The Best Things to Do in Ottawa, Canada

Explore indigenous stories, histories, artworks and experiences sometimes overlooked on a visit to Ottawa
Explore indigenous stories, histories, artworks and experiences sometimes overlooked on a visit to Ottawa | © Vladone / Getty Images

Ottawa offers a variety of attractions that are rooted in Canada’s overlapping political and cultural histories. It’s also a bilingual city where most residents speak both national languages of English and French. Whether you’re planning a quick weekend getaway, a pit stop on a road trip or an extended stay, the Canadian capital has plenty to offer for all ages.

1. Learn about Canadian history and politics

Architectural Landmark

Beautiful Capture of Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Canada
© Arlene Grace Evangelista / Alamy Stock Photo

As the seat of Canada’s federal government, Parliament Hill receives around 3m visitors per year. You can take a guided tour of these hallowed halls, an impressive example of Gothic Revival architecture, and learn about the country’s political structure and proceedings. Even if you don’t have an interest in politics, the buildings hold historical clout – it was the site of a military base in the 18th and early 19th centuries. In 1859, the Hill started being developed into a governmental precinct after Queen Victoria selected Ottawa as the capital of what was then referred to as the Province of Canada.

2. Explore the wonders of the natural world


If you’re interested in the diversity of Canada’s natural history, the Canadian Museum of Nature should be on your list of places to visit in Ottawa. While it’s had different names and locations over time, the museum is now in Centretown. The building itself, built in a distinctive Scottish baronial style, is a designated National Historic Site, and the collection it houses comprises more than 14m specimens relating to the natural world. In addition to its permanent exhibitions, including an impressive bird gallery with more than 500 specimens arranged in mid-flight, the museum hosts several traveling exhibits.

3. Experience Ottawa’s most haunted building


The old Carleton County Gaol once housed some of Ottawa’s most notorious criminals before they were hanged at the on-site gallows. As a result, it’s considered one of Canada’s most haunted buildings, which has since been converted into a hostel where you can experience spending “a night in jail.” The top floor, which once served as death row, has been restored to much of its original condition. Following your cloaked guide through the narrow corridors, you can take a lantern-lit evening tour of the prison and learn about the infamous Faceless Ghost and the mysteries surrounding the historical assassination of Thomas D’Arcy McGee, and visit the last functioning gallows in Canada.

4. Meander along a historic canal

Historical Landmark

Flight of locks on the Rideau Canal looking towards the Ottawa River, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
© Ian Dagnall / Alamy Stock Photo
The 126mi (202km) Rideau Canal is a Unesco World Heritage site, winding its way through downtown before connecting with the Saint Lawrence River in Kingston. While it was constructed in the late 19th century to protect the country from a United States invasion, the canal is mainly used for boating today. The best way to experience the Rideau from May to October is by canal tour, which offers a leisurely way to enjoy views of major city attractions. In winter, part of the canal becomes an ice-skating rink.

5. Get to know Canada’s artistic past and present

Art Gallery, Museum

The National Gallery of Canada’s primary focus is Canadian art, though it does hold some celebrated pieces by American and European artists. It’s a great place to explore the works of Emily Carr, Louis-Philippe Hébert, Alex Colville, Tom Thomson and Jack Bush. Many of their art pieces are considered iconic representations of Canadian landscapes, culture and history. You can spend hours wandering through the museum, experiencing all the creative diversity that the country has to offer.

6. Wander through a historic neighborhood

Market, Canadian

A popular tourist attraction, the historic ByWard Market neighborhood offers a lively atmosphere thanks to the range of shops and eateries that line its interconnected streets. The area’s namesake market building is open all year long and houses the oldest farmers’ market in the summer. While it’s a vibrant area during the day, it really comes alive at night when bars and nightclubs open their doors.

7. Spend the night in a French-inspired château


© Hayley Simpson

The impressive Fairmont Château Laurier, in downtown Ottawa, was designed in the French renaissance style with Gothic Revival touches to complement the Parliament buildings nearby. The majestic limestone-clad building became a National Historic Site in 1980 and now houses 426 guest rooms, including 33 opulent suites. The hotel also features a luxurious ballroom and an elegant drawing room.

8. Expand your knowledge of technology


Ottawa is home to many museums and historical sites, but if you’re interested in something a little different, you can head over to the Canada Science and Technology Museum. Providing insight into the country’s technological and scientific history and the ongoing connection between science, technology and Canadian society, it offers a series of dynamic and interactive exhibitions for all ages, along with live stage demonstrations, science trivia nights and other educational programs.

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