Ottawa is home to some of Canada’s most historical and iconic sites, must-see national museums, a thriving culinary scene and an abundance of bucket list activities waiting to be checked off. Best of all, most attractions are within a 20-minute walk from each other in the downtown area, making it a breeze to get around. Here are just five of the many sites you don’t want to miss on your next trip to Ottawa.
Note: Due to COVID-19 and other factors, some of the mentions below may not reflect current offerings. Please confirm details with direct sources and stay informed on the current situation in Ottawa.
1. Visit Parliament Hill
The most iconic site in Canada’s capital, Parliament Hill, sits on a scenic perch overlooking the Ottawa River. Admire the three neo-Gothic-style federal government buildings (East Block, West Block and Centre Block) which were built between 1859 and 1927. The grounds are open for the public to explore and hold special free events year-round including yoga, the Changing of the Guard ceremony and multimedia shows.
While the Centre Block’s interior undergoes a decade-long rehabilitation, you can take free guided tours of two sites temporarily housing Parliamentary Chambers: the House of Commons in the newly renovated West Block, and The Senate in the Senate of Canada Building just one block away (a Beaux-Arts-style structure which was originally Ottawa’s train station built in 1912). Note: As of publishing, tours are on hold until further notice due to COVID-19.
2. Experience the Rideau Canal
Each season offers different ways to experience the beautiful Rideau Canal – Ontario’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site. In warmer months, stroll or cycle along the canal’s scenic pathways, or take a relaxing eco-friendly cruise on its waters. You can also explore the water on your own by renting a kayak, canoe, stand up paddle board (SUP) or paddleboat.
During the winter months (roughly December to February), the frozen waterway becomes the world’s largest skating rink – the Rideau Canal Skateway. This unique skating experience is free, open day and night (weather permitting), and stretches 7.8 kilometres (4.8 miles) through downtown Ottawa.
3. Explore national museums
Home to seven of nine national museums, Canada’s capital provides unparalleled access to the country’s historical and cultural treasures. You’ll find the world’s largest indoor collection of totem poles, beautiful Indigenous and Canadian art, ancient dinosaur fossils, heroic Canadian military stories, and technological breakthroughs that have all shaped our past, present and future.
Museums often host temporary blockbuster programming, including special exhibits from around the world.
4. Browse the Byward Market neighbourhood
The ByWard Market is one of the oldest and largest farmers’ markets in Canada – and it’s also the name of the historic and eclectic neighbourhood that surrounds it. The four square blocks are packed with fresh food, maple syrup and craft vendors, as well as unique eateries, pubs, galleries, bistros, coffee shops and boutiques.
By day, nibble on a tasty BeaverTail pastry at its original stand located on George Street and by night, sip a craft cocktail or local beer on a rooftop patio while taking in the view. You’ll also find fun souvenirs and gifts as well as Canadian fashion, jewellery and homewares in the many independent shops. Don’t forget to stop for a selfie with the giant OTTAWA letters on the York Street Plaza near Sussex Drive!
5. Soak up the Ottawa River
The majestic Ottawa River is one of the city’s most photographed sites and arguably one of the best places to capture stunning sunset views year-round. Walk, bike or drive across the bridges which link Ottawa, Ontario to Gatineau, Quebec or explore the multi-use pathways that run along each bank and lead to beautiful sites like city beaches and balanced rock sculptures. You can also ride the electric Aqua-Taxi or partake in a variety of sightseeing cruises. Whichever way you choose to experience the Ottawa River, you are in for some stellar views.
This river is also a mecca for water activities. Enjoy epic whitewater adventures like an urban rafting excursion, or head just over an hour’s drive west from downtown Ottawa for some of the world’s best whitewater rafting, including class V rapids. Whitewater kayaking is also available in the city and in the countryside. For some flatwater fun, stand up paddle board or canoe in the shadow of Parliament Hill, Rideau Falls and the Ottawa Locks!