As a four-season destination, Canada’s capital is a wonderful place to visit any time of year. Countless sites, events and activities welcome groups and fully independent travelers to Ottawa all year-long. Here are some of the seasonal highlights that will keep you coming back for more!
Spring is a very special season in Canada — maple syrup season — and Ottawa is lucky to be so close to many maple syrup producers in both Quebec and Ontario. For example, just outside the city you’ll find Fulton’s Pancake House & Sugar Bush where guests can enjoy a guided tour, horse-drawn ride, boutique and even a maple meal!
Maple trees are a national treasure, but you can branch out and discover thousands of species of trees from around the world at The Arboretum — one of the first places in the city to be awash with spring colours. Wander amongst its perfumed pink-and-white crabapple tree blossoms to the ridge in the centre of the park for a great view of the Rideau Canal and the city. Follow one of several marked paths and explore less tamed beauty in the Butterfly Meadow or Fletcher Wildlife Garden. Adjoining this urban oasis is the Central Experimental Farm, which is anchored by the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum — where horses, sheep, pigs, and other livestock are enjoyed by a regular flow of city-dwellers seeking to reconnect with nature. For indoor natural wonders, head back downtown to the Canadian Museum of Nature.
Biking in bloom
Ottawa’s festivals really begin to bloom in May with the Canadian Tulip Festival, where tulips are just the beginning! This celebration goes back to the Second World War when Ottawa provided refuge for Princess Juliana of the Netherlands, and to thank us, she sent 100,000 bulbs in gratitude! From these roots has grown a huge festival, including live music performances, children’s activities, fireworks and more. Take in the tulips on foot in Commissioners Park, or rent a bike and enjoy the pathways along the Rideau Canal — just don’t forget to stop and smell the flowers!
The Capital Pathway Network doesn’t stop there! Rent a bike from RentABike, and explore more of this 600-km network. Take a tour with Escape Bicycle Tours & Rentals. Hop off the bike entirely and hop on Gray Line Ottawa’s “Hop-on, Hop-off” city tours aboard a double-decker bus. These tours let you discover the city at your own pace over up to 2 days—basically a tour guide and chauffeur when you want them!
Pumped for patios
When warm weather arrives, locals gather on Ottawa’s outdoor patios, many of which are in the vibrant ByWard Market district. For something secluded and charming, the cobblestoned Clarendon Court (at the corner of George and Sussex Streets) has four patios to choose from, or try Lowertown Brewery for beers and sun. Across from the BeaverTails stand, grab a spot on the terrace at The Grand for a drink or pizza, or for a bird’s-eye view of the bustle, visit one of the rooftop patios on Clarence Street, including El Camino.
Exciting water experiences can be found within the city of Ottawa and in the nearby countryside. Whitewater fun can be found right downtown on the Ottawa River with Ottawa City Rafting’s half-day rafting trips within view of Parliament Hill. Explore further up river with OWL Rafting’s more adventurous single or multi-day trips.
Ottawa’s most famous urban waterway is the Rideau Canal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Hop on board Rideau Canal Cruises, or explore the Ottawa River with Capital Cruises, World Famous Paul’s Boat Line or by taking Au feel de l’eau’s Aqua-Taxi.
Nowhere will you get closer to big-name music festival acts than in Canada’s capital. TD Ottawa Jazz Festival kicks off the summer music festival season in June, with hundreds of headliners keeping all breeds of cats cool in downtown parks in indoor spaces. On its heels is RBC Bluesfest Ottawa, where international big-names in DJ/Dance, Rock, Country, Blues (of course) and more perform on multiple outdoor and indoor stages on the banks of the Ottawa River downtown over 10+ days. Music and Beyond melds classical music with visual arts, drama, poetry, comedy, circus and dance in the acoustic oasis of churches and concert halls in the downtown core. Ottawa Chamberfest—the largest event of its kind in the world—works its charm in many of the same venues, with classical music (and more) filling these intimate, beautiful spaces.
Spotlight on history
It’s not a trip to Ottawa without a visit to Parliament Hill. On summer mornings, see the Changing of the Guard, a daily performance by the Guard from its Cartier Square Drill Hall just south of Parliament Hill up Elgin Street. With its own regimental band and pipers, it’s quite the scene! For the full capital experience, come back to the Hill in the evening to check out the Northern Lights Sound & Light Show, a spectacular nightly display that turns Centre Block into a giant immersive movie screen. The tradition of sound and light shows on Parliament Hill has an over 30-year history! Note: Due to COVID-19, the Changing of the Guard and the Northern Lights Sound & Light show are cancelled for 2020.
Ottawa is especially gorgeous in autumn when the leaves of deciduous trees turn magical colours. The National Capital Greenbelt, which encircles Ottawa with 20,000 hectares (almost 50,000 acres) of wetlands, woods and other unspoiled greenspaces, provides ample opportunities to soak up some of the golden hues.
Sights and sounds
You don’t have to be an art buff to find yourself immersed in the creativity carefully housed in the National Gallery of Canada. Its most impressive collection is the expansive and immersive Canadian and Indigenous Galleries. And the Ottawa Art Gallery – which is always free – presents local, national and international historical and contemporary art in a stunning architectural setting.
CityFolk, a four-day music festival at Lansdowne, features international headliners from all genres. The event also highlights local acts who perform at businesses throughout the central Glebe neighbourhood.
Known as a safe and beautiful city, Ottawa has a spooky past that is fun to discover. Join Haunted Walks during their favourite time of the year as they lead brave groups through creepy elements of the capital’s history, including the halls and cellblocks of internationally recognized haunted hot-spot, the old Carleton County Jail.
Sit back and relax with some craft beer on a Brew Donkey tour. During these group outings, a guide takes you to some of the many craft breweries in Canada’s capital region. You get to meet the innovative, local brewmasters who have the city and region positively hopping, learn about the brewing process, and enjoy several delicious beer samples. Cheers!
A visit to the stunning Canadian War Museum is unforgettable at any time of year. The profoundness of this museum’s content is conveyed from the moment you arrive. The building itself immediately conjures admiration for its arresting architecture features, such as its 24-metre high (78 feet) copper fin with windows that spell out “Lest we forget” in Morse code. Then into Memorial Hall to see the headstone of the unknown soldier.
National Remembrance Day ceremonies are held at the museum and at the nearby National War Memorial, where the tomb of the unknown soldier lies. Across from the memorial, opposite Parliament Hill, is Major’s Hill Park, which offers spectacular fall views of both Parliament and the Ottawa River.
Canada’s winter festival, Winterlude, celebrates the best of the cold season in the Ottawa-Gatineau region. The event features free access to sites like Snowflake Kingdom — a giant playground with slides, snow sculptures, mazes and more. And in downtown Ottawa, you can marvel at beautiful ice sculptures created by competing international carvers.
Winterlude is also celebrated on the Rideau Canal Skateway, the world’s largest outdoor skating rink. You can glide 7.8 kilometres (nearly 5 miles) between downtown and Dow’s Lake Pavilion, which has several restaurants, as well as skate and sleigh rentals. And during one weekend, you can watch international participants power colourful dragon boats down the Skateway during the BeaverTails Ottawa Ice Dragon Boat Festival.
Throughout winter, you can also go twirl at refrigerated ice surfaces such as the Rink of Dreams at City Hall, the Lansdowne Skating Court, or Rideau Hall’s iconic rink (which has hosted 19th-century skating parties organized by Canada’s governor general). To catch some hockey action, check out a home game of the NHL’s Ottawa Senators at the Canadian Tire Centre, or the OHL’s Ottawa 67s, who play at TD Place at Lansdowne.
Snow much fun
Just 10 minutes north of downtown Ottawa in Gatineau, Québec is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream: Gatineau Park. You can experience it on snowshoes, skis … or even snow bikes! Explore more than 50 groomed snowshoe or cross-country ski trails stretching over 200 kilometres (124 miles), or hit the 53 kilometres of pristine backcountry trails. You can stop and rest at a day-use shelter equipped with wood-burning stoves, picnic tables, and outhouses. Or for a fun winter camping experience, stay in one of the four-season tents, yurts or cabins.
Ottawa’s Greenbelt is also home to over 150 kilometres of cross-country ski trails, and there's also try ice fishing on the Ottawa River.
Camp Fortune in Old Chelsea, Quebec, is the nearest ski hill with eight lifts and 24 runs. Other day trip options include Ontario’s Calabogie Peaks Resort, only 75 minutes away, with 24 downhill runs, and snowshoeing, hiking and cross-country skiing trails.
Feel the heat
Warm up after a snowy adventure with steamy saunas and hot baths at Nordik Spa-Nature’s fairy-tale setting near the entrance of Gatineau Park. Experience the magic of an outdoor massage in a heated, insulated wood pavilion and many other indulgences at this unique oasis. When you’re back in downtown Ottawa, sip a frosty pint at a cozy ByWard Market pub, or warm up with the capital’s fiery cuisine at some of Ottawa’s great restaurants serving everything from local specialties to ethnic delicacies. With places to chill and feel the heat, Ottawa is a prime destination to come out of winter hibernation.