25/04/2024

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Top Free Things For Families To Do In Ottawa

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Top Free Things For Families To Do In Ottawa

Canada’s heritage capital, Ottawa, is a fantastic place to visit as a family. In fact, it was recently ranked as the 2nd most family-friendly city in Canada.

Why the high ranking for families? Ottawa offers travelers a relaxed and laid-back vibe, historic architecture to explore, lots of great restaurants and cafes, and is all surrounded by some of the best views you can get of Canada’s natural landscapes. It’s the center of Canadian history, culture, and politics, having been incorporated as a city in 1855 before Canada was even named a country.

Today, Ottawa is known for many things, particularly its political institutions, government buildings, arts scene, Victorian-styled architecture, and of course, the parks. This is one of the biggest draws for family travelers: Ottawa offers access to over 1,300 well-kept parks sprawled across the city. For families who are looking for a location that is great for history buffs, nature lovers, and kids alike, this is the city for you.

As you know, traveling as a family can be very expensive. Thankfully, this doesn’t have to be the case with Canada’s capital- a huge benefit for families traveling to Ottawa is that there are many free activities and experiences to participate in, whatever season you are coming to the city. The only difficulty is finding the time to do it all, and deciding what time of year to visit.

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Winter

Snow on the ground and cold breezes biting the air may make you want to stay inside, but staying inside means you’ll miss all that Ottawa has to offer in the winter months, like sports, views, and, of course, trying the iconic Beavertails treat. So how do you even decide which experiences to take part in as a family? Below are a few tips to start your winter adventure in Ottawa.

The Rideau Canal

The Rideau Canal

The Rideau Canal is Ottawa’s most famous tourist attraction for good reason. Every year, Ottawa transforms the canal that runs through the middle of the city into the world’s largest skating rink. It is incredible to see when it is complete: 7.8 kilometers (4.8 miles) of open skating through the downtown core of Ottawa. This site is coming up on its 53rd season of being open to the public and has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It’s free to travelers, though while you’re on the ice, you can rent skates or purchase beavertails. This fluffy pastry complements any Canadian outdoor adventure and is a great incentive for your little ones who might be getting tired out on the ice.

Winterlude

Winterlude is another of those experiences that you have to see to believe. Running through the first few weekends in February every year, Winterlude is a festival that transforms Ottawa’s downtown core into a true winter wonderland. Drawing in an average of 600,000 visitors each year, Winterlude is an amazing place to experience the wonders of a Canadian winter.

For activities, you can’t miss the annual ice sculpture competition or the live music and cultural shows that take place along the canal and in the confederation park. Plus, there are even snow-themed activities for the kids. The best part: Winterlude is a free event, so your whole family can come and enjoy it.

Sledding

Now, especially if you’re visiting Ottawa from an area that doesn’t have a lot of snow in the winter, you know your kids won’t want to miss an opportunity to try out a snow sport. However, skiing can be expensive, especially if you rent equipment for the whole family. Thankfully, Canada’s capital offers some of the best sledding in the region so that you can get thrills on the hills that are similar to skiing, but at a fraction of the cost.

If you’re looking to go sledding, there are some great hills to try not far from downtown, like the one in Carlington Park or Grasshopper Hill. Access to these popular sledding areas is free; if you’ve traveled without a sled, you can purchase a relatively cheap one at a nearby Walmart or sporting goods store.

Spring

Spring in Ottawa means the snow is fading, the blossoms are beginning to come out on the trees, and the hibernating animals are creeping out of their dens. Springtime is a fantastic time to visit Ottawa, as there are many beautiful sights to see and activities to try – not to mention, spring is maple syrup season in Eastern Ontario, the best time to hit a sugar bush and try some of Canada’s finest. Spring travel doesn’t have to break the bank for your family either, as there are plenty of things to see and try for free. A few of the best options are listed below.

Waterfalls

Waterfalls

The rising water levels throughout the season mean that waterfalls have their highest level and flow rate in spring, so this is the best time to explore one of Ottawa’s many beautiful waterfalls. Specifically, Hog’s Back Falls offers some of the best waterfall viewing in the city – plus many picnic tables nearby to set up for a sunny spring afternoon in the park. Rideau Falls is another waterfall iconic of Ottawa – located in the beautiful area of New Edinburgh in Ottawa; it flows into the Ottawa River and offers gorgeous downtown Ottawa views. Doing some waterfall chasing with the family is an underrated and free Ottawa spring activity.

Sparks Street

Sparks Street

Sparks Street was formerly the main street in downtown Ottawa, just a block away from Parliament, and became the first street converted into a pedestrian mall back in 1967. It is the center of both heritage Ottawa’s attractions and pedestrian tourism in the city, and springtime is one of the best times to visit this area, as this is when the patios begin to open up, and the street performers start to come out. Some festivals come throughout the year to Sparks, like the above image from Ribfest 2023. So, if you’re looking for Ottawa’s heritage charm, shopping, tours, and dining, Sparks is a primary street to check out on your next trip to Ottawa.

Tulip Festival

Tulip Festival

Tulip Fest is Ottawa’s longest-running and largest-attended event, so it is, of course, the most well-known of the city’s spring attractions. However, if you’ve never heard of it, it is an 11-day festival in May in Commissioners Park in downtown Ottawa. The festival is dedicated to Canadian culture and the beauty of the downtown core, where over 300,000 tulips bloom each year. There are different events and activities like walking tours, outdoor movies, and the grand finale fireworks show.

However, the most memorable part of the festival is simply wandering around and viewing the beauty of the tulips, which are spread out all over the downtown areas, especially in the Dow’s Lake and Rideau Canal areas. Tulip Festival is one of the few free internationally renowned events and is worth a special trip to Ottawa to see. Just refrain from picking the flowers and opt to take pictures instead so everyone can enjoy the beautiful natural event.

Tulip Festival

Summer

Now, we come to the most popular tourist season in Ottawa – the summer. During this season, the city comes alive, and it swells with enthusiasm that the cold weather has faded. Patios are open, beaches are vibrant, and public parks are full of families and people looking to get out and enjoy the sun. As can be imagined, there are many fun and free outdoor activities to participate in this time of year.

The Rideau Canal

The Rideau Canal

No, you’re not seeing things; the Rideau Canal is on this list twice. First, it’s beautiful every season, and while skating on it in the winter is a worthwhile experience, those who love the summer season appreciate the canal the most in the warmer months. You can walk, bike, or even rent e-scooters, (if your kids are a bit older, at least 16) to check out the length of the canal. I recommend starting at the locks across from the Chateau Laurier to view the boats coming in and out of this historic canal.

Here, you can also visit the old Bytown Museum, located right next to the locks, to find out the history and fun facts about the waterway – for example, did you know the Rideau Canal is the oldest operating canal system in North America? The Bytown Museum also offers some free admission days during the season, so stay on top of those by checking out their website.

Beaches

Is there anything better than lounging on sandy beaches when the sun beats down? Ottawa offers some great beach options spread out all around the valley. The first beach that comes to mind worth checking out is Mooney’s Bay Park, located on the Rideau River, another waterway that cuts through Ottawa. This beach is the largest in Ottawa, offering lots of sandy areas, some volleyball courts, tennis courts, and a large playground nearby for the kids. Note that this park can get pretty busy in the summer, so I recommend showing up early in the morning if you want a good parking spot. There are also some notable beaches in nearby Gatineau Park that I recommend looking into, such as the main beach at La Pêche, the largest lake in the vast national park.

Sound of Light Fireworks Show

Free summer fireworks show – do I need to say more? Every year, the Casino du Lac Leamy plays host to the Sound of Light Fireworks competition, which takes place throughout August. Many countries come together to present their fireworks shows for the occasion – this year, expect custom shows from Italy, South Africa, and more. Keep in mind that the actual fireworks competition is a paid event (General admission is $14.50, and children’s tickets are $6.50). Still, you can see the fireworks for free from many different vantage points in downtown Ottawa, like Major’s Hill Park or the plateau in front of the Parliament buildings. The fireworks competition is a great way for travelers to end their summer vacation in Ottawa.

Local Farmer’s Market

You may not think at first glance that this metropolis has any farms nearby, so you will be pleasantly surprised by the plethora of fresh produce and local goods offered at Ottawa’s Farmers’ Markets. With five locations spread around the city, including Lansdowne, Grande Allée Park, Westboro, Orleans, and Barrhaven, it will be hard to miss a market in the summer season. Whether you pick up some local favorites, a snack to go to, or just do some window shopping, be sure to strike up a conversation with the vendors who are always happy to share the story of their farm’s heritage or how they started their small business.

Fall

You may already be trying to plan out your family’s spooky-season getaway for later this year. Look no further because Ontario is one of the best places to experience the season. From the misty fall mornings to the colorful leaves blowing around to the fun outdoor activities and wilderness experiences, Ottawa has everything you need to experience the season fully. So if it’s Ottawa fall vibes you’re looking for, check out the hot sights and experiences below.

Gatineau Park

Gatineau Park

There aren’t many sights more beautiful in the fall season than Gatineau Park; it is the perfect spot to explore the changing colors. It’s the largest park in the region and is the second-most visited in all of Canada for a reason. Gatineau Park is where you can experience the many wonders of nature and sweeping views created by the Canadian Shield while also exploring some pieces of Canadian history, like the former prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s sprawling estate.

For the best fall views, I recommend the Champlain lookout, pictured above, or the Meech Creek Valley hiking trail. Gatineau Park is free to visit, although some parking areas require payment to access. If you want to check out the Champlain lookout, one of the park’s most expansive views, a free weekday and holiday shuttle service is available from downtown Ottawa.

Ottawa’s Museums

Ottawa’s Museums

As mentioned above, Ottawa is the epicenter of Canadian history. Because of this, it has put a lot of effort into creating some amazing museums for both travelers and locals to experience. Ottawa has seven of Canada’s nine total national museums. So, whether you’re interested in art, history (like the Canadian Museum of History, pictured above), science and technology, nature, history of war, agriculture and food, or even aviation and space, Ottawa has a museum for you.

As the weather begins to cool in the fall and the crowds at these museums start to settle, it represents an ideal opportunity for travelers to experience the museums. Now, these museums require paid entry, but many offer a free hour to visitors at the end of some weekdays. (Hint: The Canadian Children’s Museum offers a free admission period, with reservations, between 5 and 7 PM on Thursdays.)

Hiking Trails

Hiking trails

The fall is probably the best time of year to get out and hike in Canada – the weather is temperate, and the views are outstanding. Thankfully, Ottawa has many hiking trails for travelers to take advantage of year-round. One of the best is definitely in the Mer Bleue Conservation Area, a piece of land in Ottawa East dedicated to the wildlife that lives in Canada’s bog wetland areas. It offers a great loop on a relaxing boardwalk, with views of wildlife and nature scenes all around. Likewise, the Jack Pine trail provides a great boardwalk and a true escape to nature, even while surrounded by the city. These trails are both very easy for families to traverse together (The Mer Bleue Boardwalk is even stroller-friendly.)

As can be seen, there are many excellent free activities, experiences, and sights to see in the vibrant city of Ottawa. This list is not exhaustive, but these are some of my top picks for things you shouldn’t miss while here with the family. If you’re looking for a great central place to stay and explore the city from, feel free to check out Accora Village’s short-term apartment rentals, located in Ottawa’s west end. Whatever season you choose to visit Ottawa, your family is sure to be greeted by incredible views, experiences, and some of the friendliest people around. See you soon, eh?

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