Ottawa, the capital city of Canada, is often overlooked in favor of Canada’s awe-inspiring outdoorsy locales like Banff, or its better-known cities like Montréal, Toronto, or Vancouver.
However– you’d be missing out, as Ottawa is a world-class city in its own right and absolutely worth carving out a few days to visit! We recommend visiting for 2 days or a weekend, but you’d even be able to cover a lot of ground in a day if that’s all the time you have to spare.
We hope you enjoy our guide to Ottawa, in all its governmental splendor!
Originally founded as Bytown in 1826, the city was incorporated as Ottawa in 1855, and evolved to become the political center of Canada (or “centre,” as Canadians would spell it!)
Queen Victoria selected Ottawa to serve as the capital city of the Province of Canada in 1855, due to its central location between Toronto and Montréal, as well as its defense capabilities. As you’ll see when you visit, the city is situated along a cliff face, which today adds to the scenic beauty of the city, but in the 1800s was viewed as a plus for defense from attack. Back when it was chosen to be the capital, the city was tiny, and considered a total backwater. However, the immediate construction of the government buildings on Parliament Hill, as well as the addition of electricity (then a hot commodity), running water, and public transit (first by horse, and then by streetcar) modernized the city quickly.
Today, Ottawa is much more than just a bureaucrat’s town. While politics is certainly a common pursuit here, the city also has fantastic museums, art galleries, restaurants, and its very own UNESCO World Heritage Site– the Rideau Canal, the oldest canal in North America.
Ottawa Top 5:
- Witness the pomp and circumstance of the changing of the guard on Parliament Hill. Be sure to get your tickets in advance to take a tour of the Parliament buildings, the top attraction in Ottawa.
- Take a photo with the iconic Ottawa sign.
- Check out the world-class National Gallery of Canada, the sobering Canadian War Museum, and (across the river in Gatineau, Québec), the Canadian Museum of History— Canada’s most-visited museum.
- Cheer on hometown hockey team the Ottawa Senators at home arena Canadian Tire Centre.
- Explore the ByWard Market, filled with window-shopping opportunities, restaurants, bars, and more.
Ottawa Weekender Guide
The first thing to do when you get to town is get your Parliament Hill tickets. This is crucial! The highlight of Ottawa is visiting the various buildings on Parliament Hill, and no visit is complete without seeing at least one.
Our first tip: yes, the blocks are ticketed separately– Centre Block is open year-round for tours, but East Block is only open July to September. The tickets for both go super fast, especially if you don’t book ahead of time. You may have limited success booking online here, but we’ve found that going in person is your best bet usually. There’s an office at 90 Wellington Street where you can get tickets, but keep in mind the lines are often very long (sometimes upwards of an hour) and you may not be able to get admission to both.
Somewhat confusingly, the tour office days and times vary, sometimes by quite a bit. Here is a schedule, as of 2021, but they reserve the right to change the schedule day-of. There are no tours on Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, or Canada Day (July 1.)
The ticketing center at 90 Wellington Street is open weekdays 9-3:30 PM and 9-4:30 PM weekends from September to March; 7:45-5:00 PM weekdays and 7:45-6:00 PM weekends April and May; 9-7:30 PM weekdays and 9-4:30 PM weekends May and June; and 9-4:30 PM July to September.
We recommend doing this right when you arrive so you have maximum flexibility when they give you available time slots. The tours themselves are very informative and in-depth, with super knowledgeable tour guides. They keep tour sizes quite reasonable, at ~10 people per tour.
If you’re visiting between June and September, don’t miss the changing of the guard! Be sure to be on the Parliament Hill lawn by ~9:45 to hear an audio presentation, and watch the soldiers arrive at 10AM sharp. The music is bombastic and charming, and it’s a great free activity to partake in.
While you’re gazing at the outside of these stunning Gothic-style buildings, pay special attention to the Peace Tower, also featured on Canada’s $20 bill! It is possible to go to the top (through the same ticket process as the East and Centre blocks), but these tickets go even quicker! The panoramic views of the city and the Ottawa River from 300 feet high are simply marvelous.
Nearby, check out the Canadian War Memorial, built in 1939 to commemorate Canadians killed in military action. This is a great way to set the scene for a visit to the Canadian War Museum. This museum is an absolute must to visit, and really focuses on the human aspects of war, as well as tracing Canadian individuals’ involvement in a variety of conflicts, from colonial times to the modern day.
Start out your day with a visit to ByWard Market. There are all sorts of restaurants, coffee shops, boutiques, and more around here, as well as the iconic Ottawa sign! If you’re visiting in the summer, there’s a fabulous farmers’ market with all sorts of seasonal goodies.
Head back down to the Parliament Hill area to explore sprawling Major’s Hill Park and its scenic nature trails. Nearby, check out the amazing Rideau Canal, the oldest canal in North America and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica, Ottawa’s largest church. While the exterior isn’t super grand, the interior is filled with stained glass and gorgeous, intricate paintings.
If you’re in the mood for another museum, be sure to check out the National Gallery of Canada, focused on Canadian art, and perhaps the University of Ottawa if you’re in the mood to walk around and explore a college campus.
Overall, Ottawa is a super neat city, and it makes us sad that many people don’t take advantage of visiting! Between its world-class museums, beautiful parks and canals, and the splendor of Parliament Hill, its a great place for a weekend getaway.
Have you been to Ottawa? Let us know in the comments!