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 temperature drops during the colder Canadian months, the city 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:
- From Dec. 4 to 31, 2017, you can see seven tipis lit up in the evenings on the grounds of the Canadian Museum of History. They serve as indigenous symbols in the lead up to Nimidiwin: Celebrating Our Dance from Coast to Coast to Coast, a family-friendly event taking place on Dec. 31 (4:00 p.m.-5:30 p.m.). This free New Year’s Eve event celebrates First Nations through live performances, dance, drum and song, as well as fireworks!
- From December 7, 2017 to January 7, 2018, stroll around Ottawa’s downtown to see hundreds of thousands of twinkling lights, and head to Parliament Hill for the magical Winter Lightscapes multimedia show projected on Centre Block – all part of the Christmas Lights Across Canada program!
- Skate on the first ever skating rink in front of Parliament Hill! From Dec. 7, 2017 to Feb. 28, 2018, the site will be bustling with skating, special guests, as well as a variety of exciting events. For instance, on Dec. 9-10, you can enjoy free samples of northern cuisine prepared by top chefs. On Dec. 10, there will also be fun programming for Canada 150 Skating Day. And on Dec. 15, watch Team Alfredsson and Team Phillips play in the Ottawa Senators Alumni Game. For the full list of events, visit the Canadian Heritage event calendar as well as the Canada 150 Rink website. The Canada 150 Rink website contains all the information you need about rink accessibility and how to reserve free skating passes which are released 48 hours prior to each available date. You can bring your skates and helmets or rent some on site.
- Bid farewell to an epic year of celebration by spending New Year’s Eve on Parliament Hill! Gather with friends and family for daytime activities and entertainment including music, dancing and First nations culture, and stay for the Canada 150 Closing Party on the Hill in the evening for DJs, a live performance by Canada’s own hip-hop ambassador Kardinal Offishall, pyrotechtics, and a laser show just before midnight.
- 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 rink 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, another refrigerated ice rink located at 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 for public skating sessions. Public Skating Information Line – 613-580-2666.
- 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 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! Gatineau Park is also a cross-country skier’s dream, though a Cross-Country Ski Pass is required to use the ski trails in the winter season. However, you can…
- Go cross-country skiing (and more) in Ottawa, and in the nearby countryside! The popular Sir John A. Macdonald Winter Trail (known locally as the SJAM Trail) grooms tracks for snowshoeing, walking and fat biking for 16 km (10 miles) along the Ottawa River running westward from the Canadian War Museum, near downtown. And the Greenbelt area encircling Ottawa offers over 150 km (93 miles) of cross-country ski trails. You can use the trails for free and all are suitable for beginner and family outings.
- 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.
- Visit the interior of Parliament Hill. Free guided tours are available almost every day of the year (though tours 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, the Canada Aviation and Space Museum and the Canada Science and Technology Museum offer free admission daily between 4:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m.
- The Bank of Canada Museum (formerly the Currency Museum of the Bank of Canada) reopened on July 1, 2017 in a totally renovated building. People of all ages can create their own avatar and learn about the important role they play in the economy through hands-on interactive exhibits. Admission to the museum is always free!
- Visit the Royal Canadian Mint. Have you ever wondered how coins are made? Find out at 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 is a very pedestrian-friendly city, but if you’re looking to venture outside of the downtown core, opt to take the city bus operated by OC Transpo. The OC Transpo DayPass can be purchased for $10.50 CDN and entitles you to unlimited same-day travel on the bus as well as on the O-Train, Ottawa’s light rail project in the west end.
For more free fun, check out our list of top places to photograph in winter!