The capital of Canada, Ottawa never seems to be high on the list of cities that people want to visit.
I was fortunate enough to spend 3 days wandering around and learning all I could about the history, culture and cuisine of Canada’s 4th biggest city.
From the impressive Parliament buildings to the laid back vibe of the ByWard Market, there are so many fun and unique things to do in Ottawa that it’s surprising that it’s not a more popular tourist destination.
The Best Things to Do in Ottawa
Check Out The Parliament Buildings
One of the most recognizable symbols of Canada, the Parliament Buildings are likely the first place you’re going to stop.
Standing high on top of Parliament Hill these iconic buildings are critically important to Canadian history and culture.
Re-built after a fire in the early 20th century, the Parliament Buildings are designed in a Gothic-style and overlook the Ottawa River.
All year there are different events, festivals and ceremonies going on and on Canada Day you’ll be pleased to find the biggest celebration in the entire country happening right out front of the buildings themselves.
The entire complex up on Parliament Hill is quite big and you can easily spend a few hours wandering around and enjoying the architecture and scenery.
Free tours are offered every day and provide a more in-depth look at the history and goings-on at Parliament Hill.
Explore the Rideau Canal
The Rideau Canal is a network of waterways that connects Ottawa to the port city of Kingston nearly 250-km away. It opened in 1832 to be used to bypass the St. Lawrence Seaway and keep boats safe from Americans but it was never used for its intended purpose. Today it’s used strictly for recreation and is the oldest canal system in North America that’s still being operated.
Along the canal is a multi-use trail which is perfect for walking or cycling along during the warmer months. In the winter the canal is the focal-point of Winterlude, an annual festival where people can go ice-skating along the completely frozen canal.
In 2007 the Rideau Canal was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for being an outstanding work of human creativity and is an important National Historic Site of Canada.
Ride A Bike to the Prime Minister’s Residence
Just recently VeloGo, a bike sharing system in Ottawa-Gatineau, rolled out 100s of bikes across 50 stations in the city. Now it’s easier than ever to rent a bike and start pedalling around.
The Prime Minister’s Residence at 24 Sussex Drive is quite a hike from the city centre but if you’re cycling you can easily reach it in under 10 minutes. Along the way you can also explore the Royal Canadian Mint and Rideau Hall as well.
24 Sussex acts as the official residence for the current Canadian Prime Minister. You can’t see much from the street except for video cameras and high fences but it’s still cool to head over to that part of the city and check it out. There are bike lanes and a multi-use trail extended to just out front of the Residence so you can safely and easily reach it on your VeloGo bicycle.
Explore the ByWard Market
In the Lower Town of Ottawa is the ByWard Market, a collection of boutique shops, innovative restaurants and an outdoor market full of local and artisanal products. It’s the longest running outdoor market in North America and a great place to walk around and people watch.
Here you’ll be able to find the best cheese in the world, a wide variety of pastries, desserts, homemade treats, and you’ll find countless storefronts selling whatever it is you’re looking for. The original market was built in the 1840s but it didn’t last. In 1926 the current one was built and, save for some renovations in the 1970s, it’s the same one still standing today.
The market is situated in the oldest commercial and residential neighborhoods of the city. Ottawa itself was actually started a few blocks away closer to the Canal, so the ByWard Market is an area of cultural and historical importance.
Come here for dinner or just grab a drink and walk through the throngs of people that frequent the market. Street performers, live events and a network of hidden passages make it one of the most interesting things to do in Ottawa.
Check Out the Ottawa Museums
Ottawa is full of museums. Some of the more popular ones include:
- Canadian War Museum
- Canadian Aviation and Space Museum
- Canadian Museum of Nature
- Canadian Museum of Civilization
If you’re interested in learning more about local history or it’s a rainy day and you want to stay dry check out one of the museums throughout the city.
Each of them focuses on something different so whatever you feel like learning about you can head to the relevant museum.
Watch the Changing of the Guard at Parliament Hill
Every morning since 1959 at Parliament Hill you can watch an impressive ceremony known as the Changing of the Guard.
It’s a large-scale production that features two regiments from the Ceremonial Guard, pipers, and a regimental band.
It starts with a lively musical presentation and is followed by a series of colorful and exciting drills.
The Guards are dressed in their classic Canadian attire – the red coats with black hats – and the ceremony is an enjoyable 30-minutes of entertainment early in the day.
The Changing of the Guard start’s at 10:00 AM and lasts approximately 30-minutes. Get there as early as you can for the best view possible.
Visit the Best Ottawa Festivals
There are quite a few big festivals in Ottawa each year.
Winterlude, Bluesfest and the Canada Day celebrations are some of the events that draw millions of people to the city each year.
At Bluesfest this past summer such big name stars like Kanye West and Skrillex performed and every year the city strives to set the bar higher.
Experience the Cold War
In 1961, at the height of the Cold War, the Canadian government designed and built a 300 room underground bunker they named the Diefenbunker.
It could hold over 500 important officials if there was ever a nuclear attack or war and there was more than 100,000 square feet of living space.
It was commissioned in total secrecy and it wasn’t until the Cold War was over that we finally found out about it.
Today you can visit the Diefenbunker for a tour and a quick lesson on Canadian Cold War history.
Take A Free Walking Tour
One of my favorite things to do in Ottawa is to go on a free walking tour.
The tours are a great introduction to the city and they help to explain the history behind all of the major landmarks and attractions.
The guides are educated, well-informed and extremely helpful if you have any additional questions or concerns about your visit.
I love free walking tours because at the end of the tour you can pay what you believe to be an appropriate amount in form of a tip.
You don’t have to pay anything at all but its a good idea to leave something for the tour guide if they were educated or impressed you with their tour of the city.
Admire the Imposing Architecture
All across the city are beautiful examples of building style and architecture.
It’s fun to walk around and look for the old and unique buildings that dot the city.
The Chateau Laurier, the Lord Elgin hotel, the Parliament Buildings and the Ottawa Convention Center are some of the most impressive buildings in the city and you can stand in front of them for hours admiring every last detail of their construction.
Visit the Marriott Hotel for the Best View of Ottawa
One of the best off-the-beaten-path things to do in Ottawa is to head to the observation area at the top of the Marriott Hotel.
From the top of the hotel you have a 360-degree view of the entire city as well as downtown Hall and the Gatineau mountains off in the distance.
They don’t advertise this lookout area and try to act discrete on your way up.
Walk into the Marriott Hotel and head straight to the elevator. Press the 27/28 floor button and once your elevator reaches the top you’ll be able to enter into a small room.
From here you’ll see the windows and you can take in the incredible view of the city.
Stand in Awe of the Parliament Light Show
Every night in the summer between 9:00 and 10:00 PM the Northern Lights light show lights up the front of the Parliament Buildings.
This free show has been running for more than 30 years and uses lights and lasers to depict key figures, achievements and events in Canadian history directly on the side of the Parliament Building.
A combination of both light and sound is used to enhance the visitor experience and it’s definitely worth checking out if you’re in town during the summer.
If you want a good spot with a view be sure to head to Parliament Hill 15-30 minutes before the show starts or you’ll be stuck standing behind a large crowd.