Photo: Kim Kerr / LuxuryOntario
Updated Nov. 11th, 2023 / Commissions may be earned from LuxuryOntario‘s affiliate partner links
There’s no denying Canada’s capital is a fun place to hang out. How do I know? One of the five million or so visitors who descend upon Ottawa each year, the sunny fall day I visited the place was simply buzzing. The city’s restaurants and cafés were busy, ByWard Market was abuzz with sightseers and shoppers, and Parliament Hill saw shoulder-to-shoulder selfie-seekers vying for the best spots to grab a great photo.
My first trip to Ottawa since the Pandemic, it was certainly refreshing seeing so many travellers, young and old alike, from across the province and around the globe enjoying what is undeniably one of the best cities in Canada, if not North America. Notepad in hand, I managed to cross pretty much everything off my Ottawa bucket list, but certainly can’t wait to do it all again.
Whether you’re a first-time visitor trying to cram as much of the capital into a few days of sightseeing, are here for a weekend getaway, or are a day-tripper curious to see what’s new, take a read through this list of the best things to do in Ottawa for ideas and inspiration.
The Best Things To Do in Ottawa, Canada
Visit Parliament Hill, Canada’s Seat of Democracy
Where better to begin your exploration of Canada’s beautiful capital city than in Parliament Hill? Situated on the southern banks of the Ottawa River, Parliament Hill stands as a monumental representation of Canada’s democratic values and its rich history. One of the country’s most impressive Gothic Revival-style buildings, it’s adorned with carvings, sculptures, and spires and stands proudly overlooking the city, offering both a physical and a symbolic vantage point for the nation’s governance.
Originally a military base in the 18th century, Parliament Hill has borne witness to the evolution of Canada from its colonial roots to its status as an independent sovereign nation. Today, it serves as the meeting place for Canada’s federal government, housing the Senate, the House of Commons, and the offices of numerous parliamentarians. Its central point is the iconic Peace Tower, rising out of the heart of the parliamentary precinct and serving as a beacon for the nation. It also houses the Memorial Chamber, a solemn tribute to Canadians who gave their lives in armed conflicts.
As a visitor to the “Hill” you’ll also be captivated by the grandeur of the Centre Block, the intricacies of the East and West Blocks, and the spectacular views of the Ottawa River and surrounding areas. The scene is even more dramatic when it includes the ceremonial Changing of the Guard in the summer months and the Sound and Light Show in the evenings.
Tours of Parliament Hill are available and need to be booked online in advance of your visit.
Learn About Canada’s History at the National Museums of Ottawa
As the capital city of Canada, Ottawa plays an important role as the guardian of the nation’s stories… and its history. Through its national museums, you can embark on a fascinating journey through time, art, war, and innovation. These institutions not only showcase Canada’s history and culture but also its role on the global stage.
Canadian Museum of History
Located in Gatineau, just across the river from Ottawa in the neighbouring province of Quebec, the Canadian Museum of History is one of the country’s most visited cultural attractions. Its architecture, with curving lines reminiscent of the Canadian landscape, houses exhibitions that trace over 20,000 years of human history. The museum’s Grand Hall, with its towering totem poles and indigenous artifacts, offers a profound look into the lives of the First Nations. The museum doesn’t stop at pre-colonial history but also delves into Canada’s formation, its milestones, and its challenges.
National Gallery of Canada
An architectural marvel of glass and granite, the National Gallery stands as a beacon for art enthusiasts. Its vast collection ranges from classical European masterpieces to innovative contemporary works. The heart of the gallery, however, is its impressive array of Canadian art. Pieces by the famed Group of Seven, indigenous artists, and contemporary visionaries reveal the nation’s soul through brushstrokes and sculptures. The gigantic spider sculpture “Maman” stands outside the gallery and is a testament to the institution’s commitment to evocative, boundary-pushing art.
Canadian War Museum
A solemn yet thought-provoking institution, the Canadian War Museum delves into the country’s military history. The museum, with its environmentally conscious design, encapsulates Canada’s involvement in conflicts, from old tribal wars to its role in global confrontations. Its exhibitions are a balance of artifacts, testimonials, and interactive installations, offering a comprehensive understanding of war’s impact. The museum doesn’t just narrate tales of battles; it underscores the human cost of conflict and celebrates the nation’s heroes.
Canada Aviation and Space Museum
Located at the Rockcliffe Airport, this museum is a must-visit for aviation enthusiasts. It boasts one of the world’s largest collections of aircraft, ranging from pioneering planes of the early 20th century to modern jets. Visitors can marvel at the legendary Avro Arrow, bush planes that opened the North, and even space exploration artifacts. Interactive displays and flight simulators offer fun hands-on experiences suitable for all ages, letting you feel for yourself the thrill of flying. The museum delves into Canada’s significant contributions to aviation and space exploration, spotlighting the innovators and pioneers who soared above.
Explore The Rideau Canal: Ottawa’s Historic Waterway
Winding its way through the heart of Ottawa, the Rideau Canal stands as a testament to Canada’s early engineering prowess. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the canal is one of the oldest continuously operating canal systems in North America and can trace its origins back to the 19th century.
Constructed between 1826 and 1832 as a defence strategy after the War of 1812, the Rideau was envisioned as a secure supply and communications route between Montreal and the British naval base in Kingston. The canal’s intricate lock system, a feat of engineering for its time, stretches over 202 kilometres, connecting the Ottawa River to Lake Ontario.
While its military significance waned, the canal blossomed as a commercial and recreational artery. Today, flanked by walking paths, parks, and historical plaques, its calm waters beckon boaters, kayakers, and paddleboarders during the warmer months. However, it’s during winter that the Rideau Canal truly transforms. As temperatures drop, the waterway metamorphoses into the world’s largest naturally frozen skating rink. Residents and tourists alike lace up their skates to glide along its icy expanse, making it a centrepiece of Ottawa’s winter celebrations.
Spend Time in ByWard Market
Just a short stroll across the Rideau Canal from Parliament Hill, ByWard Market is an iconic symbol of Ottawa’s vibrant urban life, combining historical significance with contemporary energy. Established by Lieutenant Colonel John By in 1826, it’s one of the oldest and largest public markets in Canada.
The market’s labyrinthine streets and alleys bustle with vendors, artisans, and merchants selling everything from fresh produce to artisanal crafts. However, the market isn’t just about commerce. It’s also a culinary hotspot, boasting numerous restaurants, cafés, and bakeries that cater to an array of tastes, be it local delicacies or international cuisines.
Nightlife in the ByWard Market is equally fun thanks to its many pubs, clubs, and bars providing entertainment deep into the night. But beyond its commercial and entertainment offerings, ByWard Market serves as a canvas of urban art and expression. Murals, sculptures, and street performances punctuate its spaces, making it a living, breathing testament to Ottawa’s evolving cultural identity… more than a market, it’s the pulsating heart of Ottawa’s urban soul.
Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica: Ottawa’s Spiritual Marvel
Dominating the skyline of Ottawa’s Lowertown, Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica stands as a testament to both religious devotion and architectural brilliance. As the oldest standing and largest church in Ottawa, this majestic structure serves as a spiritual anchor for the city’s Roman Catholic population and as a beacon for lovers of art and history.
Consecrated in 1846, the cathedral is a marvel of Neo-Gothic architecture. Its twin spires rise confidently skywards while intricate stained-glass windows cast a kaleidoscope of colours, illuminating the interior’s richly decorated altars and wood carvings. The basilica’s interiors boast an impressive display of religious artwork, including statues of biblical figures and scenes depicting pivotal moments from the Holy Scriptures.
Beyond its structural beauty, the cathedral holds a special place in Canadian history. It has witnessed numerous state funerals and welcomed dignitaries from around the world, further cementing its significance in the nation’s capital.
Take in a Performance at the National Arts Centre
The National Arts Centre (NAC), inaugurated in 1969 as part of Canada’s centennial celebrations, has emerged as a premier destination for music, theatre, and dance, resonating with both Canadian and international audiences. Architecturally, the NAC is an embodiment of mid-century brutalism, characterized by bold geometric forms and the extensive use of concrete.
With multiple stages, including the grand Southam Hall, the venue hosts a range of performances from classical symphonies to contemporary dance and cutting-edge theatrical productions. It also provides platforms for emerging artists, commissioning new Canadian works and offering educational programs to inspire the next generation of performers and enthusiasts.
A particularly noteworthy feature is the NAC Orchestra. One of the world’s leading classical ensembles, it’s known for its stellar performances and outreach programs, both within Canada and on international stages.
Visit Winterlude, Ottawa’s Frosty Festival of Fun
In the heart of the Canadian winter, when snow blankets the ground and the chill of the season is in full force, Ottawa comes alive with its iconic Winterlude festival. Held annually since 1979, Winterlude is a celebration of all things winter, transforming Canada’s capital into a wonderland of icy enchantment.
One of the most captivating attractions of Winterlude is the Rideau Canal Skateway. As the world’s largest naturally frozen skating rink, it draws both locals and tourists, who lace up their skates to glide along its impressive 7.8 km stretch of ice. But the Skateway isn’t just a place for leisurely skating; it’s also a venue for various events, including ice dancing and speed skating demonstrations.
Snow sculptures are another highlight, with artists from across the globe congregating to craft intricate masterpieces from blocks of snow. Ranging from the whimsical to the profound, these fascinating sculptures adorn parks and public spaces, turning them into open-air galleries.
For those who seek more interactive experiences, Snowflake Kingdom, typically located in Gatineau’s Jacques-Cartier Park, offers winter-themed games, slides, and activities for families.
Have a Blooming Good Time at the Canadian Tulip Festival
Every spring, Ottawa bursts into a kaleidoscope of colours, heralded by the Canadian Tulip Festival. This vibrant event, which has its roots in international friendship and gratitude, has grown into one of the largest tulip festivals in the world, attracting horticulturists, tourists, and art lovers alike.
The festival’s origins trace back to 1945 when the Dutch royal family sent 100,000 tulip bulbs to Canada. This generous gift was a token of appreciation for Canada’s role in liberating the Netherlands during World War II and for providing a safe haven to the Dutch royals during the conflict. The blooming of these tulips, a symbol of hope and spring’s renewal, led to the inaugural festival in 1953.
Annually, over a million tulips transform Ottawa’s parks and gardens into vibrant tapestries of colour. Major’s Hill Park, Commissioners Park, and the gardens surrounding Parliament Hill are some of the key locales where these floral displays can be admired. The breathtaking views of flowerbeds, set against landmarks like the Rideau Canal, offer both locals and tourists a visual feast.
Beyond the visual spectacle, the festival features cultural events, art exhibitions, music performances, and culinary delights, celebrating the rich tapestry of Canadian culture.
Enjoy a Luxurious Overnight Stay in Ottawa
In order to really make the most of your exploration of the best things to do in Ottawa, why not consider an overnight stay? Canada’s capital offers no end of luxurious accommodations, from ritzy 4- and 5-star offerings to charming boutique hotels.
Choosing the right accommodation can make or break an unforgettable trip. Get it right and you’ll find more than just a place to rest, but somewhere that provides a taste of the locale’s essence and a base from which to explore.
To help you, we’ve already curated our favourite places to stay in Ottawa, so check out the following for ideas and inspiration: