The Top Things to Do and See in Ottawa, Canada

| © Arlene Grace Evangelista / Alamy Stock Photo
Harriet Myers

Travelers often overlook Canada’s capital city in favor of its neighbors, Toronto and Montreal, but it is a great destination with a wealth of sightseeing opportunities and attractions on offer. From cultural pursuits to beautiful natural landscapes, there’s something for everyone to enjoy. Here are 12 of the best things to see and do in Ottawa.

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Rideau Canal

This Unesco World Heritage site is a must-see. Connecting Ottawa with Canada’s former capital city, Kingston, the canal covers 126mi (202km) and is one of Ontario’s most notable geographical features. It has 45 operational locks that function from May to October and are reminiscent of the canal’s original purpose to secure a safe route for British supply ships in the 1800s. Today, it’s most commonly used by walkers, cyclists and boating enthusiasts who enjoy its beautiful scenery.

Parliament Hill

Canada’s political centerpiece and the home of the city’s government buildings, Parliament Hill is distinguishable by its impressive gothic-style architecture, which dominates the downtown area overlooking the Ottawa River. Ottawa’s Canada Day celebrations are also centered around this landmark, as are the light and sound shows that take place in the summer and during the festive season. It offers free guided tours, which are a great way to learn more about the area’s history and familiarize yourself with the city’s importance in Canada’s cultural landscape.

Peace Tower

At the center of the Canadian parliament buildings, the Peace Tower is a national landmark in its own right. Its ornate stone carvings and clock face make the structure one of Canada’s most widely recognizable symbols (also largely thanks to its appearance on the national 20-dollar bill). While it’s an impressive sight from ground level, the tower’s observation deck offers unrivaled 360-degree views of the city from more than 300ft (91m) up. Tours of the Peace Tower are free of charge, with ticket numbers limited and issued on a first-come, first-served basis.

National War Memorial

Unveiled in 1939, the National War Memorial is an impressive 70ft (21m) arch commemorating all Canadian nationals killed in military action. Alongside its rose-gray granite structure, the monument features bronze allegories of both peace and freedom and, as such, has become well known for its symbolism of the foundations of the Canadian nation. Each year on Remembrance Day, Canada’s veterans march past the memorial, laying wreaths of flowers before observing two minutes of silence. The structure stands in the center of Confederation Square in the heart of downtown Ottawa and is a humbling place to visit.

National Gallery of Canada

The unusual architecture of this glass-paneled building makes it an intriguing feature of Ottawa’s urban landscape. Equally eye-catching (though somewhat more unsettling) is Maman, Louise Bourgeois’s 30ft (9m) sculpture of a spider, installed on the plaza outside. The inside of the gallery is just as interesting, as it houses more than 90,000 works of art, including the world’s largest collection of work by Canadian artists, as well as international pieces. Special exhibitions often focus on specific themes or highlight lesser-known artists and change every few months.

Canadian War Museum

It may be among the newest of Ottawa’s fleet of museums, but since its opening in 2005, the Canadian War Museum has proved itself a valuable addition. Its exhibition space covers the full expanse of Canada’s military history, from the country’s first beginnings to the most contemporary conflicts. A range of audiovisual aids complements the collection of guns, tanks and aircraft, bringing Canada’s history to life. The information is thoughtfully presented in a way that uniquely focuses attention on the human experience of military conflict.

Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica

Completed in 1846, this cathedral basilica is the oldest and largest church in Ottawa and currently functions as a dual-language place of worship, with services conducted in French and English. Behind its relatively modest facade hides a vibrant and brightly painted interior, featuring beautiful stained glass and gothic iconography. It’s open daily for self-led and guided tours. It’s also worth checking online, as it hosts various concerts sporadically throughout the year, many of which receive rave reviews.

ByWard Market

The historic ByWard Market neighborhood is a major tourist attraction in downtown. It has retained its unique feel thanks to the range of eclectic boutiques and lively restaurants that sprawl throughout a series of interconnected streets. The market building itself is open all year and, in the summer months, houses one of Canada’s oldest farmer’s markets where you can peruse a range of fresh produce and artisan products. At night, the area transforms into a hub of energy, filled with popular bars and nightclubs.

Winterlude Festival

Some tourists may be keen to avoid Canada’s freezing winter temperatures, but for the more courageous, Ottawa’s Winterlude Festival is one of the city’s real highlights. For three weekends in February, North America’s largest winter festival attracts close to 600,000 global visitors. The Rideau Canal becomes the world’s largest naturally frozen skating rink where you can put your skills to the test. The festival also features an international ice-carving competition and the Snowflake Kingdom children’s playground, complete with ice slides.

Laurier House National Historic Site

Dive into Canada’s rich political history as you explore the former residence of prime ministers William Lyon Mackenzie King and Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Daily tours offered during the summer give you the chance to learn more about these important Canadian leaders and admire the historic estate’s collection of their personal objects and artwork. The site is also home to a World War II-themed escape room where your task is to complete a recipe for the prime minister’s dinner party in a 1940s kitchen. Other attractions include an interactive theater and the opportunity to enjoy tea on the veranda.

Gatineau Park

Gatineau Park, 4km (2.5mi) north of downtown Ottawa and across the provincial border into Quebec, is the perfect escape from the city. In the warmer months, locals and tourists come from miles around to enjoy biking and hiking through an expansive network of trails and swimming in one of the many lakes. In late October, the area’s fall colors are stunning, with a gorgeous range of yellow-, orange- and red-hued leaves as the season turns.

Ottawa Senators

There’s truly no better way to engage in Canadian culture than at an ice-hockey game. The Senators – Ottawa’s professional team in the National Hockey League (NHL) – play outside the downtown area in Kanata at the Canadian Tire Centre. Try the Senators’ official pulled-pork sandwich and savor the experience with your choice of merchandise from the arena’s Sens Store. Alternatively, you can watch the city’s Ontario Hockey League team, the Ottawa 67s, play. Named after Canada’s 1967 centennial year, they play at the TD Place Arena.

Additional reporting by Emma Gibbins.

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