Sitting in the shadow of Toronto’s skyscrapers, Montreal’s culture, and Vancouver’s mountains, the nation’s capital often gets overlooked by Canadian and international visitors. Sure, it’s a government town, but Ottawa is also a bucket list town, jam-packed with activities and destinations you simply cannot experience anywhere else in the country. While you can easily spend a week or more exploring the city, a short visit ticks off many boxes, and you don’t have to venture too far either. Having visited with my own family this summer, here’s a handy Bucket Listed tip sheet of what to see and do:
The Capital Museums
Not everyone is into museums, but these are not just any museums. Ottawa boasts seven sprawling national museums that span millenniums of history and culture, appealing to all ages and interests. We started at the Canadian Museum of Nature, with its outstanding dinosaur, geology, mammal, bug and bird collections, all accompanied by interactive and hands-on exhibits. My kid ran riot learning about different cultures in the Children’s Museum inside the Canadian Museum of History, before exploring the full length and diversity of the nation’s past. Nobody leaves the Canadian War Museum without being moved by its striking architecture, history, hardware, and absorbing storytelling. The Canada Aviation and Space Museum, Agriculture and Food Museum, Science and Technology Museum – you could soak up weeks or a lifetime within these buildings. Capping it off is the National Gallery of Canada, with priceless art housed in architect Moshe Safdie’s iconic building. Outside, you’ll be greeted by Maman, Louise Bourgeois’ iconic 30-ft metal spider. If you see nothing else during a short visit to Ottawa, make it to at least one capital museum.
Examples of urban views that instantly place you within their geographic significance: the Hagia Sofia and Blue Mosque in Istanbul, the Sydney Opera House, the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty. Big Ben and Westminster, the Petronas Towers in Kaula Lumpur. To which I add: Parliament Hill. When you see Canada’s Parliament for the first time, bookended by the East and West Blocks (and complimented by the spires of the adjacent Chateau Laurier) you know you’re in Ottawa, and you know you’re in Canada. Currently undergoing an extensive decade-long renovation, you can still take Parliament tours to learn about Canadian politics, and don’t miss the free Northern Lights sound and light presentation on summer evenings (Thursday to Monday each July to September), when Parliament becomes a massive screen for a dramatic and visually stunning celebration of Canada. To say it all leaves an impression is an understatement
Rideau Canal, Locks and the Ottawa River
Just steps away from Parliament is the Rideau Canal, the 202-kilometre-long UNESCO World Heritage built in 1832 to protect against a possible US invasion. In winter, the canal freezes into one of the world’s most spectacular ice-rinks. In summer, boats make their way along the canal (you can hire a houseboat through Le Boat). Walk down the stairs from Wellington Street to watch Parks Canada staff manually operate the locks as boats slowly ascend or descend between the canal and Ottawa River. While there, visit the excellent Bytown Museum to learn more about the canal and the history of Ottawa. Another tip: hop on an Au feel de l’eau electric Aqua-Taxi from the bottom of the Rideau Canal locks to cross the Ottawa River and visit the National Museum of History, snapping magical views of the city in the process. If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, head to Interzip, the world’s only inter-provincial zipline, where dual riders fly the 425-metre river crossing between Ontario and Quebec.
A Capital Bike Ride
Exploring any city by bicycle helps you piece it together, especially when guided by an enthusiastic local. Escape Bicycle Tours and Rentals, conveniently located on Sparks Street, will set you up with bicycle and guide for an easy two-hour ride to take in Ottawa’s greatest hits. From Parliament Hill, brake for views, history and local stories as you ride over the bridge into Gatineau, snake along the river and back over Macdonald-Cartier Bridge into Sussex Drive. Wave to the Royal Canadian Geographic Society building at 50 Sussex before making your way to Rideau Hall to see if the Governor General is in (look for the flags) and ride into the 79-acre urban park dotted with trees planted by world leaders. The roads are flat, the scenery fantastic, and the history fascinating. A bike tour of the nation’s capital is family friendly, easy, and a fun, efficient way to discover the capital.
National War Memorial
On November 11, the National War Memorial just off Parliament Hill hosts a sombre occasion of national sacrifice, tragedy and pride. Wreaths and tributes are often on display year-round, along with a ceremonial guard. The striking granite arch overlooking the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is a must-see, impossible-to-miss as you stroll along Wellington Street from Parliament Hill to the buzzy heart of the capital, the ByWard Market.
Between its assortment of knick-knacks and souvenir stores, the fine pastries at Moulin de Provence, the boutiques, restaurants, buskers, art, and street vendors, it’s easy to see why ByWard Market is Ottawa’s busiest tourist attraction. Comprised of several pedestrian blocks, it’s a place to wander about and follow your nose, which might lead you to an illuminated Ottawa sign so prominent on social media posts, or Zak’s Diner for a legendary milkshake, or the line-up for sugar-frosted Beavertails. From the Ottawa sign, walk up the painted staircase to Major’s Hill Park behind the Chateau Laurier, and stroll the lawns as the sun reflects off the silver steeples of the Notre Dame Cathedral.
Everything above is accessible via foot or short taxi from the excellent range of hotels downtown, from the iconic Fairmont Chateau Laurier to the new, family-friendly reStays boutique hotel on Queen Street. There’s much to see, and it’s all so close together. Other than the bike ride and summer light show, these attractions are available year-round too, an Ottawa Bucket List that can be ticked off in a relaxed, action-packed and memorable weekend in the capital.