Exploring the Historic Rideau Canal in Ottawa: 4 Top Things to Do

Written by Bryan Dearsley
Updated Jul 26, 2021
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It is one of history's curiosities that a camp for 2,000 construction workers, led by Colonel John By, should eventually become the capital of Canada. Colonel By's Rideau Canal starts east of the Houses of Parliament, and connects the Ottawa River to the Rideau Valley through a system of locks before meandering some 200 kilometers south all the way to Lake Ontario.

The War of 1812, with the young United States, had shown how easily the U.S. could threaten the St. Lawrence. After the war, the Duke of Wellington dispatched scouts to Upper Canada to see if a solution could be found to the difficult situation.Colonel John By was sent to Canada in 1826 to oversee the building of a canal that would circumvent the dangerous waters of the St. Lawrence at Montréal and provide an alternative route for navigation as far as Lake Ontario, 200 kilometers to the southwest.

At the time of building (1826-32), the canal was a triumph of constructional engineering. More than four dozen dams were required to control the water levels, and the 83-meter ascent to the summit between Ottawa and Lake Ontario meant that boats had to pass through numerous locks.

The Parliament of Canada and the Rideau Canal
The Parliament of Canada and the Rideau Canal

Although steamers plied the canal for more than a hundred years, the waterway never came to have any major economic significance. Today, with its 24 operational locks, the canal is used mainly by pleasure boats and for tourism. The staircase of eight locks on Parliament Hill is certainly highly photogenic, and Ottawa's first stone building was on a site next to the canal. The Rideau's canal banks also provide space for all kinds of popular activities for Ottawa locals and tourists alike, from skating in winter to waterfront walks in summer.

Among the many interesting features on the Rideau Canal is the Stone Arch Dam at Jones Falls. Other attractions along the Jones Falls Locks include a lockmaster's house (built in 1841), the Blacksmith's shop (built in 1843), and Hotel Kenney, one of the oldest hotels in the area (built in 1888). Eight locks at the north end of the Rideau Canal, near the entrance to the Ottawa River, were completely overhauled some years ago. Known as the Ottawa Locks, the area has an interpretive trail running alongside the canal.

To help you make the most of your visit to what is one of Canada's most important man-made wonders, be sure to take a look at our list of the top things to do on and around the Rideau Canal.

1. Take a Cruise the Rideau Canal

Canal cruise boats on the Rideau Canal
Canal cruise boats on the Rideau Canal

A favorite means of exploring this magnificent feat of engineering is aboard an organized guided Rideau Canal cruise. The best of these come with an informative live commentary to ensure you don't miss a thing when it comes to learning about the canal's amazing history.

These 1.5-hour-long adventures provide a unique perspective of Ottawa, offering plenty of great views along the way of the city's top attractions. Your Ottawa sightseeing highlights include the famous Château Laurier hotel, the Canadian Museum of Nature, and the National Arts Centre, to name but a few of the 30 or so that you'll hear about. The journey also takes in a long stretch of the canal that encompasses the section from Dow's Lake all the way to the Ottawa River.

Address (Departures): 1 Elgin Street, Ottawa, Ontario

2. Skate the Rideau Canal Skateway

Skaters on Rideau Canal
Skaters on Rideau Canal

Canadians like winter — especially in Ottawa, home to the magnificent Rideau Canal Skateway. Billed as the world's largest skating rink, the Skateway is a 7.8-kilometer-long stretch of the Rideau Canal that freezes over each winter between January and March.

An estimated million skaters take advantage of this unique experience each season, enjoying the route as it winds its way through the city's downtown core. Some actually use it as a means to get to school or work. And you can be guaranteed a smooth skate, as Ottawa has developed a system to groom the route — no mean task, given it covers the equivalent area of some 90 or so hockey rinks.

For a super-memorable experience, be sure to try a night skate. After nightfall, the whole route is lit up, and as it's a 24-hour-a-day attraction, you can do it at less crowded times, too. A wide range of useful facilities are available to enhance the experience, including heated washrooms. Change rooms are also available, along with skate and sleigh rentals (the sleighs are great to pull kids).

Concession stands selling hot drinks and snacks are also easy to find along the route, including some that sell one of Canada's top sweet treats: Beavertails. Not unlike donuts and shaped like (you guessed it!) a beaver's tail, these long and flat pastries are usually served with sweet or savory toppings (though just plain ol' sugar works well!).

Official site: https://ncc-ccn.gc.ca/places/rideau-canal-skateway

3. Explore the Locks on the Rideau Canal in Summer

Rideau Canal locks
Rideau Canal locks

If you're planning on visiting Ottawa in the warmer months, be sure to allocate time to walk the pathways, parks, and gardens lining the Rideau Canal. A highlight of this extremely pleasant stroll is exploring the eight huge locks at the lower end of the canal, connecting it to the mighty Ottawa River.

Part of the fun is actually watching this mechanism being manually operated, cranked open, and shut by hardworking staff... and still working well after almost 140 years of operation. It's also fun simply sitting and enjoying a picnic while watching the boat traffic pass by, one lock at a time.

To learn more about the workings of the locks, some great displays can be enjoyed at the Parks Canada Lockstation.

For those planning on traveling outside of Ottawa, consider making the drive to the south end of the Rideau Canal in Kingston Ontario. This historic city was largely established to protect English trade routes along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, and later the Rideau. You'll want to head to Kingston Mills, a picturesque spot just seven kilometers from Kingston's downtown core, named after the original mill that was established here in the late 1700s. Highlights include the three locks themselves, a visitor's center, and one of the Rideau's original blockhouses.

Official site: www.pc.gc.ca/en/docs/r/on/rideau

4. Learn the History of the Rideau Canal at the BYTOWN MUSEUM

BYTOWN MUSEUM | Ken Lund / photo modified

Be sure to allocate a little time in your Ottawa travel itinerary to learn more about the history of this unique UNESCO World Heritage Site. A great place to visit for this is the canal-side BYTOWN MUSEUM.

This great little museum, housed in the city's oldest stone building, provides information related not just to the canal's construction, but also about the lives of the people involved, from those who designed it to those who did the hard work of building it (many of whom died in the process).

The building itself played a role in the story, as it was built and served as the construction project's storehouse and treasury. It's also a very pretty setting, constructed as it is close to the locks that lead to the Ottawa River.

Address: 1 Canal Lane, Ottawa, Ontario

Official site: www.bytownmuseum.com

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