For Torontonians, it’s well worth the approximate 4.5-hour drive to Ottawa to discover memorable experiences you won’t soon forget in Canada’s capital city! For locals, there’s so much to do and see right in your own backyard.
According to Ottawa Tourism, pre-pandemic numbers are staggering: the capital region sees approximately 11 million visitors a year. We’ve found 31 great things to see and do in Ottawa and area, but there are plenty more. Although the details were correct at time of press according to event websites, please be sure to check the website prior to your visit to ensure the events or attraction information is still accurate.
- Rideau Canal. The lock system, or canal that runs parallel to the Rideau River dates to 1832. It snakes through downtown from the Ottawa River to “Hogsback”, then the river stretches to Lake Ontario. You can skate on the canal in the winter, enjoy the “flotilla” in May, walk, bike or canoe in the summer or just sample the extraordinary views alongside the Chateau Laurier Hotel.
- Parliament Hill. Even during renovations, the complex of Neo Gothic buildings and the symbol of Canadian democracy – is open for tours. You must book tickets in advance. Be sure to get a peak inside the library, part of the Centre Block. The House of Commons has moved to the West Block during reconstruction. The Senate is located across the street in Ottawa’s old, but freshly renovated train station. The large, lush grounds of the “Hill” are incredible.
- Changing the Guard Ceremony. Mornings, 10am from late June until September on Parliament Hill. You’ll see a marching band with scarlet uniforms and bearskin hats carry out drills with military precision. It’s free to attend but come early as the crowds can be huge. Just be sure to double check the battery level in your camera or cell phone!
- Major’s Hill Park. Apart from being a great lookout for the Rideau Canal, the Parliament Buildings, the Ottawa River and the city of Hull, this sprawling landscape with its rolling hills, manicured lawns, ancient trees, and winding walk/bike paths, offers a breathtaking view of tulips blooming in the spring. An exceptional spot for a picnic lunch.
- Notre Dame Basilica. Founded long before confederation with its Neo-classical design, twin spires and exquisite stained-glass windows, it remains Ottawa’s largest church and became a National Historic Site in 1990.
- The Royal Canadian Mint. This castle like structure in downtown Ottawa was built in 1908 and is still producing commemorative and collector coins for this country and others under contract. The 45-minute guided tour is interactive and shows you how coins are made, including the largest ever produced, valued at about $750,000. Sorry, no samples.
- The Byward Market. Established in 1826 it is one of the country’s oldest and largest markets, and approximately 50,000 visitors on summer weekends. It’s considered the “premier destination” for shopping, dining, arts and entertainment. Among the 600 businesses in the four-block area is Le Moulin de Provence, where Barack Obama sampled some maple leaf shaped shortbread cookies now called the famous ‘Obama Cookie’.
- The National Gallery of Canada. The glass and granite building itself is spectacular, but inside you’ll see unique collections of Canadian Art – over 40,000 pieces all told – including paintings, prints plus sculptures.
- Rideau Hall (aka Government House). The official residence of the Governor General is a palatial 102,000 square foot “home” on 88 acres with 27 outbuildings – one of which is where Justin Trudeau and his family lives. While the main building boasts 175 rooms, the grounds (including cricket pitch) are truly amazing. The Prime Minister’s official residence, 24 Sussex Drive, is just across the street. While critical renovation on that mansion is expected to begin in the spring, no decision has yet been made on its long-term fate.
- The Canadian Aviation and Space Museum. If you’re a fan of vintage aircraft you’ll love The Canadian Aviation and Space Museum which allows you to get up close and personal with everything from aircraft built in 1909, to bush planes, to the surviving pieces of the Avro Arrow (scuttled in 1959). Plus see the original Canadarm used on the shuttle Endeavour, and the International Space Station Exhibit.
- Hogsback Falls. It’s a series of falls located where the Rideau River and Rideau Canal split – including a 50-acre park with an irresistible picnic and walking areas and a 60-foot waterfall. No admission and free parking.
- Laurier House National Historic Site. Built in the 19th Century with elements of the Italianate manner, it was home to two Canadian Prime Ministers – Sir Wilfred Laurier from 1897 to 1919, then Mackenzie King until his death in 1950. Parks Canada now operates the mansion as a public museum. Tours are provided by guides in costume with period décor and artifacts.
- The Ottawa Art Gallery. Since 1988 the downtown gallery has been home for local artists to display their drawings, paintings, sculptures and modern pieces as their way of connecting with the community. Visiting exhibits are also on display.
- The Canadian Science and Technology Museum.
The museum tells the story of science and technology in a fun and educational way. With 87,000 square feet of space, there’s room to display locomotives, “the crazy kitchen, Exporatek, the tinker stage, climate change research and other exhibitions. There’s also a temporary hall which houses travelling exhibits.
- The Canadian Museum of Nature. Located in a majestic castle-like building, the doors opened in 1917. There are now several permanent exhibit halls like the Talisman Energy Fossil Gallery showing off dinosaur skeletons, and others that depict the rocks and minerals which have shaped our planet, plus a mammal gallery with mounts of many creatures that have lived in Canada. Other features explore marine life, birds, insects and more.
- Little Ray’s Nature Centre. If somebody in your family is interested in snakes, spiders, birds of prey, and alligators – better pack a lunch because you might be here for a while. This zoo houses the country’s largest reptile and amphibian rescue with over 140 live critters. The exhibit – both an outreach and educational platform – focuses on natural habitats and personalities of these creatures.
- The Canadian War Museum. With over a half million artifacts and memorabilia on hand the 4.7 million square foot structure is considered one of the best in the world to study and learn about armed conflict. The museum is comprised of permanent exhibits from pre-confederation days to current deployments, with plenty of room to host special and travelling exhibits.
- The Central Experimental Farm. Bordering on the Rideau Canal, this National Historic Site serves as both a research centre for the Department of Agriculture/Agri-food Canada, and an attraction with ornamental gardens, a wildlife garden, greenhouses, the arboretum, petting zoo and much more.
- Maplelawn Historic Gardens. The estate features a 2 1/2 story manor house with stone walled gardens that have been exceptionally well preserved, making it a magnificent opportunity to see how 19th century European architectural and landscaping ideas were “transplanted” to Canada. You’ll see hundreds of trees, shrubs and a mile long plant list that goes from “Adam’s Needle” to “Wild Iris”.
- The Canadian Tulip Festival. The site is jaw dropping! Imagine this—one million tulips in every colour imaginable, bursting into bloom in the May sunshine. The tulips were given as a gift from Holland in recognition of the heroic role of Canadians in the Second World War. The 11-day festival includes fireworks, family fun and scores of photo ops. Best bets: “Commissioner’s Park” at Dow’s Lake and “Major’s Hill Park” with the Parliament Buildings as your backdrop.
- Ottawa Jazz Festival.
Sample the gambit from big band to the avant-garde at The Ottawa Jazz Festival. The winter festival runs in early February while the summer festival runs from June 23-30 at a variety of venues including Confederation Park, the downtown Arts Centre stages, along with a host of galleries, clubs and restaurants.
- Ottawa Hop-on Hop-off Bus. Always wanted to ride in a double-decker bus? Now is your chance, on the Ottawa Hop-on Hop-off Bus in a double decker open bus with a guide providing the facts and history of the places you might want to go. Hop off when you come to a destination, you’d like to spend some time at and hop back on when you’re done. Starting point is the corner of Sparks and Elgin Streets. Bus leaves every 30-60 minutes.
- Ottawa Ghost Walks. The nation’s capital has its share of spine-tingling ghost stories and para normal activity. Believer or skeptic, take your pick from a variety of daytime or nighttime themed tours. (I’ve taken this tour—it’s educational and entertaining, guided by a knowledgeable guide in period costume)
- Whitewater Rafting.
If you’re looking for some heart pounding, adrenaline pumping fun, and you’ve got the time to make the 90-minute drive out of town – you’ve come to the right place. The Ottawa River is one of the world’s top white-water destinations with spectacular rapids and unsullied scenery. Choose your tour carefully because you will get wet.
- Diefenbunker: Canada’s Cold War Museum. The four-storey Diefenbunker, about a half hour’s drive from the capitol, was finished in 1961 as a shelter for high level officials in the event of a worst-case scenario during the “Cold War”. It was named after then Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker, who had over 50 bomb shelters constructed nationwide. Mercifully, none had ever been used for their intended purpose. Today, this massive structure serves a window into our past. Step inside, and suddenly, it’s October1962.
- Mackenzie King Estate. Canada’s longest serving Prime Minister’s summer Gatineau getaway features 570 acres with lush gardens, pristine walking trails, historic ruins and a tearoom that is impossible to resist. “Cottages” on the site have been faithfully restored and are now museums with interactive exhibits.
- Rent a Bike. Here’s a great way to explore the National Capital Commission parks and parkways with dedicated bike lanes all over the city and across the river in the Gatineau. There are 200 kilometres worth, and you can pick the paths that suit your ability. Choose from a no speed,10 speed, electric bike or e-scooter and rent for an hour or day.
- Ottawa Redblacks. CFL is back in town. The Redblacks play out of TD Place Stadium with a football capacity of 33,000. The stadium has had major reconstruction over the years – and major name changes as it was formerly Frank Clair Stadium (coach and GM of the Rough Riders in the 60s and 70s), and before that, Lansdowne Park Stadium. You can’t beat the scenic location though – Bank Street South at the Rideau Canal. First home game: Thursday, June 15th against Calgary.
- Gatineau Park. At 361 square kilometres, it’s huge and equally beautiful. And it’s the 2nd most visited park in Canada. Across the river in the Gatineau Hills, this year-round playground offers everything an outdoor enthusiast could ask for: winter camping, groomed trails, equipment rentals and much more. Add to that: scenic lookouts, the pristine waters of Meech Lake, and the Carbide Willson Ruins. Best place to start is the visitor centre in Old Chelsea to pick up tips on where to go and how to get there.
- Canada Day. Due to the construction on Parliament Hill, the main stage for the epic celebrations moves down to LeBreton Flats Park, about five minutes to the west. Airshow and monumental fireworks: TBA.
- Ottawa Bluesfest. It runs 10 days in July in LeBreton Flats Park and has expanded to include pop, reggae, hip-hop – even rock. It must work as audiences have been increasing annually – topping out at 1.5 million in some years. Up to 40 acts will grace the stages with the kickoff featuring Shania Twain on July 6th.
32. Gatineau Hot Air Balloon Festival. Each year at the end of August, this massive event launches balloons of all shapes, sizes and colours over the Ottawa-Gatineau region, and offers concerts, fireworks, amusement rides and more. Watch giant balloons lift off from the festival grounds or take a ride in one and drift over the Ottawa-Gatineau region. After dark, some of the balloons are lit up during night flights!
by Laurie Wallace-Lynch