Spanning all the way from Canada’s capital, Ottawa, to Kingston on the edge of Lake Ontario, the UNESCO Heritage-listed Rideau Canal is a historian’s dream, a nature lover’s paradise and an outdoor adventure playground.
Beautiful all year round, winter is when “the canal”—as it is known locally—truly shines through as one of Ontario’s most magical destinations, transforming into the equal-parts enchanting and exhilarating Rideau Canal Skateway, the largest outdoor ice rink in the world.
While Winterlude is probably the most famous, the Rideau Canal is also home to many other festivals, including the Limestone City Blues Festival, Merrickville Canal Fest, Perth Kilt Run and the Manotick Festival of Food.
The best place to experience the majesty of the Rideau Canal is actually in Ottawa itself, with lots of cool sites to visit in the city and close by. The capital offers many different ways to explore this epic feat of engineering, including boating, kayaking, stand up paddleboarding, cycling, walking and ice-skating.
If you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, you can rent a boathouse or bring a tent and spend a few days discovering all the different historic sites, parks and islands along the canal. It takes around 3-5 days to travel the entire 202 kilometres by boat, but you can also make a road trip out of it if boating isn’t quite your scene.
The scenic banks of the canal make perfect walking, cycling and in-line skating trails. Along the Rideau Canal Promenade, as it is also known, there are seven informative plaques located at Ottawa Locks, Shaw Centre Esplanade, Pretoria Bridge, Lansdowne Park, Dows Lake, Central Experiment Farm and Hartwells Lockstation.
Dows Lake—home of Ottawa’s Spring Tulip Festival—is a pretty place to visit, especially in the summer or in fall when the autumn colours are out. Just south of downtown, Prince of Wales Falls, or Hogs Back Falls as it’s known locally, marks the place where the Rideau Canal splits from the Rideau River.
Further out of the capital, Manotick, one of Ottawa’s rural suburbs, is a cute and quirky historical town with lots of interesting buildings centred around Rideau Canal, including the (supposedly) haunted Manotick Mill. Also located on the banks of the canal are two of Ontario’s prettiest villages, Merrickville and Perth, which are less than an hour’s drive from the city.
Other points of interest along the Rideau Canal include blockhouses, lockhouses, historic sawmills and ruins, old towns and heritage homes, including Wedding Cake Cottage. There are also dams, rapids, waterfalls, parks—like the beautiful Murphys Point Provincial Park—and plenty of wildlife.
The southern end of the Rideau Canal is also home to the Thousand Islands on the United States/Canadian border. One of Ontario’s most picturesque destinations, this popular holiday spot is home to some amazing sights of its own, from shipwrecks to giant castles towering above tiny islands.
For up-to-date information and details on the Rideau Canal, we recommend you visit their website. For information about other places of interest to explore nearby, keep scrolling to see what Destination Ontario recommends.
Some things to do may not be available due to COVID-19.
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More about Rideau Canal
One of the best things to do in Ottawa is visiting the Rideau Canal. Luckily, it’s right in the centre of downtown, meandering its way between Parliament Hill and Chateau Laurier, past the Bytown Museum (the oldest still-standing stone building in Ontario) and cascading down the iconic Ottawa Locks. Don’t miss the birds-eye view from the Plaza Bridge. You can also experience a different side of the capital by hopping on a scenic boat trip or renting kayaks, paddle boats or stand up paddleboards.
Every winter since 1971, the Rideau Canal has been transformed into a true winter wonderland—and the world’s largest ice-skating rink. Running from the Parliament Buildings down to the Hartwell Locks, the Rideau Canal Skateway is where the city truly comes to life, with over a million people gathering on the ice every year to skate, eat, drink and be merry.
The History of the Rideau Canal
Rideau Canal’s present is pretty pleasant, populated by pleasure craft and seasonal skaters, who flock to the frozen waterway in their thousands to glide along the ice with a hot chocolate or a mulled wine and a famous BeaverTail pastry. Its past, however, is a little murkier.
Referred to as a “masterpiece of creative genius” by UNESCO, who listed it as Ontario’s first World Heritage site in 2007, the story of Rideau Canal can be traced back to the War of 1812.
After the end of the war, the British colony of Upper Canada feared that the US would try to invade and sabotage their supply routes, so they invested in plenty of precautions—like Fort Henry and the Rideau Canal. The strategic point where the canal meets the Ottawa River—now Ottawa’s Parliament Hill—was originally planned as a big military fortress.
Supervised by British Royal Engineer, John By, construction on the challenging 202-kilometre-long canal began in 1826. It was carried out by thousands of Irish, French-Canadian and Algonquin labourers, who had to brave the unforgiving wilderness to dig out kilometres of the canal by hand. Though only a few died in accidents—a rarity for the time—many died from malaria. There is a Celtic cross at the Ottawa Locks commemorating those who lost their lives.
Upon completion of the Rideau Canal in 1832, By was sent back to London and forcibly retired as punishment for running over budget. While he didn’t receive any sort of official thanks, Bytown—which would go on to become Ottawa—and the ByWard Market neighbourhood are named in his honour. You can find out more about him and the history of the canal at the Bytown Museum.
Although it was (fortunately) never needed for its original purpose, once the Rideau Canal was up and running, it became a popular shipping route between Montreal and the Great Lakes, a nice and relaxing way to travel between cities, and a popular holiday and leisure spot, just as it is today.
Know Before You Go
- Ottawa’s bike/boat tours and sightseeing cruises usually run from May to October.
- You can rent paddle boats and kayaks at the Dows Lake Pavilion in Ottawa and many different points along the canal, including Perth and Kingston.
- You can rent houseboats from Seeley’s Bay or Smiths Falls between Ottawa and Kingston.
- The weather can change very quickly, so make sure you come prepared!
- The Rideau Canal Skateway is usually open from January to March every year, depending on conditions, and you can rent skates on the ice.