It may have become an important mark on the world map by compromise, but Ottawa has grown into one of Canada’s most charming and dynamic cities.
Located in Eastern Canada, the nation’s capital is home to many major cultural institutions, and is the place to be for Canada Day’s maple-flag frenzy. Ottawa also does great dining and shopping thanks to an outlook that’s both patriotic and international. Far from being a dreary town of pollies and diplomats, the city embraces the outdoors too.
Here’s a city guide to the top things to do in Ottawa.
Long home to the Indigenous Algonquin, what became Ottawa was largely ignored by everyone else until the British began to build a 200-kilometre canal here in 1826.
An extraordinary engineering achievement, the Rideau Canal is now a UNESCO World Heritage-listed site that becomes the world’s largest ice-skating rink in winter, and an essential sightseeing cruise route from spring to autumn.
In 1857, the then little-known Bytown was Queen Victoria’s surprise choice for the newly formed Province of Canada’s capital. Halfway between rival cities Toronto and Montreal, it was actually a canny compromise.
The grand Gothic Revival parliament building was soon constructed, and remains Ottawa’s most significant landmark. It’s the epicentre of national Canada Day celebrations on 1 July, which include impressive military parades featuring the famous Royal Canadian Mounted Police (Mounties).
The Buckingham Palace-style Changing of the Guard also brings pomp and circumstance to summer mornings, and daily guided tours inside the historic building (free, but arrive early for tickets) include amazing views from the 92-metre Peace Tower.
Like the Commonwealth’s other ‘compromise capital’, Canberra, many of Canada’s major cultural institutions are located in Ottawa.
The Canadian Museum of History is the country’s most visited museum and an absolute highlight is the permanent First Nations exhibition. The bold designs of Pacific coast artefacts are particularly powerful, while the new Canadian History Hall is a worthy 150th birthday gift to the nation.
There’s also lots to see at the National Gallery of Canada – if you can brave the giant spider sculpture outside the entrance! Be sure to check out the paintings by the pioneering Group of Seven artists, who interpreted the Canadian landscape through striking colours and forms during the 1920s and 30s.
Other significant national institutions include the Canadian War Museum, Museum of Nature and Aviation and Space Museum, where you can take a joyride over Ottawa in an old open-cockpit biplane. Another memorable journey back in time is the secret government Cold War bunker.
Running lengthways along the city grid, historic Sparks Street was Canada’s first pedestrian Mall (created in 1967).
There’s plenty to keep serious shopaholics busy here, including the opportunity to purchase Native Canadian art at The Snow Goose.
For travellers needing a retail hit in a hurry, the Rideau Centre and neighbouring ByWard Market have you covered. The four-level Rideau Centre underwent a massive transformation in 2016. International luxury marques including Tiffany and Coach are joined by much-loved Canadians such as on-trend department store Simons, apparel brand Roots, and Matt & Nat, makers of stylish vegan bags and accessories.
Historic ByWard Market is probably Ottawa’s most popular attraction. Stalls offer fresh produce, treats and handmade treasures, while indoor businesses include Crazy Moose of Ottawa, a souvenir store with its own line of t-shirts celebrating the capital and Canada. Just outside the market Drake General Store offers cool gifts and souvenirs.
Day and night, the market precinct is Ottawa’s hotspot for fast food and casual dining.
Head to the BeaverTails shack for their eponymous pastries, born right here in the capital. Think big, thin, crispy donuts with sweet toppings – heaven on cold days!
For fancier fare beyond the market, Atelier’s plain exterior contrasts with the stunning molecular gastronomy on offer inside. Confirming that it’s only getting better with age, Beckta relocated to elegant heritage digs near Parliament in 2015. At nearby Chateau Laurier, one of North America’s majestic old railway hotels, take a break from sightseeing with a classic afternoon tea.
There are plenty of top things to do in Ottawa that will leave you feeling totally relaxed.
A canal or river cruise is a wonderfully laid back way to admire the city. Boats with informative guides glide along the Rideau Canal – especially picturesque during the world’s largest tulip festival each May – and the Ottawa River. Try Paul’s Boat Line. The river route offers fine views of Rideau Falls, Parliament, turreted Chateau Laurier and the canal’s cascade of locks.
The canal is the hugely popular Winterlude festival’s centrepiece. You can skate for eight kilometres, pausing for beaver tails or mulled wine at on-ice stalls, then enjoy the festival’s other highlights – including ice sculptures and snow slides.
There’s more winter fun at Gatineau Park, the wilderness a short drive from downtown. Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing give way to hiking, cycling and canoeing as the weather warms, plus wildlife spotting all year round.
Five tours we love
A river cruise is a must for visitors to Ottawa – and you can cruise along the Ottawa River in total comfort on board the Empress of Ottawa. Enjoy live commentary and choose from the open air sundeck or two enclosed decks.
Get the perfect introduction to Ottawa’s key city sights on this popular hop-on/hop-off bus tour. You’ll enjoy the informative commentary from your guide, along with fabulous views from the open-top double-decker bus.
Ottawa is a compact city and perfect for exploring on two wheels. This guided bike tour will immerse you in the beauty and history of the Canadian capital.
Get scared silly on this popular walking tour of the historic city centre by lantern light. A local storyteller will share many of the city’s most spine-chilling tales. It’s not for the faint-hearted!
Do what Canadians do best and get out into the great outdoors. This white-water rafting adventure on the Ottawa River includes all equipment and a delicious BBQ lunch.
Do you have any tips for top things to do in Ottawa? We would love to hear from you. Please send us a message.
Additional images: Bigstock
About the writer
Patricia Maunder has been a media professional for 20+ years, working in print, online and radio for outlets such as The Age, Montreal Gazette and ABC. Currently based in Melbourne, she considers Montreal her ‘other’ hometown after living there from 2012 to 2016. Patricia has travelled in every continent except the one that’s beckoned since she was a child – Antarctica. A travel writer as well as an arts journalist, she enjoys culturally themed journeys such as Barcelona’s Art Nouveau architecture and Jordan’s ancient ruins, as well as nature-based adventures, from polar bear spotting in northern Canada to hiking Peru’s Inca Trail. Patricia loves action-packed itineraries, but is also right at home relaxing over cocktails in cool bars and afternoon tea at grand hotels.