), you can drive down a 2km route featuring millions of holiday lights from November to January.
- Notre Dame Cathedral is fun to visit around the holidays. The Gothic-style church is home to a popular Christmas concert and holiday masses.
Winter weather in Ottawa is the real deal. Snow and colder temperatures are part of the charm, but you need to prepare for it.
Check out this breakdown of the average lows and highs for an idea of what to expect when you visit Ottawa in the winter.
Read More Ottawa and Canada Guides
- How to spend two perfect days in Ottawa
- The Best Things to do in Canada
- 6 Suggested Itineraries for Your Canada Trip
Love This? Save and Share on Pinterest!