If you’re coming to Ottawa, a visit to the historic Rideau Canal is a must! Snaking and making its way gracefully through Ottawa’s charming downtown core, “the canal” as it’s known locally, is the heart beat of Canada’s Capital in any season. In the warmer months, the canal is a haven for walkers, runners, in-line skaters and cyclists, who stroll along its scenic, rolling green banks. It is also a beautiful, flowing waterway connecting Kingston, Ontario, to Ottawa, which is used regularly by boaters and paddlers alike. Whether it is tourists out on a scenic walk or a guided boat cruise, or a local resident out for a morning run, the canal is always buzzing with activity on a bright sunny day. Built between 1826 and 1832 by Colonel John By of the British Royal Engineers, the stone-walled canal received a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in 2007 and is the only such site in the entire province of Ontario!
Having to dig and clear through the savage Canadian wilderness over six long years, about 1,000 workers perished during the waterway’s construction from malaria or accidents, and were buried along its picturesque banks. Of the 202 kilometres (126 miles) stretching from Kingston to Ottawa, 19 kilometres (12 miles) of the canal is man-made and was dug out by hand. The canal –with its 45 locks located in various Ontario communities, was originally built for a military purpose to establish a secure supply and communications route between Montreal, Québec, and Kingston. Built as a reaction to the infamous War of 1812, it was the hope at the time, that the canal would keep vulnerable British supply ships away from the American New York border. But by its completion in 1832, no further conflicts arose between the United States and Canada, which consequently turned the new canal into a commercial shipping route and finally, into the pleasure boat waterway we know today. According to UNESCO, as a World Heritage Site, the Rideau Canal represents a “masterpiece of creative genius” and meets the 10 different criteria needed to secure such a prestigious designation. The canal is “the best-preserved example of a slackwater canal in North America, demonstrating the use of this European technology on a large scale,” UNESCO says. It is also the only canal dating back to the nineteenth century “North American canal-building era” to remain operational with most of its original structures intact.
So whether you’re strolling along its paved pathways or floating gently on top of its calm waters, you’re a witness to genuine history when you visit this unique site. In the summer, you can explore the famous canal on your own by walking and running, or you can opt to take a cruise with Capital Cruises, which offers guided 75-minute cruises in multiple languages from May to mid-October. And if exploring the canal on your own is more your style, you can also visit RentABike. Located right in downtown Ottawa, just across from the Fairmont Château Laurier, RentABike offers bike rentals by the hour and by the day. Visitors can choose a ride from a selection of 200 new bikes that come complete with a helmet and a bike lock. Pedal around and explore the canal to your heart’s content without having to worry about having to keep an eye on your bike. And in the colder months, from late December to late February, the canal is not to be missed!
Once the Rideau Canal freezes over, it becomes the Rideau Canal Skateway –the world’s largest skating rink as designated by Guinness World Records. Stretching 7.8 kilometres (4.8 miles), the Skateway attracts visitors as well as residents of all ages. Glide easily along on a pair of skates and enjoy great views of downtown Ottawa! And if you can’t skate, sleigh rentals are available. Also, while you’re on the canal, don’t forget to try a BeaverTails pastry. This delicious, doughy, beaver tail-shaped pastry was born in Ottawa in 1978. It is available in Ottawa’s ByWard Market neighbourhood year-round, but there is nothing more Canadian than enjoying one on skates on the frozen canal in the winter! Another great time to visit this World Heritage Site is in early May, when the capital is decorated with thousands upon thousands of tulips in bloom.
Enjoy springtime by walking or cycling along the canal as you take in a multitude of brightly coloured tulip beds that line its banks. From downtown Ottawa, follow the water towards Dows Lake, where you will find more than 300,000 tulips in bloom at Commissioners Park. And after you’ve strolled along its banks or skated on it, visit the Bytown Museum to learn more about how the canal came to be. Housed in Ottawa’s oldest stone building, this three-floor museum traces the history of the city, from the construction of the Rideau Canal to the emergence of Ottawa as Canada’s capital. The building itself is closely linked to the canal, as it was used as a treasury and storehouse during the waterway’s construction. Canada is home to 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the beautiful Rideau Canal.