There are a lot of incredible reasons to visit Ottawa. Canada’s capital city is home to the nation’s best museums, galleries, and farm-to-table food scene.
However, guests who branch out and explore farther afield will be richly rewarded. Ottawa is the perfect home base for road trippers who want to discover small-town Ontario, and there are numerous charming, historic towns to explore. All the places on this list are no more than a 3-hour drive from Ottawa and are great to visit year-round.
1. Sweet Treats: Perth
Perth is home to beautiful limestone buildings, a great community spirit, and lots of festivals and events, and there’s even a drive-in movie theater next door in Port Elmsley. But for those who have a sweet tooth, Perth is beyond compare!
A must-visit spot for anyone who loves desserts is the Perth Pie Co. Since 2006, they have been gracing local restaurants with delicious pies. And, of course, they’ve been serving their loyal clientele scrumptious pies straight from their oven (or freezer, for folks who like to take them home and bake them themselves). Some of their tasty varieties include classics like blueberry, strawberry rhubarb, and cherry pie; seasonal delicacies like mincemeat and pumpkin pie; and local favorites like haskap berries, bumbleberry pie (raspberries, blackberries, apple, and rhubarb), and maple-pecan pie. They also serve custard pies, curd pies, and savory meat pies in their pretty little shop.
If you don’t fill up entirely on pie, Perth Chocolate Works will surely satisfy your craving for sugar. In business since 1998, they specialize in gourmet chocolate, including classic truffles and chocolate-dipped treats like pretzels and marshmallows. They also offer a selection of imported British treats, including preserves and candies.
With hot cocoa and sumptuous treats in hand, take a stroll in Stewart Park across the road to enjoy the scenery.
2. Historic Haunts: Kingston
If you’re a history buff, Kingston is where you want to be. Canada’s original capital city, Kingston is just a 2-hour drive from Ottawa, the current capital. This city of approximately 125,000 people on the eastern end of Lake Ontario is home to the first degree-granting institution in Canada and one of the country’s oldest public hospitals, plus several remarkable examples of Martello Towers, a holdover from the days when invasions by the United States were a pressing concern.
Those visiting Kingston between May and October can enjoy a free volunteer-led tour of the historic city hall, a National Historic Site. Rumor has it that there are tunnels underneath the hall that connect to the nearby Prince George Hotel (one of the city’s most haunted sites, if you believe in such things) and down to the waterfront — just the kind of setup needed for international smuggling during Prohibition!
Pro Tip: Kingston also has a fun, contemporary side.
3. Holiday Hominess: Almonte
The streets of tiny Almonte will look familiar to anyone who believes in true love — or Santa Claus! This community of fewer than 5,000 people boasts gorgeous streets and historic buildings that have served as the backdrop for dozens of the Hallmark Channel’s holiday movies. The owners of the local bookstores, home decor shops, and bakeries will be more than happy to tell you which beloved Christmas movies you can watch in order to catch a glimpse of their stores. As you wander the main street, you’ll also see galleries, cafes, and a great selection of specialty stores selling everything from children’s items to outdoor gear. Provided you have a warm coat, you can easily stroll the compact downtown in winter and make your own Hallmark moments!
Being a living, breathing holiday movie set isn’t Almonte’s only claim to fame. The community has the distinction of being the only place in Canada named for a Mexican military figure (General Juan Almonte, who won decisive battles against the U.S. in 1830 and 1840, endearing him to Canadians). Almonte is also the hometown of educator James Naismith, who invented the game of basketball in 1891. You can see a sculpture paying homage to his sporting contributions in the town center.
4. Cute And Cozy: Carleton Place
Once upon a time, the small town of Carleton Place dominated Ontario’s lumber and textile industry. Today, the community is anything but a has-been factory town. Carleton Place wears its history with pride. Manufacturing is gone, and tourism rules the roost. Hip restaurants have opened (Black Tartan Kitchen is nothing short of spectacular and wouldn’t be out of place in Toronto or New York), and visitors are encouraged to walk the main street, which boasts historic murals, public pianos, and a community fleet of purple bicycles. The nearby magnificent Mahogany Salon and Spa brings a touch of luxury to the experience.
5. Wine And Cheese: Prescott-Russell
The Ontario county of Prescott-Russell has a little bit of everything, and there’s plenty to explore, especially if local food and drink are on your to-do list. This rural area is halfway between Ottawa and Montreal, and the residents are just as likely to speak French as English.
The area is famous for its cheese, most notably that produced by the Fromagerie St-Albert. You can drop into their factory store for some supplies and treats. The cheese curds should be at the top of your shopping list. The fresh, mild, pliable curds will squeak when you bite into them, and St-Albert’s curds are considered the premier brand to top poutine, a hot dish of French fries, curds, and gravy that virtually everyone in Canada loves.
Visitors have a lot of choices when it comes to washing down their poutine. Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company is in the area, as is Vankleek Hill Vineyard. Both are noted for their fun, laid-back approach to libations.
While you’re driving between attractions, keep an eye out for the local silos. In 2017, five farm silos in Prescott-Russell were painted with incredible, colorful murals to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Canadian confederations. Another two were added in 2020, and there are hopes that more will soon follow.
6. Art And Nature: Algonquin Provincial Park
If there’s one day-trip destination that should be on the list of every visitor to Ottawa, it’s Algonquin. Established in 1893, Algonquin Provincial Park serves as part of the unofficial border between southern and northern Ontario and is a cherished regional destination for camping, hiking, kayaking, birding, and more. The area’s spectacular natural beauty has been an inspiration to a host of artists over the past century, including Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven.
The park is home to eight different campgrounds, which you can experience as an overnight guest or on a day trip. Every Algonquin camper has their personal favorite, but a good place to start if you’re unsure is the Achray Campground. This small, quiet campground has a beautiful beach, basic amenities (the small camp office does sell coffee!), and a short, easy walk along the Jack Pine Trail to see the tableau which inspired one of Thomson’s most acclaimed works, The Jack Pine.
7. The Lap Of Luxury: Montebello
If you somehow manage to run out of ideas for day trips within Ontario, why not head across the border into Quebec? The town of Montebello is just an hour’s drive from Ottawa. The crown jewel of Montebello is the Fairmont Le Chateau Montebello, which is unlike any hotel I’ve ever seen. The property dates to the 1930s and started off as a make-work project during the Great Depression. However, it’s anything but rustic. The inside looks like a log cabin — with soaring ceilings, massive wooden beams, oversized fireplaces, and chic bars. Inside the rooms, you’ll find all the touches you’d expect from a luxury hotel.
If you can’t stay the night, at least make an appointment at the hotel spa. Their maple sugar body scrub treatment is 60 minutes of utter bliss. Day passes are also available for the beautiful indoor pool, and the hotel’s Sunday-morning brunch is spectacular — the homemade rolled-up crepes stuffed with maple butter are hard to resist!
Pro Tip: Keep an eye out for Stella Luna gelato, Equator Coffee, and the Barley Mow pub as you explore. These are three strong local businesses with a presence in the heart of Ottawa as well as in many of the surrounding communities.