Regardless of the season, you’ll find a warm welcome and lots of things to do in Ottawa, Canada’s capital. That’s particularly true when you step off the regular tourist path, and experience lesser-known but very special happenings and destinations.
So, let me guide you! I’ve lived in Ottawa and National Capital Region since the mid-seventies, and have authored books and countless articles about the city.
It’s a pleasure to share my insider’s perspective on the best things to do in Ottawa, where I encourage you to explore Ottawa beyond the usual tour of Parliament Hill, boat cruise down the Rideau Canal, and shopping in Westboro Village. Here are some top things to do in Ottawa.
Orient yourself! Ascend the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill to gain a lofty 360° view of Ottawa and its twin city, Gatineau (on the northern, Quebec side of the Ottawa River).
Gazing down upon Ottawa from the Peace Tower’s 92.2 metre height allows a terrific orientation to Gatineau Park’s forested hills to the north, and the confluence of the three rivers – Ottawa, Gatineau and Rideau – which make Ottawa an out-doorsy playground.
From here, too, spy the National Gallery of Canada (east), Canadian War Museum (west) and the 203.5 square kilometre crescent of green parklands, the Greenbelt, for which the city is justifiably famous.
Other lofty views? Visit the Canada Aviation and Space Museum and hop on a helicopter or a 1939 open-cockpit biplane ride to win great views.
Meanwhile, during Gatineau’s Hot Air Balloon Festival, float over the twin cities to get a silent, magical view of lakes, rivers, forests – and urban landscape.
Ottawa is home to some truly funky, lesser-known museums and national historic sites.
Canada’s scarlet-uniformed Royal Canadian Mounted Police are world-renowned.
Mounted on their jet-black steeds, they are particularly famous for their Musical Ride – aka choreographed dance on horseback.
Few, however, realise that the RCMP Musical Ride Centre and museum are located at Ottawa’s RCMP stables.
Visit the equine athletes, pet them in their stalls, and time your visit to watch horses and riders practice the Musical Ride.
Canada is famous for its national historic sites, of which Parks Canada manages 167 (not to mention 44 national parks and 4 marine conservation areas).
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 (with 22 years in office, our longest-serving prime minister).
What’s totally new? A “behind-the-scenes white-glove-tour” where visitors don gloves and inspect artifacts which aren’t on display.
I was fascinated by a narwhal-tusk walking stick in King’s bedroom, and after donning gloves, handled an exquisite crystal wine glass with gold leaf and inset, blue-glass decorations.
Bytown Museum intrigues because of its eclectic collection (including a plaster-cast death hand of murdered Father of Confederation, Thomas D’Arcy McGee…).
This museum’s frank exposition of Bytown (Ottawa’s first name) as a rough-and-tumble place where Irish, French, Scots and English engaged in brawls as well as hard work offers a realistic take on our past.
Who doesn’t love a four-storey underground nuclear bunker? In the village of Carp (part of the amalgamated City of Ottawa) visit the Diefenbunker.
Take your kids to Spy Camp, watch movies (who wouldn’t want to watch Peter Seller’s Dr. Strangelove here?), or simply take the tour to step back into 1950-1960’s Cold War concerns. This is definitely one of the more unique things to do in Ottawa.
4-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. (113 York Street; 613-241-8054)
5-Greenbelt parkland trails
On foot, by bike, snowshoes or cross-country (Nordik) skis. Find artist John Ceprano’s balanced rock sculptures at Remic Rapids literally in the Ottawa River.
Want a longer bike ride? Greenbelt trails connect to the Trans-Canada Trail, as well as Mer Bleu, a rare RAMSAR-designated, protected wetland.
6-Skate the Rideau Canal
Come wintertime, this UNESCO World Heritage Site transforms to the world’s largest skating rink – indeed, many locals skate to work, just like I did when I lived there!
From the north, skate from the Fairmont Château Laurier (the capital’s picturesque “castle”) all 7.8 kilometres to Carleton University via Dow’s Lake.
En route, get cosy in the changing sheds, and sample hot chocolate and scrumptious BeaverTails (pastries).
Visit during Winterlude, our winter festival, to see international ice carving competitions, live music, and special children’s events.
Come summertime? Boat Rideau Canal’s entire 202 kilometres ending in Kingston. For canoeists, this is a real treat because you can stay at country inns, B&Bs and campsites as you paddle.
Visit the only operating urban sugar bush in North America at Vanier’s Sugar Bush and kick up your heels with old-fashioned traditional French Canadian music.
Tip? Trytire sur neige (taffy on snow) where maple syrup is poured on fresh snow, then rolled onto a popsicle stick: enjoy this delicious natural “lollypop”!
There are many maple sugar shacks in Ottawa. Try Fulton’s: it’s been in the family for 5 generations and 160 years! Here find a museum, large restaurant, horses and wagon rides, gift shop and much more.
8-Explore our rural roots
In 2001 many rural villages were amalgamated into the City of Ottawa, so today many Ottawa Valley towns are part of the capital.
The result? Many farms are in the city, lending the capital a distinctive country flair. Carp is not only home to the Diefenbunker, but also to “the best little fair in Canada.”
Fairgrounds burst into life with six-horse teams pulling wagons through to a large midway, music shows, plus SuperDogs event where athletic canines negotiate obstacle courses.
Notable, too, is Ottawa’s fresh regional produce which can be purchased at many farmers’ markets. Parkdale and Byward markets are downtown; however, villages such as Cumberland, Manotick, and Carleton Place have thriving farmers’ markets, too.
Tip? Look for Savour Ottawa signs which identify local farmers’ booths where all produce is locally grown.
Second insider’s tip? Foodies will want to support local restaurants such as Absinthe and Green Door, whose chefs incorporate Savour Ottawa producers’ freshest of fresh local fare.
Early settlers looked for waterfalls to power grist, saw, woollen and other mills and thereby establish prosperous villages.
In downtown, visit a former grist mill transformed to craft beer brewery and restaurant, the Mill Street Brew Pub. Then venture into pretty mill towns such as Almonte and Manotick.
In Almonte, the Mississippi Valley Textile Museum preserves the spirit of the past, located in the 1840 Rosamond Woolen Mill.
In Manotick, Watson’s Mill is an 1860s grist and flour mill located on the Rideau River.
Have a capital time at Ottawa’s festivals. Beyond the ordinary, celebrate new music at the Arboretum Music Festival; tantalize your taste buds during the Ottawa Wine & Food Festival; be amused by the Ottawa International Animation Festival; celebrate Agamemnon to Alexander the Great – not to mention modern Greece – at Ottawa Greek Fest!
Ottawa is a hip town boasting a spectacular natural setting – check it out for yourself!
For something a bit different, check out these Ontario islands.