Home | North America | Things to do in Ottawa, Canada

Ottawa, the capital of Canada, is centrally located between Toronto and Montreal, and situated on the river of the same name that divides the provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

The bilingual national capital region spills over to Gatineau, Quebec, with about 900,000 residents on the Ontario side. Far removed from its former rather bland reputation as a mere "political" capital, this beautiful city now houses many national cultural institutions such as the National Gallery and the Canadian Museum of Nature.

Ottawa also offers a wide variety of attractions, entertainment, festivals, and special events, including the National Arts Centre, Scotiabank Place (home of the NHL Ottawa Senators), Winterlude (February), the Tulip Festival (May), Bluesfest (July), the International Jazz Festival (June-July), and Race Weekend (May).

Here are Ottawa's best attractions and things to do.

1. Parliament Buildings

Parliament Buildings (distributed under a Creative Commons ASA 2.0 licence).

Overlooking the Ottawa River, the Parliament Buildings, Canada’s seat of government, consist of the majestic Gothic revival Centre Block and the smaller East and West Blocks.

The huge lawn in front of the buildings is highlighted by the centrally located Centennial Flame. With its spectacular art work—paintings, detailed stone sculptures, and wood carving, the Centre Block contains the House of Commons and Senate chambers, the breathtaking and ornate Parliamentary Library, and the Peace Tower.

The Peace Tower houses the Memorial Chamber to honour Canadians who died in armed conflicts, the Carillon, with its 53 bells, and the observation area some 90 metres above the ground. When Parliament is in session, visitors may also watch the debates from the public galleries.

In the summer, the Changing of the Guard ceremony takes place daily at 10:00 a.m., as does a sound and light show after dark. Parliament Hill is also dotted with statues, primarily of past prime ministers, which can be viewed on outdoor self-guided tours.

Visitors interested in the Parliament Buildings may also be interested in touring Rideau Hall, the residence of the Governor General, and Laurier House, a National Historic Site that was the home of prime ministers Wilfrid Laurier and Mackenzie King.

where? Situated in the heart of downtown Ottawa, on Wellington Street. Tel: 1-866-599-4999/ 613-992-4793. No nearby parking. Buses 1, 2, 4 and 7 pass the Parliament Buildings on Wellington Street, and most other buses cross the city centre nearby. From mid-May to September 1, visitors should stop at the Info-Tent to obtain same-day tickets for Hill tours; during the rest of the year, proceed to the Visitor Welcome Centre in the Centre Block beneath the Peace Tower.

when? Centre Block tours (in English or French) daily except December 25, January 1, and Canada Day, July 1; East Block tours in the summer—Tel: 613-996-0896 for reservations.

£$€¥ Free

2. The Canadian Museum of Civilization

The Canadian Museum of Civilization (© Zwergelstern, distributed under a Creative Commons Share-Alike Attribution 3.0 Licence).

The Canadian Museum of Civilization is the leading national museum of Canada’s history and culture. An architectural marvel in itself, it houses some 3.75 million artefacts, presenting 1000 years of history through dramatic exhibits.

The museum has four permanent exhibition galleries: the Grand Hall, including a recreation of a traditional West Coast Aboriginal village complete with a dozen towering totem poles; the First Peoples Hall; the Canada Hall, with life-size recreations of a New France farmhouse and the main street of an early Ontario town; and Face to Face, which introduces some of the famous individuals who shaped Canadian development.

Besides the Museum’s many special exhibits, it is also home to the Canadian Children’s Museum, with its exciting “Great Adventure” worldwide trip, the Canadian Postal Museum, and a two-screen IMAX3D Theatre. www.civilisations.ca

where? 100 Laurier Street, Gatineau (Quebec). Drive across the Alexandra bridge from downtown Ottawa and turn onto Laurier Street. Street and underground parking. Tel: 819-776-7000/1-800-555-5621

when? Open daily May to September; closed Mondays October to April. Closed December 25 and January 10-14.

£$€¥ While this museum can be seen alone ($8-$12 per person and $30 per family), a two-day passport for this and the Canadian War Museum is available for $18, and a one-week passport for 10 Ottawa-area museums, including the next three on the list, as well as the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, the Canada Science and Technology Museum, and the Royal Canadian Mint, is available at a price of $35 for adults and $85 for a family of five (www.museumspassport.ca). Films in the IMAX theatre cost $8-$12.

3. The National Gallery of Canada

The National Gallery of Canada

The National Gallery, Canada’s largest and most prestigious art gallery, is an arresting glass and granite building that echoes and is located not far from Parliament Hill.

Of its thousands of paintings, sculptures, drawings, and photographs, some 1,200 art works are displayed at any one time, while special exhibitions supplement the rotation of pieces in the permanent collection.

The Gallery contains an outstanding holding of Canadian art, from the country’s beginnings to the present, including an impressive Aboriginal art collection and a large selection of Group of Seven paintings. It also houses collections of historical European and contemporary American art, among other international works, as well as contemporary photography. www.gallery.ca

directions? 380 Sussex Drive. Tel: 613-990-1985/1-800-319-2787. Bus 9 passes by on Sussex Drive. Street and underground parking.

when? Open daily May through September; closed Mondays, October to April. Closed Good Friday, December 25, and January 1.

£$€¥ $4-$9 per person ($18 family rate), but also included in museumspassport mentioned above. Admission to special exhibitions costs extra.

4. The Canadian Museum of Nature

The Canadian Museum of Nature.

The Canadian Museum of Nature is Canada’s national natural history museum, and the 100-year-old castle-like structure has just undergone a massive renovation.

It contains 10 million specimens organized into botany, vertebrates, invertebrates, and earth science, with remarkable exhibits of dinosaurs, mammals, birds, and a real blue whale skeleton. New world-class galleries feature dioramas, interactive stations, Earth and Water galleries, much hands-on activity, and high definition nature movies. www.nature.ca.

where? 240 McLeod Street at Metcalfe. Several bus routes stop nearby: 1, 5, 6, 7 and 14. Limited parking. Tel: 613-566-4700/1-800-263-4433.

when? Open daily May to September; closed Mondays, September to April.

£$€¥ $6-10 per person ($25 family rate), but also included in museumspassport mentioned above.

5. The Canadian War Museum

Hitler's car, an exhibit at the Canadian War Museum

Although a “peaceable kingdom,” Canada has a rich military history which is marvelously displayed in this striking new museum with its prize-winning architecture and its vast collection of artifacts, art, photography, and films.

One of the more controversial exhibits is Hitler's Mercedes limousine (pictured).  The huge LeBreton Gallery houses a Voodoo jet, tanks, artillery, and a wide range of military vehicles.

The museum’s permanent collection is supplemented by special exhibitions. www.warmuseum.ca. Visitors interested in this museum should also take in the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, and the Diefenbunker, Canada’s Cold War Museum.

where? 1 Vimy Place, a short distance from the Parliament Buildings, drive west on Wellington Street to Booth Street. Street and indoor parking. Served by Bus #8 along Booth Street. Tel: 819-776-8600/1-800-555-5621.

when? Open daily, October to May; closed Mondays, October to April. Closed December 25 and January 10-14.

£$€¥ $8-$12 per person (family rate: $30), but also included in the museumspassport and the combined passport with the Canadian Museum of Civilization, mentioned above.

6. Byward Market

Byward Market (© Jcart1534, distributed under a Creative Commons Share-Alike Attribution 3.0 licence).

Byward is an historic 12-block market.

It combines outdoor vendors with stalls of fresh fruit, flowers, and vegetables; arts and crafts; specialty food stores; fashion and home boutiques; health and beauty services; crowded restaurants of every kind, and animated bars. “The Market” is the  heart of the Ottawa nightlife and entertainment industry.

where? Situated in Lowertown, easily accessible by foot a few blocks east of the Parliament Buildings, one block north of Rideau Street and the Rideau Centre, by transit—most city buses pass nearby, or by car, although parking is often at a premium.

when? Lively almost 24 hours a day.

£$€¥ Free to wander around.

7. Rideau Canal

The Rideau Canal.

The Rideau Canal connects Ottawa to Kingston, 200 km to the south on Lake Ontario.

It is Ontario’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site, containing 24 lockstations between the two cities, and was originally dug in the defence of Canada from the south. Today, the canal has great recreational appeal, and visitors can travel in their own boat the full length of the canal.

For others, viewing boats as they rise or fall through the 8 locks adjacent to the Parliament Buildings between Wellington Street and the Ottawa River is an engaging activity. Within Ottawa, the canal can be toured by tourist boat, while a sidewalk and road on either side of the Canal provide a scenic view for pedestrians, cyclists, and cars.

In January and February, skating on the canal is a favourite winter activity for residents and visitors alike. www.parkscanada.gc.ca/rideau

where? The canal winds through Ottawa starting from the Ottawa River adjacent to the Parliament Buildings at Wellington Street.

when? Year-round, although not navigable by boat in the winter.

£$€¥ Free to observe.

8. Gatineau Park

Pink Lake in Gatineau Park (© Alma Mulalic & Yann Fauché, distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 2.5 Generic licence)

In addition to the many lovely parks and scenic drives within Ottawa, the 36,000-hectare Gatineau Park on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River provides a tranquil sanctuary for nature lovers.

Gatineau boasts phenomenal views of the Outaouais valley, with gorgeous trees (especially in the fall) and clear lakes set against the background of the Gatineau Hills.

The Park also offers swimming, miles of trails for hiking, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing, and a heritage site, the Mackenzie King Estate. This was summer home of Canada’s 10th Prime Minister, with his collected architectural “ruins” and the Moorside Tearoom. www.canadascapital.gc.ca/gatineau and www.canadascapital.gc.ca/king.

While on the Quebec side, visitors may wish to call at the Lac-Leamy Casino, open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, with a wide variety of slot machines and gaming tables as well as restaurants, bars, and entertainment.

where? Drive or bicycle across the Portage or Chaudière bridge from downtown Ottawa, turn west onto Taché boulevard, and turn right onto the Gatineau Parkway, a 15-minute drive from Parliament Hill. Visitor Centre Tel: 819-827-2020/1-800-465-1867.

when? The park is open year-round, as is the Gatineau Park Visitor Centre. The Mackenzie King Estate is open from mid-May to mid-October.

£$€¥ Free except for the Mackenzie King Estate, which costs $8 per car.