Things to Do in Ottawa
Built between 1826 and 1832 to offer secure passage for British ships from Montreal, the Rideau Canal—a UNESCO World Heritage Site—is an engineering masterpiece. It extends for 126 miles (202 kilometers) between Ottawa and Kingston. Ottawa’s most visited stretch lures boaters, cyclists, and strollers in summer, and ice skaters in winter.
A concentrated cluster of grand government buildings overlooking the Ottawa River, Parliament Hill is the centerpiece of Downtown Ottawa. At the heart of the complex is Centre Block, a neo-Gothic riot of greening copper turrets, stone-carved gargoyles, and pointed arches built around a soaring central campanile (bell tower) known as the Peace Tower. Parliament Hill is not just a pretty sight; it’s also home to Canada’s most important democratic institutions, including the Library of Parliament and the chambers of the House of Commons and the Senate.
The eight Ottawa Locks regulate the flow of the city’s signature Rideau Canal as it flows south from the Ottawa River. The hand-cranked locks provide a gradient of 24 meters (79 feet) on the canal, which runs for more than 124 miles (200 kilometers) from Ottawa to Kingston, a stunning example of 19th-century ingenuity and engineering.
Designed by renowned architect Moshe Safdie, Ottawa’s glass-and-granite National Gallery of Canada (Musée des Beaux-Arts du Canada) showcases an exquisite art collection. As well as an extensive display of European and Canadian art including an assortment of indigenous artworks, the museum also houses the reconstructed 19th-century Rideau Street Convent Chapel.
Ottawa’s historic food-focused ByWard Market houses hundreds of vendors hawking farm-raised meat, fresh produce, and arts and crafts. Hungry visitors and locals alike flock to this social and shopping hub, where takeout vendors sell ready-to-eat goodies and sit-down eateries offer prime seats for patrons to take in all the market action.
Explore the Great White North’s many wonders at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Set in a historic castle in Ottawa, this five-story museum focuses on the country’s natural history with a fossil gallery, a water gallery (where you can see a blue whale skeleton), mineral displays, and an array of other exhibits.
Gatineau is a city of about 300,000 right across from Ottawa on the northern shores of the Ottawa River. While Gatineau belongs to Quebec and Ottawa to Ontario, together they form Canada’s National Capital Region. Gatineau is a popular place to live, especially for young families and professionals and is actually the most bilingual city in Canada with over 60% of inhabitants speaking both English and French. The city is also known for its cultural value and is home to a variety of events and venues, such as one of the largest hot air balloon festivals in the world, filling the sky with hundreds of passenger balloons in every shape and color and the Casino du Lac-Leamy. The casino isn’t only a posh gambling hall though. Each year in August, the location hosts an international firework competition called the Sound of Light, where countries demonstrate their pyro-musical skills in the sky.
At the Canadian Museum of History, visitors can get a detailed look into the origins and human history of Canada and walk through whole recreated townscapes, including pre-European settlements. Although there is quite some culture and history to be discovered, the city of Gatineau is also associated with its many parks, as there are plenty of green areas ranging from wild nature to playgrounds and recreational parks. The biggest and most well-known of these parks is Gatineau Park, a massive conservation area north of the city. Apart from having a rich biodiversity, including black bears, beavers and wolves, the park is also an outdoor paradise, where anything from hiking, camping, biking to cross country skiing, horseback riding and snowshoeing is possible.
Housed in a castle-like structure, Canada’s original mint no longer produces currency for circulation—that now happens at Winnipeg’s Royal Canadian Mint. However the Ottawa facility is still functioning, churning out special-edition collector coins and precious metal bullion. Tours of the facility reveal the processes of coin-making.
The Canadian War Museum is an architecturally unique building showcasing the history of Canada’s past conflicts. Honoring those who have served the country and putting focus on the topics of regeneration and building a better future, this Ottawa museum is home to themed exhibits, historical artifacts, military tools, weapons, and vehicles.
Dating back to the 1840s, Ottawa Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica is the oldest church in Canada’s capital. The Gothic Revival structure is full of eye-catching design details, from its two shimmering, silver tin-covered steeples to the interior’s soaring vaults and star-studded blue ceiling.
More Things to Do in Ottawa
Previously known as the Canadian Museum of Civilization, this cutting-edge museum—just five minutes from downtown Ottawa—underwent a name change and a significant overhaul between 2013 and 2017. The museum’s high-tech exhibitions now tell the history of Canada and its peoples, from the earliest human inhabitants to the present day.
Just across the river from downtown Ottawa, Gatineau Park—a 139-square-mile (361-square-kilometer) swath of lake and wood-dotted parkland—offers nature escapes near the city. With a vast network of hiking, cycling, and cross-country ski trails, as well as lakes, waterfalls, and swimming beaches, it’s a veritable outdoor playground.
In addition to being the governor general of Canada’s official residence and the meeting place for foreign dignitaries visiting Ottawa, Rideau Hall is a serene green space beloved by locals and travelers alike. The manicured grounds contain a vast lawn, rose garden, private greenhouse, and more than 10,000 trees—some planted by famous visitors.
Confederation Square is a triangular plaza wedged between Wellington Street and Elgin Street right in front of Parliament Hill. It is a planned urban space that was, together with the National War Memorial, officially completed around 1939. The big granite memorial sits at the very center of the square and was originally a tribute to the Canadians who fought in World War One, but has since become more of a symbol of all Canadians serving the country in times of war. Bronze soldiers, including infantry, nurses, dispatch riders and many more regiments and corps portray “The Response” under the big granite arch, the heroic sacrifices made by Canada. They are watched over by two figures representing peace and freedom mounted on the top of the arch.
Located at Confederation Square and right in front of the National War Memorial is also the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a second monument that holds the remains of an unidentified soldier fallen during the First World War in France. The remains of the soldier were set to rest with full military honors and the tomb in form of a sarcophagus is in turn intended to honor the 116,000 Canadians who died or will die in past, present and even future conflicts. The square has become an important ceremonial center in Ottawa and was eventually named a National Historic Site of Canada.
Ottawa’s Little Italy is more than a local hub for authentic Italian food and hospitality. It’s also a diverse dining and shopping district filled with culinary offerings from Greece, India, and France, as well as traditional Canadian fare. The area’s mix of architecture, art, graffiti, and cuisine draws foodies and culture fans alike.
Showcasing Canada’s aeronautical achievements, this large museum houses more than 130 aircraft. See a replica Silver Dart, the first airplane to fly in Canada, and a Canadarm, Canada’s contribution to the International Space Station, then strap yourself into the cockpit and experience the sensation of flight in the Redbird FMX flight simulator.