As Canada’s capital, Ottawa is known as a cosmopolitan city. From some of the most important national museums to high-end shopping on Sussex Drive, priceless items, premier attractions and luxury are always within reach.
But visiting Ottawa doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. As the city freezes over during the colder Canadian months, it becomes home to a sparkling winter wonderland where affordable outdoor and indoor activities abound! There are many alternatives for visitors looking to save some cash. If you want to know what to see and do in the capital with little money, check out this list of free or nearly free activities:
- Go hiking in Gatineau Park. Located just 15 minutes from Ottawa’s downtown core, this beautiful park offers more than 165 kilometres of trails, with most being open year-round. Once the snow falls, 10 kilometres (6 miles) of trails are compacted once a week for winter hiking. The scenic hiking trails are free!
- Go skating on the Rideau Canal Skateway. From roughly late December to late February, this UNESCO World Heritage Site freezes and becomes the world’s largest skating rink –as designated by Guinness World Records. Lace up your skates and glide along 7.8 kilometres (4.8 miles) of ice, which provides scenic views of Ottawa’s downtown core. Entry onto the canal is free and it is open 24-hours a day! Skate and sleigh rentals are available on the Skateway during regular business hours.
- Go skating on the Sens Rink of Dreams. Located in Marion Dewar Plaza just in front of Ottawa City Hall, this newer rink opened in January 2012 and offers a longer skating season than the Rideau Canal (roughly mid-November to mid-March) thanks to its refrigerated surface. This rink is free, offering a heated change hut, picnic tables and benches. This is a great place to be at night because it is lit up with multi-coloured LED lights. Skate rentals are not available at this site.
- Go skating at Skating Court. This is Ottawa’s newest refrigerated ice rink and it’s located at the newly renovated Lansdowne (just south of Ottawa’s downtown core.) Offering a skating season that stretches from roughly mid-November to mid-March, you can enjoy free open skating sessions or learn how to skate in one of its skating programs. Skate rentals are not available at this site.
- Or if the weather is just a little too frightful, why not go skating indoors? Various arenas in the City of Ottawa charge a small fee (between $1.50 and $2.50 per person) for public skating sessions. Public Skating Information Line – 613-580-2666.
- Walk around and see Ottawa lit up in Christmas Lights Across Canada. From early December to early January, Ottawa sparkles and shines as it is decorated with 400,000 twinkling lights. Stroll through the city’s downtown core, through its parks and stop by Parliament Hill, where the historic Parliament Buildings are lit up with tens of thousands of lights. This national Christmas lights tradition began in 1985!
- And if you’re visiting Ottawa in February, you won’t want to miss Winterlude. North America’s greatest winter festival takes place over three weekends in February, offering fun and excitement for the whole family. From spectacular ice carvings to an amazing playground made of snow, Winterlude is a great way to take in the best of Ottawa’s Canadian winter.
- Go on the Historical Tavern Tour! This free walking tour leaves from the Waller St. Brewery (14 Waller St.) on Thursdays at 7:00 p.m. Visit three taverns and pubs and learn about Ottawa’s colourful history as you go. You must be 19 or over to participate and a reservation is required. Visit www.ottawafreetour.com for more information.
- Go tobogganing. There are several hills in and around the Ottawa area to suit nearly all ages and preferences. The National Capital Commission (NCC) has set aside three areas suitable for tobogganing in the city’s Greenbelt recreational space:
- Bruce Pit (This hill is not lit at night.)
- Conroy Pit (Located in the city’s south end, on Conroy Road.)
- Green’s Creek (Located just west of Orleans.)
- Or if you’re looking to stay closer to the downtown core, visit these tobogganing sites in the Old Ottawa South neighbourhood:
- Windsor Park (Located between the Riverdale and Belmont entrances. This site is good for younger children.)
- Seneca Avenue (Located near the Rideau Canal. This site is good for younger children.)
- Vincent Massey Park (Located near Heron Road.)
- Hog’s Back Park (Located near Prince of Wales Drive in Nepean.)
- Visit Fulton’s Pancake House and Sugar Bush. Located just outside of Ottawa in Pakenham, Ontario, Fulton’s is worth a visit in the spring to learn all about maple syrup production. Admission is free and you can take advantage of three scenic walking trails: the Children’s Trail (15 minutes), Barney’s Grave Trail (40 minutes) and the Nature Trail (30 minutes). This site also offers a restaurant, a gift shop, a playground, wagon rides, group visits and team building programs.
If you’ve had enough of the cold, head indoors and visit a few of Ottawa’s great cultural attractions. From the world’s largest indoor collection of totem poles, to priceless world-class art, to the heroic tales of those who fought bravely for Canada, these attractions are sure to delight every visitor. And the best part? Most of them are free at a certain time of the day!
- Visit Parliament Hill. Free guided tours are available every day, but can be rescheduled due to the business of the House of Commons. You will need to pass through security, similar to an airport. And make sure to take the elevator to the top of the Peace Tower where you can enjoy a dramatic, 360-degree view of the capital.
- Visit the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Musical Ride Centre. The Musical Ride, a world-renowned military pageant performed with 32 horses and riders, was first produced publicly in Regina in 1887. The RCMP invites visitors to tour the stables and Visitors’ Centre year-round (Tuesdays and Thursdays from September through April; daily from May through August). There is a possibility during a visit of seeing the Musical Ride horses and riders practice when they are not away on tour.
- On Thursday evenings, admission to the permanent exhibits of the National Gallery of Canada, the Canadian Museum of History, the Canadian War Museum and the Canadian Museum of Nature is free from 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.
- The Canada Agriculture and Food Museum and the Canada Aviation and Space Museum offer free admission daily between 4:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m.
- The Bank of Canada Museum offers free admission at all times. The museum displays Canadian notes, coins, and tokens, as well as currency and money artifacts from other countries. *Due to renovations of the Bank of Canada’s head office facility, the Bank of Canada Museum will be closed until July 2017.
- Visit the Royal Canadian Mint. Have you ever wondered how coins are made? Find out at the Royal Canadian Mint, Canada’s national mint, on historic Sussex Drive. Founded as a branch of the British Royal Mint in 1908, the Mint produces circulation coins for Canada and other countries, as well as commemorative coins sold worldwide. Since 1976, Canadian and foreign circulation coinage has been produced at the Royal Canadian Mint’s production plant in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Admission is $6 per adult ($4.50 on weekends); $3 per child 5-17 ($2.25 on weekends); $5 per senior 65 and over ($3.75 on weekends); $15 per family (2 adults, 4 children; $11.25 on weekends). Children 4 and under are free.
- Visit Rideau Hall. This historic site is home to Canada’s Governor General. The grounds are open daily from 8:00 a.m. to one hour before sunset. Free guided tours are available by reservation in the winter. And on Saturdays from early January to early March, you can take advantage of a charming skating rink, originally built in 1872 by Canada’s third Governor General, the Earl of Dufferin.
- If you’re an Ottawa resident, take advantage of the Museum privilege program at the Ottawa Public Library. The Library loans out family passes to several museums at no charge – all you need is a library card.
Ottawa has many affordable sightseeing options in the beautiful winter season!