The Rideau Canal is 125 miles of Canadian history. This UNESCO World Heritage Site links Canada’s capital city, Ottawa, to Lake Ontario, the Saint Lawrence River, and the city of Kingston — the former capital of Canada. The canal was opened in 1832 as part of the preparations for a possible war with the United States, making it North America’s oldest continually operating canal. Happily, border relations have improved since those tense times, and the communities along the canal eagerly greet American visitors. It’s a gorgeous destination for pleasure boats and car-based day-trippers eager to explore the adorable small towns along its shores.
Between Ottawa and Kingston, there are enough small towns and villages to keep explorers busy for days. Discovering this area is possible in all four seasons, but some of the smaller cafes and recreation services may be seasonal in nature. That said, there’s still one giant advantage to making a winter pilgrimage. Each winter, a large section of the Rideau Canal in downtown Ottawa freezes and is transformed into the world’s largest outdoor skating rink. There is nothing more quintessentially Ottawa-esque than enjoying a downtown skate on a frosty afternoon and then warming up with hot chocolate and BeaverTails — a large, flat, oblong pastry that’s deep-fried and coated in cinnamon sugar and other sweet toppings. While the skating section is limited just to Ottawa and doesn’t extend into the small towns located further down the canal, you’ll find plenty of indoor and outdoor fun no matter where you go.
Whether you’re driving in from the city or perhaps undertaking an adventure by boat, you won’t want to miss these pretty stops. As someone who lives in Ottawa, these communities are really in my own backyard and it’s so exciting to share my personal recommendations and must-see spots.
The small community of Manotick is only about 30 minutes from downtown Ottawa but this unbelievably cozy enclave is in its own world. Along Mill Street, you’ll find dozens of restored historic homes, inviting little businesses, and plenty of friendly locals. I dare say that it might just be the prettiest street in the region come autumn. Some key spots to put on your list include the Peppermint Organic Spa, located in a refurbished heritage building that’s more than 100 years old. It provides upscale spa treatments like stonecrop pedicures and facials with arctic berry peels. Next door, Take Another Bite offers sandwiches, salads, and take-home frozen foods. However, the star attraction is the mouthwatering display of baked goods. If bread pudding is offered, do whatever it takes to get a hefty slice. Across the road is the Mill Street Florist, which is the perfect place to pick up a pretty gift or an artsy bouquet for a friend.
2. Burritts Rapids
The wee community of Burritts Rapids may just have the strongest claim to being the best Rideau Canal stop. That’s because Burritts Rapids is all but in the very middle of the water! The community is located on a natural island that sits in the Rideau River and has expanded to be on both sides of the water as well. You can explore the buildings on the island — many of which date to the mid-1800s — by following a self-guided walking tour that outlines the history of everything you see. Nearby, you’ll find the Rideau Woodland Ramble, an incredible garden center that’s beloved by serious horticulturists and hobby gardeners alike. It’s worth a visit even if you have no intention to buy any plants at all.
Merrickville might just give Manotick a run for its money when it comes to coziness. The community dates back to the 1700s, with heritage buildings abound. The shopping here is excellent and Mrs. McGarrigle’s is a must-visit spot. At this fine food emporium, mustard is the star. There are 14 flavors like honey tarragon and cranberry port, and they’re perfect for gift giving — especially since the smallest size jar is a travel-friendly 2 ounces. Keep an eye out for in-store demos of cooking techniques. Another must-see spot on my list is Gray Art Glass. This glass blowing studio offers visitors the chance to watch the fiery process of creating delicate custom pieces of glass art. You can pick up anything from whiskey glasses to oil lamps. The community is also a great place to pick up a hike via the Rideau Trail.
4. Smiths Falls
I lived in Ottawa for years before I started exploring nearby Smiths Falls. Thankfully, I’m making up for lost time now. Much of Smiths Falls’ history is a tale of reinvention, as the community has weathered a storm of changing industries over the past century. But visitors are now reaping the benefits from the creative reimagining of old spaces into new hot spots. For instance, while Hershey’s chocolate factory is now shuttered, travelers can enjoy tours of the new business which has set up shop there. Called Tweed, it’s one of the largest facilities in Canada for cannabis and you can tour their visitors center. (Note that you can’t actually buy cannabis products here, but as the product is legal in Canada, staff can direct you to appropriate venues.) Another wonderful “everything old is new again” project is the Station Theatre, housed in the former Canadian Pacific Rail station. It showcases plays, movies, and musical events.
5. Rideau Ferry
Rideau Ferry is a place of myths and misconceptions. First, there’s no ferry anymore — the community is connected by a bridge. Secondly, despite what you might hear, there’s no truth in the local legend about a ferry operator in the olden days who used to board late-night passengers in his home, only for them to never be seen again. This spooky tall tale is just that (or maybe there’s a little truth to be told — decide for yourself). If you’re keen on spine-tingling stories, check out the movie schedule at the nearby Port Elmsley Drive-In Theatre, in case some thrillers are playing. The unassuming Jimmy’s Snack Shack is a great place to finish your adventures. The only thing frightening about their Rideau Ferry pizza — which comes loaded with pepperoni, mushrooms, green peppers, onion, ham, olives, and ground beef — is how much of it you’ll eat.
One of the largest communities within reach of the Rideau Canal, Perth still has a strong small-town feel. For instance, at the Perth Pie Company, a “suspended menu” offers customers the chance to buy coffee or baked goods for community members in need. A delectable menu of sweet and savory pies (their chicken pot pie is the best I’ve ever had) makes it hard to choose which treats you’ll take home for yourself. There are more tasty goodies at the Perth Chocolate Works — I love their “Marshkabobs” (decorated chocolate-dipped marshmallows). Perth is technically located on the Tay Canal, a short, gentle offshoot of the Rideau Canal. If you’re keen to try kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding, this is a good place to get your feet wet — or keep them dry, as it may be.
Westport is the kind of community that makes you feel like you’re discovering something new every time you visit. It could be the long list of foodie spots, like the Lost Penny Pub (I love the loaded nachos) or Vanilla Beans Cafe and Creamery. Maybe it’s all the cute shops, like Jake By The Lake or the Lower Mountain Mercantile. Whatever it is, this is one delightful place to explore. Plus it’s a great spot for biking, water sports, hiking, and golf. It’s the proverbial hidden gem in any Rideau Canal excursion.
8. Seeleys Bay
The tiny community of Seeleys Bay is home to a long list of accommodation options, making it a nice spot for travelers who’d prefer something other than returning to Kingston or Ottawa for the night. Visitors can choose from bed and breakfasts, cottages, and campgrounds. Other attractions in the area include ShaBean Coffee Roastery — open by appointment — and Ridgway Confections fine chocolates — primarily a wholesale business but with showroom hours. It’s well worth looking into for chocolate bar flavors as varied as bacon, lime coconut, ginger, and java. Tired boaters will want to revive themselves at Konez, an ice cream shop that specializes in “freakshakes” — milkshakes with outrageously elaborate toppings like huge swaths of cotton candy, mini cupcakes, and thick squares of cheesecake.
Pro Tip: Be Sure To Check Out The Blockhouses
It’s been nearly 200 years since anyone’s had to worry about using the Rideau Canal for Canada’s national defense. Thankfully, Canada/U.S. relations are a lot more friendly than they were in the early 1800s. But you can still see traces of the canal’s military origins in four blockhouses: Merrickville, Kingston Mills, Newboro, and Rideau Narrows. Built to protect the Canal if it ever came under attack, today the Merrickville and Kingston Mills Blockhouses serve as seasonal museums, while the Newboro property can be enjoyed as part of a community walking tour.