Ottawa is Canada’s capital. With over a million citizens, it is Canada’s fourth-largest city, and Ontario’s second-largest city.

Across the Ottawa river is Gatineau, Quebec. As you can guess, while most Ottawans are English-speaking, about 15% speak French natively, making Ottawa Canada’s largest Francophone city outside of Quebec.

Visitors come to Ottawa primarily to see Parliament Hill and the many National Museums.

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Inside the Parliament Building

Fun Fact: Today, the major economic sectors (besides tourism) are the public service and the high-tech industry, which has earned the city the name “Silicon Valley of North”.

A Brief History

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Church dome architecture

Ottawa started as a humble lumber town called Bytown; it was named after Colonel John By of the Royal Engineers who oversaw the construction of the Rideau Canal, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, much of which was done by hand, between 1826 and 1832.

Lumber mills were built along the Ottawa River in the mid-nineteenth century and those brought employment and wealth to the growing population. The centre of action then, as now, was the Byward Market. While it is still the centre of the city’s nightlife, it has changed appreciably from the rough and tumble early days of brothels and taverns.

In 1857, Queen Victoria chose Ottawa as the capital of Canada. The choice was controversial, partly because it sidestepped the rivalry between Toronto and Montreal, and partly because the new capital was still a tiny outpost in the middle of nothing much — an American newspaper famously commented that “it was impregnable, as any invaders would get lost in the woods looking for it.”

Fun Fact: Unlike Canberra in Australia or Washington, D.C. in the United States, Ottawa is not part of a special federal district. There is an official National Capital Region containing Ottawa, Gatineau, Quebec across the Ottawa river, and surrounding areas in both provinces.

During the latter half of the 19th century, the telephone was demonstrated to the Canadian public for the first time here and the city was electrified. A menu from 1892 states that, “the first instance in the entire world of an entire meal being cooked by Electricity” was in Ottawa.

Things To Do In Ottawa

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Alexandra Bridge

Ottawa has remained a green city and is situated at the confluence of three rivers (Ottawa, Rideau, and Gatineau) and of the Rideau Canal. Many residents make regular use of Ottawa’s parks and green spaces, bikeways and cross country ski trails.

Many national attractions are located in Ottawa: Parliament Hill, the National Library and Archives, the National Gallery, and the Museums of History, Contemporary Photography, Nature, War, and Science & Technology.

Parliament Hill

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The primary attraction for most visitors is Parliament Hill. Parliament Hill is in the middle of downtown Ottawa, overlooking the Ottawa River.
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The Centennial Flame at the Parliament Building
Not only is the building a fine example of the Gothic revival style, it makes an excellent starting point to visit all other points of interest in the area.
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Women are Persons statues at the Parliament Building
The Changing of the Guard takes place daily on the lawns of Parliament at 9 AM during the summer. The Governor General’s Foot Guards can also be seen at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and at Rideau Hall.
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Tomb of the unknown soldier
Behind the Parliament Buildings at sunset is a sight to remember. You can walk by the Rideau Canal locks (at the east corner) and visit the Bytown Museum at the level of the canal.
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Rideau Canal, Ottawa

The locks separate Parliament Hill from the Chateau Laurier, a former railway hotel. (pictured below)

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Chateau Laurier Hotel

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Library of Parliament

One of the nicer, unexpected views, looking from the bottom up, can be accessed at the back of the Parliament Buildings—that vantage point also provides a river view of the Canadian Museum of History (pictured below), across the river in downtown Gatineau.

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Native American Canadian History Museum

Mosaika Parliament Hill Sound & Light Show

Developed by the National Capital Commission, the Sound & Light Show is a 30-minute film about Canada projected on the Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings.
Bleacher seating is available and no reservations or tickets are required. There is one show nightly from April – September at 9:30 PM.

The National War Memorial near Parliament Hill

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Museums

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Canadian Museum of Nature

There are many national museums and galleries in Ottawa and neighboring Gatineau. All museums in Ottawa have FREE admission on Canada Day, July 1, although they are generally very crowded then.
  • Canadian Museum of Nature – galleries of fossils, mammals, birds and geology among others. FREE admission Thursdays after 5 PM. (Pictured above.)
  • Bank of Canada Currency Museum – Free.
  • Carleton University Art Gallery – Free.
  • Native American Canadian History Museum – great collection and history of Canada and its native inhabitants.
  • Bytown Museum – a small museum located at the Rideau Canal locks between Parliament Hill and Chateau Laurier with a focus on Ottawa’s early history.
  • Canada Agriculture Museum – a working animal farm in the city. You can visit animal barns, see various demonstrations and exhibitions, and ride on a horse-drawn wagon. The museum also has a playground and picnic area. It is very popular with young children.
  • Canada Aviation Museum – a former RCAF base with civilian and military aircraft ranging from pre-World War I to modern, including 1920s-1940s bush planes, war planes from both World Wars and the Cold War, surviving components of the 1950s’ Avro Arrow interceptor and Space Shuttle Endeavor’s Canadarm, a Canadian-built robotic arm.
  • Canadian War Museum – the museum presents Canada’s involvement in armed conflict beginning with battles between the French and British, through to the World Wars, Korea, and the country’s current involvement in NATO and UN operations.
  • Science and Technology Museum – several displays are popular with children, including massive locomotives inside the building and electricity demonstrations.
  • Diefen-bunker – it’s Canada’s Cold War Museum, built to protect the government from nuclear attack, this once-secret bunker is now a museum and National Historic Site of Canada. FREE for children 5 and under. Fun Fact: “Diefen-bunker” is a play on “Diefenbaker”, the Canadian prime minister in the 1950s who authorized the construction of the facility.

Laurier House National Historic Site

A 1878 house that is the former residence of two Canadian prime ministers: Sir Wilfrid Laurier (for whom the house is named) and William Lyon Mackenzie King. Youth (17 and under) FREE.

National Gallery

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Photography, traditional and modern art from Canadian and international artists. Housed inside a glass building with a giant spider structure on the outside. Free admission on Thursdays after 5 PM.

Parks

Ottawa has dozens of neighborhood parks and other parcels of green space in the urban core.
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Nepean Point, Alexandra Bridge

A quiet place to watch the sun set, or to take photos of Parliament Hill, the National Gallery, the Museum of History, and the Royal Canadian Mint from angles that don’t usually end up in the tourist brochures.
Nepean Point is also home to a statue of Samuel de Champlain, and the Astrolabe Theatre (one of the better places to watch the fireworks from on July 1). However, the point is not accessible if you’re in a wheelchair.

Strathcona Park

Strathcona Park is at the eastern end of the Sandy Hill neighbourhood, and is the centerpiece of “Embassy Row”.
Be sure to see the Lord Strathcona Fountain at the park’s north end, and Stephen Brathwaite’s play structure (which looks like a ruined building in miniature) in the middle of the park.

Commissioners Park

Located adjacent to Dows Lake, where you can rent boats, it features the Festival of Tulips in May. In summer, there are a number of flower beds with flowers arranged by colour in attractive patterns.

Hartwell’s Lockstation

A pictoresque lock station within a park along the Rideau Canal. One could walk across the locks and continue north to Dows Lake near Carling O-Train station, or northwest to the Canada Agriculture Museum.

Rideau Hall

The official residence of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and her representative the Governor General of Canada. The grounds and the residence are open to the public for tours. Reservations are recommended during low season (September 1 – April 30). Free.

Royal Canadian Mint

Canada’s commemorative and collectable coinage is minted here (circulation coinage is minted in Winnipeg), as were the medals for the 2010 Olympics. Tours are available, and there is no charge if you only want to visit the boutique. Price varies depending on day of the week and age of person, group discount rates available.

Supreme Court of Canada

Canada’s highest court and the best example in Ottawa of Art Deco architecture. Its marble Grand Entrance Hall is particularly impressive.
The visit includes a tour in the Federal Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court of Canada hearing room. The visits last about 30 minutes and are provided by law students hired at the Court. The Court is a 5-minute walk from Parliament.
Tours are offered in French on the half hour and in English on the hour. No reservations are needed between May 1 and August 30. Visitor reservations are required between September 1 to April 30. FREE.

24 Sussex Drive

The official residence of the Prime Minister of Canada. While you cannot enter the building, you can look through the fence from the outside.

Ottawa Walking Tours

There are walking tours to introduce you to the capital area. Ottawa Walking Tours offers historical guided walks of Ottawa’s downtown core with special stops at areas of historical significance.
Tours acquaint guests with the history of the city and allow visitors to learn more about Ottawa’s history, architecture and colorful political characters. Tours are offered year-round and reservations are required.
The Haunted Walk of Ottawa offers tours focusing on Ottawa’s infamous haunts and darker history. Hear tales of hauntings at some of Ottawa’s most well known locations, including the Fairmont Chateau Laurier, Bytown Museum and the Ottawa Jail Hostel.
Cloaked guides lead guests through the city streets by lantern light-the perfect atmosphere for a good ghost story. Tours run year-round, rain or shine. Reservations are strongly recommended.

Gatineau Park

If you enjoy the outdoors, especially if you are a cyclist, you should definitely visit Gatineau Park just across the river from Ottawa. Bicycles can be rented during the summer months at Rentabike, 2 Rideau St (under Rideau St on the east side of the canal).
Ottawa and the surrounding area boasts over 170 km of public paved trails on which you can run, bike, walk or rollerblade. If you are looking for a place to start, head to the nearest waterway: paved trails line both sides of the Ottawa River, the Rideau Canal, and the Rideau River.
The Trans Canada Trail enters Ottawa through the outskirt communities of Carleton Place and Stittsville, then joins up with the Ottawa River at Brittania Bay (near Carling Avenue at Bayshore Drive). It follows the river 13 km east to Parliament Hill, then crosses over to the Quebec side, extending into and beyond Gatineau Park.

Rideau Skateway

In winter, go skating on the largest outdoor skating rink in the world, the Rideau canal. Skates can be rented, and refreshments purchased, from vendors right on the ice. This is also a great place to enjoy a “beaver tail” (a sweet pastry). free, skates can be rented.

Skiing

The city’s trail system serves as an excellent cross-country ski trail system, as do the nearly 200 km of groomed ski trails in Gatineau Park. Downhill skiing is available across the river in three near-by sites: Camp Fortune (180 m vertical), Edelweiss (200 m vertical) and Mont Cascades (165 m vertical).

Yoga on the Hill

During the summer months, a free weekly yoga class is offered on Parliament Hill most Wednesdays beginning at noon. The class is very popular—sometimes attracting more than a thousand people—so it’s recommended to arrive a bit early to claim a spot on the grass. Yoga mat recommended but optional.

Maple Syrup

In early spring (typically March), when the daytime temperatures are above freezing and night temperatures are below freezing, consider visiting a sugarbush for fresh maple syrup. There are many to choose from in the region if you have a car to drive out of the city.

Doors Open Ottawa

Doors Open Ottawa, the second-largest Doors Open architectural event in North America, takes place during the first weekend in June. Over 100 buildings (many of which are normally closed to the public, such as embassies, official residences, museum storage buildings, and city infrastructure facilities) open their doors to the public, offering FREE admission to part or all of the premises.
Note: Most participating buildings also allow photography. While the event takes place Saturday and Sunday from 10 AM to 4 PM, not all buildings are open both days.

Pirate Adventures

Join the swashbuckling crew of Pirate Adventures for an interactive theatre and cruise along the Rideau Canal at Mooney’s Bay. Pirate costumes, face paint and new pirate names for all as the captain and his crew hunt for sunken treasure whilst fending of mischievous pirates!

Gatineau

The nightlife in the Old Hull neighbourhood is often considered superior to Ottawa’s, with a handful of loud clubs but also a decent offering of artistic cafés with good local live music.
Gatineau Park is directly north from Hull; the Camp Fortune and Edelweiss ski areas are also north of the city, near Chelsea and Wakefield respectively. Wakefield is a picturesque artist town on the side of the Gatineau River. Rich with cultural offerings and beautiful natural surroundings (especially in autumn).
Buckingham is downriver from Gatineau in the east, as one of the more accessible venues for rural maple sugar shack camps.

Aventure Laflèche

A superb destination for outdoor activities in the Gatineau Hills year-round. A community-owned non-profit company that offers beautiful nature trails, tours of the historical Laflèche caves, and the province’s largest aerial park for the adventurous (includes several ziplines). Calling ahead for reservations is strongly recommended.

Eco-Odyssée

Another great option for nature lovers close to Wakefield. A water maze that’s great for learning about the local marsh environments.

Great Canadian Bungee

For the adventure-inclined.

Shows and Festivals

Ottawa has many movie theaters to choose from, but there are also a few that specialize in “foreign” films (i.e., not American), early releases, old returning films and specialty films.
The Bytowne Cinema is on Rideau Street near King Edward. The Mayfair Theatre is at 1074 Bank St. near Sunnyside. In addition, the Canadian Film Institute screens films at several venues for the specialist film crowd.
Ottawa has lots of live theatre entertainment. That includes the National Arts Centre in English and French, the Great Canadian Theatre Company and the Ottawa Little Theatre.
  • The National Arts Centre -also provides a major venue for dance and orchestral performance
  • The Great Canadian Theatre Company (GCTC)
  • Ottawa Little Theatre
Jazz and blues lovers can find what they are looking for in these Ottawa music calendars: jazz shows and blues-jazz calendar.
Jazz Venues include:
  • Vineyards in the Byward Market
  • GigSpace near Little Italy
  • Options Jazz Lounge in the Brookstreet Hotel (in Kanata)
Blues Venues include:
  • Rainbow in the Byward Market
  • Irene’s Pub in the Glebe
Ottawa is host to over 60 festivals and events per year, including:
  • Ottawa Jazz Festival – in late June
  • Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival – in summer, one of the largest in the world
  • Bluesfest – the largest blues festival in Canada. It also features rock, pop and world music, and attracts visitors from Atlantic Canada and New England (in Summer)
  • The Fringe Festival – another summer offering
  • Winterlude – winter fun featuring ice carving and snow sculptures
  • The Tulip Festival – a spring bonanza of flowering bulbs, given annually by the Dutch government, and a concert series featuring well-known Canadian rock and other popular music groups
  • Ferrari Festival – in June, on Preston Street
  • Canada Day – celebrate Canada’s birthday in Ottawa on July 1. While the Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings is being renovated, the official spot to gather on Canada Day is Major’s Hill Park
  • The Ottawa International Animation Festival – one of the largest animation festivals in the world, the OIAF is held in September

Nearby Destinations

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Quebec in winter

Day trips to Québec – since Ottawa is located on the provincial border, day-trips to neighboring Québec can be made easily.

Just across the river from Ottawa is the city of Gatineau, which has the stunning Canadian Museum of History and some mighty good restaurants too.

It is the centre of the Outaouais region which includes the lovely village of Wakefield, and Gatineau Park with its high cliffs and deep, clear lakes. A little further west is the Pontiac where you will find small rural towns and rafting expeditions.

You can cycle from Quyon to Pembroke on 72 km of railway bed turned into a bike trail. Stop by the Shawville Fair in late August/early September.

To the south and east of Ottawa is a large flat rural area consisting mostly of small commuter towns, agricultural villages, and the occasional woodland.

This lowland stretches all the way to Montreal (roughly 165 km to the east) and the United States border (just shy of a hundred kilometres to the south). The Rideau Canal runs through it. Among the many scenic towns are Merrickville, which has a good claim to the name “Canada’s prettiest village,” and Perth with its mills and heritage buildings.

Going west beyond Kanata, the village of Carp (about 40 minutes away, in West Carleton) houses the surreal Cold War “Central Emergency Government Headquarters” (the Diefenbunker Museum).

Beyond that is the Ottawa Valley region, towns and farms, then the Madawaska Highlands wilderness area starting about 90 km from Ottawa. In that area is Calabogie, a ski resort in winter and lake resort in summer.

A little further on is another wilderness recreation area, Algonquin Provincial Park.

Beyond the Ottawa region lie other Canadian cities, such as:

  • Montreal – the largest city in Quebec and the largest French-speaking city outside of Europe, is 200 km east
  • Toronto – Canada’s largest city, is about 500 km to the southwest
  • Kingston – about 200 km to the southwest, on the way to Toronto. A university town with historic limestone buildings
  • Iqaluit – the capital of Nunavut (Ottawa is one of the very few cities that has regular direct air service to Iqaluit)

Local Eats

Ethnic foods from around the world are available at a wide variety of restaurants and street vendors throughout the city.

The Byward Market area has a wide selection of different cuisines; the Chinatown area is along Somerset West between Bronson Ave. and Preston St.

The Little Italy runs along the length of Preston Street, from Carling Avenue to Albert Street (#2 to Somerset & Preston or #3 along Preston).

BeaverTails

Try the tasty BeaverTail, a fried-dough pastry associated with Ottawa, although a number of places claim to have created it. It’s available in sweet and savory versions, topped with cinnamon, sugar, icing sugar, etc.

In the winter, many places will offer it on the canal. During the summer, the only places downtown to offer it are in the Byward Market on George St., and a small counter in a corner of the Canadian Museum of History.

There are a variety of toppings and the taste of the beaver tail stands out more with the classic sugar & cinnamon. However, the locals’ favorite is the Killaloe Sunrise, a topping of cinnamon sugar and lemon juice.

Try a poutine

Try a poutine from Smoke’s Poutinerie, or a shawarma from one of the many around the city. Local favorites include Shawarma Palace and 3 Brothers.

Cafes

Coffee shops are found throughout the city, and include dozens of two specialty chains Second Cup and Starbucks, in addition to the mainstream Tim Horton’s (seemingly planted at every intersection).

Bridgehead is a fair trade coffee house and can be found at a half dozen or so locations. Try their small double shot lattes, which are significantly better than their competitors’.

There are several coffee houses in Little Italy, on Preston Street. One of the most popular, Pasticceria Gelateria Italiana, also houses an award-winning pastry shop.

Bar Robo on Somerset St under the Chinatown arch offers locally-roasted coffee during the day, along with fresh croissants and donuts.

WiFi & Internet

Most coffee shops, hotels, and public library branches have free wi-fi Internet access, although the speeds may be slower than you’re accustomed to. There are internet cafes throughout the city.

Safety Tips

Ottawa is a very safe place to live and visit, so if you use common sense it is at least as safe as any other city. There are many tourists in the city, especially in summer months, and there are very few incidents of robbery or assault.

There have been incidents on buses and at transit stations of violence and swarming/robberies, even during daytime hours. OC Transpo has hired new constables and placed plainclothes security and cameras on select buses and trains to counter the problem.

Use common sense, especially when riding at night, every transit station has multiple emergency call boxes.

Ottawa is the fourth coldest capital city by annual average temperature, but it has the second coldest January, only topped by Ulan Bator, Mongolia. Add to that nearly 3 m (10′) of snow per average winter and throw in an ice storm from time to time, winter can be a challenge but locals do a great job of handling it particularly with recreation. Summers are (normally) short, warm and at times hot and humid.

Humidity in the summer can make the heat feel unbearable, while humidity in the winter, coupled with wind chills, can make the cold feel very brutal. Dress for the weather and don’t forget to cover your head and ears with a warm hat. Ottawa is not a very fashion-minded city, but in winter, everyone throws in the towel.

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September 10, 2020 11:20 am Published by

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