40 (mostly) free family fun ideas

Now that summer is almost upon us, I’m compiling ideas for cheap family outings in and around Ottawa. We’re so lucky to live in a city with walking trails, waterways, parks and other inexpensive or free things to do with kids, but there are also plenty of things to do on a rainy day. Some of these things are full-day adventures, but most will occupy at least a couple of hours. I started with a list of 15 things, then aimed for 25, and finally ended up with FORTY!!

Capital ideas

Diesel dogs (street vendor hot dogs) under Maman the Spider makes for a memorable if not nutritionally sound lunch

Watch the ceremonial parade and changing of the guard on Parliament Hill every morning at 10:00

Take a tour of the Parliament Buildings and check out the view from the Peace Tower

Explore the grounds of Parliament Hill, from the statue of Sir Gallahad to the colony of feral cats

Peruse history in the collections at Library and Archives Canada

See the horses at the RCMP stables and musical ride centre

Visit the Bank of Canada’s Currency Museum

Tour the gardens at Rideau Hall

Admission to the National Gallery is free on Thursday nights

The Canadian Museum of Nature also free on Thursday nights.

The Canadian Museum of Civilization, including the absolutely stellar Children’s Museum, is free on Thursday nights after 4 pm.

Borrow a free museum pass through the Ottawa Public Library’s Museum privilege program

See a bit of local history at the always free-of-charge Nepean Museum

Admission to the Experimental Farm animal barns is free in the winter months.

Watson’s Mill in Manotick is free every day, with milling demonstrations through the summer months. (They’re closed through a lot of the winter months – check for times before you go!)

Naturally lovely

In the west end, walk the boardwalk along the Rideau River wetlands in the Chapman Mills conservation area

In the east end, walk the boardwalk through the Mer Bleu bog, an “internationally significant wetland”

There are some wonderful hiking trails in the Greenbelt. The Jack Pine Trail is about a 40 minute loop, plenty easy for little legs.

For an easy walk with a stroller, wander the paved bike path from Hogs Back Falls to Vincent Massey park. Take the high trail on the way back and visit the oft-missed stone patio overlooking the river, and bring some birdseed to hand-feed the chickadees and nuthatches

Feed the ducks and geese on the Rideau River near Billings Bridge

Take a wander around Rockcliffe Park and enjoy the gorgeous stone gazebo and the lookout onto the Ottawa River

Visit Rideau Falls and the gorgeous parkland around old city hall

On Sundays in the summer, Colonel By Drive is closed to traffic and open for bikes, blades and strollers

Retail therapy

Chapters has a great kids section, and most of them have a train table or other toys to play with while mom and dad browse

Ross’ Independent Grocer in Barrhaven has a free playzone where you can drop the kids while you shop

Drop off the kids at Ikea’s ball pit and play centre for a free hour while you browse

Take me out to the park

There’s a terrific splash pad and playground off Longfields in Barrhaven. We pack a picnic and could spend the whole day there.

The playground at Brewer Park has always been awesome, but it’s just been retrofitted to be especially accessible for those with disabilities

There are dozens of wading pools of various shapes and sizes tucked away in parks throughout the city. You can get a list of them here

Did you know the city offers free swimming lessons?

Take a Sunday morning browse at the Ottawa Farmers Market at Landsdowne Park, then stay a while and play at the lovely little park on Fifth just before the Driveway.

Plan a day of sun at the beach at Britannia Beach. Buy yourself some fries for lunch, but don’t feed the seagulls (they’re a leading cause of beach-closing e-coli.)

Visit the recently-improved Petrie Island beach and nearby trails

There’s a great list of urban parks and a bit of a history lesson on the NCC site

Consider a playground tour. New is interesting, especially to kids!

For a few dollars more (not quite free, but mostly around $10 for the family)

On a rainy day, consider an indoor pool – or maybe even ride the surf at the Kanata wave pool

Doesn’t every preschool boy love trains? A round-trip on the O-Train is only an hour or so.

Get out of town

Tour the Hershey Factory in Smiths Falls (it’s open until December 2008) and get your free sample

Spend a day at Lac Phillip and spelunk the Lusk Caves

Enjoy an afternoon getaway to the Mackenzie King estate at Kingsmere
(you’ll have to pay a per-vehicle fee less than $10 if you drive)

Hike the Eardley Escarpment in Gatineau Park, especially lovely in the fall (you’ll have to pay a per-vehicle fee less than $10 if you drive)

Edited to add: this post is quite a few years old, but still very popular. Sadly, some of these things like the Hershey Factory have disappeared. If you’re looking for other ideas, check out these blog posts about family fun in and around Ottawa. 🙂

Author: DaniGirl

Canadian. storyteller, photographer, mom to 3. Professional dilettante.

32 thoughts on “40 (mostly) free family fun ideas”

  1. Thank you Dani!! I have been visiting the same places with The Wee Man for ages and I really needed some new ideas. I also can’t wait to see what other people come up with in your comments section. If I may add one of my own, Mooney’s Bay has a great little beach and playground (along with picnic tables).

  2. What a great list! It almost makes me wish I lived in Ottawa again! 😉 I was going to mention Mooney’s Bay, as well – it sometimes has the same problems as Britannia with the e. coli, but I’ve often enjoyed wading there. In the summer there are often volleyball games going on in the evenings, but it’s relatively quiet during the day.

    My sister-in-law recently enjoyed a family day in Merickville; there are lots of interesting things to see there, though she did say the shops were a bit challenging with a stroller.

    For a few bucks, you can rent a little paddle boat and paddle around Dow’s Lake.

    The Experimental Farm can be a nice destination even without the animal barns – lots of trails for biking around, identifying flowers, or the trees in the Arboretum. And there’s often a chip wagon or vegetable sellers at the parking lot on, ummm, I think Prince of Wales Drive.

    Hmm, it’s been a while since I lived in Ottawa, so now I’m outta ideas…

  3. Thanks for this! I am always stumped on weekends. Our local park is only so fun for so long. And please, am I just silly or are there no pools in the Ottawa area that you can just take your kids swimming on the weekends? They are all full with swimming lessons. Which, don’t get me wrong, is important. Amelia is even in lessons. But seriously there isn’t one or two pools JUST for recreational swimming?

    Oh ya, and I’ll be needing back those maternity clothes I lent you.

  4. All great ideas. And here are a couple of others I’d add to the list:
    – Experimental Farm is free after 4:00 pm (discovered that by accident one day)
    – Watching airplanes land from the road that borders the Ottawa International Airport (can’t think of the street name). There are places to park your car right by the end of the landing runway. My little guy loves it!

  5. Oops, just noticed the farm was already on your list! So to replace that idea here’s another:
    In Britannia Village there is a nature conservation area called Mud Lake. You can walk through a beautiful wooded area to a swamp where you can see turtles, frogs, snakes, fish, ducks etc…We pushed the chariot through the trail without any problems at all.

  6. Hi! Thanks for all the great ideas! I can’t wait to check them out! I am also going to like to your entry on my blog, I hope that’s ok! 😉

    I would add the museum of Aviation is also a good place to park and watch the “sleeping planes” there is a road on the East side of the museum that leads to nowhere and you can get up close and personal with the private planes (through the chain link fence!)

    Thanks everyone for sharing!

  7. Saturday mornings (8 to 12) – Carp Farmers’ Market. Mmmmmm. Good food vendors, local produce, baked goods, bedding plants, music and last Sat of each month there’s a free craft/activity for the kids. And the other side of the fairgrounds is a playground and splash pad. I’m kind of bummed that I’ll be missing out until school’s out due to the girls’ soccer games at 9 and 11 on Saturdays.

  8. In Manotick, I recommend Watson’s Mill and adjoining park. Please note, however, that there is a walking bridge with steep steps (you would need an extra pair of adult hands to lower a stroller).

    Also just off the main drag in Manotick is the Village Perk, where you can get an affordable java fix or generously-scooped ice cream cones for the whole family.

    Dow’s Lake is good for all ages…bring a soccer ball for older kids to kick around, a picnic lunch for the entire family, let toddlers run free, etc.

    I know it goes without saying to this crowd, but I cannot believe the amount of quality family time (entirely cost-free, with the exception of transportation) we have had with our toddler at the local children’s library.

    You can set up a scavenger hunt in your own backyard or local park.

    Backyard/front-porch picnics are easy-peasy but can make the ordinary seem exotic. You can take it a step further and camp out in the backyard if you have a tent. =)

    Thanks for the inspiration, Dani! I have printed off your list.

  9. DANI! Thanks for doing all the leg work for me! This is awesome. Now I know what to do with Nathan all this summer. Hey Maybe we can all meet upsomewhere. I have not been the Mackenzine King Estate since Miranda was young! I beat we could get some great pictures there. I drive by it all the time (ok used to When i was taking T home From parties in AY…as the kids call it!)
    I’m book marking this post for easy acess!

  10. I picnic down by the locks (either hogs back or by Chateau Laurier) was always a favourite for my son when we were in Ottawa.

  11. I added a couple more ideas on my blog. This is a fantastic post. Wrote down a couple of things that I would like to try this summer.

  12. Our heads are in the same place. I’ve updated my “Ottawa Events with Kids” page (http://blog.reidelizabeth.ca/ottawa-events-with-kids/) and will add other events as I receive the info. The events aren’t all free but I think most of the museum-based ones are reasonable. We have memberships to the Farm/Tech/Aviation museums and Civilization/War museums and so repeat visits make me feel like I’m saving money since I’ve invested in the annual membership fee already.

    WRT freeebies, I would add: checking out the Ontario Early Years Centres calendars, whether for drop ins, events, or toy libraries and story time at the library. Some are intended for big and little kids at the same time.

  13. I just stumbled on your blog off the BlogHer feed and just had to tell you how thrilled I am with your list! I’m moving to Ottawa July 1st and have been looking for ideas of how to keep my 3 year old occupied this summer. Thank you!

  14. this is so great! especially with time off work and summer somewhere around the corner.
    there’s also a free portrait exhibit on at the library and archives canada where kids can learn all about portraiture and do their own and have it hung up on the wall (for free!)

  15. Travelling from the GTA for Canada Day long weekend and this is exactly what I needed to pack in as much family fun as possible. Thanks for all the research you have put into compiling this list. It is of valuble use to my family for our visit!

  16. I’ve been living in ottawa for over 4 years as a student and just finished. I’ve always wanted to explore ottawa to see what the city’s full potential was but never really knew where to start, or what was worth wild doing. This list is wonderful I am defiantly inspired to do each and every one of these activities.

    Great post, Great content!

  17. I am writing up my class newsletter tonight and was searching the internet for something to include in the tips about free or inexpensive community activities I always include for parents when low and behold Google brought me to you! (It figures — on the one night I refused to allow myself to be distracted from work by reading my blogroll …. it could have saved me time if I’d done that first!)

    Thanks for these ideas. I included the Nepean Museum this month, but I saw quite a few other great ideas that I’ll be sure to mention in future newsletters.

  18. Hey this is grate! My Boyfriend has a 6 year old lil girl who is ADHD, I also have a 17 month old lil girl and I was wondering what we could do with both girls that thye bothe would not get bored. This is going to help us out alot.
    Thank you sooo much

  19. I organize an online mommy group (Ottawa Parents & Children Unite) that has free playdate in the Ottawa area every day. I just wanted to say thank you, on behalf of all of our members – we love doing all these types of things. And love to do new things with our kids right here in Ottawa!

  20. I was looking for informations about Ottawa where I plan to come this summer with my little son, and wanted to thanks you for this list of things to do in and around the city.

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