16 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Ottawa
Author Bryan Dearsley lives in Ontario and enjoys visiting Ottawa. He toured many of the top attractions on a recent trip in summer of 2022.
No matter what time of year you go, Ottawa is definitely one of the top places to visit in Canada for those seeking a fun-filled city holiday or short stay. Founded in 1850 and declared the country's capital in 1857 by Queen Victoria, Ottawa's broad avenues and historic buildings make it especially fun to explore on foot.
Centered around the grand old government buildings atop Parliament Hill, the city center is a great place to see some of Canada's most important cultural attractions. These include the National Arts Center, a venue for opera and concerts; the National Gallery; and other important landmarks such as the lively Byward Market.
While exploring its many parks and pleasant green spaces is fun in spring, summer, and fall, a visit in winter is also highly recommended. In addition to its popular winter festivals, the city's main waterway is transformed into the Rideau Canal Skateway, the world's longest skating rink.
To learn more about these and other fun things to do in Canada's capital, read our list of the top attractions in Ottawa, Ontario.
1. Parliament Hill and Parliament Buildings
The Parliament Buildings, in all their splendor of Victorian Gothic sandstone, are quite an imposing sight atop the 50-meter-high Parliament Hill (Colline du Parlement). They were built here in 1866, a safe distance from any potential attack by the USA (the two countries had fought previously in the three-year conflict that was the War of 1812). The views over the Ottawa River far below are simply stunning.
The Parliamentary Library, at the back of the building opposite the entrance, is a wonderfully furnished octagon-shaped structure that was untouched in the 1916 fire. You can explore the sprawling historic Centre Block on a guided tour, and the public can also attend a question period when the government is in session.
The attractive grassed area in front of the Parliament buildings is patrolled in summer by members of the Canadian Mounted Police, looking very dashing in their Mountie uniforms of scarlet jackets, Stetsons, riding breeches, and knee-length boots.
On summer mornings, the Changing of the Guard always attracts visitors with its regimental band and pipers. The ceremony begins at 10 am, but you should be there at least 15 minutes before that for a good view and to enjoy the bilingual commentary describing the event's history and significance. The Changing of the Guard and tours of Parliament are among the most popular free things to do in Ottawa.
Address: Wellington Street, Ottawa, Ontario
2. Rideau Canal National Historic Site
The 200-kilometer-long, 1.6-meter-deep Rideau Canal connects Ottawa with Kingston on Lake Ontario. Sometimes also called the Rideau Waterway, it was originally intended as a strategic route between Montréal and Lake Ontario, the military need for which was demonstrated during the war with the United States in 1812.
In summer, the canal and locks are an active waterway. Fun things to do include taking a Rideau Canal cruise aboard one of the many tour boats that ply the water here. Better still, splash out on a memorable overnight cruise on the canal.
As soon as it freezes over, though, the canal becomes a recreational area for festivals and skating. Dubbed the Rideau Canal Skateway, skating along this nearly eight-kilometer stretch of the waterway is undoubtedly one of the top things to do in Canada in winter.
Set overlooking the canal, the spectacular Fairmont Château Laurier hotel is one of the grandest old buildings in Ottawa. Though it has the air of a medieval castle, it was actually built in 1912 and is a prime example of how the big Canadian railroad companies left their mark across Canada.
3. Canadian War Museum
Located beside the Ottawa River a pleasant 20-minute walk from Parliament Hill, the strikingly modern Canadian War Museum (Musée Canadien de la Guerre) does a great job of introducing visitors to Canada's military past.
Exhibits cover everything from the fighting between the French and Iroquois people in the 16th century through the Canadian contribution to the First and Second World Wars. There are also displays relating to the role of modern peacekeepers, something Canada's troops are famous for.
US visitors will find it especially interesting to see the history of familiar historical events, such as the War of 1812, from the Canadian perspective. Some of the exhibits are interactive, and the collection of military vehicles displayed includes more than 50 tanks, jeeps, motorcycles, armored trucks, and even Hitler's limousine. A café and gift shop are located on the premises.
Address: 1 Vimy Place, Ottawa, Ontario
4. National Gallery of Canada
Ultra-modern and designed by Moshe Safdie, the National Gallery of Canada (Musée des Beaux-Arts du Canada) is an architectural masterpiece with prism-like glass towers that echo the lines of the nearby Parliament Buildings. Its glass contrasts with the mock medieval Château Laurier, yet the attraction still fits well into Ottawa's attractive cityscape.
Inside what is one of the largest art museums in North America, galleries display aboriginal art, trace the development of Canadian art from religious works to the Group of Seven, explore European Impressionism, and house temporary exhibitions. The rooms of Inuit art are on the lower level under the glass-encased Great Hall. Admission to this fine gallery is free to Indigenous Peoples.
For more sightseeing, the National Gallery is well placed near many other popular Ottawa tourist attractions, including Notre-Dame, the Canadian War Museum, and Major's Hill Park.
Address: 380 Sussex Drive, Ottawa, Ontario
5. See the Views from the Peace Tower
The panoramic view from the observation deck at the top of the Peace Tower (Tour de la Paix), the highest point in Ottawa, encompasses Parliament Hill, the entire city, the river, Gatineau, and the hills to the north. On your way up in the elevator, you will get a look at the tower's bells, and there is a memorial room to Canadians who died in WWI.
While entrance to the tower, sometimes also called the "Tower of Victory and Peace," is free, you must obtain a ticket in advance of your visit. Check the official government site for tickets, or pop in to the nearby tourist information center at 90 Wellington West for "first-come, first-served" tickets.
Access to the tower itself is from the East Block of the Parliament Buildings.
Address: Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Ontario
6. Canadian Museum of Nature
The Canadian Museum of Nature (Musée Canadien de la Nature) takes visitors through the world of the dinosaurs all the way up to today's animal population, and also features poignant temporary exhibits.
It is the national natural sciences and history museum and its historic building (once the Victoria Memorial Museum), that is the birthplace of Canada's national museums. Construction on this castle-like building was completed in 1910.
Address: 240 McLeod Street, Ottawa, Ontario
7. The National War Memorial
The National War Memorial (Monument Commémoratif de Guerre) and Canada's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is at the foot of a striking bronze sculpture of World War I soldiers emerging from a granite arch. Around the base of the statue, which is also known as "The Response," are the years of conflicts where Canadian forces have fought.
A brief, but solemn, Changing of the Guard ceremony is held here daily at hourly or half-hourly intervals, depending on the season. The monument is the center of activities on Remembrance Day, when it is traditional for people to leave poppies on the tomb.
Address: Wellington Street, Ottawa, Ontario
8. Diefenbunker: Canada's Cold War Museum
Although it's a half-hour drive from downtown Ottawa, Diefenbunker: Canada's Cold War Museum is well worth a visit. It's located in the small town of Carp in a large underground facility that was constructed in the early 1960s to protect important functions of the Canadian government in the event of a nuclear war.
It's one of several self-sufficient, shock-resistant, radiation-proof underground shelters built across Canada during the Cold War as part of Project EASE (Experimental Army Signals Establishments), and a visit here offers a fascinating insight into these turbulent times on the world stage.
Political critics coined the nickname "Diefenbunker" in reference to Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, who promoted their construction. The extensive bunker now houses a fascinating museum dedicated to the Cold War era.
Also fun, if you have the time, is their Diefenbunker Escape Room experience, purportedly the largest such attraction in the world.
Address: 3929 Carp Road, Carp, Ottawa, Ontario
9. Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica
Opposite the National Gallery, Ottowa's Notre-Dame Cathedral is a beautiful Catholic basilica consecrated in 1846. It is particularly notable for the interior mahogany carvings by Philippe Parizeau and figures of the four evangelists, prophets, and apostles by Louis-Philippe Hébert.
The stained-glass windows are particularly fine. The series of 17 windows picturing scenes from the life of Christ and the Virgin Mary were completed between 1956 and 1061, the work of Montreal artist Guido Nincheri. This historic building, begun in 1841 and completed in 1880, is the largest and oldest standing church in the nation's capital.
Be sure to pop inside for a look and to take some photos of the cathedral's other impressive interior features.
Address: 385 Sussex Drive, Ottawa, Ontario
10. Canada Aviation and Space Museum
Telling in detail the story of Canadian civil and military aviation, the Canada Aviation and Space Museum (Musée de l'Aviation et de l'Espace du Canada) is located at Rockcliffe Airport, on the northern edge of town. Although eight kilometers away, and a little too far to walk to, a visit to what is undoubtedly one of the top things to do in Ottawa for families is a must.
Among the aircraft on display are a replica of the Silver Dart, which in 1909 made the first flight in Canada. Other highlights include fighter planes from the First and Second World Wars, and some of the seaplanes and other aircraft that helped open up Canada's uncharted northern wilderness.
Address: 11 Aviation Parkway, Ottawa
11. Royal Canadian Mint
While the Royal Canadian Mint (Monnaie Royale Canadienne) no longer manufactures Canada's circulating coins, this Ottawa facility creates finely crafted medals, commemorative coins for collectors, and awards in precious metals. These include Olympic medals.
The 45-minute guided tours are fascinating, especially on weekdays when you can see the craftspeople at work. You'll also see one of three giant gold loonies (Canadian dollar coins) minted here, and get to hold a real gold ingot. Tour groups are small, so you should reserve a spot in advance.
Address: 320 Sussex Drive, Ottawa, Ontario
12. Canadian Tulip Festival
Ottawa's spring Canadian Tulip Festival marks the end of winter as the capital's tulips come into bloom all over the city.
Given by Queen Juliana of the Netherlands in gratitude for the city's hospitality during the Second World War, the best places to visit to see these incredible blooms and festivities are the banks of the Rideau Canal and Commissioner's Park in particular. Major's Hill Park, southwest of the basilica, is also aflame with thousands of tulips.
In all, several million tulips bloom in the city, with tulip attraction sites spread out on a scenic "Tulip Route." Fireworks and performances are also regular attractions.
Address: Queen Elizabeth Driveway, Ottawa, Ontario
13. Byward Market
Located in Ottawa's busy Lower Town and just a short distance north of the Rideau Canal, the Byward Market has enjoyed a colorful existence since 1846.
In summer, fruit, flower, and vegetable stalls in the streets supplement the food stores in the main market hall.
The entire area surrounding the market has been lovingly restored and now is a neighborhood filled with restaurants and smart boutiques. Feeling peckish? Favorites include Le Moulin de Provence, a French bakery serving incredible pastries and coffees, and for a full meal, the classy Luxe Steakhouse across the road.
Address: 41 York Street, 4th Floor, Ottawa, Ontario
14. Canada Science and Technology Museum
Fresh from a multimillion-dollar renovation that upgraded its exhibits and the building itself, the Canada Science and Technology Museum (Musée des sciences et de la technologie du Canada) impresses not only with its scale but its ultra-modern design.
Often referred to simply as the "CSTM," this state-of-the-art museum highlights Canada's major innovations in the fields of science and technology through fascinating displays and hands-on learning.
Highlights include its vast collection of artifacts, featuring everything from cars and trucks to airplanes and locomotives. Of special interest are a large model of the ill-fated Titanic, vintage snowmobiles, musical instruments, and household appliances made in Canada.
A café and gift shop are located on-site.
Address: Scientique, 1867 St. Laurent Boulevard, Ottawa, Ontario
15. Bank of Canada Museum
Another of the top attractions in Ottawa to recently receive a make-over, the Bank of Canada Museum is a fun diversion for those interested in history and finances. Housed in a strikingly designed building close to Parliament Hill, this museum features interactive displays and exhibits relating to the Canada's National Currency Collection.
Highlights of a visit to this top free thing to do in Ottawa include numerous examples of currency from across the globe, antique cash registers, as well as a library and archive.
Address: 30 Bank Street, Ottawa, Ontario
16. Dows Lake Pavilion
Dows Lake Pavilion is set in a beautiful location near the city's arboretum and Experimental Farm, jutting out into and overlooking the lake after which it's named.
This facility has a number of different restaurants, including an outdoor patio that is very popular in summer. The pavilion also looks out over the docks where it's possible to rent paddleboats, canoes, kayaks, or bikes.
The lake is also a popular fishing destination. In winter, you can rent skates and sleds, and the park hosts events during the Winterlude festival. In the spring, it's decorated with formal tulip displays during the Tulip Festival.
Address: 1001 Queen Elizabeth Drive, Ottawa, Ontario
Ottawa, Canada - Climate Chart
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