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Amazing (Mostly Free) Things To Do In Ottawa

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A Guide For Planning Things To Do In Ottawa

This is a blog post that is near and dear to our heart.  Denis lived and worked in Ottawa for more than 3 decades.  And we still have family and friends there whom we visit several times a year.  So, when it comes to things to do in Ottawa – we know them well!

And we want to share with you, not only the city’s greatest attractions, but also its charm and well-kept secrets.  

Highlights of Ottawa

Discovering Downtown Ottawa

Nestled on the banks of the majestic Ottawa River, this city is a harmonious blend of heritage, culture, and urban sophistication. In the heart of it all is downtown Ottawa, a bustling hub that beautifully encapsulates the city’s energy.

It’s here that you’ll find the iconic Parliament Hill, an architectural wonder, and the epicenter of Canadian democracy. But that’s just the beginning of the downtown Ottawa experience.

Centre Block during the holidays in Ottawa

From the state-of-the-art National Gallery of Canada, home to thousands of stunning art pieces, to the vibrant Byward Market, a food lover’s paradise filled with artisans, and culinary delights, downtown Ottawa is a treasure trove of unique experiences waiting to be discovered.

It can even be said that Ottawa rivals European cities like Brussels with its amazing number of fascinating museums.

And let’s not forget the Rideau Canal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which transforms from the world’s largest outdoor skating rink in winter to a serene boating route in summer. 

We created this blog in a way that allows you to use it as a kind of self-guided tour.  Just follow the sequence that the blog is written in, and you can walk your way around the best parts of the downtown core.

sign of Ceremonial Route

Let’s Start on Wellington Street

Wellington Street is set at the north end of the city and runs east/west along the Ottawa River.  It is here that you will find some of Canada’s greatest cultural attractions.  And nearly all of them are free!

Wellington Street in Ottawa

Parliament Hill

We always encourage visitors to begin with one of Canada’s most recognizable landmarks – Parliament Hill.   Parliament Hill and the surrounding area is the major tourist attraction in Ottawa.  Most know it as the hub of Canada’s government and democracy, but it is far more than that.

Parliament Hill receives millions of visitors annually who linger on its sprawling lawns and take photos of the iconic Peace Tower and adjoining Parliament buildings.  It is home to countless festivals during every season of the year.  

Parliament Hill in Ottawa

Ok, so now for the bad part.  To preserve the integrity of the historic buildings on Parliament Hill there has been a massive restoration project going on for the past few years.  This is expected to take several more years for the entire restoration to be completed.

However, the construction is being done in phases to mitigate the impact on visitors.  The restoration of the West Block has been completed.  The Centre Block, including the Peace Tower, is currently under construction and closed to visitors.  

That being said, there is still a lot to see and do on “The Hill” and it is well worth visiting. 

Here Are Some Things To Do On Parliament Hill:

Visit the Peace Tower

Technically, the Peace Tower is part of the Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings, but we think it deserves a special mention all of its own.

The Peace Tower is a dramatic, Gothic-style tower that is visually striking and is one of the most photographed structures in Canada.  Because of its 92.7 metre (304 feet) height, pointed spires, and copper-clad roof, it stands out proudly against the Ottawa skyline.

In fact, until the 1950s an Ottawa bylaw proclaimed that no building in Ottawa could be taller than the Peace Tower.  That bylaw was repealed to allow for the modernization and growth of the city.

The Peace Tower in Ottawa

The Peace Tower was built (and named) to commemorate the armistice of 1918 that signalled the end of World War I.  The tower, completed in 1927, holds significant historical and architectural value as an important example of the Gothic revival style. It contains a carillon of 53 bells and a clock that chimes on the quarter hour.

Even though entrance to the Peace Tower is not currently possible due to construction, when it is open here at the things that you can expect:

  • There is a 15-minute Carillon recital at the Peace Tower Bells every day at 12:00 pm from September to June.  If you are here in July and August, the recital is for 1 hour from 11:00am.  When it is re-opened you can get free tickets to visit the East and West Blocks by visiting the booth at 90 Wellington Street.
  • Don’t forget to check out the Memorial Chamber at the base of the Peace Tower.  This solemn room is a poignant tribute to Canada’s fallen heroes.
  • Other things to check out on your visit are the magnificent stained-glass windows and the more than 200 stone carvings adorning the tower.

Visit the Parliament Buildings

The Parliament Buildings are a magnificent example of Gothic Revival-style architecture.  They represent not only the beating heart of Canadian democracy but also a testament to the nation’s rich history.

There are 3 main buildings – the Centre Block, the East Block, and the West Block. You can book free tickets to see the different buildings here.

The Centre Block (currently being restored) is the main building and is the centrepiece of the Parliament Buildings.  Once it reopens it will continue to be the place where key legislative work unfolds at the House of Commons.  This will also continue to be the permanent home of the Senate after restoration.

Centre Block on Parliament Hill in Ottawa

The East Block is the best preserved Victorian High Gothic public building in Canada and still houses some parliamentarians’ offices, just as it did in the 19th century. 

The East Block on Parliament Hill

The West Block, after an impressive restoration, now includes the interim House of Commons chamber with a beautiful glass-roof addition.

The West block building on Parliament Hill in Ottawa

The Parliament Buildings are not just about bricks and mortar.  They’re set against the backdrop of the beautiful Ottawa River, with manicured lawns and statues of important historical figures dotting the grounds. 

Whether you’re a political enthusiast, a history buff, or simply an admirer of grand architecture, the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa are sure to leave an indelible impression. 

The Centennial Flame: A Symbol of Unity in the Heart of Ottawa

The Centennial Flame is a striking monument situated in front of the Parliament Buildings and is a must-see while you are on Parliament Hill.  

It was unveiled on January 1, 1967, as a temporary monument to mark the centenary of the Canadian Confederation.  However, it was so popular with Canadians that it became a permanent iconic landmark that embodies the unity of Canada’s provinces and territories.

It is adorned with the shields of Canada’s 13 provinces and territories (including Nunavut which was added in 2017), along with their floral emblems.  The Centennial Flame stands as a testament to the diversity and unity that define the nation.

The flame at the centre of the fountain burns with a steady brilliance, symbolizing the enduring spirit of Canada.

The Centennial Flame

The monument itself is a beautiful blend of water and fire elements. Encircling the flame is a fountain, its waters representing Canada’s three oceans: the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic. It’s a sight to behold in all seasons.

The Centennial Flame is more than just a sightseeing spot; it’s a place of significance for Canadians. Many locals and visitors alike toss coins into the fountain for good luck, the collected funds are later used to support research for Canadians with disabilities. 

Did You Know?

The water in the Centennial Flame Monument never freezes!  The reason? Even though Ottawa’s winters can dip to -30°C (-22°F), the waters in the fountain are continually moving.

Just Relax!

But you don’t have to come to Parliament Hill only on special occasions, or just to admire the architecture.  Come anytime! Bring a blanket, a picnic basket, and a frisbee and just hang out on the vast lawns of Parliament Hill with your favourite people.

The Office of the Prime Minister and Privy Council

Almost directly across from the East Block, at 80 Wellington Street, you will see the magnificent building that serves as the workplace for Justin Trudeau,  Canada’s current Prime Minister, and his Privy Council.

The Office of the Prime Minister and Privy Council features a striking design with elaborate stonework, rounded arched windows and a magnificent copper-clad mansard roof.  Constructed in the 1880s this building epitomizes high Victorian architecture at its finest.     

Office of the Prime Minister in Ottawa

The building’s transformation in the 1970s to house the Prime Minister’s staff and the Privy Council, a group of cabinet ministers who advise the Prime Minister, has elevated its prestige.

While the Prime Minister’s Office remains off limits to the public you can still admire and appreciate the graceful architecture of this splendid heritage building.

Confederation Square

Located steps away from the East Block and the Office of the Prime Minister, is Ottawa’s most important ceremonial centre after Parliament Hill – Confederation Square.  This grand public space was purposefully designed as a ceremonial hub and gathering place during Ottawa’s City Beautiful movement from 1893 to 1930.   

Framed by an eclectic mix of stunning architectural gems ranging from Victorian Gothic to sleek modernism, the square showcases how Ottawa’s style has evolved over time.

Confederation Square

The iconic Château Laurier hotel, the striking tower of the Centre Block, and the enormous glass walls of the National Arts Centre all loom over the lawns and walkways of Confederation Square.  

But the main attraction is the National War Memorial at the square’s centre. This graceful stone archway and statue honouring Canada’s veterans was unveiled in 1939 and has served as the focal point for Ottawa’s solemn Remembrance Day ceremonies ever since.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier sits beneath the Memorial, a hallowed ground where visitors can pay their respects.   

National War Memorial in Ottawa

Strolling Confederation Square, you’ll notice details surrounding the park that reveal its history as both a commercial district and ceremonial space. The Rideau Canal cuts through the square, spanned by an ornate iron footbridge built in 1899.

Former shop fronts line the edges, now housing government offices. And the tiered lawns and neat paths are perfect for public concerts, festivals and rallies that enliven the city.

National Arts Centre (NAC)

Just across from the National War Museum is the National Arts Centre with its towering walls of glass and crushed brown Laurentian granite.

The NAC is one of the largest and most prominent performing arts centres in the entire country. Since opening its doors in 1969, the NAC has entertained and enlightened millions of visitors with its world-class productions and exhibits.

National Arts Centre

Set along the banks of the Rideau Canal it boasts four stages – the Southam Hall, Babs Asper Theatre, Azrieli Studio and Fourth Stage (really, that’s what it’s called!).  

The National Arts Centre provides intimate spaces to experience an incredible variety of music, theatre, dance, and family shows. From classical to contemporary, Canadian artists to international superstars, there is always top-notch entertainment to be found on the NAC stages.

A visit to the NAC is about more than just attending a single performance though. Art lovers and culture vultures will want to spend time exploring the on-site visual art galleries. Rotating exhibits feature both established and emerging Canadian artists across many mediums. 

The Rideau Canal

As you leave Confederation Square and walk East you will cross over the Rideau Canal.  The Rideau Canal was built in the early 19th century to create a navigable 202 km (125 mile) waterway from the Ottawa River to the Cataraqui River which empties into Lake Ontario near Kingston. 

If you stop on the bridge and look north, you will see the Rideau Canal’s first lock station and the first 8 locks of the canal system. Between here and Kingston there are 22 other lock stations and a total of 43 locks. 

Rideau canal lock system

This magnificent engineering feat is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the best preserved “slack water” canal in North America.  It was designed and engineered by Lieutenant Colonel John By who had set up his headquarters here, at the mouth of the Rideau River in 1826.  

The headquarters that John By set up here grew into a small settlement made up of workers and merchants who came here to support the building of the locks.  This settlement became a town – Bytown – which became the City of Ottawa on January 1, 1855. 

Rideau canal

The locks continue to operate in the same fashion that they have for the last 200 years.

But the Rideau Canal is not just about the locks.  The Canal flows south through the city and if you want to get a glimpse of Ottawa and its neighbourhoods check out a Rideau Canal Boat Tour.  

Insider Tip

If you visit in the winter, rent a pair of ice skates, and join the thousands of people who commute from place to place in Ottawa on the world’s longest skating rink.

The Chateau Laurier

Like the Peace Tower, the majestic Chateau Laurier Hotel is an iconic Ottawa Landmark.  It was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1980.  The hotel’s prestigious location at #1 Rideau Street signifies its prominence as the cornerstone of the Rideau Canal and the Ottawa River.

Chateau Laurier in Ottawa

The Chateau Laurier is one of several hotels that was built by Grand Trunk Railway to encourage visitors to travel on their newly built rail system.  

When Grand Trunk suffered financial difficulty in the early 1900s, it was taken over by the publicly owned Canadian National Railway and the Chateau Laurier became one of CN’s most important hotels.   

The hotel chain was purchased by Fairmont in 1999 and the Chateau Laurier remains the most iconic hotel in the city.

The Senate of Canada Building

Right across Wellington Street from the Chateau Laurier, you will find the Senate of Canada Building.  This is the temporary home of Canada’s Senate while the permanent home in the Centre Block of Parliament is being renovated.

Originally constructed by Grand Trunk Railways in the early 1900s, this was the site of Ottawa Union Station. It opened in 1912 on the same day as the Chateau Laurier.  In fact, there was a tunnel that connected the Chateau Laurier to Union Station.  

The Senate Building

The building remained a rail station until 1967 when it was decommissioned and re-opened as a Visitors Centre for Canada’s 100th birthday.  

In 1969 it was repurposed as the Government Conference Centre and served as the venue for Federal, Provincial, and International government conferences.  

After 45 years it underwent a major restoration, and the result is the building that you see here today.  Of note is that the Senate Chamber now sits where the original train station’s concourse welcomed visitors to Canada’s capital.

Fun Fact

Elvis Presley arrived via Union Station for his Ottawa tour in 1957 and was greeted by thousands of screaming fans.

Major’s Hill Park

Crossing Rideau Street and walking past Chateau Laurier towards the Ottawa River, you will come to Major’s Hill Park.  This beautiful green space offers up some of the best views overlooking the Ottawa River. 

Major's Hill Park in Ottawa

This 5.5 hectare (13.5 acre) park is situated between the Chateau Laurier, with its French Renaissance style and the Neo-Classical style of the National Gallery of Canada.  It is at this park that fireworks were launched in 1867 to mark the very first Canada Day.

National Gallery of Canada

The National Gallery of Canada has moved 5 times since its founding in 1880.  Its current location became the permanent home of the Gallery in 1988. 

This impressive building is easily recognized by its massive glass and granite angular structure.  Guarding the entrance to the Gallery is Maman, a giant egg-carrying spider, cast in bronze, that symbolizes fertility, shelter, and the home.

Maman - the enormous spider in front of the National Gallery

The National Gallery of Canada houses one of the finest art museums in North America. Within its impressive galleries visitors can explore a significant collection of over 75,000 works dating from ancient times to the present day.

What’s more, the Gallery houses the largest collection of Indigenous and Canadian art in the world.

Kiweki Point (Formerly Nepean Point)

Kiweki Point is located just behind the National Gallery of Canada.  The park was originally named Nepean Point after the head of the British Colonial Office, Evan Nepean.  It was renamed Kiweki Point to honour the Algonquin First Nations.  

Kiweki means “returning to one’s homeland” and the new name reflects the theme of the restoration of the park that will showcase Algonquin culture.

This tiny park, situated atop a cliff and overlooking the Ottawa River, has some of the most spectacular views in the city.  It was originally used for military purposes because of its incredible site lines.

Kiweki Point in Ottawa

The park is currently being totally revamped and is temporarily closed to visitors, but when it re-opens, it will once again be one of the city’s top destinations.

Canadian Museum of History

The Canadian Museum of History is located directly across the Ottawa River from Parliament Hill and is easily accessible from Kiweki Point via the Alexandria Bridge.

Alexandria Bridge in Ottawa

Originally called the Canadian Museum of Civilization, it was renamed “Canadian Museum of History” in 2013.  The museum was constructed to look like the rocky outcrops and melting glaciers of Canada’s ancient past. 

Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa

The museum hosts exhibits devoted to Canadian and World history and civilizations.  It is also home to the Canadian Children’s Museum.  

Fun Fact

The Canadian Museum of History is the most visited museum in the country.

Royal Canadian Mint

Situated just behind the National Gallery of Canada, the Royal Canadian Mint looks like a medieval castle.  The mint has been at this location since its inception in 1908 and is world-renowned for its production of collector coins, silver bullion and medals. 

Royal Canadian Mint

Tours are available all year round and are conducted by knowledgeable guides who take you through the production process.  There are also displays of unique pieces including the world’s largest gold bars and the record-breaking “Million Dollar Coin”.  

Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica

The dual-spired Cathedral is located on Sussex Drive, just up the street from the Royal Canadian Mint and directly across from the National Gallery of Canada.

Notre Dame has gone through a complex and storied past.  It started out as a small wooden church built in 1832 to serve the Catholic population of the village of Bytown during the construction of the Rideau Canal.  

The wooden church was replaced by a stone church in the early 1840s.  In 1847 the church became a Cathedral and in 1879, was elevated to the status of Basilica.

Notre Dame Cathedral

Construction and restoration have been ongoing over the last 150 years with a full restoration occurring in 1999.  A new roof was added in 2010 and a new altar was dedicated in 2018.

Notre Dame exemplifies a combination of Neo-Classic and Neo-Gothic styles.  

The Byward Market

The Byward Market has been a mainstay in Ottawa since it was established by Colonel John By in 1826.  It is one of Canada’s oldest and largest outdoor markets.  It is located just East of the Fairmont Chateau Laurier between York and George Streets. 

Byward Market is one of the main things to do in Ottawa

Surrounded by restaurants, bars, nightclubs and shops, the Byward Market is one of the main entertainment districts in Ottawa.

Byward market

Other Local Entertainment Districts

Elgin Street

Elgin Street has long been known as the heart of Ottawa’s entertainment scene. Lined with independent shops, cafes, and restaurants it bustles day and night. You’ll find everything from vintage vinyl stores to art galleries to bistros serving global cuisine.

Elgin is also home to Ottawa’s vibrant LGBTQ community and plays host to many festivals and events throughout the year. 

When evening falls and the streetlights come on, the bars and clubs take centre stage. You can catch live music virtually every night, from indie rock to jazz to comedy. On weekends the sidewalks swarm with revellers, giving the promenade truly electric energy. 

Make sure to stop off at the Elgin Street Diner for a hearty meal no matter what time of day. It has earned accolades for its food, value, and traditional “diner” atmosphere.

Elgin Street diner - a perfect option anytime of the day

So, whether you’re looking to shop, eat or play, Elgin Street should be at the top of your Ottawa itinerary.

Sparks Street

Right in the heart of downtown Ottawa, Sparks Street is the pedestrian commercial high street where locals and visitors alike come to shop and dine.  Running parallel to, and just north of Wellington Street, it is home to international chains and local boutiques selling fashion, accessories, and gifts. 

When hunger strikes, pop into the many restaurants lining the strip. Cozy cafes offer delicious pastries and coffee, while international eateries serve authentic cuisine from around the world. 

Sparks Street

On weekends, street musicians sometimes add to the atmosphere. Whether you’re looking to shop or seeking entertainment, Sparks Street delivers a true urban experience in Ottawa.

While Sparks Street is not as bustling as it once was, there is a revitalization plan which began in 2022 to create a more vibrant public gathering space for locals and visitors all year long.  

Festivals and Events

Ottawa is known for its Festivals and there are dozens that occur all through the year and right across the city.  Here are 3 that are worth planning for on your visit to Ottawa:

Tulip Festival

The Ottawa Tulip Festival originated when the Dutch presented a Royal gift of 100,000 tulip bulbs to Canada immediately after World War II.  The gift was a symbol of friendship and to thank Canada for its role in liberating the Netherlands.

Every year in late April and early May, more than 1,000,000 million tulips bloom in Ottawa and Gatineau.  They represent 100 varieties and can be seen all over the city.

Tulips in Ottawa

The actual festival takes place over 11 days in May and coincides with the tulips being in full bloom. 

While you will see tulips blooming everywhere in the city, the largest concentration is at Commissioners Park near Dow’s Lake.  There are 30 beds of tulips here including the Queen Julianna Bed, which features the bulbs originally donated by the Netherlands.

The tulip festival is one of the major things to do in Ottawa

Other hotspots where you can see the tulips are along the Rideau Canal, at Majors Hill Park and Confederation Square.

Winterlude

If you visit Ottawa in the winter, try and time your visit to coincide with Winterlude – Ottawa’s flagship event of the winter occurring every February.  

Winterlude is one of the most popular things to do in Ottawa

The event started in 1979 to commemorate Canada’s northern climate and culture and now attracts visitors from around the world.

Canada Day (July 1)

For the biggest celebration in Canada, come on July 1, Canada Day!

There are hundreds of thousands of people that gather here for the big event.  In fact, it is estimated that in some years as many as 1 million people have gathered here.  This is Canada’s birthday party and Parliament Hill hosts all of the main events.  

Canada festival in Ottawa

Several stages on Parliament Hill host some of Canada’s best-known artists who perform back-to-back concerts throughout the day and evening.  Best of all – it’s free!

The grand finale is at 10:00pm with the country’s biggest fireworks display.  Launched from the Ottawa River, the Parliament Buildings act as the backdrop to this spectacular event.  Tens of thousands of visitors gather on Parliament Hill, Major’s Hill Park and Wellington Street to enjoy the pyrotechnics.

Fireworks on Canada Day  in Ottawa

Things To Do In and Around Ottawa

Boat Tour

You can do a boat tour on the Ottawa River or the Rideau Canal – or both!  This is a great way to get views of the city that you can’t get while walking or driving around.

Bike Tour 

Ottawa is a biker’s paradise. There are bike paths throughout the city, along the Rideau Canal and along the Ottawa River. Be sure to consider this great small group tour for a leisurely tour around the city.

White Water Rafting 

Enjoy the thrill of rafting down a set of rapids on the Ottawa River about 1-hour northwest.  This makes a great day trip and is a popular event for visitors to the area. Check out this well rated small group tour that even includes your lunch!

Ottawa Area Hiking Tours

Just across the Ottawa River are the Gatineau Hills and there are plenty of great hiking trails in the area.  Some have the best lookouts of the Ottawa skyline that most people never get to see. Plan to go while the leaves are changing and hike with an experienced guide to lead you.

Places to Stay

There are plenty of good hotels in Ottawa, but here are the top 3 if you want to be in the heart of it all:

Fairmont Chateau Laurier

If you want a chance to meet a celebrity, then the chances are good if you spend a night or 2 at the iconic Chateau Laurier.  The hotel is located within a castle and each room is decorated individually. This is a true luxury property located in the middle of everything.

Chateau Laurier in downtown Ottawa

The Westin Ottawa 

The Westin Ottawa Hotel is located right across from the National Arts Centre and is connected to the Rideau Mall. Being located next to the Rideau Canal it has wonderful views of the city. And it has a pool, fitness centre and squash courts.

The Westin Hotel

The Lord Elgin

Another iconic hotel in Ottawa, The Lord Elgin was built at the beginning of World War II.  It welcomed one of its first guests in December 1941 – Sir Winston Churchill. You can expect elegant rooms and fine dining in its Grill 41 Restaurant Bar.

The Final Word…There Are So Many Great Things To Do In Ottawa

Ottawa is an understated yet magical city with lively streets, historic landmarks, and a warm community. There are plenty of things to do in Ottawa, no matter what time of year. 

We have found that the city’s true charm lies in its ability to surprise you; be it through a hidden coffee shop, a lively summer festival, or a peaceful stroll along the Rideau Canal.  

Whether you’re a history buff, a foodie, an art enthusiast, or an outdoor adventurer, you will want to put Ottawa on your Bucket List!

Our picture in front of the tulips in Ottawa