I grew up in Ottawa and while I loved to dismiss this capital city as boring, Ottawa is far from it! There are so many things to do in Ottawa from your traditional sightseeing to outdoor activities that get you out in nature and on the water, to foodie highlights, and more.
I’ve rounded up the best things to do in Ottawa for tourists and locals alike with my personal recommendations plus the must-see sites in Ottawa. Whether you’re here for one day in Ottawa, a weekend in Ottawa, or you live here, there is plenty to see, do, and taste.
Top Things to Do in Ottawa
Hand-picked by a local, here are the must-consider things to do in Ottawa.
Ottawa sightseeing alone will keep you busy, so pick your favourites if you’re only here for a short while.
Visit Parliament Hill
Don’t think that Parliament Hill is a place to skip, Ottawa has beautiful, neo-gothic Parliament buildings that are in central downtown and easy to get to. Even if you just go to see the outside and snap a few pictures, it’s worth it. But you can go inside with guided tours that take you through the East Block, the House of Commons (West Block) and to see the truly grand Library of Parliament (but just for a peek). Tickets must be reserved and are limited. Keep in mind you can only bring in a small bag and one bottle of water, so pack light for this day of Ottawa sightseeing!
Join a walking tour
Like many major cities around the world, Ottawa, too, has a free walking tour you can join. The catch? You just have to tip. These tours are informative, giving you a basic outline of Ottawa’s history, and fun or unique facts about the capital, plus they help to orient you around the downtown core.
See the Changing of the Guard
Just like in London, Budapest, and other capital cities, in Ottawa, you can watch the changing of the guard, and you have two options! The smaller of the two changing of the guards can be seen at the National WW1 Memorial, just down Wellington Street from the Parliament Buildings. It showcases two guards and a piper changing duties in front of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The larger, quite impressive, changing of the guard happens on Parliament Hill’s east lawn at 10AM every day from late June until the end of August. Arrive early not only for a good view but to hear the explanation of the ceremony at 9:45AM that is modeled after one performed in England that began in 1959.
Check out the ByWard Market
An area of downtown Ottawa and a market of the same name, the Byward Market is the best place to visit in Ottawa for first-time visitors. The market itself is a collection of shops and restaurants, and it’s here that you can find the famous Obama cookies (find them at Le Moulin De Provence) that represent the new era between Canada and the US when Obama became president. During the summer vendors pop up around the indoor part of the market selling lots of handmade pieces, clothing, fresh produce from the area, and flowers.
Aside from the actual market, there is an abundance of restaurants, hotels, clubs, bars, and shopping, including one of Ottawa’s finest malls, the Rideau Centre. Don’t miss getting a beavertail from the BeaverTail stand on the corner of George and William Streets!
Go to Court
If you visit the Supreme Court of Canada and opt to take a tour, you can actually attend a trial if one is happening while you’re in the building! The building itself was built in 1939 and is an impressive art deco building with a grand marble entrance. Tours are free and are conducted every day in English and French. In the summer months, all you have to do is show up. During the off-season of September to April, you must book in advance.
Stroll down Sparks Street
Sparks Street is Canada’s first pedestrian mall and it’s here that you can grab food, find souvenir shops, lots of cafes, patios, and a relaxed area to wander through. It’s also where a number of festivals in Ottawa are held including Rib Fest, the Ottawa Busker Festival, and more.
Haunted Walk of Ottawa
Ottawa has a bit of an eerie past and you’ll learn all of the stories around some of Ottawa’s most famous sites on the famous Haunted Walk of Ottawa. It’s a great way to get to know the city and a different side to places such as the Fairmont Château Laurier and a haunted high school.
Enjoy the Rideau Canal
The Rideau Canal has historical significance as it was originally built to connect Ottawa and Kingston (the original capital) and Lake Ontario, but it also was used for military defense when Canada and the US were at war in 1812.
Today this 200 kilometre waterway is a picturesque part of Ottawa that is enjoyed year-round. In the summer you can boat along the canal (or join a canal cruise if you don’t have a boat), opt to stay on land and enjoy a meal or drinks alongside the canal or try out the walking and cycling paths that are on either side. Don’t miss seeing the Ottawa locks (beside the Chateau Laurier). There is a patio and a green space to sit at and watch as boats move through the locks to the Ottawa River.
In the winter the Rideau Canal turns into one of the world’s longest skating paths (apparently Winnipeg and has gone and beat the record), which is one of the best things to do in Ottawa in winter. Skates can be rented on the canal and you can get hot drinks and BeaverTails right on the ice.
See the views from Major’s Hill Park
One of my personal favourite things to do when visiting cities is to check out the local parks. Ottawa’s main downtown park does not disappoint. Major’s Hill Park is a decently sized park that delivers optimal views. On one side you get the back of the Fairmont Chateau Laurier which is a picturesque castle-like hotel. On another, you have the Parliament Buildings and the Ottawa River, and on another, you see the pretty glass building that is the National Art Gallery.
Take some time to chill out here in the grass and walk around the paths, especially in the spring when the Ottawa Tulip Festival is happening. Tavern on the Hill is here, where you can grab nice cocktails and street food with a great view.
An easy stroll from Major’s Hill Park, Nepean Point is one of the best viewpoints in central Ottawa. Take a walk up here (don’t worry it’s not a big hill and it’s paved) to see the back of the Parliament Buildings that feature the original Library of Parliament, where the Rideau Canal meets the Ottawa River, and over into Quebec.
Notre Dame Basilica
Located behind Major’s Hill Park and right across from the National Art Gallery, this so-called minor basilica has two shiny spires that were added later (after 1846 when it was originally built), that certainly grabs your attention. Inside the basilica, it is a detailed masterpiece. It is the oldest and largest church in Ottawa and is a designated National Historic site, so be sure to pop in for a look or join in on one of the guided tours that are run in the summer months.
Ottawa has a wide selection of museums, so no matter what kind of museum you like, there’s one for you. Many of the museums in Ottawa are free on Thursdays after 4 or 5PM (it depends on the museum) until close.
National Gallery of Canada
This art museum has a great selection of both Canadian and international art and always brings in spectacular exhibits that change every so often. The big draw to the National Gallery of Canada, though, is Maman, a giant bronze spider that sits out front of the gallery. It’s one of six spiders that the artist Louise Bourgeois created. The others are located in destinations such as Tokyo, London, England, Doha, and more.
Canadian Museum of Nature
One of my personal favourite museums in Ottawa, the Canadian Museum of Nature has excellent permanent exhibits of animals from around Canada and the world. Plus, the building the museum is in looks like a castle!
Canadian Museum of History
The Canadian Museum of History is actually located in Hull, on the Quebec side of the river but it’s still a popular thing to do in Ottawa. The museum has a large space, the Grand Hall with art and pieces from Indigenous people’s which is one of the main highlights. But there is also a wide selection of permanent and travelling exhibitions showcasing history over the last 20,000 years.
Canadian War Museum
Located in a striking, modern building along the Ottawa River, the Canadian War Museum details Canada’s military history as well as the formation of Canada. You can expect to find a collection of tanks, jeeps, armored vehicles, and even Hitler’s limo.
Canadian Science and Technology Museum
Great for kids and curious adults alike, the Canadian Science and Technology Museum is an interactive playground that highlights Canada’s innovation. It underwent major upgrades in 2017 so for locals who only visited as kids…it’s worth checking out again!
Canada Aviation and Space Museum
With over 130 aircraft and artifacts that are from civil and military service, this museum that’s focused on Canadian achievements in the air is one to visit. The Canada Aviation and Space Museum is located on what was once a military base and includes details on Canada’s contribution to air and space travel since 1909.
Royal Canadian Mint
Located in the original building where the Canadian Mint was located in 1908, today you can visit to see how coins in Canada are made as well as medals, gold bullion coins, and more. It’s also here that you can see the Vancouver 2010 athlete medals.
Bank of Canada Museum
The Bank of Canada is a highly interactive museum that aims to show Canadian’s how they play a part in the economy by understanding it better.
Named Canada’s Cold War Museum, the Diefenbunker is an underground bunker that has been converted into a museum detailing the history of the cold war era in Canada. The bunker was originally built during this era for the then Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker (hence the name), and other important Canadian officials in case of a nuclear attack. Since this museum is located on the outskirts of Ottawa, a car is needed to get to it.
Adventure in Ottawa
There are plenty of spaces in and around Ottawa to get outdoors.
Go White Water Rafting
Think you need to get out of the city to go white water rafting? Think again! You have your choice of white water rafting or tubing down the Ottawa River with great views, cliff jumping, and more with Ottawa City Rafting.
Hiking in Gatineau Park
Technically not in Ottawa, but within a 20-minute drive, Gatineau Park is an incredible area to explore for outdoor lovers. As a destination to visit year-round, the summer has numerous hiking trails to stellar viewpoints, cycling paths, and mountain biking, not to mention places to rent kayaks, canoes, and more, plus caves to explore. In the winter the trails are wonderful for cross country skiing.
Popular Trails in Gatineau Park:
- King Mountain
- Pink Lake
- Luskville Falls
Hiking on the Greenbelt
In Ottawa itself, there are a number of hiking trails on the Greenbelt, an area of the city that was created in the 1950s to stop urban sprawl into rural areas. Today you can hike and cycle this biodiverse area of the city.
Popular Trails on the Ottawa Greenbelt:
- Shoreline Trail
- Stony Swamp Trails
- Old Quarry Trail
- Jack Pine Trail
Ottawa Food Experiences
This capital packs a punch when it comes to delicious treats.
Try a BeaverTail
When in Canada…don’t miss trying a beavertail! This delicious pastry is fried dough, stretched out to look like a beavertail, and topped with goodies. The original is cinnamon sugar, but these days you can get a huge variety with toppings that can include Oreos, Reese’s Pieces, Nutella, and more.
Fine dine at Fairmont Chateau Laurier
The Chateau Laurier is a fabulous hotel but you don’t have to be a guest to enjoy the luxuries it offers. Try afternoon tea at Zoe’s, it’s spectacular, or head to La Terrasse, their patio that has one of the most over-the-top caesars I’ve ever seen and a view over the Ottawa locks.
Get to Stella Luna Gelato
A charming little cafe on Bank Street, this gelato shop has a romantic back story. The owners are an Ottawa local and Italian-born couple that began their relationship in Italy, Rome specifically. They moved to Ottawa and opened this gelateria to serve up delicious gelato, in true Italian style.
Sip a cocktail at Tavern on the Hill
Located in Major’s Hill Park, this is one patio that you’re going to want to visit. With delicious (and big) cocktails and a menu that includes gourmet hot dogs and tacos, you can kick back in the heart of Ottawa with a great view.
Relaxation in Ottawa
Don’t forget to take some time to indulge and pamper yourself.
Hop over to Quebec to find Le Nordik, a nordic spa that can be visited any season. With thermal pools, saunas, and cool dips, the real experience here is taking part in the whole thermal cycle. Massages, other treatments, food, and drinks can be enjoyed on-site too. This is one relaxing day that you won’t regret!
Dows Lake is a manmade lake that is an ideal spot to relax in the summer months. Check out this spot close to downtown to sit by the water or get out on it by renting a kayak, canoe, paddleboard, or pedal boat. In the winter skating is an option here too.
Catch the sunset at Andaz
Andaz has the highest rooftop patio in Ottawa and it’s at this trendy Ottawa hotel that you can find delicious cocktails and a stellar view to watch the sunset as the sun disappears behind the Parliament Buildings.
Head to the beach
If you need a break from all the hustle and bustle, head to one of Ottawa’s beaches. On the west side of the city, you’ll find Britannia Beach and Westboro Beach, and on the east side, there is Petrie Island.
You’re covered for things to do in Ottawa, enjoy your time in my hometown! And welcome!
Continue planning your trip to Ottawa!
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