Ottawa, the capital city of Canada, is a blend of English and French cultures, offering a rich tapestry of history, arts, and politics. For those pondering things to do in Ottawa, touring the iconic Parliament Hill, the seat of Canada’s federal government with its stunning Gothic Revival architecture, and exploring the Canadian Museum of History, which delves into the country’s diverse past, are top activities.
The city’s ByWard Market, one of Canada’s oldest public markets, is a bustling area with artisan stalls, eateries, and vibrant nightlife. Nearby, the National Gallery of Canada showcases a vast collection of indigenous, Canadian, and international art, reflecting the country’s cultural mosaic.
Beyond its political and cultural landmarks, Ottawa is adorned with green spaces like the Gatineau Park, offering recreational activities and scenic views, especially during the fall foliage. Ottawa’s blend of historical significance, cultural institutions, and natural beauty makes it a unique and enriching destination for those seeking the best places to visit in Canada.
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Attractions & Things to Do in Ottawa, Canada
1. Parliament Hill
Parliament Hill is not just the political heart of Canada; it’s also a cultural and architectural masterpiece. The Gothic revival suite of buildings is the home of Canada’s federal government. You can witness the Changing of the Guard ceremony throughout the year or even enjoy the summer’s spectacular light and sound show.
Travel Tip: Consider taking a guided tour to understand the historical significance of various chambers and halls. The tours often fill up quickly, especially in summer, so book in advance.
2. Canadian Museum of History
Located just across the river from Ottawa in Gatineau, the Canadian Museum of History is one of the country’s most famous museums. It offers a sweeping panorama of Canada’s rich past through its captivating exhibits and the stunning Grand Hall, which houses the world’s most extensive collection of totem poles.
Travel Tip: Allocate a good chunk of your day for this visit. There’s an IMAX theatre inside, which is worth checking out if you have extra time.
3. National Gallery of Canada
This striking glass-and-granite building houses the country’s premier Canadian and Indigenous art collection. The gallery also has many paintings, sculptures, and photographs worldwide. One of its most iconic pieces is the enormous spider sculpture “Maman” that stands outside.
Travel Tip: If you’re visiting in the summer, the adjacent Major’s Hill Park often hosts events and festivals that can complement your gallery visit.
4. Canadian War Museum
This modern museum offers a comprehensive history of Canada’s military past, from ancient to contemporary. Not only does it highlight the wars Canadians have participated in, but it also emphasizes the impact of war on Canadian society.
Travel Tip: Check out the Memorial Hall; at 11 a.m. on November 11, sunlight illuminates the only artifact in the room – the headstone of Canada’s Unknown Soldier.
5. ByWard Market
One of Canada’s oldest and largest public markets, ByWard Market is a lively area filled with restaurants, cafes, boutiques, and stalls selling fresh produce and crafts. It’s a great place to sample local delicacies and shop for unique souvenirs.
Travel Tip: It gets particularly lively in the evenings and on weekends. If you want a quieter experience, consider visiting on a weekday morning.
6. Rideau Canal
This historic waterway flows through the heart of Ottawa. During winter, it becomes the world’s largest skating rink, while in warmer months, it’s famous for boating and kayaking. The canal also has scenic paths, ideal for walking or biking.
Travel Tip: If visiting in the winter, dress warmly and check the ice conditions online before heading out to skate.
7. Diefenbunker Museum
Located outside the city’s core, the Diefenbunker is a Cold War-era underground bunker designed to protect Canadian officials from a nuclear attack. Now, it serves as Canada’s Cold War Museum, offering an eerie and insightful trip back in time.
Travel Tip: The temperature inside the bunker can be chilly, even in summer, so bring a light sweater or jacket.
8. Royal Canadian Mint
The Royal Canadian Mint is where Canada’s coins are produced. Visiting here lets you see master artisans and even hold a gold bar worth over half a million dollars!
Travel Tip: The guided tours are the best way to learn about the minting process. Check the schedule and book in advance to ensure your spot.
9. National Arts Centre (NAC)
The National Arts Centre is Canada’s premier performing arts venue. Situated in the heart of Ottawa, it hosts various performances, including theatre, dance, and orchestral concerts featuring local and international talent.
Travel Tip: If you’re keen on catching a performance, it’s best to check their schedule and book tickets online in advance. Sometimes, they even offer last-minute rush tickets at discounted rates.
10. Ottawa Art Gallery
This modern space celebrates the artistic contributions of the region, from historical pieces to contemporary art. It showcases Canadian and Indigenous art, making it a must-visit for enthusiasts.
Travel Tip: The gallery offers free admission, making it an excellent spot for budget travelers. Don’t forget to check out the rooftop terrace for panoramic views of downtown Ottawa.
11. Canada Aviation and Space Museum
Housing one of the world’s largest aircraft collections, this museum is a haven for aviation enthusiasts. The exhibits trace the history of aviation in Canada, from bush flying to space travel, and visitors can even try flight simulators.
Travel Tip: If you’re visiting with kids, look out for special events and workshops tailored for younger audiences, as they’re both educational and fun.
12. Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
Located in the heart of Ottawa, this unique museum provides insight into Canada’s agricultural past and its contributions to food sciences. Visitors can interact with various farm animals, watch live demonstrations, and even partake in food tastings.
Travel Tip: Wear comfortable shoes, as there’s much to explore on foot. The museum is also quite interactive, perfect for families with children.
13. Gatineau Park
Just a short drive from Ottawa, Gatineau Park offers a natural escape with its vast forests, lakes, and scenic lookouts. It’s a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts, with activities ranging from hiking and biking in the summer to cross-country skiing in the winter.
Travel Tip: If visiting during the fall, the park becomes a popular spot for leaf peeping due to its vibrant autumn colors. Arrive early to avoid crowds and secure parking.
14. Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica
This stunning neo-Gothic cathedral is one of Ottawa’s oldest and largest churches. Its splendid stained glass windows and intricate interiors make it a peaceful oasis amid the bustling city.
Travel Tip: Respect the sanctity of the church, especially if you visit during mass or other religious ceremonies. Photography might be restricted during these times.
15. Museum of Nature
This architectural gem showcases Canada’s natural wonders, from ancient dinosaurs to dazzling gemstones. It houses several expansive galleries dedicated to earth sciences, mammalogy, paleontology, and more, making it a great learning experience for visitors of all ages.
Travel Tip: The museum frequently updates its temporary exhibits, so even if you’ve been before, there’s always something new to discover. Also, certain days might offer free or discounted admission, so check their calendar for details.
16. Laurier House National Historic Site
Once the residence of two of Canada’s prime ministers, Sir Wilfrid Laurier and William Lyon Mackenzie King, this historic site offers a glimpse into the country’s political past. The beautifully preserved interiors reflect the Victorian and Edwardian eras, offering a step back.
Travel Tip: Guided tours provide a richer understanding of the home’s historical significance and the lives of its famous residents. Be sure to inquire about special events, as the site sometimes hosts unique historical reenactments.
17. Canadian Children’s Museum
Situated within the Canadian Museum of History, this section is dedicated entirely to young explorers. With hands-on exhibits and interactive displays, children can “travel” the world, experience different cultures, and ignite their imagination.
Travel Tip: If traveling with little ones, allocate extra time for this museum. The kids can get passports stamped in different “countries” within the museum, making it an engaging experience.
18. Mer Bleue Conservation Area
This 7,700-hectare conservation area offers a unique ecological experience. Home to one of the largest bog and fen complexes in the Ottawa Valley, it provides a rare insight into the northern boreal landscape. Boardwalk trails allow visitors to explore the wetlands without disturbing the ecosystem.
Travel Tip: Bring insect repellent, especially in the warmer months, as the wetland area can attract mosquitos. It’s also a hotspot for birdwatching, so consider packing binoculars.
19. Ottawa Little Theatre
As one of the oldest community playhouses in Canada, the Ottawa Little Theatre has entertained audiences for over a century. It offers a diverse range of plays in an intimate setting, from classic dramas to contemporary comedies.
Travel Tip: If you’re in town for a while, consider checking out multiple shows, as they frequently rotate their lineup. Seats tend to fill up fast for popular performances, so booking in advance is recommended.
20. Experimental Farm
The Central Experimental Farm is a sprawling agricultural facility and research center. Visitors can explore ornamental gardens and animal barns and learn about Canada’s agricultural innovations. It’s a unique blend of scientific research and leisure activities.
Travel Tip: The Arboretum and Ornamental Gardens are particularly lovely during the spring and summer. If you’re traveling with children, the animal barns are a must-visit.
FAQ About Things to Do in Ottawa, Canada
What are the top attractions to visit in Ottawa?
Some of the top attractions in Ottawa include Parliament Hill, the National Gallery of Canada, the Canadian Museum of History, and the Canadian War Museum.
Is the ByWard Market worth visiting?
Absolutely! The ByWard Market is one of Ottawa’s oldest and largest public markets. It’s a vibrant area filled with restaurants, boutiques, and stalls selling fresh produce, crafts, and specialty foods.
Can I take a boat tour of the Rideau Canal?
Yes, boat tours are available on the Rideau Canal, especially during summer. In the winter, the canal transforms into the world’s largest outdoor skating rink.
Are there any outdoor activities to do in Ottawa?
Ottawa offers a range of outdoor activities, from hiking and biking in Gatineau Park to kayaking on the Ottawa River. You can go skiing, snowboarding, or ice skating in the winter.
What cultural events or festivals can I attend in Ottawa?
Ottawa hosts several annual events and festivals, such as Winterlude in February, the Canadian Tulip Festival in May, and Canada Day celebrations on July 1.
Is there a good place to learn about Canada’s indigenous history in Ottawa?
The Canadian Museum of History has an extensive exhibit dedicated to the First Peoples of Canada, providing insights into their history, culture, and contributions.
Where can I watch live performances in Ottawa?
The National Arts Centre (NAC) in Ottawa is a premier venue for live performances, including theater, dance, and music shows. There are also several other theaters and live music venues throughout the city.
Are there any historical sites to explore in Ottawa?
Definitely! Apart from Parliament Hill, you can visit the Royal Canadian Mint, Laurier House, and the Historic Sites of Canada to delve deeper into the country’s rich history.