The centrepiece of Ottawa’s downtown landscape, Parliament Hill is the political and cultural heart of the city. Canada Day (July 1) sees about a hundred thousand people descend upon the landmark for entertainment and Christmas Lights Across Canada illuminates the Hill like no other spot in the nation.
While you’re in the heart of the city don’t miss the opportunity to visit the historical ByWard Market. Unique shops, restaurants and nightclubs surround a thriving outdoor market featuring fresh flowers, fruits and vegetables and local artisans.
People come from around the world to glide along the Rideau Canal Skateway’s 7.8 kilometres (4.8 miles), its largest surface. The Skateway hosts a daily average of 20,000 visitors during the winter months. So if you’re coming to Ottawa over the winter season, this is something you don’t want to miss! Access to the Skateway is FREE.
National Gallery of Canada
Arachnophobes rejoice, the 30-foot spider outside of the National Gallery of Canada is not real! The art gallery is home to more than 40,000 works of art (by over 6,000 artists), home to the most comprehensive collection of Canadian art, including a large number by the Group of Seven, and strong collections of Indigenous, Asian, and International works.
Canadian War Museum
Located beside the Ottawa River, this modern museum explores Canada’s military past, from the fighting between French and Iroquois people in the 16th century through the Canadian contribution to the First and Second World Wars and the role of modern peacekeepers. Some of the exhibits are interactive, and the collection of military vehicles displayed includes more than 50 tanks, jeeps, motorcycles, armored trucks, even Hitler’s car.
The panoramic view from the observation deck at the top of the Peace Tower, the highest point in Ottawa, encompasses Parliament Hill, the entire city, the river, Gatineau, and the hills to the north. On your way up in the elevator, you will get a look at the tower’s bells, and there is a memorial room to Canadians who died in WWI. Access to the tower is free, but you must first get a ticket.
Canadian Museum of Nature
Canadian Museum of Nature takes visitors through the world of the dinosaurs all the way up to today’s animal population, and also features poignant temporary exhibits. It is the national natural sciences and history museum, and the historic building (once the Victoria Memorial Museum) is the birthplace of Canada’s national museums. Construction on this castle-like building was completed in 1910.
National War Memorial
Canada’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is at the foot of a striking bronze sculpture of World War I soldiers emerging from a granite arch. Around its base are the years of conflicts where Canadian forces have fought. A brief, but solemn, Changing of the Guard ceremony here is led by a single bagpiper, and the monument is the center of activities on Remembrance Day, when it is traditional for people to leave poppies on the tomb.
Diefenbunker, Canada’s Cold War Museum
Canada’s Cold War Museum is located outside of Ottawa in a large underground facility that was constructed in the early 1960s to protect important functions of the Canadian government in the event of a nuclear war. This was one of several self-sufficient, shock-resistant, radiation-proof underground shelters built across Canada during the Cold War. Political critics coined the nickname Diefenbunkers in reference to Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, who promoted their construction. The extensive bunker now houses a fascinating museum dedicated to the Cold War era.
Notre Dame Basilica
Opposite the National Gallery, Notre Dame is a beautiful Catholic basilica consecrated in 1846. It is particularly noted for the interior mahogany carvings by Philippe Parizeau and figures of the four evangelists, prophets, and apostles by Louis-Philippe Hébert. The series of 17 windows picturing scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary were completed between 1956 and 1061, the work of Montreal artist Guido Nincheri. This historic building, begun in 1841 and completed in 1880, is the largest and oldest standing church in the nation’s capital.
Canada Aviation and Space Museum
Telling in detail the story of Canadian civil and military aviation, the Canada Aviation and Space Museum is at Rockcliffe Airport, on the northern edge of town. Among the aircraft on display are a replica of the Silver Dart, which in 1909 made the first flight in Canada, fighter planes from the First and Second World Wars, and some of the seaplanes and other aircraft that helped open up Canada’s uncharted northern wilderness.
Royal Canadian Mint
While the mint no longer manufactures Canada’s circulating coins, the Ottawa facility creates finely crafted medals, commemorative coins for collectors, and awards in precious metals. These include Olympic medals. The tour is fascinating, especially on weekdays when you can see the craftspeople at work. You’ll also see one of three giant gold loonies (Canadian dollar coins) minted here, and get to hold a real gold ingot. Tour groups are small, so you should reserve a spot in advance.
Canadian Tulip Festival
Ottawa’s spring festival marks the end of winter as the tulips – given by Queen Juliana of the Netherlands in gratitude for the city’s hospitality during the Second World War – come into bloom all over the city. Canal banks and Commissioner’s Park in particular, are the scene of general festivities. Major’s Hill Park, southwest of the basilica, is aflame with thousands of tulips. In all, several million tulips bloom in the city, with tulip attraction sites spread out on a scenic “Tulip Route.” Fireworks and performances are also regular attractions.
Dows Lake Pavilion
Dows Lake Pavilion has a beautiful location, jutting out into and overlooking the lake. This facility has a number of different restaurants, including an outdoor patio that is very popular in summer. The pavilion also looks out over the docks where it’s possible to rent paddleboats, canoes, kayaks, or bikes. In winter, you can rent skates and sleds, and the park hosts events during the Winterlude festival. In the spring, it’s decorated with formal tulip displays during the Tulip Festival.
Ottawa’s Winterlude Festival is one of the city’s real highlights. Taking place for three weekends in January to mid February, North America’s largest winter festival attracts close to 600,000 visitors from across the world every year. The Rideau Canal is transformed into the world’s largest naturally formed skating rink and forms a 7.8km skateway where visitors can put their skills to the test or watch the professionals in several hockey tournaments. The festival also features an international ice-carving competition and the Snowflake Kingdom children’s playground, complete with ice slides.
Located 4km north of downtown Ottawa, and across the provincial border into Quebec, Gatineau Park 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. Of these, Pink Lake, is particularly notable as, despite its name, in the summer its surface appears as a vivid green color due to the mass of algae. In late October, the fall colors are stunning, with a gorgeous range of yellow, orange and red hued leaves as the seasons turn.