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14 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Ottawa

Written by Chloë Ernst and Bryan Dearsley
Nov 17, 2020

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Ottawa grew up between 1820 and 1840 from a construction base where the Rideau Canal diverged from the Ottawa River. British Colonel John By (1779-1836) was in charge of the canal project, and the town was known as "Bytown" until the name was changed to Ottawa in 1854.

The Parliament buildings were built in 1865, high above the Ottawa River, and it was here that the first Canadian Parliament met following the founding of the Dominion of Canada in 1867. Together with all the attractions in Gatineau across the Ottawa River in the province of Québec, Ottawa has developed a rich cultural life. Universities and several research institutes have all contributed to this, as have such internationally famous institutions as the National Gallery and the National Arts Center, a venue for opera and concerts.

The Rideau Canal divides Central Ottawa, and the area to the north of it is known as Lower Town, and to the south as Upper Town. Lower Town is where you'll find the National Gallery of Canada, Notre Dame Basilica, and the lively Byward Market. The fashionable Upper Town extends below Parliament Hill and includes the striking Bank of Canada building, by architect Arthur Erickson, with its plant- and fountain-filled atrium.

Busy thoroughfares are Wellington Street, Kent Street, O'Connor Street, Metcalfe Street, and Sparks Street pedestrian precinct. A string of top department stores and smart boutiques make it the destination for shopping in Ottawa.

Read our list of the top attractions in Ottawa to find out why the nation's capital is one of the best places to visit in Canada.

Note: Some businesses may be temporarily closed due to recent global health and safety issues.

1. Parliament Hill

Parliament Hill
Parliament Hill

The Parliament Buildings, in all their splendor of Victorian Gothic sandstone, are quite an imposing sight on the 50-meter-high Parliament Hill (Colline du Parlement) looking out over the Ottawa River.

The Parliamentary Library, at the back of the building opposite the entrance, is a wonderfully furnished octagon 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 boots.

On summer mornings, the Changing of the Guard always attracts visitors with its regimental band and pipers. The ceremony begins at 9:50am, but you should be there at least 15 minutes before that for a good view. 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

Official site: https://lop.parl.ca/sites/Visit/default/en_CA

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Ottawa

2. Rideau Canal

Rideau Canal
Rideau Canal

The 200-kilometer-long (but only 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 an overnight cruise of the canal!).

As soon as it freezes over, though, the canal becomes a recreational area for festivals and skating, one of the favorite things to do in Ottawa in the winter.

Château Laurier is one of the grand buildings on the canal banks. Though it has the air of a medieval castle, it was actually built in 1912 and is a prime example of how big Canadian railroad companies added grand hotels (and striking landmarks) across Canada.

3. Canadian War Museum

Canadian War Museum
Canadian War Museum

Located beside the Ottawa River, the strikingly modern Canadian war Museum (Musée Canadien de la Guerre) explores Canada's military past.

Exhibits cover everything from the fighting between 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.

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, even Hitler's limousine. A café and gift shop are located on the premises.

Address: 1 Vimy Place, Ottawa, Ontario

Official site: www.warmuseum.ca

4. National Gallery of Canada

National Gallery of Canada
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. The glass contrasts with the mock medieval Château Laurier, yet the attraction still fits well into Ottawa's 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 show 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 Thursdays from 5pm - 8pm.

For more sightseeing, the National Gallery is well placed near many other Lower Town tourist attractions, including Notre-Dame, the Canadian War Museum, and Major's Hill Park.

Address: 380 Sussex Drive, Ottawa, Ontario

Official site: www.gallery.ca

5. Peace Tower

Peace Tower
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 access to the tower - sometimes also called the "Tower of Victory and Peace" - is free, you must first get a ticket. (Check the official government site below for details.)

Address: Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Ontario

Official site: https://visit.parl.ca/sites/Visit/default/en_CA

6. Canadian Museum of Nature

Canadian Museum of Nature
Canadian Museum of Nature | Robert Linsdell / photo modified

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 the historic building (once the Victoria Memorial Museum) is the birthplace of Canada's national museums. Construction on this castle-like building was completed in 1910.

Address: 240 McLeod Street, Ottawa, Ontario

Official site: http://nature.ca/

7. National War Memorial

National War Memorial
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 here is led by a single bagpiper, and 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

Blast tunnel
Blast tunnel | Iouri Goussev / photo modified

Canada's Cold War Museum is located outside of Ottawa 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.

This was 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).

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.

Fun if you have the time is the Diefenbunker Escape Room experience, purportedly the largest such attraction in the world.

Address: 3929 Carp Road, Carp, Ottawa, Ontario

Official site: http://diefenbunker.ca/

9. Notre-Dame Cathedra Basilica

Notre-Dame Cathedra Basilica
Notre-Dame Cathedra Basilica

Opposite the National Gallery, Notre-Dame Cathedral is a beautiful Catholic basilica consecrated in 1846. It is particularly noted 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.

Address: 385 Sussex Drive, Ottawa, Ontario

Official site: www.notredameottawa.com

10. Canada Aviation and Space Museum

Canada Aviation and Space Museum
Canada Aviation and Space Museum | Dan McKay / photo modified

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.

Among the aircraft on display are a replica of the Silver Dart, which in 1909 made the first flight in Canada, 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

Official site: https://ingeniumcanada.org/casm

11. Royal Canadian Mint

Royal Canadian Mint
Royal Canadian Mint

While the Royal Canadian Mint (Monnaie royale canadienne) no longer manufactures Canada's circulating coins, the Ottawa facility creates finely crafted medals, commemorative coins for collectors, and awards in precious metals. These include Olympic medals.

The tour is 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

Official site: http://www.mint.ca

12. Canadian Tulip Festival

Canadian Tulip Festival
Canadian Tulip Festival

Ottawa's spring festival marks the end of winter as the tulips - given by Queen Juliana of the Netherlands in gratitude for the city's hospitality during the Second World War - come into bloom all over the city. Canal banks and Commissioner's Park in particular, are the scene of general festivities.

Major's Hill Park, southwest of the basilica, is 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

Official site: http://tulipfestival.ca/

13. Byward Market

Byward Market
Byward Market

Located in Ottawa's busy Lower Town, 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.

Official site: http://byward-market.com/en/home/

14. Dows Lake Pavilion

Rental canoes at Dows Lake Pavilion
Rental canoes at Dows Lake Pavilion

Dows Lake Pavilion has a beautiful location, jutting out into and overlooking the lake. 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 Dr, Ottawa, Ontario

Official site: www.dowslake.com

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