Explore the history, art, nature, and food of Canada’s capital with these things to do in Ottawa. While the city is often passed over by tourists, it offers a window into Canada’s history and culture, as well as showcasing some of its best art and architecture. If you find yourself in Ottawa, here are some highlights to cover during your stay.
Disclosure: I may earn compensation from the purchase of any product or service linked on this website, at no extra cost to you. I only link to products I use and love, therefore feel comfortable recommending.
I strongly recommend staying in the Byward Market area, not only for its great food but its central location. From this area you can walk almost anywhere of interest in Ottawa. The buzzing marketplace houses permanent shops and restaurants, alongside temporary stalls filled with fresh produce and handicrafts. Byward is one of Canada’s oldest and largest public markets, and the area has traditionally been home to Ottawa’s Irish and French communities. Don’t forget to pack your earplugs as Byward Market is a popular nightlife spot and there’s always that one loud reveler who takes the party into the street.
Take a Walking Tour
A walking tour is an excellent way to get oriented with a new city, so I recommend putting it first on your to-do list. For Ottawa, I recommend André’s team at Ottawa Free Tours, who present a fun and informative, two-hour, pay-as-you-wish tour of the capital city. You’ll learn a little Ottawan history along with some local folklore, as your explore the streets and buildings that have been witness to important historical events.
Explore the Canadian Museum of History
If like me, you have little knowledge of Canadian history then this is the perfect place to start your itinerary. The Museums’ two buildings are located a short walk across the Alexandra Bridge from Ottawa in Parc Laurier, Gatineau. You will see the two Museum buildings long before you’ve arrived. The organic shapes of the Douglas Cardinal designed structures are mesmerizing. The architect intended that the Museum complex “speak of the emergence of this continent, its forms sculptured by the winds, the rivers, the glaciers.” Personally, I prefer the curatorial wing which represents the bedrock of the Canadian Shield with overhanging and receding levels of sinuous curves. While the public wing symbolizes a receding glacier, with a large glass facia like melting ice. Take some time to wander around the outside and admire the architecture.
If time is of the essence, skip straight to Level 3 and 4 of the Museum to work your way through the Canadian History Hall, where you can walk through a comprehensive timeline of Canadian history that includes over 1500 artifacts – this will take you about 90minutes. Also, make sure you stop in at the Great Hall which contains the world’s largest indoor collection of totem poles.
Admire the National Gallery
The National Gallery of Art holds the worlds largest collection of Canadian art housed in a post-modern, Moshe Safdie designed structure. If you’re pressed for time, skip the European and American Art and go straight for the Canadian collection on Level 1, it is impressive! The Rideau Chapel is an absolute must-see. The salvaged interior of the chapel, formerly situated at the Convent of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, is the perfect setting to experience Janet Cardiff’s sound sculpture Forty Part Motet. I lay on the benches staring up at the beautiful Tudor-style, fan-vaulted ceiling, enveloped in the sound of Spem in Alum recorded in forty parts and played back through forty speakers positioned around the space. Tieing with the Rideau Chapel for my favourite, was the incredible gallery wall of modern art in the Galerie Ash K. Prakash.
Saunter the Rideau Canal
The Rideau Canal is skirted by a walking trail of approximately 6.5km (one way) from the Ottawa River to Dows Lake Pavilion. It makes a beautiful morning walk with lots of parks and green spaces to explore along the way. There is an additional 5km (one way) of walking path along the Ottawa River to explore.
Hike Gatineau Park
If you haven’t done enough walking yet and you have access to transport, pack a picnic and go hiking in Gatineau Park. Autumn is a particularly good time for all my fellow leaf peepers to get their fill of fall colour. I highly recommend the King Mountain Trail for spectacular views of Ottawa and surrounds. It is a relatively easy hike that strings together ten scenic lookouts. Have a thing for abandoned places? A trek to the Willson-Carbide Ruins will not disappoint.
Investigate Parliament Hill
Due to the new Governor General of Canada being sworn in during my stay, I didn’t get to take a tour inside Parliament. If you get a chance to take a look inside you will need to obtain a free ticket with a designated time from the tourist information centre opposite Parliament Hill. Either way, you can walk around the grounds and admire the exterior architecture.
Eat, eat, eat
Coffee – Planet Coffee (cash only), Bluebird Coffee and Second Cup all make a consistently good java, have friendly service and free wifi. Though my favourite was Origin for the coffee and ambiance.
Lunch – LaPointe for Ottawa’s best sushi and La Bottega for the most delectable sandwiches are both affordable options in the Byward Market area. For something a little more upmarket, try Play Food & Wine for modern, small-plates. They offer a tempting lunch menu of two-plates per person for $22.
Dinners – For some amazing modern Middle-Eastern cuisine, try Fairouz in the Somerset Village area. Their haloumi cheesecake is amazing! Milestones and Beckta are fabulous downtown options, along with Vittoria Trattoria for Italian fare and The Keg for steak, both in Byward Market. For the ultimate indulgence book well ahead for a 12-course degustation at Atelier.
Dessert – A Beaver Tail is the done thing of course, and if you’re a cake lover Oh So Good Desserts will have you returning for more.
Drop me a comment below if you have any questions about exploring Canada’s capital, with these things to do in Ottawa.
Peace, love & inspiring travel,