Exploring Ottawa: Five Things To Do in Canada’s Captivating Capital

There’s much more to Canada than the Rocky Mountains, the Calgary Stampede and Toronto, with Ottawa, Canada’s capital city, being a sophisticated destination in its own right.

Ottawa, Canada’s capital, is a sophisticated city of around a million people, making it the country’s fourth-largest city. Known for its green spaces, walkable downtown core, an impressive collection of national museums, and award-winning attractions and dining, it’s worth looking to adding it to your 2021 itineraries.

Direct flights from London to Ottawa run every day, with Air Canada fares starting from around £400 return, and from sound £1,200 for business class seats. At those rates, a long weekend break is a viable option.

When you do get there, there are countless things vying for your attention, so here’s a selection of the five must-do attractions that’ll make you feel like a local.

Canadian Institutions

The majestic Canadian Parliament buildings, perched on a promontory overlooking the Ottawa River, are among the most recognizable buildings in all of Canada. The copper-covered roofs and neo-Gothic architecture (complete with gargoyles) give Parliament the semblance of a real-life Hogwarts.

Ottawa Parliament
Image: Christopher Austin

The most iconic building of all, Centre Block, is currently undergoing an extensive renovation and is closed to visitors but an interim House of Commons opened for free public tours back in February 2019 when the renovations began. The new meeting space was built within a former open-air courtyard in West Block (an adjacent building on Parliament Hill). The Senate of Canada also relocated to the Senate of Canada Building (located right across the street from the Fairmont Château Laurier hotel in a former train station) and offers free tours as well.

The expansive lawn on Parliament Hill is used for various activities such as free Yoga on the Hill events, where thousands of people would gather for a lunch-hour practice, the Changing of the Guard ceremony daily at 10 a.m. in the summer, and the free Sound and Light show which projected images onto the historic buildings and told the story of Canada on summer evenings.

An imposing art deco Supreme Court of Canada building houses Canada’s highest court, the final court of appeal and the last judicial resort for all litigants. Its jurisdiction embraces both the civil law of the province of Québec and the common law of the other provinces and territories. Free guided tours of the riverside building allow you to almost feel the power and justice in the corridors.

Rideau Hall has been the home and workplace for each governor general since Canada’s birth in 1867. It is where exceptional Canadians are honoured, where world leaders and visitors from around the globe are welcomed, and where people from across Canada are at home.

Ottawa Rideau Hall
Image: Ottawa Tourism

The 79 acres of grounds at Rideau Hall were designated as a cultural landscape of national historic significance in 1998 and are viewed as an outstanding example of the picturesque style of landscape design. People can rent a bike and cycle over to Rideau Hall, ride through its grounds and stop for a picnic under one of the 130 commemorative maple and oak trees.

Culture and Museums

The National Arts Centre is Canada’s home for performing arts, including the NAC Orchestra, dance programs, and English, French and Indigenous Theatre programs, as well as several festivals and special events for visitors of all ages. Catch a show, participate in one of the many free workshops available throughout the year, or simply grab a coffee at Equator Coffee, a local coffee company, and enjoy the view of the Rideau Canal from the NAC’s public space.

As Canada’s capital city, Ottawa is home to impressive national museums offering insight into the history, culture, geography, science, and arts of the entire country.

The Canadian Museum of History, an architectural masterpiece, is Canada’s largest and most popular museum, offering the world’s largest indoor collection of totem poles and providing a trip through three distinct eras from Canada’s past at the Canadian History Hall.

Ottawa Canadian Museum of History
Image: Canadian Museum of History

At the Canadian Museum of Nature’s Arctic Gallery, you’ll discover mammals, minerals, birds, insects and flora that populate this vast terrain. Discover Canada’s war and peacekeeping history at the Canadian War Museum – a building honing impressive architecture based on the theme of regeneration.

How To: Hire a Castle

See the National Gallery of Canada’s Canadian and Indigenous Galleries, where the art history of the country is told chronologically with art and artefacts from time immemorial to the beginning of contemporary art. Learn about steam locomotives, telescopes, cameras, gold miners, climate change, hydroelectricity and much more through exhibitions at the family-friendly museum Canada Science and Technology Museum while its sister museums – the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum and the Canada Aviation and Space Museum – share farm life (its setting is a working dairy farm and visitors can interact with cows, sheep, horses, goats, pigs, and more) and Canada’s aviation history and space milestones (including the Canadarm from the Space Shuttle).

Great Outdoor Spaces in All Four Seasons

There’s no doubt about it – Ottawa experiences all four seasons: from cold, snowy winters to hot, humid summers and everything in between. Ottawa offers year-round access to outdoor spaces and activities like hiking, cycling, boating, skiing and snowshoeing, and what’s best is that you don’t even need to leave the city to enjoy those outdoor activities!

Image: Ottawa Tourism

The capital is known as a great whitewater rafting destination with family-friendly rafting just minutes from downtown Ottawa on the Ottawa River with majestic views of Parliament Hill, to jaw-dropping class III to V rapids in the Ontario wilderness just 90 minutes’ drive away.

Ottawa’s also a great city for winter activities such as snowshoeing, hiking, or cross-country skiing on the centrally located Sir John A. Macdonald Winter Trail or in Gatineau Park with approximately 125 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails, snowshoeing, and overnight camping in a winter wilderness oasis just 15 minutes from downtown Ottawa.

Ice skating is of course an integral part of the Canadian experience! Besides the bucket list item that is skating along the Rideau Canal Skateway, the world’s largest naturally frozen outdoor skating rink stretching almost five miles through downtown, Ottawa offers many other magical refrigerated skating spots such as the historic 1870s skating rink at Rideau Hall; the beautiful Lansdowne Skating Court in the well-established Glebe neighbourhood; the SENS Rink of Dreams (named after the Ottawa Senators, the city’s National Hockey League team) in front of Ottawa City Hall; or even through forest trails such as RiverOak Estates.

Image: James Peltzer

With more than 500 miles of beautiful recreational pathways, Canada’s capital is a cycling enthusiast’s dream destination. Pathways link most major areas of interest and there are several trails along the Ottawa River, Rideau River, or Rideau Canal. In summer, scenic parkways are closed each Sunday morning for Sunday Bikedays, allowing cyclists, runners, and inline skaters free rein.

The Rideau Canal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the heart of Ottawa, is North America’s oldest continuously operating waterway and stretches 126 miles to Kingston and the St. Lawrence River. Built between 1826 and 1832 by England’s Lieutenant-Colonel John By of the Royal Engineers and thousands of labourers including Irish immigrants, French Canadians, Indigenous Canadians, and Scottish stonemasons, this construction became one of the greatest engineering feats of the 19th century.

The Rideau Canal is central to life in Ottawa in all four seasons and can be explored by boating, walking, jogging, cycling, and ice skating. From mid-May through mid-October, boats ply the waters. In winter, a 4.8-mile section of the Rideau Canal in downtown Ottawa turns into the world’s largest naturally frozen ice-skating rink, as designated by Guinness World Records. It is equivalent in size to 90 Olympic-sized ice rinks!

Image: Ottawa Tourism

In May 2018, the Europe-based company Le Boat, made its North American debut on the Rideau Canal, giving visitors an opportunity to explore the beautiful waterway in a luxurious and private setting at their own pace. No boating license is required to pilot these luxury boats, headquartered halfway between Ottawa and Kingston. Take your pick of experiences – a rural retreat of birdwatching and fishing, puttering through historic small Ontario towns, or docking in the middle of a G7 capital city!

Secrets of the Houses
Food and Drink Delights

Canada’s capital region loves to celebrate the sweet and natural treat that is maple syrup with the season starting in late February and running into April. With the many sugarbushes and maple farms within city limits and in the surrounding rural region, having a true Canadian sugarbush experience is easy. You’ll also find maple syrup treats and products all around town, notably in the eclectic and central ByWard Market neighbourhood which features one of the oldest and largest farmers’ markets in Canada.

Image: Ottawa Tourism

Ottawa’s diverse food and drink scene is constantly evolving. With more than 1,000 farms located within the city limits, fresh, seasonal ingredients are readily accessible for restaurants to use for a delicious and inventive farm-to-table experience.

Le Cordon Bleu cooking school has its North American headquarters in Ottawa and its on-site restaurant Signatures features unique flavours by applying classic French techniques to local ingredients.

A great way to explore Ottawa’s culinary scene and discover the independent boutiques, cafés, and bakeries housed in Ottawa’s lively neighbourhoods is on a guided culinary walking tour with C’est Bon Cooking.

Ottawa Beaver Tail
Image: Phil Huff

Have you ever had a BeaverTails pastry? These delicious treats were born in Ottawa and can now be found throughout Canada. Wholewheat pastry dough is hand-stretched to resemble the tail of a beaver, then float-fried in canola oil and served with a variety of toppings: most popular is cinnamon and sugar (sometimes with a squeeze of lemon to cut the sweetness) but apple cinnamon; maple butter; and even a savoury garlic-butter-and-cheese variety exist too!

The original BeaverTails stand is located in the eclectic ByWard Market neighbourhood but there’s nothing more Canadian than enjoying one on skates and accompanied by a hot chocolate on the Rideau Canal Skateway in winter! There are four BeaverTails stands located along the 4.8-mile Skateway surface so it’s a popular “reward” for going skating.

With an impressive craft beer scene showcasing dozens of independent breweries sprinkled around Ottawa neighbourhoods, Ottawa is a top destination for beer lovers. For the ultimate local craft beer experience, hop aboard the Brew Donkey bus which will take you to multiple craft breweries of all types and sizes throughout Ottawa’s urban and rural areas.

Quirky Ottawa

The Diefenbunker, Canada’s Cold War Museum is a four-storey underground structure originally built to shelter 535 members of Canada’s political and military elite in case of a nuclear attack. Built between 1959 and 1962 in the rural area west of Ottawa (now a half-hour drive from downtown), the Diefenbunker got its name from the Prime Minister of the day, John Diefenbaker.

Image: Ottawa Tourism

Now home to guided and self-guided tours – and spy camps for kids in the summer – the museum is a treasure trove of Cold War history: the computer room is worth a visit, as is the CBC Radio studio, Prime Minister’s suite, and the giant vault that was constructed to house the gold from the Bank of Canada. Creepy fun!

Soar over Ottawa in an open-cockpit biplane dating from 1939 with Ottawa Biplane Adventures. Short trips over Parliament Hill, along the Rideau Canal, or over Gatineau Park (spectacular in autumn with the gorgeous fall colours) are offered. In December, the company offers Flights with Santa in a more traditional (enclosed) Cessna – great for kids!

All around Ottawa, you’ll find stunning urban art including murals, sculptures, miniatures, and graffiti. Ottawa’s diverse streetscapes and beautiful green spaces come alive with these unique creations! Hip hop festival House of PainT has created a Google map of murals and street art in different Ottawa neighbourhoods that is quite handy!

At the time of publication, Ottawa is under restrictions due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Please check the current situation with your travel organiser before travelling.