Toronto to Ottawa road trip

When you embark on an exciting Toronto to Ottawa road trip, you have the opportunity to uncover some of Ontario’s hidden gems located between the two iconic Canadian cities. These small towns and provincial parks all boast their own charm, offering a glimpse into the rich tapestry of Ontario’s history, culture and natural beauty. Discover the delights of these smaller destinations and why they’re well worth a visit for a one-of-a-kind adventure.

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Franklin Island | Destination Ontario

Highway 401 route

Cobourg

About an hour and a half out east from Toronto, Cobourg is a small town with a renowned waterfront and charming historic district. 

Enjoy the sparkling blue waters and sandy shores of Cobourg Beach. This hidden gem is comprised of two beaches. The larger Victoria Park Beach is situated on the north side and features various events throughout the year. For a quieter experience, head to West Beach and its quaint boardwalk.

While in Cobourg, Ontario, make sure you stop by Cobourg’s Harbour, a 12-minute walk west of Cobourg Beach. Encircled by the East Pier and the West Headland, this picturesque harbour features a boat launch with canoes and kayaks. Gulls, ducks, mallards and geese are known to flock to the area, so if you love bird-watching, this is the perfect spot for you.

Tour the historic downtown sites like Victoria Hall, a 19th-century, neoclassical-style  building that serves as Cobourg’s town hall. Behind Victoria Hall, you’ll find the Old Market Building, a symbol of Cobourg’s economic prosperity in the 1850s.

Prince Edward County

The next recommended stop is Prince Edward County, one of Ontario’s most popular country getaway destinations. Amidst the seasonal May blooming of lilac hedges, you’ll find trendy bars like Adega Wine Bar and Old Salt Cocktails. This lush region has a diverse culinary scene, with a wide selection of restaurants, wineries and artisanal food producers that showcase the county’s unique flavours and ingredients.

Visit GOOD Place in Wellington for fresh vegan and gluten-free foods. Sip on locally roasted coffee or choose from a variety of teas and organic beverages. It’s open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, so stop by anytime for a healthy meal.

Dine on one of two outdoor patios at Vic Social, Picton’s retro hotspot for delicious foods and drinks with friends. Sample crab cakes, chicken tenders, burgers and more. Between meals, you’ll enjoy indoor and outdoor games, and on Fridays and Saturdays, you can hit up the dance floor to 80s and 90s music.

If you’re visiting between May and October, Sand and Pearl is a summertime favourite on the county’s South Shore. This restaurant offers exquisite lobster rolls cooked with hot butter, shucked oysters and fish and chips with locally caught pickerel.

Located in Hillier, Flossies Sandwiches uses herbs grown from the next-door Carson’s Garden Market along with artisanal cured meats to craft tasty sandwiches and burgers. Visit this food truck during the summer or winter, when it operates out of Carson’s Garden Market.

Another great stop in Prince Edward County includes the Wellington Farmers’ Market in Bloomfield, an outdoor market filled with farmers and small businesses selling fresh foods and locally made goods. It’s open between May and October.

The county is also known for its exceptional vineyards, thanks to the county’s limestone-rich soil and dedicated winemakers. Taste the amazing wine produced here at local wineries such as Waupoos Estate Winery, Closson Chase Vineyards, Huff Estates Winery, Sandbanks Winery and many others.

Visit the world’s largest baymouth barrier dune formation at Sandbanks Provincial Park. Consisting of three picturesque sandy beaches extending out from Lake Ontario, this family-friendly beach contains walking trails where you’ll experience the park’s unique dune and wetland habitats.

If you want more time to explore this incredible county, spend the night at one of the best places to stay in Prince Edward County, ranging from the artsy Drake Devonshire to the elegant Royal Hotel.

Kingston

Your next stop is Kingston, roughly halfway between Toronto and Ottawa. This vibrant city was the first capital of the Province of Canada and played a significant role in Canadian history. Here, you’ll discover a mix of historic landmarks, scenic views and a touch of fine arts and culture.

Fort Henry is a must-see destination in Kingston that attracts visitors from around the world. Built to replace the original fortification from the War of 1812, this National Historic Site is perched atop Point Henry and was a major stop for the supply route between Montreal, Ottawa and various towns in the west. After falling into disrepair, the fort was restored in the 1930s as a museum and historic site. When it’s open during the summer, you can experience 19th-century military life with guided tours and riveting performances by the internationally acclaimed Fort Henry Guard.

Drive to the other side of the Great Cataraqui River to reach Kingston Penitentiary, Canada’s oldest penitentiary. From 1867 to 2013, it housed some of this country’s most notorious inmates. Step inside these inmates’ lives by taking a guided tour through the institution’s living and working areas, listening to tales from former staff and visiting room highlights like North Gate and cell range.

Immerse yourself in Kingston’s bustling arts and culture scene. Gallery Raymond is the city’s massive commercial gallery, boasting over 400 works of art and representing a diverse group of local artists. Bi-monthly exhibitions are held to showcase new artists’ works to the community. Walk through the colourful Martello Alley, an art-themed historic alley in downtown Kingston where you’ll find original and printed artwork, plus the opportunity to meet and chat with the artists on-site. Or explore cutting-edge modern art at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre. In this sophisticated art centre, view a wide range of Canadian historical art, Indigenous art, African art and more, including over 500 works by the famous Dutch painter Rembrandt.

If you’re planning to stay overnight, browse through these great places to stay in Kingston.

1000 Islands

Continue driving for about half an hour northeast from Kingston to reach the 1000 Islands. Home to famous castles, diverse ecosystems and breathtaking natural beauty, this stunning region offers a captivating blend of history, ecology and scenic splendor.

Your visit to the 1000 Islands isn’t complete without taking a trip with 1000 Islands Cruises, the premiere cruise line in the 1000 Islands region. Find the boarding pier in downtown Kingston, with tickets purchasable at Waterfront Gifts & Apparel. See Kingston’s top waterfront sights on the one-hour Discovery Cruise or take in the best views of the 1000 Islands with the popular three-hour Heart of the Islands Cruise. This Thousand Islands boat tour sails from April to October.

If you want to get even closer to nature, drive 40 minutes northeast to reach Thousand Islands National Park. Explore stunning granite islands and rugged shorelines by boat or take a tour through the park’s wooded trails. You can even stay here overnight with Parks Canada’s oTENTiks, private retreats that resemble a cross between a tent and a rustic cabin.

Climb up the 1000 Islands lookout tower, open between May and October. The tower’s elevator lifts you to the 130-metre-high observation deck in 40 seconds, where you’ll take in incredible panoramic views of the 1000 Islands and the St. Lawrence River. If you’re seeking spectacular aerial views, try the 1000 Islands Helicopter Tour. There are a variety of comfortable hotels, inns and bed & breakfasts throughout this beautiful region. Discover the top places to stay in the 1000 Islands.

Frontenac Provincial Park

About a 45-minute drive north of Kingston, Frontenac Provincial Park is a 5,355-hectare, four-season backcountry recreation playground for adventurers of all ages. This park is open year-round and offers various seasonal activities. Embrace the thrill of hiking, snowshoeing or cross-country skiing through the snowdrifts or observe the diverse bird species flying through the trees.

48 interior campsites populate the park, with campsite reservations available online or by phone up to five months in advance. You’ll need an interior camping permit for backcountry camping in the park.

Elgin

A small community in the heart of Ontario’s corn country, Elgin emerges as a hidden gem that invites you to explore beyond its tranquil landscapes. A perfect example of an Ontario small town, this charming enclave was settled in the early 1800s and has since grown to become the most prominent village in South Crosby Township. The community is about a 40-minute drive northeast of Kingston.

Marvel at Elgin’s Jones Falls Locks, one of the 45 locks along the Rideau Canal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These locks are designed to raise and lower boats between different water levels. Originally built for military purposes, today the lock system is used for recreational boating. Visit the Jones Falls Locks’ stone arch dam, blacksmith’s forge and lockstation office from the falls’ lockstation, situated at the southern end of Sand Lake.

Highway 401 insider tips

  • If you need a vehicle, check out some trusted car rental companies in Toronto such as Hertz, Enterprise Rent-A-Car and Budget Canada.
  • Keep an eye out for ONroute signs along Highway 400 and 401. These helpful signs tell you the distance of the next ONroute stop, which contain food and beverage options, gas stations and other amenities you’ll need during your Ontario road trip.
  • If possible, avoid driving on Highway 401 during rush hour (approximately 6:00 to 9:00 a.m. as well as 3:00 to 7:00 p.m.) You can also watch the display signs above the highway, which provide live updates about which lanes are moving the fastest, with the least delays.
  • If you’re driving an electric vehicle, you can stop at various e-car charging stations located in Toronto, Kingston, Prince Edward County and Ottawa. Find the charging locations where you’re going.

Highway 7 route

Highway 7 is ideal for anyone with extra time to take the scenic route with sunlight and rolling hills between Toronto and Ottawa. Formerly known as the Northern Highway, this captivating route is 535 kilometres long, with the eastern section stretching from Markham to Ottawa. Along this quiet, slow route cutting through dense forest and rural farmland, you’ll pass by several historic small towns and villages that welcome all visitors. Each stop tells a story, leaving an indelible mark on your journey.

Peterborough

Peterborough is one of the largest cities in the Kawartha Lakes region and is renowned for its awe-inspiring lakes and rivers. One of the most famous attractions in Peterborough is the Canadian Canoe Museum, which features the history of early settlers and Indigenous culture through the world’s biggest collection of canoes, kayaks and paddled watercraft. Note that the museum is currently closed as it is moving to a new location. It is set to reopen in winter 2024—check the museum website for up-to-date information.

Towering at almost 20 metres tall, the Peterborough Lift Lock is a giant concrete structure capable of carrying boats up to nearly 20 metres, making it the highest lift lock in the world. Situated on the Trent-Severn Waterway, this engineering marvel includes a visitor centre where you can learn about the team that built this lift lock, plus a gift shop for you to get souvenirs.

Perth

Situated about an hour’s drive southwest of Ottawa, Perth is known for its theatres, art galleries and outdoor adventure. This small town is also home to a number of noteworthy attractions like the Perth Museum, Hall of Remembrance, the Mammoth Cheese and the Courthouse Cannons.

Other small towns

There are several other small towns along Highway 7 where you can pop in for a sightseeing break. As a former major train station, Havelock’s Lions Millennium Park features an old yellow caboose with a nearby farmers’ market that operates on Fridays. The Marmora Mine in Marmora is an abandoned iron ore mine that contains a treasure trove of glimmering minerals like garnet and pyrite. Explore the charming town of Tweed by participating in the Fire Hydrant Tour, which sees numerous fire hydrants painted with whimsical designs every year. Or head to Balderson, located a short drive northwest of Perth, and visit the Balderson Village Cheese Store—a former cheesemaking plant that produces the finest cheeses with the company’s century-long cheese-making techniques.

Bon Echo Provincial Park

From Highway 7, turn left onto Highway 41 (following signs for Eganville) and you’ll find Bon Echo Provincial Park. Known for its breathtaking natural beauty and craggy landscapes, this scenic park is the perfect place for both history and outdoor enthusiasts. It showcases the 100-metre-high Mazinaw Rock, inscribed with hundreds of red ochre Indigenous pictographs that you can view by canoe or kayak. These numerous stylized human, spirit and animal figures were designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1982.

Bon Echo Provincial Park also boasts an assorted collection of wildlife and lakes, with a diverse range of outdoor activities including biking, birding, canoeing, fishing and hiking. If you’d like to take your nature escape to the next level, use the park’s myriad of camping options such as backcountry campsites, campgrounds for car camping, roofed accommodations and RV camps.

Don’t have a car? Consider taking the VIA Rail train from Toronto to Ottawa. This train leaves from Toronto’s Union Station seven times on most days and stops in Port Hope, Cobourg, Belleville, Kingston, Smiths Falls and other quaint cities and towns. Enjoy a comfortable and hassle-free travel experience, where you can admire the scenery without the stress of driving.

The best road trips from Toronto to Ottawa are not only about reaching your destination but also the memorable adventures to small towns and nature parks to enjoy in between.

Last updated: April 18, 2024

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