Parliament Hill, Summer

Ottawa cultural itinerary ideas for packaged travel

As Canada’s capital, the Ottawa region has a rich variety of culture, art and history, and there are many different ways to experience them. Whether your group or independent travel clients want to see seven of the country’s nine national museums, take fascinating tours or enjoy live performances, you’ll find just what their eyes, hearts and minds are looking for in a cultural destination.

Day 1—Art, history and entertainment

Although many of Ottawa’s main attractions are within walking distance of each other in the city centre, a great way to get familiar with the region is by taking a bus or boat tour. Climb aboard Lady Dive’s Amphibus (a bus that transforms into a boat) or Gray Line’s double decker bus. Both offer a full 90-minute guided tour of major sites with multilingual narration.

Or hire a knowledgeable and professional local expert to lead your tour group. Hidden InSite can provide the perfect guide in the language you need.

For a slower pace, join Ottawa Walking Tours for a stroll and learn about the city’s history, architecture and more. They offer private and group tours, as well as step-on guide services in multiple languages.

Once you have the lay of the city’s land, make your way to the National Gallery of Canada, a beautiful glass and granite building designed by Moshe Safdie. Inside, you can admire the largest collection of Canadian and Indigenous art in the world, including modern Inuit sculptures and Group of Seven paintings. The gallery also presents international masterpieces, a photography museum and important special exhibitions.

Across the street, the shiny twin spires of the Notre-Dame Cathedral contrast with the somewhat simple stone exterior walls. But the interior might surprise you with its impressive grandeur and ornamental décor. Guided tours are available during certain periods.

Just a few short blocks from the Gallery is the historic and vibrant ByWard Market neighbourhood, which gets its name from the on-site farmers’ market—one of the oldest in Canada. This commercial area was established in 1826 by Lieutenant-Colonel John By who was responsible for building the Rideau Canal (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Step inside the ByWard Market Building to explore a variety of food, fashion and art vendors. Then browse the exterior farmers’ stalls which sell seasonal products year-round, including maple syrup.

Get a feel for the Ottawa region’s artistic past and present at the always-free Ottawa Art Gallery, located just steps from the ByWard Market. The modern space showcases works of art in different mediums created by artists from the area and beyond, and friendly staff offer guided tours and creative workshops for groups and individual travelers.

Important periods of Canada’s political history come alive at Laurier House National Historic Site, a beautiful heritage building located nearby in the Sandy Hill neighbourhood near downtown. The former home of two prime ministers of Canada, Sir Wilfrid Laurier and William Lyon Mackenzie King, offers customized tours and experiences are available, including “White Glove” access to special artefacts.

Stay within that time period by visiting Mackenzie King’s summer home located just over 20 minutes’ drive from downtown Ottawa in Gatineau Park. Enjoy the blend of nature and history on a self-guided tour of the Mackenzie King Estate’s historic cottages, trails, gardens and more.

A day of eye-catching beauty deserves an entertaining end. The National Arts Centre—the only bilingual, multidisciplinary performing arts centre in Canada—presents a wide variety of orchestra, dance, variety, and English, French and Indigenous theatre performances.

The Théatre du Casino du Lac-Leamy, located just 10 minutes’ drive across the Ottawa River in Gatineau, Quebec, is a lovely place to see full-scale musical revues and spectacular solo performances. While there, try your luck at the Casino Lac-Leamy, an entertainment destination with several restaurants, bars, and a wide selection of slot machines and gaming tables.

Day 2—All about Canada

Did you know that visitors are welcome to tour the iconic Parliament of Canada, home of Canada's federal government? The neo-Gothic buildings perched along the Ottawa River are beautiful inside and out. Take a free guided tour of the interior spaces to walk in the footsteps of famous Prime Ministers and other world leaders, while admiring historic paintings and unique architecture decorated with Canadian motifs. While the Centre Block is closed for renovations, tours visit the House of Commons which is meeting in a beautiful glass-roofed former courtyard in the West Block, and the Senate which is deliberating in a grand Beaux-Arts-style building—originally a train station—just one block from Parliament Hill.

The nearby Supreme Court of Canada, Canada's highest court, also offers free guided visits of its official spaces. The tour guides, who are all law students, provide an overview of the Canadian judicial system and explain how decisions made in this building affect the lives of all Canadians.

Looking for a fun way to learn about the economy? Just around the corner, you can visit the Bank of Canada Museum’s high-tech interactive exhibits and multimedia stations. This always-free museum highlights interesting aspects such as the psychology of economic expectations and the history of bank note design.

At the Royal Canadian Mint just outside the ByWard Market area, guided tours provide an inside look at how coins are made (weekdays only) and learn about the fascinating process. Founded in 1908, the Mint has become one the world’s foremost producer of circulation, collector and bullion investment coins.

Take a scenic 5-minute drive along Sussex Drive from the Mint to Rideau Hall, the home of the Governor General of Canada (the Crown's representative in Canada). This historic site offers free tours of the grand interior where you might see state rooms, a large and lavishly decorated ballroom, and learn about the important events held here. Everyone is welcome to visit Rideau Hall’s beautiful grounds, where trees planted by visiting dignitaries and famous people are labeled, and traditionally manicured gardens are a feast for the eyes.

Round out your Canadian experience with a visit to the Canadian Museum of History, the country’s most-visited museum located directly across the Ottawa River from Parliament Hill in Gatineau, Quebec. This architectural gem designed by Douglas Cardinal is home to the world's largest indoor collection of totem poles, a hall dedicated to the traditions and achievements of Indigenous Peoples, as well as the largest and most comprehensive exhibition about Canadian history ever created. Visitors can download a Museum Guide mobile application for content in seven languages.

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