The Best Things to Do in Ottawa, Canada

Visiting the Unesco-listed Rideau Canal is a must when in Ottawa
Visiting the Unesco-listed Rideau Canal is a must when in Ottawa | © Vlad Ghiea / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Emma Gibbins
28 July 2020

Canada’s capital city, Ottawa, has a small-town feel and is steeped in history and bursting with memorable attractions. Situated near Montreal and the US-Canadian border, most residents speak both English and French; however, Ottawa’s diversity stretches far beyond its bilingual status. Here, you’ll find a growing restaurant scene, many cultural festivals and charming ethnic neighborhoods such as Chinatown and Little Italy.

Ottawa is a great destination if you don’t have more than a weekend to spare, as museums, quirky shops and green spaces are all within walking distance. Of course, if you decide to stay longer, there’s plenty more to keep you entertained.

Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica

Architectural Landmark, Historical Landmark
Map View
CANADA, ONTARIO, OTTOWA, INTERIOR OF NOTRE DAME BASILICA
© Wolfgang Kaehler / Alamy Stock Photo

Churchgoer or not, a visit to this National Historic Site is a must. Built in the 1840s, the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica is an architectural wonder, complete with intricate wooden carvings, stained-glass windows and a star-studded ceiling. As well as being the seat of the Roman Catholic archbishop, it’s also a favorite among tourists and residents, many of whom use it as a place of worship. Guided tours run between May and October and last up to one hour. Check the Mass schedule before visiting, and book ahead.

Parliament Hill

Architectural Landmark
Map View

Parliament Hill is the anchor of Downtown Ottawa and the heart of Canada’s government. Comprising three buildings, Centre Block, East Block and West Block, this world-class attraction overlooks the Ottawa River and is distinguishable by its neo-Gothic architecture. Free guided tours will tell you everything you need to know about Canadian democracy, taking you back in time through the interior of this historic complex. Time your visit right to catch the Changing of the Guard ceremony, as well as various other events throughout the year.

National Gallery of Canada

Art Gallery, Museum
Map View
Spider sculpture outside the National Gallery of Canada Ottawa
© Garry Gay / Alamy Stock Photo
Largely recognized by the 30ft (9m) steel spider sculpture out front, the National Gallery of Canada is a must-see for art lovers. Facing Parliament Hill in Downtown Ottawa, the gallery houses historical works from the likes of Picasso and da Vinci, in addition to contemporary collections, including pieces by Indigenous artists. When you’re not admiring art installations, find your Zen in the inner courtyards, or explore the historic Rideau Street Convent Chapel. On Thursdays, visit until 8pm, with free entry after 5pm.

ByWard Market

Market, Canadian
Map View
Just a stone’s throw from the National Gallery is one of Canada’s oldest public markets. Whether you’re looking to dine or shop, you’ll find various options, both inside the historic red-brick building and outside at a range of open-air stalls. Vendors here sell everything from crafts to sweet treats, including BeaverTails, which are hand-made pastries served with tasty toppings. ByWard Market is free to explore and is open daily, year-round. Outdoor stalls are weather-dependent.

Rideau Canal

Historical Landmark
Map View
Canada, Ontario, Ottawa, Parliament, Rideau Canal,
© Tibor Bognar / Alamy Stock Photo
No trip to Ottawa is complete without visiting this famous attraction, which is the city’s only Unesco World Heritage site. Sail along the Rideau Canal for scenic views during summer, or hire ice skates and experience the world’s largest outdoor rink during winter. Stretching across 126mi (202km), the canal snakes its way through Ottawa’s center, connecting the city to the Ottawa River and Lake Ontario. Although originally used as a military defense system, it now offers opportunities for adventures across all seasons. If you can, schedule your visit for sunset – the views are incredible.

Petrie Island

Natural Feature
Map View

Those wanting to experience a different side of Ottawa can head to Petrie Island, home to a couple of large public beaches, North Beach and East Bay Beach. Located in the Ottawa River, the island is a great place to relax during summer and fire up a barbecue. You’ll also find a variety of trails here, and the popular nature and interpretation center featuring various environmental displays, including a wildflower garden and aquarium. Both beaches are open between May and September from noon to 7pm.

These recommendations were updated on July 28, 2020 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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