Visitor’s Guide to a Winter Weekend in Ottawa
Originally from Windsor, Ontario, Ottawa offers everything I could have hoped for in the city. The streets are busy but traffic is not too overwhelming. There are countless restaurants to try, including some great neighbourhood spots. Ottawa has a lot of green space throughout the city. It has the amenities of a big city yet often feels like a charming small town.
I feel unbelievably blessed to have relocated to the vibrant capital city of Canada. One of the perks to being a newcomer to Ottawa, but a native to Ontario, is that I get to share my love for the city with my family and friends who visit from out of town.
This January, a couple friends visited for a weekend, and I felt the excitement of planning our must-sees during their stay. Are you wondering, as a visitor, what are the top priorities to see in Ottawa during this time of year? Are you a local wanting to act like a tourist in your town? If yes, this is the itinerary for you.
In Preparation: Food & Drinks
One of the best ways to get a feel for a city is through their cuisine. With less than 48 hours to impress and provide a true Ottawa experience, I bought some treats in advance.
My errands for the weekend began in Hintonburg at Suzy Q Doughnuts. You can now find their doughnuts throughout the city in places such as Little Victories Coffee, Grounded Kitchen or on Algonquin college campus! I purchased half a dozen different donuts, including their sugar munkki and cookies n’ cream flavours. The maple bacon is a must if you’re wanting the ultimate Canadian experience.
We anticipated eating out for dinner this weekend, but breakfast eats were required, so I stopped by Cadman’s Montreal Bagels. Founded in Ottawa, the bagels are hand rolled, Montreal style. I sniped the last chocolate chip bagel to go, along with my assortment, and some of their home made cream cheese spread. Kettleman's Bagel Co. is also an excellent local option.
My next errand was the LCBO. I chose to get a variation of local Ottawa beers for my friends to enjoy. Some Ottawa beer brands I purchased from the LCBO include Kichesippi, Beau’s, Beyond the Pale and Whitewater.
Last but not least, a Farm Boy stop! Farm Boy is my go-to grocery store for fresh produce and meat. In addition to the essentials, I bought my favourite Farm Boy brand corn and black bean salsa and pineapple salsa.
It was a unanimous decision that we stay in Friday night and relax, since my friends landed on a night time flight. Good thing I was prepared with drinks and snacks!
Of course, I had backup ideas if the plan ended up being to go out. My bar options for Friday included;
- The Third in Hintonburg. The Third has a simple, affordable menu and the food is quality. They also host Karaoke Fridays!
- Heart and Crown. An Ottawa staple and a relaxed pub environment. All four locations have live music on Friday nights.
- A Preston Street pub crawl. First stop; Pub Italia. Pub Italia is a surprising restaurant/bar to visit for the first time, combining Italian eats with biblical décor. Other nearby stops would include the Moonroom for a cocktail, Mati for a late-night drink and app, and the Prescott for a meatball sandwich.
A Winter Activity
The weather was on our side, as a portion of the Rideau Canal Skateway was open for skaters. The open portion was between Pretoria and Lansdowne. We drove into the Glebe neighbourhood, parking on fifth street, as the ‘Fifth’ section of the canal has both a resting area, and skate rental. After skating the open sections in their entirety, we rested by the bonfire with a Beavertail and a hot chocolate. Beavertails originated in Ottawa, and is an iconic Canadian pastry.
We had backup plans, if the canal happened to be closed. A great winter experience is renting snow shoes in Gatineau park. There are certain trails in Gatineau Park where you can enjoy a winter hike, or go cross country skiing.
A nearby activity I have yet to experience myself is Patinage En Foret. This 3km skating trail in Quebec is about 45 minutes from Ottawa. It is on my to-do list this winter to skate through the forest. You can purchase tickets online here, or cash only on site.
If timing works out that you are in Ottawa to experience Winterlude, you’ll have all the winter fun you could imagine. Ice sculptures, Canadian treats, interactive light displays, snow tubing, live music and events… people come visit from all over the country and the world to experience this annual winter festival.
What is a visit to Ottawa without a stop at Parliament? We opted for a quick photo stop, as the negative 20-degree Celsius temperature was starting to wear on us after the skating. There are indoor tours of Parliament year-round, and various events take place on Parliament Hill throughout the year; fireworks, light shows, even outdoor yoga in the summer.
The Ottawa sign is another well-known photo location in Ottawa, since it was erected in 2017 for Canada’s 150th birthday. Situated across the street from Major Hill Park, the current permanent Ottawa sign was unveiled in December 2019. It has an internal lighting system, allowing the letters to glow different colours.
Regardless of your main reason for visiting the Byward Market, it is a must stop while spending time in the capital. There are local shops, great eats, and many photo opportunities.
Click here to read my highlights of the Byward Market. For a list of great local shops downtown, found in or near Byward Market, click here.
Chateau Lafayette (The Laff)
The Laff is one of those bars where you feel comfortable, no matter who you are. As Ottawa’s oldest bar, it is as much a tourist stop as a pub. Full of history, and on Saturday afternoons… Lucky Ron fans. Timing worked out perfectly that we ended up at the Laff just before 4:00pm, the anticipated start time for Lucky Ron’s show. He is somewhat of a local legend in Ottawa, and has only missed one Saturday show at the Laff since his debut there in 1999.
We each grabbed a quart of beer (except the driver) and a snack as we relaxed and enjoyed the show. Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay for the second set, as the show started just before 5:00pm and we had a full night out to organise. Read more about the Laff’s nightly specials and shows, here.
Saturday Night Out
We had already planned to do a sort of bar hop for Saturday, to hit some of our favourite places in a certain area. The original idea was a night on Elgin Street; Citizen & Town, The Waverley, The Lieutenant’s Pump, The Manx Pub, Charlotte… All are within walking distance. Elgin street has a lot of nearby options so that if some place is too busy, or you want to mix it up, you can walk a block or two and find somewhere else fun.
As fate would have it, there was a snow storm that afternoon and we opted to go out closer to home – in our case, West of downtown. I love the Hintonburg area because you could have multiple nights out there and have completely different experiences. Our priority was filling food, good drinks and to end the night dancing.
Our night began with dinner at Taqueria La Bonita for some Mexican food and cocktails. Their colourful cocktails always impress me, layered with multiple pieces of fruit. We were all a bit surprised when our cocktails arrived at the table, forgetting what exactly we ordered. Too big to hold with one hand, I enjoyed the largest fish bowl drink I have ever seen. The fishbowl contained about 4oz of tequilia, and a full bottle of Corona, topped off with flavourful juices and fruit.
Carben Food and Drink is a great alternative dinner spot if you want fine dining nearby. The Third and the Hintonburg Public House are also viable dinner options.
After dinner, we made our way down the street and through the snow to Tooth and Nail Brewing Company. A cozy, playful brewery with a simple tasty menu and unique beers. About half of their seating is family style, so say hey to someone new. They offer a shelf of board games to play while you’re there, resulting in my losing multiple games, including Snakes and Ladders.
Back down the street we went, to end the night with some dancing at Elmdale Oyster House and Tavern. The Elmdale Tavern used to be seen as a sort of dive bar, but feels welcoming and comfortable nowadays. Typically, it offers fine dining tavern food, with different specials daily. The Saturday ‘special’ happens to be a DJ. Tables are moved aside for a dance floor. Note, there is a cover charge of $5 on Saturdays.
Sunday morning depends on how Saturday night went, and for us it meant a slow start with a light breakfast at home. If you’re looking for great brunch in Ottawa I recommend Chesterfield’s Gastro Diner, Mati, Stonefaced Dollys, Jax or Mazarine.
It’s not just a spa, it’s an experience. I would plan on spending longer than anticipated at spa Nordik. My out of town friends packed up their things, with a plan of leaving directly from the spa to the Ottawa International Airport that afternoon. The more time at the spa, the better. Reservations are now required. They currently have on site kiosks for registration once you arrive, if you forget in advance.
During check in, they go through the various spa options quite quickly, make sure to have them repeat an option if you need. You will need to rent a bathrobe if you have not brought your own. Bring sandals or water shoes; you can purchase a Nordik pair, but it is more likely to be lost in the piles of black flip flops. Once you check in, grab a towel and head outside for the thermal experience.
Stay hydrated. If you don’t bring your own water bottle, look for the water fountains throughout the spa. The spa is phone free, and they do not have many clocks on site. Make sure you’re eating and staying hydrated, as you’ll likely lose all concept of time. I have spent an easy 5 hours here, without visiting every area or pool the spa offers.
There are three overall sections of the spa, the whisper section, silent and the social area. The silent section seems ideal if you were alone, but with a group it’s nice to begin in the whisper section with the various pools, saunas and steam rooms, finishing in the social section. We experienced the Aufguss ritual, in the Finlandia sauna. I highly recommend joining the performance; if you hear the gong head to the sauna for an enhanced thermal experience – a ‘ritual of sight, scent and feel.’
We each got lunch – grilled cheese or vegan chili – and a cocktail at the Biërgarden. This is the most casual spot to eat at spa Nordik. It is also next to the infinity pool, in the Panorama area, meaning we brought our cocktails into the warm pool, with a view over Gatineau.
A full day spent at the spa is heavenly, but not everyone’s cup of tea. Alternatively, Ottawa (and Gatineau) has many museums to visit. The National Art Gallery, The Canadian War Museum, The Canadian Museum of History and the Royal Canadian Mint, are just a few museums you can visit nearby.
If you’re touring with animal lovers, Parc Omega is only about an hour drive from Ottawa, located in Montebello, Quebec. This national reserve is open year-round, but is a special experience in the snow. You will likely see more animals in the winter, and are able to snow shoe on site. Enjoy the car tour, where you observe wild, native animals from the comfort of your car. Bring carrots, or purchase some there, to feed the boars and various deer species. Gift shops, restaurants, trails and other activities on site.
Ottawa is an exciting city to visit, or revisit as a local. With numerous areas and events to explore, your toughest decision will be what you do not have time for! Enjoy your next weekend here.