Best Things To Do in Ottawa
Ottawa was designed with tourists in mind: There's plenty to see and do, and everything is just a short walk away. First off, there are two attractions that you really can't avoid: touring Parliament Hill and strolling along the Rideau Canal (both of which you can experience for free). If you like museums, then you should next check out the first-rate exhibits housed in world-class establishments like the National Gallery of Canada and the Canadian Museum of History. If that Canadian change is burning a hole in your pocket, check out the city's lively and ever-popular ByWard Market.
Updated September 28, 2016
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Snaking its way through the center of Ottawa, the Rideau Canal is one of the city's most historic attractions. This 125-mile waterway was originally constructed between 1826 and 1832 to create a secure supply and communications route between Montreal, Québec, and Kingston, Ontario – roughly 120 miles southwest of the capital. It's also a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the city's most beloved features.
During the summer, you'll find the Rideau Canal filled with boats (both private and commercial) and the paved pathways surrounding it crowded with walkers, runners and bicyclists. If you'd like to tour the canal by boat, consider signing up for a trip with Rideau Canal Cruises. Cruises, which take visitors from Chateau Laurier to Dow's Lake (round trip), typically last 90 minutes and take visitors past nearly 30 sights along the canal. You can also borrow a bike from RentABike for CA$10 (around $8) an hour. As the temperatures begin to drop, the canal transforms into the world's largest skating rink, spanning 4.8 miles and featuring a surface area equivalent to 90 Olympic-sized hockey rinks. It's also lined with stands selling hot chocolate and soup, as well as heated huts in case you need a break from the cold.
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Sitting in the heart of downtown Ottawa, the beloved ByWard Market is one of the country's oldest and largest public markets. Throughout the year, you'll find local vendors selling everything from souvenir trinkets to maple sugar candy to handmade cold-weather necessities like hats and mittens. This is the ideal place for fresh produce or a cheap meal on-the-go; during the summer, outdoor stalls sell local favorites like poutine (french fries topped with cheese curds and gravy) and BeaverTails (fried dough covered in everything from chocolate to cheese). Surrounding the main market building – home to the Moulin de Provence Bakery, a favorite snack stop of President Obama – are numerous boutiques, restaurants and nightlife spots. Don't worry if you're visiting in the winter – those same yummy stalls stay open, but they just move indoors.
Most recent visitors agreed that you have to stop by this market during your stay and advised setting aside several hours to explore the vendors and surrounding businesses (reviewers were especially fond of the pubs).
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Perched on the steep slopes framing the Ottawa River, the Canadian War Museum pays homage to Canada's long and violent military history, including its involvement in the French and Indian War and both World Wars I and II. Designed by Raymond Moriyama, one of the thousands of Japanese-Canadians imprisoned during World War II, this stoic museum houses remnants from Canada's numerous military endeavors, many of which resulted in tragedy. Among the museum's more than 3 million artifacts, it houses artillery, uniforms, medals, documents, sound and visual recordings and rare vehicles. It also showcases temporary interactive exhibitions, such as a recent display that told the story of WWI air combat though a graphic novel presentation.
Recent visitors gushed about the museum, recommending that future travelers reserve at least half a day (or more, if you're a history buff) to tour the moving exhibits. Beyond the artifacts and informative displays, the museum won favor with reviewers for its thoughtful layout and design. Others added that kids were as captivated by the museum as adults.
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Acting as the anchor of downtown Ottawa, these three neo-Gothic structures are hard to miss. Like its mother country – England – Canada is governed by a parliamentary democracy, and it is here on the Hill that decisions are made on how to run the country. But just like the city itself, the Parliament buildings put tourists on a pedestal, catering to their whims with free guided tours, concerts, cultural exhibitions and even a seasonal after-hours sound and light show. Recent travelers said visiting Parliament Hill is an experience you can't miss, with many saying that walking around the palatial buildings felt like taking a step back in time. The knowledgeable guides were another point of praise for reviewers.
Several areas are open to the public, the most notable being the Centre Block. From here, you can head upward to the observation deck of the Peace Tower for a bird's-eye view of the city (the highlight for many recent visitors), or pay tribute to Canadians killed during military service in the Memorial Chamber (tours of these areas are self-guided). On the central lawn, you can observe the vibrant Changing of the Guard ceremony, which occurs every day in summer (June through August) at 10 a.m. To the north is the octagonal Library of Parliament, with ornate galleries and colorful windows that shelter hundreds of priceless books. Recent visitors agreed that the Centre Block and the Library of Parliament are well worth a visit.
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Facing Parliament Hill in downtown Ottawa, the National Gallery of Canada is a must for all art aficionados. This magnificent glass structure – easily recognized by the gargantuan spider sculpture at its entrance – houses works from heavyweights like da Vinci, Michelangelo and Picasso, along with indigenous and contemporary pieces. You'll also find some works by famous Canadian artists like Joseph Légaré and Antoine Plamondon, among many others. There are also a host of renowned temporary exhibits each year.
Recent visitors said they were as impressed with the building as they were the art, with many describing the facility as an "architectural wonder." Others were pleased without the variety of mediums on display, calling the gallery's permanent collection encyclopedic.
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When you need a break from the city, head to Gatineau Park. Located just 15 minutes from downtown Ottawa, this nearly 90,000-acre park offers a variety of year-round activities, including swimming, hiking, biking, camping, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, in addition to heritage sites and nature interpretation. Among the standout attractions is the Mackenzie King Estate, which was constructed in 1903 by Canada's 10th prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King. You can explore the wooded paths surrounding the estate, peek into its restored cottages (which also feature interactive exhibits) or even stop into the Mackenzie King Tearoom for a spot of tea.
Recent visitors raved about Gatineau Park, calling it a national treasure and a peaceful oasis. Reviewers were particularly fond of the park's many scenic lookouts (especially the popular Champlain Lookout, which offers a bird's-eye view from the Gatineau Hills over the Ottawa Valley). From the lookouts, you can explore connecting hiking trails, such as the path that surrounds Pink Lake, another popular lookout spot in the park.
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Housing more than 10 million specimens, the Canadian Museum of Nature showcases 4 billion years of Earth history. Recent visitors agreed this is a must-see, especially if you're traveling with children, thanks to all of the museum's hands-on exhibits. Here, you'll learn more about prehistoric fossils, insects, wildlife and more. Start out in the Mammal Gallery, where you'll view dioramic displays on Canadian animals, then head over to the Bird Gallery to see the largest collection of Canadian birds in the world.
Sitting southwest of downtown Ottawa near Jack Purcell Park, the Canadian Museum of Nature welcomes visitors from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day during the summer and every day (except Monday) from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the winter. On Thursdays throughout the year and summer Fridays, the museum stays open until 8 p.m. and offers free admission from 5 to 8 p.m. General admission costs CA$13.50 (about $10) for adults and CA$9.50 (around $7) for children ages 3 to 12 (special exhibitions are not included in general admission). You'll find plenty of parking near the museum, but if you don't have your own set of wheels, several OC Transpo routes can drop you off within a block of the museum. Or, if you'd rather use your own two feet, you'll find that the facility is about a 20-minute walk from Parliament Hill. For more information, check out the official website.
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The Canada Aviation and Space Museum is home to the country's most comprehensive collection of vintage aircraft, which includes more than 130 artifacts and aircraft from both military and civil service. The main exhibit hall – known as the "Walkway of Time" – follows Canadian aviation developments from the start of the 20th century through to the present day and features both authentic planes and replicas of the most influential aircraft. You can even book a sightseeing flight over Ottawa in a Waco UPF-7, a vintage, open-cockpit biplane that dates back to 1939. The museum also offers seasonal sightseeing flights in a Cessna aircraft.
Recent visitors who self-identified as aviation nuts raved about the museum's collection and its exhibits. But even reviewers who said they had only a passing interest in aircraft said the museum was engaging and fascinating, especially for kids. Travelers suggested setting aside several hours to tour the museum's hands-on exhibits.
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Even if you're not an avid churchgoer, the silvery spires of Ottawa's Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica are sure to catch your eye. Sitting across the street from the National Gallery of Canada, this impressive church is the oldest in the city as well as a Canadian national historic site and the seat of Ottawa's Catholic archbishop. While it may seem a little daunting from the outside, recent visitors say that you shouldn't be deterred from going inside.
Past travelers gushed about the architecture and stained-glass windows inside the cathedral, and highly recommended planning a short visit, especially if you're already planning to stop by the National Gallery of Canada.
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When it comes to brushing up on Ottawa's history, there's no better place than the Bytown Museum. Housed in what was once the commissariat for food and materials during the construction of the Rideau Canal, Ottawa's oldest stone building now pays tribute to the city's canal builder, Lieutenant-Colonel John By. Exhibits feature artifacts from early Ottawa – formerly known as Bytown – including period rooms and household items from the late 19th century.
Recent visitors said though Bytown is small, it's well worth a look. Other veteran tourists strongly recommended renting an audio guide (offered by the museum at no additional cost) to better understand the exhibits.
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Spread across four floors and nearly 300,000 square feet, the Canadian Museum of History (formerly the Canadian Museum of Civilization) is a behemoth. Welcoming more than 1.2 million people annually, it's also one of the country's most-visited museums. And it's easy to see why: Not only does the museum house artifacts and exhibits that detail 20,000 years of human history, it's also home to the Canadian Children's Museum and an Imax theater, CINÉ+. Among the museum's standout attractions are its collection of totem poles in its First Peoples Hall exhibition and its life-sized recreations of Canadian settlements over the past 1,000 years.
Recent visitors marveled at the building itself and praised the museum's vast collection of totem poles. Reviewers also appreciated that the children's museum offered plenty of hands-on activities for little ones (though some griped that the general museum admission does not include access to the children's museum or CINÉ+).
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