Last updated: April 19th, 2020
Beautiful and dynamic, Canada’s capital city is an incredible place to explore. From the gothic-style parliament buildings to the lovely parks and world-class museums, Ottawa is one of the top places to visit in Canada. It’s also bilingual, which makes it unique for a North American capital.
Located along the Ontario-side of the Ottawa River, and right across from Quebec, Ottawa is also a great base for exploring parts of Quebec. It’s the sixth-largest city in Canada, the second-largest city in Ontario, and one of the most multicultural cities in the country. It’s one of those cities that feels small, despite have a population of over one million people. Most of the action can be found around the downtown core, Parliament Hill, and the inner-city neighbourhoods. It’s a great city to go for a walk or to ride a bike.
Things To Do in Ottawa Canada
Whatever it is you’re into, Ottawa has something for everyone. Every time we go, we try something new. In this article, we’re going to talk about some of the best things to do in Ottawa, so you can better plan your next adventure.
Canadian Parliament Buildings
Without a doubt, the icon of Ottawa is Canada’s parliament buildings. It’s the #1 one for places to visit in Ottawa. Not only is it the centre of Canada’s government, but the buildings are very beautiful. From Peace Tower (the Clock Tower) to the gothic architecture, the buildings are stunning to admire from the lawns in front of the building. In addition, if you want to go inside, you can take one of the free tours and learn about Canada’s political system.
Changing of the Guard
Another popular thing to see in the summer is the Changing of the Guard, which takes place on Parliament Hill each and every morning during the peak season from late June to late August. Starting at 10 AM (check the time schedule to make sure), you’ll see a colourful spectacle of pomp, pageantry, and music. You’ll want to get there at least 30 minutes early if you want the best spot.
Northern Lights Sound and Light Show
If you’re wondering why Parliament Hill is lit up like the Canadian Flag in the photo above, it happens during the Northern Lights Sound and Light Show, which takes place each summer and is one of the most popular free Ottawa events. Starting around 10 PM, Parliament Hill becomes lit up as key figures, events, and achievements from Canadian history are bought to life against one of the most famous backdrops in Canada – Centre Block and the Peace Tower.
Located right next to the parliament buildings, the Rideau Canal is well worth a visit. In fact, it’s hard to miss. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was actually built to protect against war with the USA but has now become a very popular spot with boaters, connecting the city all the way to Lake Ontario. While you’re there, stop into the Byward museum as well, which we’ll talk more about below.
One of the most popular Ottawa tourist attractions is the ByWard Market. This historic farmers’ market is walking distance from the parliament buildings and a great place to grab a bite to eat, have a beer on a patio, or explore the various locally-made crafts and clothes. It’s buzzing with people, especially in the summer, as they browse for everything from gourmet cheese to maple-infused chocolates. We always visit the ByWard Market when we’re in Ottawa, not only because it’s so lively, but because we love the Mexican restaurant Corazon De Maiz. We had their tostadas three times in five days when we were last there. Soooo good
If you’re looking for Ottawa museums that focus on Ottawa’s history, the ByTown Museum is the one to visit! Located on the lower locks of the Rideau Canal, in-between both the Chateau Laurier and the Canadian parliament buildings, this museum is a great place to learn about the city. Ottawa’s oldest remaining stone building, the museum provides a comprehensive overview of the origins of Bytown and its development and growth into the present city of Ottawa.
Aviation and Space Museum
Quite possibly one of the coolest museums we’ve visited, the Aviation and Space Museum is the place to go if you’re interested in planes, jets, and space ships. Located on a former military airbase on Sussex Drive in Ottawa, this museum focuses on aviation in Canada within an international context – from its beginnings in 1909 to the present day. This place is full of incredible aircraft, ranging from military aircraft, vintage bush planes, commercial airlines, and so much more. Then, as if that’s not enough already, they also include aerospace technology, including the Canadarm and various exhibitions explaining what it’s like to live in space. This is considered one of the finest aviation museums in the world. This would also be one of the best things to do in Ottawa with kids.
BiPlane Flightseeing Tour
As if the Aviation and Space Museum wasn’t amazing enough, it’s also the base of one of Ottawa coolest activities – BiPlane flightseeing tours! How often do you have the opportunity to sit in an actual world-war-2 era BiPlane and go for a tour over Ottawa, passing over the Ottawa River, Parliament Hill, and downtown Ottawa? It’s really incredible to sit in an outdoor cockpit in front of the pilot. He’s in the back! Can’t recommend this activity enough. It’s a blast!
The Canadian Museum of History
Located on the other side of the river in Gatineau, Quebec, the Canadian Museum of History is fantastic on both the inside and the outside. Inside, you’ll find an array of permanent galleries that explore Canada’s 20,000 years of human history as well as various special exhibitions expanding on Canadian themes and other cultures and civilizations. We especially loved walking through the expansive Grand Hall, admiring the beautiful totem poles, and learning about Canada’s history in both the Canadian History Hall and the First Peoples Hall. Designed by Douglas Cardinal, a famous indigenous architect, the building is easily one of the most beautiful architectural designs in the city. It also offers stunning views of the Parliament buildings on the other side of the river.
Yet another great place to get views of Parliament, the National Gallery of Canada is the countries’ premier art gallery. The Gallery has a large collection of paintings, drawings, sculptures, and photographs. Although the Gallery houses the most comprehensive Canadian art collection, they also have many works from both American and European artists. Perhaps the most photographed piece of art is outside the museum – a giant sculpture of spider greeting people as they walk by.
Diefenbunker Cold War Museum
Although the Diefenbunker Cold War Museum is located outside Ottawa in a small town called Carp, it’s one of the most unique museums in the world. Built as an actual military bunker during the threat of nuclear war in the Cold War Era, this 75-foot 100,000 square foot underground bunker is now a great place to learn about a scary time in world history. It’s also home to the world’s largest escape room! This is still the only escape room we’ve experienced and it was such a blast solving clues and trying to escape from a bunker!
Fairmont Chateau Laurier
If you’re visiting Ottawa, there’s no way to miss the beautiful Fairmont Chateau Laurier. It’s located right next to Parliament Hill and the Rideau Canal, not to mention that it’s walking distance from practically every other attraction in central Ottawa. Like any Fairmont hotel, it’s incredibly beautiful inside and out, and whether you’re staying there or not, we certainly recommend a visit.
This Government House, dating back to 1867, is the official residence in Ottawa of both the Canadian monarch and the Governor-General of Canada. It consists of 175 rooms spread out amongst 102,000 square feet of space and is used for state affairs. Although it’s still very much in use today, Rideau Hall and the surrounding grounds were designated as a National Historic Site of Canada in 1977 and is open to the public for guided tours throughout the year.
We will never come to Ottawa and miss spending a day at Nordik Spa-Nature in Chelsea, Quebec. It’s a close drive from downtown Ottawa and is the most relaxing place on Earth (in our humble opinion). You’ll find 10 exterior baths, 9 distinct saunas, a panoramic pool, a floating salt-water pool, numerous resting places, a yoga and meditation room, an exfoliation room, outdoor massage pavilions, and 4 restaurants. Yes, it’s paradise.
Nepean Point and the Alexandra Bridge
If you’re up for a walk, we totally recommend crossing the Alexandra Bridge between Ottawa and Quebec. Not only does it bridge the gap between Parliament Hill and the Canadian Museum of History, but it’s also a great place to get views of parliament. But first, you should walk up to Nepean Point, which is right next to the National Gallery. It’s on a hill in front of the bridge, which means good views, and it also features a statue of French explorer Samuel de Champlain.
Rideau Canal Cruise
If you’d to experience Rideau Canal further, jump on a scenic canal cruise throughout the city. You’ll get to learn about the canal while sailing past some of Ottawa’s landmarks on a 100% electric boat. Commentary is done live and is bilingual, but is also available as an audio guide application. This same company runs Ottawa tours on the Ottawa River as well, which we’ll talk about below.
Ottawa River Cruise
Another scenic cruise in Ottawa is the on the Ottawa river, which splits Ontario from Quebec. You’ll sail past Parliament Hill, under the Alexandra Bridge and all the way up past the Prime Minister’s house and back. Commentary is bi-lingual and is done live. If you’re looking to simply get out on the water, relax, and admire some views of the shoreline, you’ll like this tour.
If you’re looking for some outdoor adventurous Ottawa activities, the Ottawa River is home to some of the best rafting in the country. Located an hour and a half away in Foresters Falls, this is a wonderful way to have some fun and experience the natural side of Ottawa. This stretch of the Ottawa Provides a balance between exciting rapids and long scenic floats. Plus, unlike many rivers in Canada, this one is warm! You can swim in a bathing suit no problem. Whether you’re looking to spend the night out there or just go for a day trip, this is a great way to have some fun on the river. (Want to save money? Check out the Saver Card, which offers 15% off a rafting trip!)
Where to Stay in Ottawa
There are so many options for accommodation in Canada’s capital. From budget-friendly hotels to luxury hotels, you’ll find it all. In fact, there are even unique accommodation options, such as staying in an old jail or enjoying a Bed and Breakfast! Here are some options below:
Fairmont Chateau Laurier – Luxury
Everyone knows what the Chateau Laurier is. It’s basically an attraction even if you’re not staying there. It’s in a prime location right next to Parliament Hill and is a stunning gothic castle-like building. It’s beautiful. If you’re looking for Ottawa hotels downtown, this is a great option, as is the Best Western below.
Best Western Plus Gatineau – Mid-Rage
One of my favourite places to stay in Ottawa is the Best Western Plus Gatineau. It’s located in Quebec, not far from the Alexandria Bridge. In fact, it’s walking distance to the Canadian Museum of History, and also walking distance to Parliament Hill by crossing over the bridge. However, my favourite feature of this hotel is that if you get yourself a room on one of the higher floors facing the front, you’ll have one of the best views of the city and Parliament Hill right from your bedroom.
The Ottawa Jail Hostel – Budget
We’ve never stayed here but we’ve always wanted to. If you’re looking for somewhere unique to stay, this is it. The Ottawa Jail, which was closed in 1972, was bought by Hostelling International and converted into a hostel. Much of the structure was left intact, allowing guests the chance to “spend a night in jail”. There are also daily tours.
Where to Eat in Ottawa
Like any big city, there are thousands of options for food in Ottawa. From quick and cheap fast food to fine dining, Ottawa has it all. One of our favourite places to eat is the ByWard Market and the area surrounding it. You’ll find cheap local eats as well as a variety of restaurants and pubs. We always come here to eat at our favourite Mexican restaurant – Corazon De Maiz. However, there are hundreds of options in this neighbourhood alone. Another popular spot is La Terrasse at the Chateau Laurier and the Andaz Hotel for enjoying the incredible sunsets over the city from their terrace.
If you’re looking to time your visit with some of Ottawa’s most popular events, there are many throughout the year. Some of the big ones include Capital Fair, Gatineau Hot Air Baloon Festival, CityFolk, Winterlude, and the Sugar Festival, just to name a few.
Fun Things To Do in Ottawa
Whether you’re looking for what to do in Ottawa this weekend or planning a vacation to the nation’s capital, Ottawa has something for everyone. With Ottawa located walking distance from the Quebec Border, a two-hour drive to Quebec City, a three-hour drive to Montreal, and a four-hour drive to Toronto, It’s also a great base for exploring many amazing places. In fact, you can also drive to the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site Thousand Islands in only two-hours.
For more ideas on what to do around Ottawa, check out our articles below:
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