When in Ottawa, a visit to the historic Rideau Canal is a must! This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a major attraction that weaves its way gracefully through Ottawa’s charming downtown core. Discover the many ways you can explore this scenic waterway all year-round – along its banks, on its water and on its Skateway.
The best way to start your Rideau Canal journey is to visit the Bytown Museum for an overview of the history of Ottawa from the construction of the canal to the city’s emergence as Canada’s capital. The museum is housed in Ottawa’s oldest stone building which was used as a treasury and storehouse during the waterway’s construction, and which is located beside the Ottawa Locks.
The museum tells fascinating stories, like Ottawa’s beginnings as a rowdy lumber town; how the planning of the Rideau Canal was a reaction to the infamous War of 1812; how its challenging construction was supervised by Colonel John By of the British Royal Engineers between 1826 and 1832 (hence, Ottawa’s former name of Bytown); and how over 1,000 workers (mostly Irish immigrants, French-Canadians and Algonquin peoples) perished during its construction. Outside and across the Ottawa Locks, a Celtic cross commemorates the workers who lost their lives building the canal, and a plaque commemorates the site as Ontario’s first (and Canada’s 14th) UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The flight of eight massive locks that connect the Ottawa River and the Rideau Canal in the summer are still manually-operated and fascinating to see in operation. Watch Parks Canada staff as they crank the cast iron winches by hand to open and close the gates that allow pleasure boats to travel through. Stop at the Parks Canada Lockstation to learn how the system works – just like it did in the 1830s! One of the most picturesque views in Ottawa is looking down on the Ottawa Locks from the Plaza Bridge up above.
Rideau Canal Pathways
The dedicated multi-use pathways that run along both sides of the Rideau Canal are popular for cycling, running and walking in the summer, and even for snow activities in the winter. The land is mostly flat with gardens, parks and neighbourhoods lining the way. In May, tulips bloom along the canal during the Canadian Tulip Festival, followed by a variety of flowers in the summer and fall colours in the autumn.
Bicycle rentals of all types are available at RentABike, located across the street from the Fairmont Château Laurier under the Plaza Bridge, and at Escape Bicycle Tours & Rentals on nearby Sparks Street. Both also offer guided tours – group and personalized – for all cycling levels. For more about exploring this area by bike, see our Rideau Canal Family-Friendly Bike Trail webpage.
ON THE WATER
From May through October, people flock to the calm waters of the Rideau Canal. Rideau Canal Cruises runs an eco-friendly electric boat cruise that takes you from downtown Ottawa to picturesque Dows Lake. Sit back, relax and enjoy live narration about the canal and the city along the way. Boating enthusiasts who have their own motorized boat can putter along the scenic waterway up to the full 202 kilometres (126 miles) to Kingston if they wish. Or head to Le Boat in the small town of Smiths Falls (about halfway between Ottawa and Kingston) to rent a luxury self-drive houseboat that’s fully equipped for your boating pleasure.
If you’re looking for an easy paddling experience, join Parks Canada for their guided voyageur canoe tours. The excursions depart from the Hartwells Lockstation, located just over 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) south of downtown Ottawa, near the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum and the Central Experimental Farm. If you prefer to paddle on your own, rent a canoe, paddleboat, kayak or standup paddle board from the Marina at Dows Lake Pavilion. Paddle around the canal’s romantic nooks, urban vistas and small islands – you might encounter ducks, see fish underwater and spot beautiful birds! If you have your own boat, you can put-in at several locations along the canal. For more on paddling the canal and other Ottawa waterways, see our Paddling paradise – flatwater fun in Ottawa webpage.
ON THE ICE
One of Ottawa’s iconic experiences – and a bucket list item for many people around the world – is skating on the Rideau Canal Skateway, which is the world’s largest skating rink as designated by the Guinness Book Of World Records. When the canal surface is sufficiently frozen (early January to early March each year, depending on the weather), you can skate on the maintained ice for 7.8 kilometres (4.8 miles) from downtown Ottawa to Carleton University via Dows Lake. The Skateway surface is equivalent to more than 90 Olympic-sized hockey rinks and you can skate for free, 24 hours a day! Along the way, you’ll see distance markers, heated huts, washrooms and food kiosks. There’s nothing like gliding along the frozen canal, sipping a hot chocolate and eating a delicious, doughy, BeaverTail pastry – the sweet treat was born in Ottawa in 1978.
For more epic attractions to explore in Canada’s Capital, take a look at our list of Top 10 things to do in Ottawa!