Canada’s capital is a cool city that is charming to visit at any time of the year. With an imposing French chateau in the centre of town, a vibrant all-season farmer’s market and Parliament Hill all within easy walking distance means there are plenty of things to do in Ottawa without travelling too far.
Home to the Rideau Canal, parks, gardens and inspiring architecture, Ottawa also has some of the best museums in Canada and an impressive national gallery. The city’s located at the confluence of the three rivers – Ottawa, Gatineau and Rideau – make Ottawa an outdoor playground where you can go walking, biking and boating (or go skating on the frozen Rideau Canal in winter).
- Free Things to do in Ottawa
- 1- Watch the Sound and Light Show On Parliament Hill
- 2- Take a tour of Parliament House
- 3- Wander around Byward Market
- 4- Eat a Beaver Tail
- 5- Watch the Changing of the Guard
- 6- Yoga on Parliament Hill
- 7- Gaze in wonder at the Christmas Lights
- 8- Celebrate Canada Day
- 9- Skate the Rideau Canal
- 10- Join a free Ottawa walking tour
- Things to do in Ottawa on the water
- Things to do in Ottawa – Museums
- 14- Canadian Museum of History
- 15- Canada Aviation and Space Museum
- 16- Canadian Museum of Nature
- 17- Canada’s Museum of Science and Innovation
- 18- Agriculture and Food Museum
- 19- Diefenbunker Museum
- 20- Canadian War Museum
- 21- National Gallery of Canada
- 22- Laurier House National Historic Site
- 23- Bytown Museum
- Relaxing Things to do in Ottawa
- Things to do in Ottawa with kids
- Free Things to do in Ottawa
Free Things to do in Ottawa
1- Watch the Sound and Light Show On Parliament Hill
If you’re visiting Ottawa between July and September, head to Parliament Hill to watch the multimedia presentation that tells the story of Canada projected onto Parliament’s Centre Block.
The sound and light show is on each evening at Parliament Hill for 30 minutes from early July to early September at 10 pm (July), 9.30 pm (August) and 9 pm (September).
2- Take a tour of Parliament House
Centre Block of Parliament House, home to the Peace Tower and the impressive Library of Parliament, is closed for renovations but you can tour the West Block, East Block and the Senate.
The West Block is home to the House of Commons and the tour to take to learn how the political system works in Canada.
It has a new contemporary Visitor’s Centre and a glass-roofed structure in the courtyard.
The Senate is in a beautiful Beaux-Arts building that was Ottawa’s train station in 1912 and is the place to learn about the workings of Canada’s Upper Chamber.
The building was rehabilitated to house the Senate temporarily while the Centre Block is being renovated.
The East Block explores heritage rooms, the offices of Sir John A. Macdonald (Canada’s first prime minister), the Governor-General and the Privy Council.
Free tours of Parliament House’s West Block or the Senate last between 30 and 50 minutes.
3- Wander around Byward Market
Canada’s oldest public market is a vibrant precinct packed with boutiques, cafes, restaurants and a colourful farmers market.
Ottawa’s fresh regional produce can be purchased at Byward markets, Parkdale Market and other village markets such as Cumberland, Manotick and Carleton Place.
Look for Savour Ottawa signs to determine if all the produce is locally grown and support local restaurants, such as Courtyard Restaurant (21 George Street, Byward Market) and The Green Door (198 Main Street, Ottawa), where the chefs prepare meals using fresh local produce.
Lt-Col. John By designed the plan for the market in 1826, the ByWard Market is one of Canada’s oldest and largest public markets.
There are loads of Irish Pubs and taverns, including Ottawa’s oldest tavern Chateau Lafayette, which was established in 1849.
Another landmark is Notre Dame Basilica, which is Ottawa’s oldest (1885) and largest church.
ByWard Market is open every day of the year except Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
4- Eat a Beaver Tail
Visiting a BeaverTail store and sinking your teeth into one of these delicious Canadian pastries is one of the things to do in Canada to tick off your list.
Although BeaverTail stores can be found across Canada and the USA, the first city stores in Canada opened in Ottawa’s ByWard Market and Rideau Canal.
You might have to line up for your hot, crispy, chewy treat (although it’s not free, it only costs a few dollars) but it’s worth the wait.
Even President Obama tried one when he visited Ottawa in 2009.
BeaverTails come with a range of toppings but the most popular is the traditional cinnamon sugar version.
BeaverTails is at 69 George St, Ottawa.
5- Watch the Changing of the Guard
Watching the Changing of the Guard ceremony is another free thing to do in Ottawa in summer.
The ceremonial event is based on a similar one in London, where smartly dressed guards in scarlet uniforms and bearskin hats march to the beat of the military band.
The Changing of the Guard is at 10 am daily running from late June to late August.
6- Yoga on Parliament Hill
Even if you’re not into yoga, doing the “downward dog” in front of Canada’s Parliament House would have to be an experience to tick off your Ottawa things-to-do list.
If you’re lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of Justin Trudeau as Canada’s dishy Prime Minister has been known to join the lunchtime yoga crowd.
Free yoga classes (BYO mat and water bottle) are held on Wednesdays (12.15 pm to 1.15 pm) from May to August.
7- Gaze in wonder at the Christmas Lights
Rug up and get into the Christmas spirit from early December to early January as Ottawa becomes a twinkling fairyland of lights.
Watch the winter lightscapes multimedia show at Parliament Hill, eat Beaver Tails and drink hot chocolate.
The winter lightscapes show is a 13-minute show that runs every night from 5 December to 7 January 7 2019 (5.30 pm to 11 pm) at Parliament Hill
8- Celebrate Canada Day
Ottawa is a fun party city in Canada at any time of the year.
A special day of the year to visit Ottawa is on Canada Day (1 July), when streets become pedestrian malls and places around the city come alive with bands and entertainers.
Top spots to head for are Parliament Hill, Major’s Hill Park and the Canadian Museum of History.
Canada Day events start at 8 am and run all day long ending with a spectacular display of fireworks at 10 pm on 1 July launched near the National Gallery of Canada.
Canada Day in Ottawa is a free two-day celebration on 30 June and 1 July.
9- Skate the Rideau Canal
Built as a reaction to the War of 1812, the Rideau Canal was a challenge to construct and was Ontario’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In winter, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is the world’s largest skating rink.
Join the throngs of locals skating to work at the picturesque Fairmont Château Laurier and skate to Carleton University via Dow’s Lake.
Take your time and stop along the way for hot chocolate and to fuel up on BeaverTails, a delicious Canadian pastry
Visit during Winterlude, our winter festival, to see international ice carving competitions, live music, and special children’s events.
10- Join a free Ottawa walking tour
Looking for a local’s perspective?
Join a free walking tour (make sure to tip the guide) to discover the city’s hotspots with local company Ottawa Free Tours.
The company offers day tours starting at the National War Memorial and night tours as well.
Here are some of the best things to do in Canada:
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- 20 Things To Do In Whistler in Winter
- 7 Things To Do In Gananoque
- 30 Things To Do In Niagara Falls
- 20 Things To Do In Niagara On The Lake
- 30 Things To Do In Ottawa
- 25 Things To Do In Calgary
- 20 Things To Do In Winnipeg
- 20 Things To Do In Montreal
- 35 Things To Do In British Columbia
- 8 Things To Do In Penticton
- 10 Things To Do In Kelowna
- 11 Things To Do On Vancouver Island
- 22 Things To Do In Quebec In Winter
- 25 Things To Do In Yukon
- 20 Things To Do In Whitehorse
- 17 Things To Do In Yellowknife
- 20 Things To Do In Nova Scotia
- 5 Things To Do In Peggy’s Cove
- 11 Things To Do In Fredericton
Things to do in Ottawa on the water
11- Cruise the Ottawa River
Put your feet up and see Ottawa’s main sights as you float along the Ottawa River.
A river cruise is a perfect way to orient yourself when you first arrive in Ottawa.
It’s also a nice way to rest your feet while seeing the city’s sights.
Being on the river will give you a different perspective of the city and an opportunity to see many of Ottawa’s landmarks including a fabulous view of the Parliament, Supreme Court of Canada and the Prime Minister’s House.
You can buy tickets for a 90-minute boat cruise at the blue kiosks beside the Fairmont or if you don’t want to wait in line buy your tickets online here.
12- Cruise the Rideau Canal
In summer, cruising along the Rideau Canal from Ottawa to Kingston is a pleasurable way to spend a few days.
There’s 202km (125 miles) of waterways with 24 lock stations and 47 locks. 19km of the waterway is manmade.
Many of the locks are operated by hand using cast iron winches as they used to in the 19th century and you can stop at the Parks Canada Lock station to discover how it all works.
Cruising the Rideau canal in a houseboat is a relaxing experience.
Active travellers might want to try canoeing or kayaking along the canal as there are campsites and country inns to stay at along the way.
The Rideau Canal is open between mid-May to mid-October. Book a cruise here.
13- Go Whitewater Rafting
The Ottawa River id the boundary between Ontario and Québec, with tranquil stretches as well as fast-flowing sections.
For a splash of adventure, grab a lifejacket and helmet and go on an exciting whitewater rafting experience where you can learn to ride the currents, go cliff jumping and swimming.
Several companies offer adventure tours on the Ottawa River, with a range of options from gentle rapids suitable for families to multi-day camping and rafting adventures to guiding your own raft.
Things to do in Ottawa – Museums
Many museums in Ottawa offer free admission on Thursdays between 5 pm and 8 pm but you’re likely to want to spend more time in a few of these museums.
The Museums Passport allows you access to your choice of three museums, including the National Gallery, over three consecutive days for CAD $35.
14- Canadian Museum of History
Put aside an entire day (or at least half a day) to explore the Canadian Museum of History, where you will find everything you need to know about Canada’s intriguing past.
As the museum has a diversity of collections, it’s a good idea to start off by taking a guided tour ($3) to hit the highlights.
There’s a revolving programme of exhibitions but the main staple everyone should visit is the Canadian History Hall.
The Canadian History Hall is a walk through 15,000 years of history presented in an interesting and easy-to-digest format through displays of personal items, audio and visual presentations.
From the Vikings to the Basque whalers from Spain and the French occupation to how English-speaking immigration changed the course of history for colonial Canada, you’ll learn everything you need to know about Canadian history.
In the middle of the floor is a Ukrainian chapel that served the rural community of Barich in Alberta. St. Onuphrius Ukrainian Catholic Church was dismantled and reconstructed as a living church in the museum.
The First Nations Gallery on the ground floor has the largest indoor collection of totem poles in the world.
Canadian Museum of History is at100 Laurier Street, Gatineau. Admission is $20 (adult), $12 (age 3 to 12).
15- Canada Aviation and Space Museum
Aircraft enthusiasts will love the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, which has an impressive collection of 130 aircraft as well as engines and propellers.
Aircraft on display include the de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver (one of the top 10 Canadian engineering achievements of the 20th century). 1909 Silver Dart that flew the first powered flight in Canada and the Canadian Mk X Lancaster bomber built in 1943.
The difference between this museum and other aviation museums is there are hands-on displays available to the public.
Students from Algonquin College work at the museum to develop games, which the public is invited to do beta testing.
As Canada was the third country to get satellites up in space, make sure you see the 3D-printed model of Alouette-1, Canada’s first space satellite and the original flight suit worn by Canadian astronaut Marc Garneau.
Canada Aviation and Space Museum is at 11 Aviation Pkwy, Ottawa.
16- Canadian Museum of Nature
This is an excellent museum to visit if you’re interested in the natural world and visiting this museum should be high on your list of things to do in Ottawa with kids.
The handsome heritage building has wings on four floors packed with museum exhibits like dinosaurs, polar bears, birds and other creatures.
If you’ve seen the movie “Night At The Museum”, this is the closest museum in Ottawa to the one in the movie.
Canadian Museum of Nature is at 240 McLeod St, Ottawa.
17- Canada’s Museum of Science and Innovation
Canada’s Museum of Science and Innovation is another excellent museum with plenty of things to do in Ottawa for kids and items that will inspire multigenerational discussions.
It’s an ideas place that bridges the past and the future by delving into the past to trigger ideas for the future.
While there’s plenty to see and do at this Ottawa museum, if you’re short of time don’t miss the transport section, which has an impressive collection of bicycles dating back to the 1870s and four locomotives (the oldest dates back to 1911).
The Crazy Kitchen with its sloping floor is an optical illusion that confuses the brain as you walk through it.
Discover the history of sound in the Sound Gallery and walk into the Quiet Chamber to listen to the sound of silence.
From postwar home displays to wearable technology, the changing lifestyles in Canada are highlighted here.
More at ingeniumcanada.org
18- Agriculture and Food Museum
What makes the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum unique is it’s both a museum and a working farm located in a capital city.
pA visit to this museum allows you to see a variety of farm animals, including sheep, cattle, pigs, horses and goats, as well as a diversity of breeds including Holstein and Shorthorn dairy cows, Angus beef cattle and Tamworth pigs.
Learn about all things related to agriculture in Canada, past, present and future through exhibitions and talks.
Educational activities range from demonstrations on cooking, baking and milking to talks about artificial insemination.
Canada’s Agriculture and Food Museum is at 901 Prince of Wales Dr, Ottawa. The museum is open every day from 9 am to 5 pm, closed on Mondays and Tuesdays between 1 November and 28 February.
19- Diefenbunker Museum
One of the cool things to do in Ottawa is to visit the four-storey underground nuclear bunker in the village of Carp, which is part of the amalgamated City of Ottawa.
In 2001 many villages and Ottawa Valley towns were absorbed into the City of Ottawa, becoming part of the capital.
The Diefenbunker was built in 1959 when John Diefenbaker was the Prime Minister of Canada.
The purpose of the bunker was to have a safe place where important members of the Canadian government and military would be safe, in the event of a nuclear attack.
Now a National Historic Site with exhibitions and events, Diefenbunker has a fun kids Spy Camp where junior spies are trained to break codes, master disguises and uncover moles.
Carp is also known for the Carp Fair (September) when the fairground bursts into life with music performances, carnival events, horse shows, dog competitions and rodeo activities.
Diefenbunker Museum is at 3929 Carp Rd, Carp.
20- Canadian War Museum
Learn the rich military history through personal stories and by looking at a vast number of objects, artworks and photos on display at the Canadian War Museum.
Highlights include the World War II gallery, which has WWII tanks and one of Hitler’s Mercedes cars on display.
A wondrous time to visit is on 11 November at 11 am, when the sunlight frames the tombstone of the Unknown Soldier in the Memorial Hall.
Canadian War Museum is at 1 Vimy Pl, Ottawa.
21- National Gallery of Canada
Located within the ByWard Market precinct is Canada’s impressive National Gallery, where you can spend hours exploring Canadian, American, Europea and Asian art.
Head for the Canadian Gallery for artworks from the New France era during the 18th century, works by pioneering women artists such as Emily Carr and abstract paintings by groups of artists.
Famous Canadian artist groups include the Automatistes in Montreal, Painters Eleven in Toronto and Regina Five in Saskatchewan.
Also, check out the Indigenous Galleries and the Canadian Photography Institute.
National Gallery of Canada is at 380 Sussex Drive, Ottawa. It’s open from 10 am to 6 pm (1 May to 30 September) and 10 am to 5 pm (1 October to 30 April) every day except Thursdays (10 am to 8 pm). Admission is $16 (adult), 24 years ($8), children under 11 (free).
22- Laurier House National Historic Site
Ottawa’s Laurier House National Historic Site was home to two Canadian prime ministers: Sir Wilfrid Laurier (Canada’s first French Canadian prime minister) and William Lyon Mackenzie King (Canada’s longest-serving prime minister) who served for 22 years.
Take a “behind-the-scenes white-glove-tour” where visitors don gloves and inspect artifacts that aren’t on display, such as antique crystal wine glasses with exquisite gold leaf decorations.
Laurier House National Historic Site is at 335 Laurier Ave E, Ottawa.
23- Bytown Museum
Bytown Museum has an intriguing collection of eclectic items, such as a plaster-cast death hand of murdered Father of Confederation, Thomas D’Arcy McGee.
Housed in Ottawa’s oldest stone building, the museum takes you on a deep delve of Bytown (Ottawa’s first name), which was a rowdy place where Irish, French, Scots and English engaged in brawls.
Relaxing Things to do in Ottawa
24- Nordik Spa
North America’s largest spa happens to be located in the village of Old Chelsea in the Outaouais.
Nordik Spa-Nature is just across the Ontario/Quebec border on the outskirts of Gatineau Park.
This Scandinavian-style thermotherapy healing centre is in a lovely natural setting with eight saunas, several pools that have varying temperatures, waterfalls and steam baths.
When you’re not soaking in the healing waters, there are tranquil seating zones both indoors and outdoors as well as fireplaces to warm you up when the weather is cool.
Book a massage or the Källa treatment involves floating in a large underground magnesium saltwater pool.
25- Visit Montebello
The quaint village of Montebello is a relaxing place for a leisurely wander, stopping to taste chocolate or to browse in a boutique.
Besides the village, the drawcard is a stay in the world’s largest log cabin, Fairmont Le Château Montebello.
Montebello was also where Louis-Joseph-Papineau, seigneur of the Petite-Nation built his manor in 1846.
Things to do in Ottawa with kids
While many of the museums above have family-friendly displays, events and activities perfect when you’re exploring Ottawa with kids, there are also lots of other things to do in Ottawa with kids.
26- Go on a self-guided cycling adventure
More than 800 kilometres (497 miles) of recreational pathways that link parks, gardens and national historic sites make Ottawa a fantastic city to cycle around.
Bike rental is available in the city and Ottawa’s pathways are scenic and easy to navigate.
There’s an easy-to-follow sightseeing route that takes you to many of Ottawa’s main attractions by bicycle, including the Rideau Canal, Parliament Hill, Fairmont Château Laurier, National Gallery of Canada and over to the museums in Gatineau.
Cycling is an Ottawa activity the whole family can enjoy and if you have young children, the Rideau Canal bike trail is flat and an easy route for families.
27- Meet a Canadian Mountie at RCMP
Another of Ottawa attractions are Canada’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who are an eye-catching sight dressed in smart scarlet uniforms.
Mounted on black steeds, they are particularly famous for their Musical Ride, a choreographed dance on horseback that you can see at the RCMP Musical Ride Centre and museum.
28- Take a horse-drawn wagon ride
Another of the fun things to do in Ottawa with kids are the horse-drawn wagon rides.
John Cundell operates the last livery stable in Ottawa.
His patient Belgian horses transport you by carriage or wagon through Lowertown – the earliest neighbourhood in the capital– or chic New Edinburgh and tony Rockcliffe.
All the while, John spins tales of when his grandfather imported horses from Canada’s prairies, via train, and herded them downtown, past Parliament Hill, to his stables in Lowertown.
29- Visit Vanier sugar shack
While there are lots of maple sugar shacks in Ottawa, the most convenient is Vanier Sugar Shack in Vanier’s Museopark.
Located in downtown Ottawa, not far from Parliament Hill, you can dance to old-fashioned traditional French Canadian music and taste tire sur neige (taffy on snow), where maple syrup is poured on fresh snow then rolled onto a popsicle stick.
There’s also a museum that delves into the history of the First Nations people, French Explorers and fur traders.
Maple syrup season runs between February and April.
Vanie Museopark is 300 Pères-Blancs Ave, Vanier, Ottawa. The sugar shack is open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays from 9 am until 2 pm (no reservation required). Group bookings are available from Tuesday to Friday.
30- Have fun at an Ottawa festival
Have a capital time at Ottawa’s festivals.
- Celebrate all things Greek at Ottawa Greek Festival (August)
- You’ll be amused by the Ottawa International Animation Festival (September)
- Tantalize your taste buds during the Ottawa Wine & Food Festival.(November)
- Tulips bloom along the canal for the Canadian Tulip Festival (May)
- Gatineau’s Hot Air Balloon Festival is the perfect time to float over the two cities for a bird’s-eye view (August/September)