While the unassuming Canadian capital isn’t one of the country’s most well-known travel destinations, digging into the best things to do in Ottawa is a must for any Canada itinerary.
For history buffs, there’s hardly a better destination in Canada than Ottawa. Counted among the top tourist attractions in Ottawa is a seemingly innumerable number of museums celebrating everything from Canadian military history and science & technology to nature and arts & culture.
Ready to figure out what to do in Ottawa? Plan your ultimate trip to Canada’s capital with this guide to the best places to visit in Ottawa…
Top tourist attractions in Ottawa
Even if you have only one day in Ottawa, carve out some time to visit Parliament Hill.
Home to some of the most fascinating heritage architecture in Canada, Parliament Hill is quite striking in its appearance.
Gaping archways and patina-splashed copper turrets sit in stark contrast to the modern architecture of downtown Ottawa at this beautiful site on the banks of the Ottawa River.
While the Canadian Parliament Building is impressive to see from the exterior, book a tour to get the full experience. Tours of the East Block & West Block last about 45 minutes and depart between 8:30am to 4:30pm during the July to September tourist season.
(As you might expect, be prepared for extensive security checks upon entry.)
Stretching over 200 kilometres from Lake Ontario to the Ottawa River since the early-19th century, the historic Rideau Canal is one of Ottawa’s must-see attractions.
How you experience the canal will depend on which season you visit. In the summer tourism season, checking out the canal on a sightseeing cruise is a must. On the ride, you’ll float through the heart of downtown Ottawa to catch a glimpse some of Canada’s most beautiful heritage architecture.
The most interesting time to visit the Rideau Canal, however, is in winter. During Ottawa’s chilly winter season, the famous Rideau Canal Skateway opens up for business.
The skateway is considered the world’s largest skating rink, sliding 7.8 kilometres between Dows Lake and the Ottawa River. If you decide to make a day of it, you’ll find plenty of stops along the way with food & hot drinks to warm up.
One of the oldest areas in Ottawa, ByWard Market has been hoppin’ since 1826.
Named after Lt-Col. John By, builder of the Rideau Canal, this four-block city square is, today, chock-loaded with some of Ottawa’s most popular restaurants, pubs, boutique shops, art galleries, and museums.
Both tourists and locals alike love wandering through the market square to experience some of the finest shopping, eating, and drinking Ottawa offers.
Within the ByWard Market building itself, you’ll find food delicacies representing Canada’s multiculturalism at its apex along with vendors peddling everything from hand-crafted souvenirs & clothing to used books.
The best time to visit the area is in a summer evening when the streets come alive and the people fill the area’s multitude of patio restaurants & bars.
Canadian War Museum
Even if you’re not a military history buff, the Canadian War Museum is one of the best museums of its kind anywhere and one of the top points of interest in Ottawa.
The meaningful exterior design of the museum opens up to an eclectic collection of permanent & temporary exhibitions touching on both Canadian and world military history.
The exhibitions weave a narrative of major conflicts that Canada participated in including World War I, World War II, and even the Cold War using a variety of interesting artefacts, photos, and interactive media.
Some of the more interesting exhibits at the Canadian War Museum including Adolf Hitler’s armoured Mercedes-Benz and battle-worn coat of Sir Isaac Brock, the military commander of the former British colony of Upper Canada.
Canadian Museum of Nature
One of the best museums in Ottawa, the Canadian Museum of Nature explores the Canadian wilderness through its fascinating interactive exhibits.
At this popular science museum, one of the best family-friendly activities in Ottawa, you’ll learn about everything from Canadian flora & fauna to fossils & minerals.
Among the most popular exhibits at the Canadian Museum of Nature are the Canada Goose Arctic Gallery, a world reflecting the habitats & Indigenous culture of Canada’s far north; the Water Gallery, home to a number of live sea creatures and a giant blue whale skeleton; and the Earth Gallery, featuring a limestone cave and interactive model volcano activity.
This top Ottawa tourist attraction is open year-round and is closed on Mondays.
National Gallery of Canada
Art fans stumped on what to do in Ottawa need to set aside some time to peruse the National Gallery of Canada. This landmark art museum is home to one of Canada’s finest collections of contemporary & historical artwork.
Located close to the happenin’ ByWard Market area, the National Gallery of Canada features everything from paintings & photos to sculptures & interactive exhibits, spanning about 6,000 artists and 40,000 artefacts.
While checking out this top Ottawa point of interest, be sure to stop by the Canadian & Indigenous Galleries to look at its ancient Indigenous relics, Inuit sculptures, and Group of Seven paintings.
The art gallery is also home to one of the finest collections of European and Asian art in Canada.
Britannia Park & Beach
Opened along the Ottawa River at the turn of the 20th century, Britannia Park is one of the most popular parks in Ottawa and a fantastic place to escape from the bustle of downtown Ottawa.
Hopping over to Britannia Park is especially worthwhile if you’re travelling to Ottawa with kids. There’s plenty to do in this lovely riverside greenspace in every season whether its snowshoeing in winter, hiking among the fall colours in autumn, or picnicking & swimming at Britannia Beach in the summer.
Where to stay in Ottawa for sightseeing
Although it’s Canada’s fourth-largest city, choosing where to stay in Ottawa isn’t too much of a challenge. For most travellers, the best area to stay is Downtown Ottawa including the areas around Sparks Street, ByWard Market, and the Golden Triangle.
- Alt Hotel Ottawa: Situated just south of Parliament, this trendy hotel features spacious rooms with a dash of modern style. Amenities include free WiFi, a fitness centre, and an on-site restaurant & bar.
- Courtyard By Marriott Ottawa Downtown: If spending time in ByWard Market is on your Ottawa agenda, this family-friendly mid-range hotel is a superb choice. Kids will simply love the indoor pool area!
- Andaz Ottawa ByWard Market: Among the coolest hotels in Canada’s capital, this modern property charms guests with its chic designer rooms. You’ll absolutely love hangin’ out on the rooftop lounge to incredible views over the downtown.
- Fairmont Chateau Laurier: One of Canada’s most famous luxury hotels, this elegant historic hotel is a favourite for dignitaries venturing to the Canadian capital for business. Aside from the sophisticated and elegant rooms, you’ll find a whole array of luxurious amenities here including a swimming pool, health club, and several on-site restaurants & bars.