19 of the best things to do in Ottawa

Get the most out of your trip to Ottawa with our guide to the must-see sights, attractions and festivals in the historic Canadian capital city.

By Kieran Meeke

Published 4 May 2024

Canada’s capital of Ottawa is in Ontario, just 120 miles from Montreal in Quebec with the Ottawa River forming the border between the two provinces. Originally settled in the 1800s to meet the Royal Navy’s insatiable demand for Canadian timber, the city is now increasingly recognised as a high-tech centre. It attracts a growing number of visitors - more than 7 million a year, with 80% of visitors coming from other parts of Canada.

Ottawa is one of the country’s best-kept secrets, and is regularly ranked as Canada’s best city to live in. With that in mind, here's why a visit as part of your holiday to Canada certainly shouldn't disappoint!

The Gothic-style Parliament Buildings peep above the forest-covered slopes of Parliament Hill to create one of the most handsome views of government in the world.

The ornate style of architecture was chosen in 1859 as a deliberate contrast to the severe neoclassicism of the United States. Free tours describe the building and its workings.

Held on Parliament Hill during the summer months, daily at 10am from late June to late August, the changing of the guard ceremony owes much to the Buckingham Palace original with its red uniforms and bearskins.

Ottawa photo tip:

Climb (or take the lift up) the Peace Tower to enjoy the views of Ottawa.

As you might expect, the focus at the National Gallery of Canada is on Canadian art, but there is also a major Andy Warhol collection and works by other American and international artists.

Such names include Francis Bacon, Cézanne, Chagall, Constable, Dalí, Pollock, Rembrandt, and van Gogh.

Make time to see ‘The Death of General Wolfe’ (1770) by Benjamin West, which did much to mythologise the general with the British public.

Covering the military history of Canada, from the battles fought on its soil in earlier centuries to more recent conflicts abroad and both World Wars, the Canadian War Museum holds some 2,500 artefacts.

These range from large armoured vehicles and weapons to maps and paintings.

Spot the window from where light will shine on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the 11th minute of the 11th hour on November 11.

The severe exterior, albeit topped with tin-covered spires, hides this Notre Dame Cathedral’s much less restrained interior.

There's a fantastical Gothic display of religious imagery and gilt, with hundreds of statues and some fine stained glass. Inspired by medieval church art, it has several original Canadian touches.

Don’t forget to look up to see the beautiful blue ceiling lit by gold stars.

This district is now as well known for its street buskers and nightlife as for the original markets at its heart.

It is also the place to find new restaurant openings, edgy boutiques, a craft brewery and such essentials as a juice bar and yoga salon. In 2009, President Obama visited Byward Market during an official visit to Canada.

Food tip:

Eat a Beavertail, a whole-wheat pastry in the shape of a beaver’s tail. Fried in oil, it’s then topped with various coatings, such as chocolate hazelnut spread.

In a country with such a large and spectacular outdoors and wildlife, it is no surprise that the Canadian Museum of Nature is a major draw.

Its first collections date back to the 1850s and now include some 14 million specimens.

The ‘Scottish Baronial’ style of the Victoria Memorial Museum Building was influenced by the architecture of Hampton Court and Windsor Castle, and hundreds of Scottish stonemasons added details such as the Canadian plants and animals that decorate walls, windows and interiors.

If you’re visiting more than one museum, buy a National Museums Passport valid for entry to three museums of your choice over three days.

Ontario’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site, Rideau Canal, was built in 1832 to help better connect Ottawa to Lake Ontario. Every winter, one stretch from Ottawa’s downtown core to Dows Lake becomes the largest naturally frozen skating rink in the world.

The first three weeks of February are the time of Winterlude, when the Rideau Canal’s skating park is a focal point for the capital’s celebration of winter.

If you can’t skate, someone will teach you. You can hire skates, and stands sell hot soup, hot chocolate and Beavertails (see Byward Market, above). There are also heated changing booths to warm you up.

Artists create ice carvings in Confederation Park, downtown Ottawa, for the International Ice-Carving Competition and there are also musical and culinary events around the city.

At other seasons, it is a scenic chain of lakes, rivers and canals still used by boaters, while walkers and cyclists enjoy the tree-lined banks.

The Ottawa Locks within the canal are particularly interesting, being a set of eight locks over an 80ft drop around which Ottawa was built. Most of its original 19th century buildings are remarkably intact.

Travel tip:

Hire a boat or kayak and paddle down at least part of the canal system.

The Canadian Tulip Festival pays tribute to the liberation of Holland by Canadian Forces during World War II, when Canada also provided a safe haven for the Dutch Royal Family.

Every May the country is given 10,000 Dutch tulip bulbs to mark the connection, which are added to the other bulbs planted in 100 tulip beds at 30 different sites.

The main display is at Commissioners Park, Dows Lake, where 300,000 flowers burst into colour to welcome the coming of spring.

See inside some of Ottawa’s most architecturally and historically significant buildings as owners allow free entry to normally closed spaces during 'Doors Open Ottawa'.

Taking place over a June weekend, past openings have included Earnscliffe: Official Residence of the British High Commissioner, the Supreme Court of Canada, and the Embassy of the United States.

A shuttle bus connects more than 50 participating buildings, while a bicycle tour offers another option to get around.

Where better to celebrate the Canada Day Festival than in the nation’s capital?

July 1 is marked with ceremonies and live shows at various venues, including Parliament Hill, Major’s Hill Park and Confederation Park. Museums also hold special events and the day finishes with a major fireworks display.

Music concerts enliven the air as dozens of hot air balloons fill the sky with a multitude of colours.

The five-day Gatineau Hot Air Balloon Festival at the end of August/early September features many francophone music artists but acts such as KC and the Sunshine Band have also appeared.

It has grown rapidly to become one of the largest balloon festivals events in the world.

Explore the wonderful cities of Canada on one of our escorted or independent tours of Canada

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