Free Things To Do in Ottawa
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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).
- #4View all PhotosfreeParliament Hill#4 in Ottawa0.5 miles to city centerSightseeing, Tours, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND0.5 miles to city centerSightseeing, Tours, FreeTYPE2 hours to Half DayTIME TO SPEND
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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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.
- #9View all Photos#9 in Ottawa0.9 miles to city centerChurches/Religious Sites, FreeTYPELess than 1 hourTIME TO SPEND0.9 miles to city centerChurches/Religious Sites, FreeTYPELess than 1 hourTIME TO SPEND
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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