Everything You Need to Know Before Skating the Rideau Canal in Ottawa

Skating the Rideau Canal is a Canadian bucket list experience!

I grew up in skates, like most Canadian kids. As soon as the first frost covered the ground, we were lacing up our skates and heading to the rinks. Tying skates was how I learned to tie my shoes (which led to some serious circulation issues before I learned shoes shouldn’t be tied like skates).

When I left Canada behind, I left skating, too.

It had been nearly a decade since I’d tugged leather laces tight on gleaming white figure skates.

But in a move to embrace my new life in Ottawa and my first winter in 3 years, I decided it was time to lace up.

I fell in love with skating again thanks to the Rideau Canal in Ottawa. This natural skateway helped me find my love of winter, of Canada, and of adventure sports in winter.

If you want to fall in love too, keep reading this guide on how to enjoy Rideau Canal skating this winter.

The Longest Natural Ice Rink in The World

Ottawa may be Canada’s capital, filled with gorgeous architecture and towering parliament buildings.

But that’s not it’s biggest draw. That would be the Rideau Canal.

In winter, the canal that circles downtown Ottawa freezes to become the longest natural ice rink in the world. It’s a UNESCO site that draws millions of visitors every year.

Skating the Rideau Canal is a bucket list activity for most people. Adventure travellers flock to the natural rink to race along the ice. Families bring children to enjoy the free energy-burner and to sample sugary beaver tails. Couples hold hands as they glide along the icy path.

The canal isn’t just an attraction: it becomes a winter highway.

Drivers avoid the roads where snowdrifts blow a constant flurry onto the pavement. Instead, they lace up their skates in their suits, briefcases balanced on the public benches beside them.

They push off the ice, slipping through the morning traffic of speed skaters and early risers to glide to work.

My mom used to tell me how she skated to university when she lived in Ottawa. I thought she was an outlier until I saw the skates tied to backpacks as students wandered Carleton campus or grabbed some groceries before heading home.

Where to Stay in Ottawa

Find the best neighbourhoods to stay at in Ottawa or check out the following hotels:

Preparing for Ice Skating in Ottawa

Winter in Ottawa means embracing the cold.

You’ll see people wandering downtown with cross country skis slung over their shoulders or snowshoes under their arm as they order a coffee.

I couldn’t fight the pull any longer. After a month of living in the frozen tundra of our capital, I bought my first pair of skates in years.

I’d already bought a dozen layers to pack for a Canadian winter (because I continue to call my life in Canada a visit and not settling down). So, I might as well make use of those layers by adventuring into the cold weather activities that made up my childhood!

Somewhere during the last decade, someone decided that hockey skates are the ideal. Because every pair of figure skates I looked for seemed to be styled after hockey skates.

Gone are the days of sleek white leather that made your foot look dainty and delicate.

Now, the options are fabric in a range of colours. It’s something I’d have loved as a child, getting to own colourful skates that cushioned my little ankles.

But part of me misses lacing leather high up my shin and imagining myself twirling across the ice (because even after years of figure skating lessons, my most impressive move was going backwards).

skating the Rideau Canal at night
View of the Canal at twilight.

Getting Your Balance on the Ice

Skating on the Rideau Canal is a challenge.

The ice isn’t perfectly smooth like you’d find in a rink. There are bumps and gouges from where the water settles or an unfortunate soul caught their toe pick.

There are no boards to support you as your legs shudder like Bambi’s and you try in vain to remember how to stop.

If, like me, you haven’t balanced on blades in years, take a practise lap around a local rink before you venture down to the canal.

It took me 30 minutes of laps around City Hall’s “Rink of Dreams” (and a video call with my sister sliding around her kitchen in socks) before I figured out how to stop again.

Luckily, Ottawa is literally filled with skating rinks. Here’s a list of the best-maintained ice rinks in Ottawa to help you get your balance before you skate the canal.

Nina smiling in ear muffs while skating on the Rideau Canal in Ottawa
So cold my upper lip is genuinely stuck to my teeth!

Skating the Rideau Canal in Ottawa

My skates bounced against my hip in rhythm with my steps as I walked past Bank Street. The sharpened blades gleamed in the early morning light.

I breathed deeply, trying to calm the excited nerves that were making my heart thump heavily in my chest. The air fogged my glasses over my mask.

I hadn’t skated the canal since I was a kid. A vague memory of beaver tails, maple syrup popsicles, and my sister’s hockey helmet are all that I remember of the day. The sugar-fueled excitement of racing across the ice is lost to time.

I was hoping to recreate the memory. Or at least not fall on my ass.

The Rideau Canal is bordered by a walkway that circles downtown Ottawa. There are stairs down to the natural rink every few blocks, with signs noting the street.

I descend the beside the red “Lisgar” sign, noting the kilometre mark.

The Rideau Canal Skateway is 7.8 km, spanning from Parliament to Dow’s Lake. The signs help speed skaters and winter commuters check their distance and find their stop.

They’re like subway stops along the ice.

I laced my skates on a small wooden bench. It took two tries to get my right skate tight enough, my hands struggling to tug the fabric laces.

I put my boots in my backpack – a lesson in thriftiness learned from years of backpacking and not wanting to shell out a dollar for lockers – and stand.

Already my legs are quaking, an intense workout the previous morning still burning in my thighs. I’m certain this is going to end in disaster. Someone is surely going to be peeling me off this ice when my legs give out in a moment. A child is definitely going to laugh at this grown woman too exhausted to stand.

But somehow, the ache in my thighs helps anchor my legs. I’m standing straighter than I did on that freshly Zamboni-ed rink by City Hall. And I’m pushing off, more certain in my moves after my sister’s impromptu lesson.

The sun is blindingly bright as I pump my legs, breezing past mothers pushing strollers and teenagers trying to skate backwards. I’m not going the fastest – easily being passed by most – but I feel like I’m flying.

Maybe that’s the icy nip in the air that’s quickly numbing my cheeks as I grin into the wind.

Once Isn’t Enough

I don’t manage to skate the length of the Rideau Canal that day. A third of the natural rink is enough, knowing I still have to walk to get groceries later in the day.

But the feeling is so intoxicating that I’m back the next day, lacing up at 8am on the same bench.

I’ve got my headphones in, listening to a medley of podcasts as I glide past Beaver Tails lodges, skate rentals that would usually be open, and past the area I remember queueing for frozen maple syrup treats with my siblings.

I don’t even realize how far I’ve gone until I come to the fork in the canal, where the path diverges uptown or West to Dow’s lake. But I figure, I’ll do the full thing.

Why not? It’s still early.

I’m pleasantly warm in my layers of three pants and two shirts beneath my parka. My nose is a bit chilly, but I’ve otherwise forgotten about the -8C air.

I’m entranced people watching, exploring the sites of Ottawa from the Rideau Canal skateway, and enjoying the brightness of the morning.

View of people skating on the canal in Ottawa at sunset

A Different View of Ottawa

You get to see Ottawa from a different perspective on the canal. There are hundreds of people out enjoying their day, living their lives. After months of lockdowns and quarantines, it’s refreshing to be able to see other people enjoying life again.

Families are teaching children to skate with red skating supports. Athletes are racing past the rest of us, trying to beat their best times.

Some people are hurrying along, making me wonder where they need to be so desperately on a Sunday morning. Others, like me, are gliding serenely, heads turning to take it all in.

It’s fun.

Probably the first real fun I’ve had since Ontario’s most recent lockdown and stay-at-home orders.

Skating the Rideau Canal feels like freedom. No longer caged inside – by a virus or by weather – I’m able to exist peacefully for a few hours.

I smile so hard that my cheeks start to hurt.

It isn’t until I’ve returned home that my legs buckle beneath me and I realize how long I was out there.

In 2 hours, I’d skated the length of the world’s longest natural ice rink. I’d also thoroughly exhausted myself a slipped into a minor coma for the remainder of the weekend, roused only by a Mexican cooking class and a plethora of homemade tacos.

View of the Rideau Canal's boutiques on a sunny day
Examples of the structures on the canal.

8 Tips for Skating the Rideau Canal

1. It’s Colder on the Canal So Bundle Up!

Ottawa is epically cold in the winter, but somehow it’s even colder on the Rideau Canal.

Dress warmly to avoid cutting your ice skating short due to shivers.

While you’ll warm up after a few kilometres on the ice, it’s best to arrive in layers. Wear thermals under your regular clothes, then layer on top so you’ll be sure to stay warm.

My aunt told me to dress like it’s 5 degrees colder on the ice than it is in the city. That’s exactly what I’ve done and it hasn’t failed me yet!

Carry a backpack or bag to put your layers in, in case you get too warm later.

2. Renting vs. Buying Skates

Note: Due to COVID-19, you cannot currently rent skates on the Rideau Canal.

Most people don’t travel with skates, which the Rideau Canal creators realized. That’s why they built stores on the edges of the canal where you can rent skates.

Find the best places to rent skates on the Rideau Canal here.

It costs anywhere from $10-20 to rent skates for an hour. If you’re planning to skate for longer than that or more often, consider buying a pair.

Ottawa is full of places to buy used skates. I got my pair from Play It Again Sports for $70 CAD, sharpening included.

You can donate them or sell them back if you can’t take them home with you.

Consider how often you plan to skate, if you’d use the skates again, and what your budget is to figure out if renting or buying skates makes more sense.

3. You Can Get a Locker (Or Not)

Typically, visitors use the lockers along the Rideau Canal while they’re skating to store their belongings. It’s a helpful way to ensure you aren’t carrying bags and shoes while you’re going for an adventure.

But there are other options.

I carried a backpack that I put my boots in (inside of a shopping bag so they didn’t get my bag wet).

Some people carry their boots in their hand while they skate.

Other people leave their boots at the benches where they lace up.

I don’t recommend this, as you’ll be stranded if they get stolen. Ottawa is pretty safe, but you never know!

Since you don’t really need much on the Rideau Canal skateway, aside from boots and maybe you’re wallet, it’s easy to make do without a locker if you’re looking to save money or get off at a different street than you started.

4. It’s Open 24/7 & It’s Free!

Once the Rideau Canal Skateway opens, it’s open 24/7. You’ll see people wearing headlamps to skate at night, people getting some exercise on their lunch break, and a flurry of activity during the morning rush hour.

I’ve literally never seen the ice empty since they opened it this year.

Since it’s free, people really take advantage of the winter activity.

Be careful if you skate at night: there are no lights on the canal and the ice can be rough. Wear a headlamp and watch out for workers who often do maintenance on the rink at night.

Rough ice when skating the Rideau Canal
Rough ice texture on the Rideau Canal.

5. It’s a Natural Rink – So It’s Not Perfectly Smooth

The Rideau Canal is a waterway that circles downtown Ottawa and connects to the Ottawa River. In the winter, it’s specially flooded to make sure it’s level and frozen enough for skaters.

But it’s still a natural waterway and it’s heavily used by millions of people.

Even if they had a Zamboni going over it constantly, the ice wouldn’t be perfect.

Although it’s lovely to look around, you do need to keep your eyes on the ground for a fair amount of skating the Rideau Canal Skateway. There are some places where the ice is chipped or has inconsistent layers from how it froze.

Be mindful and stay safe.

6. Bring Money for Snacks

Note: These amenities are closed due to COVID-19.

The things I remember most about skating on the Rideau Canal growing up are the stalls. They had these giant fire pits next to Beaver Tail stands and places to get hot chocolate.

It was always so fun to get a sweet treat that warmed you up after skating (or sometimes before if we demanded it hard enough).

Although they probably accept credit cards now, I always make sure to pack cash so I can get a treat.

7. Safety First

Unfortunately, because the natural rink is such a tourist attraction in Ottawa, it’s a prime site for injuries.

People do stupid things, like trying to skate backward to impress friends. They don’t look where they’re going and bump into others or trip.

Ottawa used to have a daily news broadcast just about the number of injuries on the canal that day – most of them avoidable.

Remember to be safe while skating on the Rideau Canal.

Wear a helmet if you don’t feel comfortable skating without one (to be honest, I think everyone should wear one for safety). Be sure you have lots of layers on and gloves to help cushion any falls. Be mindful of other people and of the ice itself so you don’t trip or hit other people. And go slow if you aren’t a confident skater.

8. Take Advantage When The Rideau Canal Is Open

The most important tip? Take advantage of this free UNESCO site!

This is the main reason I think buying skates is better than renting: because then you can take advantage more often.

Instead of schlepping through the snow, head to the ice for your daily exercise. Use it to get around downtown Ottawa and to see more. Meet up with friends or go on adventures via the rink.

Some people even jog on it! (I’m pretty sure they’re insane or have the best grip on their running shoes, so maybe don’t do this.)

However you take advantage, make sure you do because the skateway is only open for a limited time each year.

To find out when the canal opens and closes this year, check out the official site.

FAQ About Ice Skating on the Canal in Ottawa

How long is the Rideau Canal Skateway?

The Rideau Canal Skateway is 7.8km long. It stretches from an area by Parliament Hill, around downtown Ottawa, to Dow’s Lake.
It takes about 2-3 hours to skate the length of the canal when you’re doing it for exercise and not for fun.

Where can you get on the ice at the Rideau Canal?

There are spots to enter the canal every few hundred metres. You’ll see them clearly marked with large signs stating the street names.
The entrances are at the following streets:
Bank South
Bank North
Somerset East

Is there parking nearby the ice rink?

Most of the entrances to the Rideau Canal Skateway have a public Green P parking lot nearby for skaters to use. Look for the large green circular sign with a white P inside of it to denote these public lots.
You’ll also find street parking around these suburban areas. Be sure to follow street parking regulations or you’ll risk getting a ticket.
In some cases, street parking may be free. Other times, you may need to pay for it.

When is the best time to skate the Rideau Canal?

The Rideau Canal Skateway is only open for a few weeks every year. The best time to skate it is really whenever it is open.
I recommend ice skating on the canal on weekdays when there are less people out. Early mornings or after 4pm are good times to skate when there are few people out and about.

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