Ottawa is a city of unusual distinctions. It’s arguably the world’s coldest and snowiest capital city. It holds the record for the world’s longest skating rink. And it frequently tops lists as the most liveable city in Canada. In short, it’s a unique combination of wild weather, hearty residents, beautiful green space, historic buildings, and great eats. Here are the top things to do in Ottawa in Winter, from classic sites, winter festivals and attractions to the more unconventional ones…all without spending a lot of time or money! Heading to other parts of Canada? Check out this guide to Winter in Toronto!
P.s. If you’ll be in Canada in March, read my guide to celebrating St Patrick’s Day in Canada!
Unique Things To Do in Ottawa In Winter
Tour the Parliament Buildings
If you’re visiting Ottawa in Winter, you’ll want to find as many warm places to explore as possible!! The spectacular Canadian Parliament buildings, with their aged copper peaks, are Ottawa’s most enduring symbol and a great first stop in the city.
This is the home of the Canadian government – as well as summer yoga sessions, casual games of pick up football, protests big and small, and many a concert and festival. You can walk around the grounds and buildings at any time for free and you can even tour inside as well, with a bit of advanced planning.
Parliament Hill has three main buildings, West Block (under renovations), Centre Block, and East Block, as well as numerous pieces of public sculpture on the grounds. Free guided tours are available for Center Block year round and, in the summer, the East Block buildings.
You first have to pick up free tickets at the visitor’s centre across the street (90 Wellington St).If you’re visiting during peak tourism season, you’ll want to do this a day or two in advance. And if you’re a real political junkie, you’ll also want to sit in on a debate in the House of Commons. You can get more information and review the rules and schedules here.
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Visit the City’s More Unusual Museums
While nothing can eclipse the Parliament buildings, Ottawa is nearly as famous for its world class museums. Several of them, including the National Gallery of Canada, the Museum of History, and the Museum of Nature, top most lists of the city’s essential stops. As they should!
But Ottawa is home to some smaller spaces as well that are perfect for visiting Ottawa in Winter. The Bytown Museum, tucked between Parliament Hill and the Chateau Laurier Hotel, is housed in the city’s oldest stone building and covers Ottawa’s early years and the construction of the Rideau Canal.
The Bank of Canada Museum (also called the Currency Museum by locals) offers small but fascinating displays and exhibits. And the Library and Archives of Canada is a working research facility which also hosts amazing exhibits relating to all aspects of Canadiana.
Hike and Explore the City’s Green Space
While it’s downtown skyline is famous, Ottawa isn’t really an urban city. In fact, it’s the most rural big city in all of Canada. A remarkable 90% of the city is rural land and it has the largest agricultural output of any major city in the country. As such, it’s a hiker and explorer’s dream! The National Capital Commission is responsible for maintaining the city’s green space, including a huge trail network. Some of the gems include the underwhelmingly named Parking Lot 20 off Anderson Road (which is quite flat, well maintained, and has options for routes starting at 1 km and up). It’s hugely popular with hikers, bikers, and cross country skiers.
Nearby, the Mer Bleue bog is one of the most unique natural features of the city. The bog is 7,700 year old habitat with rare birds, plants, and wildlife and is ranked as an internationally significant wetland. The Mer Bleue bog’s interpretive boardwalk trail is an easy walk that’s just over 1 km long. Keep an eye out for bird lovers and artists working on watercolors but otherwise you’ll likely be alone.
Visit the Markets and Take a Foodie Tour
Just Food is an Ottawa based organization that focuses on sustainability. They help coordinate dozens of farmers markets around the city, pioneered efforts so all market participants clearly label their local produce, and even occasionally even run food tours. They’re also the force behind Savour Ottawa, which identifies restaurants, hotels, and organizations that support local farmers. Their website is the perfect resource for an eco-conscious traveler and if you love farm-to-table restaurants, this is the place to start your research.
For foodie experiences in the heart of the city, C’est Bon Cooking offers amazing culinary walking tours of different neighbourhoods, as well as cooking class in the Byward Market.
Quench Your Thirst
Ottawa is well known for its craft beer scene. Most pubs and bars offer at least one craft beer option and some specialize in nothing but local brews. In particular, the neighbourhood of Hintonburg, located west of downtown, has a fantastic craft beer scene. Tooth and Nail Brewery (3 Irving Ave), Beyond The Pale Brewery (250 City Centre Ave), and the Vimy Brewing Company (145 Loretta Ave) are all popular with locals and visitors alike.
Despite the cold weather, Ottawa also has a great homegrown wine scene. Kin Vineyards in the west end community of Carp is growing Chardonnay vines – which have to be painstakingly buried by hand each winter for protection from the cold. It may just be producing the “coldest” Chardonnay in the world.
And in addition to their delicious wines, they also have a really unique neighbour. They are right next door to the Diefenbunker, Canada’s Cold War bunker-turned-museum (which also happens to be one of the largest “escape rooms” in the world!). Together, the museum and the vineyard are the perfect temptation to visit the city’s west end.
On the other end of town, and just 20 minutes from Parliament Hill, Domaine Perrault Winery has a resident farm cat named Beast who roams the vineyard, keeping an eye on all the guests. The Winery is also home to one of the only female wine grower-sommelier in the country. It’s the perfect place to blend a bit of rural adventure into an Ottawa visit.
Indulge in a Memorable Meal
With a strong farm-to-table relationship with local farmers and growing support for the region’s wine and beer, Ottawa’s dining scene is growing by leaps and bounds. It’s come a long way from the staid government conference dinners it was once rather famous for! Visitors can expect great food at all price points, with an emphasis on seasonal menus. Some local favourites include:
Planet Coffee – In a tiny alley in the Byward Market, this cash only spot has the best vanilla lattes in town and delectable baked goods like rhubarb squares and cream cheese brownies.The nearby Papery is a delightful wee florist-slash-stationary shop that’s irresistible.
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Hosting a #holiday #party this year and don't feel like #baking? It's OK, #PlanetCoffee has got you covered! Come in and select a few treats from our display case and we'll box them up for you or place a large order before 3pm the day before and we'll bake up a storm! You can also place large coffee orders or cake orders! #AskUs #CoffeeBakingConversation #Coffee #Coffeeshop #DowntownOttawa #BywardMarket #Catering #chocolate #christmas #happyholidays #xmas
Fourth Avenue Wine Bar – On a side street in Ottawa’s posh Glebe neighbourhood and surrounded by neat shops, the Fourth Avenue Wine Bar has a short, refined menu of food and a carefully curated list of wine from Ontario and around the world.
The Wild Oat – Not far from the Fourth Avenue Wine Bar, the Oat has organic, vegan, and gluten free options. One side is a tiny take out shop with a bakery and self serve soups, stews, and salads. The other side is a small sit down area with creative paninis. Their desserts are incredible!
Union 613 – Does modern, southern inspired cuisine and sophisticated, bespoke cocktails. Their made to order cornbread is legendary, as is their hidden speakeasy (if you know who to ask!)
North and Navy – Serves Venetian food with a menu that changes monthly (but their spectacular meatballs are always available). Atmosphere is upscale but relaxed and the menu is a great blend of inventive combinations and comfort food.
Nokham Thai – They’re famous for their soups, outstanding flavors, and friendly service. Expect to find a great mix of locals here – seniors, families, friends, couples.
Shawarma Chef – Shawarma is taken VERY seriously in Ottawa and the best location is in the east end neighbourhood of Orleans. Shawarma Chef’s garlic sauce is outstanding and the staff is really friendly.
Lunch Box – Just 10 minutes from Shawarma Chef, Lunch Box is doing the best take out sandwiches in town and their homemade hickory sticks are addictive.
Ottawa has been in the shadow of its famous neighbours, Montreal and Toronto, for too long. Thankfully, it’s truly coming into its own and has emerged as a can’t miss destination.
Vanessa Chiasson is an award winning blogger, freelance writer, and digital strategist. She has presented at TBEX, CBC Radio, and CTV Ottawa and has been published by The Globe and Mail, USA Today, Flight Network, Ontario Tourism, Plumi Deluxe, The Establishment, and more. In 2014, her blog TurnipseedTravel.com, was named one of the 100 most influential travel blogs in the world by the White House.