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Ottawa is the capital of Canada (not Toronto as commonly believed) with a population of only 1 million, and a relaxed and walkable downtown core with pedestrian-only streets. Situated on the river with old parliament buildings, Ottawa is a quaint city with lots of things to do year-round and a hub of plenty of Canadian historical treasures.
Unlike other capital cities around the world, Ottawa has a fairly laid-back and low-key atmosphere. While it’s still very diverse and multicultural, it has more stereotypical Canadian qualities that many think of when they think of Canada – smaller, quieter, plenty of nature and winter sports activities, and bilingual. Being a stone’s throw from the province of Quebec where French is the official language, Ottawa has a mix of English and French speakers and many people are proficient in both. Ottawa is a great place to practice either of Canada’s two official languages, soak up Canadian culture, and visit Canadian historical landmarks.
Home to two universities, the University of Ottawa and Carlton University, Ottawa is a student town that draws Canadian and international students and tourists from all over the world.
Here are the best things to do in Ottawa.
Best Things to Do in Ottawa
1. Take pictures at Parliament Hill
Parliament Hill is one of the most iconic attractions in Ottawa and can be visited year-round, snow or shine. It consists of a large area of land overlooking the Ottawa River with views of the Canadian parliament buildings. The parliament buildings are home to all of the Canadian government administrations, which are known as Centre Block, East Block, and West Block, as well as the famous Peace Tower.
The most photographed of the three is the Centre Block because it’s attached to the 302 ft tall Peace Tower. It also contains the Senate, where bills are passed and decisions are made, and the Commons Chamber, where bills are thought up and debated among members of Parliament.
Parliament Hill is also the location for an annual Canada Day celebration held every July, and a Sound and Light show in the winter. Regardless of the season, Parliament Hill offers a picturesque view of these important buildings and is the most visited site in Ottawa.
2. Skate (or boat) on the Rideau Canal
The Rideau Canal is a man-made waterway that stretches from Ottawa, all the way to a smaller city called Kingston, 196 km ( miles) away. It connects the Ottawa River to Lake Ontario, which is one of the Great Lakes located near the Toronto and Niagara Falls areas.
Although the construction of the Rideau Canal started in 1826 for military defense purposes, the Rideal Canal today is primarily a tourist attraction and is used for tons of recreational activities today. In the winter, ice skating on the Rideau Canal is very popular and one of the most iconic Canadian winter activities. As the world’s largest, naturally frozen skating rink, it draws not only Canadians from coast to coast but international tourists as well.
Check out the Ottawa Locks, which connect the Rideau Canal to the Ottawa River. You can drop by the Parks Canada Lockstation to learn how the system works similarly today as it did back in the 1830s!
In the summer, you can go kayaking, canoeing and boating on the Rideau Canal. Stop at Dows Lake Pavillion to rent your boat to enjoy a view along the surface of the Rideau Canal.
3. Explore Gatineau
Gatineau is a small city of 285,000 just across the river from Ottawa. The Ottawa River is the only thing dividing Ottawa from Gatineau and attractions in both cities are easily visited from one city or the other. Gatineau is a part of the province of Quebec, the most French-speaking province in Canada. Like Ottawa, Gatineau is a bilingual city where both English and French are widely used and spoken proficiently by the majority of the population.
Check out Gatineau Park for beautiful scenic trails through the forest and rivers. You can go biking, relax or go for a hike.
Be sure to visit Gatineau Hot Air Balloon Festival if you’re in Ottawa-Gatineau in late August, which consists of concerts, fireworks, and lots of colourful balloons. Feeling brave?
Head to Parc de la Baie to schedule a ride on a hot air balloon over the festival that will take you anywhere from 500 to 1500 feet in the air, giving you a bird’s eye view of Gatineau and Ottawa.
In the Ottawa-Gatineau area with kids? Check out the Canadian Children’s Museum, geared at toddlers and young children, allowing them to learn through play in different settings (grocery stores, bakery, sushi making, etc.)
4. Go kayaking on the Ottawa River
As well as boating on the Rideau Canal, another option is to go boating or kayaking on the Ottawa River. You can also book a boat cruise.
Up for more of a thrill? Head to Rafting Momentum, 1 hour from Ottawa for one of Canada’s best whitewater rafting adventures on the Ottawa River!
5. Meet Animals at the Central Experimental Farm
The Central Experimental Farm is a well-known working farm attraction and research centre just a 15-minute drive from downtown Ottawa. Great for families and individuals who want to learn about agriculture and farming in Canada, it functions as a petting zoo and museum with interactive exhibits for children and adults. In addition to animals that you can interact with, the Experimental Farm has lovely gardens and even a sunflower field that makes for great Instagrammable photo ops. The area is so picturesque that weddings are held here.
If you come at the right time, you may be lucky enough to see newborn animals.
6. Get Spooked on a Haunted Walk of Ottawa
The haunted walks of Ottawa have been running for over 20 years and are a favourite for locals and visitors to Ottawa alike. Listen to spooky stories as you explore Ottawa’s downtown and admire the city’s buildings at dusk. Choose between a classic haunted walking tour, a cemetery, or a tour of a haunted jail which tells the tails of murder mysteries and the legends of criminals imprisoned here. Whichever haunted tour you choose, you can’t go wrong – all three are highly popular and well-rated and a unique way to spend an evening in Canada’s capital.
7. Step back in time at Diefenbunker: Canada’s Cold War Museum
Canada’s Cold War Museum is a 4-storey underground bunker that showcases Canada’s war history from when Canada was. Build between 1959 and 1961, the bunker is 75 feet underground (so dress warmly, as it may be a little bit chilly.)
Kid-friendly and creates some good conversations, with kids or amongst adults about the history. The Diefenbunker is more than just a museum, it’s an artifact in itself. Check out the tunnel that was used to divert the effect of explosions.
8. Try Exciting Foods at Ottawa Chinatown
Explore Ottawa’s diversity in its Chinatown, with the beautiful Royal Blue Arch as its entranceway. The Chinese working class in Ottawa started setting up shops in this area along Somerset Drive after WWI. Thousands of Vietnamese refugees joined the area in the late 1970s, bringing their food and culture to the area as well.
Needless to say, Chinatown Ottawa is a great place to indulge in authentic Asian cuisine. Find delicious sushi, ramen, dim sum and pho at various hole-in-the-wall restaurants along the strip,
In early June, check out the Ottawa Chinatown night market, which brings hundreds of vendors and live multicultural performances in martial arts, music, and dances.
9. Reflect at The National War Memorial
The National War Memorial is an important landmark in Confederation Square, in the heart of downtown Ottawa, built to honour the sacrifice of Canadian soldiers and their fight for our freedoms. A beautiful work of art standing 17.5 feet tall, this Canadian war memorial was originally unveiled in 1939 as a tribute to the Canadian soldiers’ sacrifices during WWI, where 61,000 Canadians were killed. Over the years, its become a place to remember and honour the Canadians who served in many wars and national defence.
Just minutes from Parliament Hill, it is easy to check out the National War Memorial from anywhere in Ottawa’s downtown core. Try to catch the changing of the guard’s ceremony which happens once an hour. There are benches nearby to sit and reflect and enjoy the surroundings, which are pedestrian-only and well-shaded with trees.
The National War Memorial is also the location of the Remembrance Day Ceremony every year on November 11th, one of the most important Remembrance Day ceremonies in the country.
10. Get Nostalgic at the Canadian Museum of History
Another attraction to see on the Gatineau side of the river, you can get to the Canadian Museum of History in just 5 minutes by car, or a 30-minute walk from Ottawa’s downtown.
Learn about Canada’s history of civilization from the earliest recorded times to the present day. Find your favourite artifacts from early Canadian broadcasting television shows, such as Today’s Special, Big Comfy Couch, or Mr. Dressup, which will be highly nostalgic for many Canadian and some American millennials.
There are also exhibits to teach you about the indigenous people and how they ran the land, while on the second floor, as well as the population expansion since the mid-1800s. The Canadian Museum of History is a fascinating visit that will engage you for hours.
11. Take a tour of Rideau Hall
The official residence of the British Royal Family, and their representative in Canada, the Governor General.
Take a stroll outside the gardens where you’ll find many shaded areas, and trees planted as gifts from world leaders from around the globe.
Take a free 45-minute tour which will show you a couple of different floors of the residence, as well as some of the rooms. The private tours run frequently throughout the day and walk-ins are welcome.
12. Admire artwork at the National Gallery of Canada
The National Gallery of Canada is a collection of famous art from indigenous people and Canadians from around the country. There are many paintings from famous artists, such as The Group of Seven. The exhibits include some of their lesser-known pieces of artwork which allow you to see a greater range of their talent and aspirations.
PRO TIP: there is a beautiful view of the parliament buildings from the gallery’s windows.
Outside the gallery, be sure to check out the intriguing ‘Maman’ sculpture. Standing 30 feet (metres) high, and with long legs, it could be mistaken for the demon from the popular Netflix series Stranger Things. The Maman however has been there for longer than the TV series.
13. Take selfies at the Canadian Tulip Festival
Ottawa is famous for hosting the Canadian tulip festival. The royal families of England and the Netherlands took refuge in Ottawa during WWII. Canadian soldiers helped liberate the Dutch, which they thanked them with tulips. They continued to send tulip bulbs year after year which head to the Canadian Tulip Festival. Officially since 1953 and said to be the largest tulip festival in the world with over 1 million tulips. The festival is held for 11 days annually in May along Commissioner’s park.
Aside from admiring the beautiful colours of the tulips, there are a few activities you can take part in during the festival:
- Shop for fresh cut flowers as a bouquet to bring home
- Check out the heritage display which teaches you about the gifts of bulbs which lead to the creation of the annual festival
- Take advantage of lots of Instagrammable moments and selfies among the countless colourful flowers
14. Get your picture taken in front of the famous OTTAWA sign
Get selfies and pictures in front of the OTTAWA sign, which is an eye-catcher all day and illuminates at night.
Every city has its sign name these days for photo ops, but the Ottawa one is unique in that its in a fully walkable area with colourful steps in the background, which you can also get photos in front of.
15. Head to the beach
Not too many people think of beaches when they think of Ottawa or Canada, but Ottawa is close to some beaches worth a visit which are great for all visitors.
- Britannia Beach, located right along the Ottawa River at Brittania Bay, the beach is great for swimming, lying on the sand and watching sailboats. There’s also a bike trail on site, as well as a children’s playground.
- Mooney’s Bay Beach, a great area for families with activities for kids, as well as sports fields for those looking for a great palace to exercise before they cool off in the lake
While both of these beaches are known for the sunny atmosphere in the summer, they make for a picturesque walk any time of the year. The fall leaves against the water are gorgeous in autumn, as well as the snow against the frozen lake in the winter months.
16. See Ice sculptures at Winterlude
Winterlude is an annual winter festival held in Ottawa and in Gatineau. It runs throughout three weekends every winter, usually in February. The 2024 dates will take place from Friday, February 2, 2024 – Monday, February 19, 2024. There are numerous exhibits, activities and features held all throughout the cities of Ottawa and Gatineau, such as ice sculptures, winter activities, live performances, and traditional Canadian winter comforts to be enjoyed, such as hot chocolate and poutines.
As the weather in Ottawa can be unpredictable, the exact length of Winterlude depends on how long the ice can stay frozen. Get out and enjoy it as early as you are able.
Things to Do in Ottawa: Final Thoughts
Whether you’re visiting or live in Canada, Ottawa is well worth a visit to explore Canada’s rich history and its relationships with other countries worldwide. When comparing it to Toronto, Ontario’s other major city, Ottawa has a similar number of exciting things to do, but in a much smaller and easily accessible area.
Ottawa is home to some of the most important landmarks in the country, exciting festivals, great food and diversity, and natural beauty. We thoroughly believe that Ottawa should be on everyone’s bucket list for places to see while in Canada.
Kristin is a lifelong Ontarian who loves to travel, and write about travel. As a mom of 2, she loves to blog about travelling around Canada and the world with her family.
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