Ottawa, for me, was such a pleasant surprise. A 4.5-hour drive from Toronto, Canada’s capital city isn’t the boring urban centre as I thought it would be. It’s walkable and picturesque, with the Parliament Buildings dominating the city skyline. It took me on a journey through Canadian history as I admired gothic architecture and world-class art.
But the city offers much more.
I covered a lot of ground during my visit so I have some suggestions to share. Here are 12 things to do in Ottawa over a weekend:
1. Take a Guided Tour of the Canadian Parliament Buildings
The guided tour offered at the Parliament Buildings is a valuable history lesson in Canadian politics. If you’re Canadian, this should be a must (it’s free, so no excuses!).
Overlooking the Ottawa River, Parliament Hill consists of three buildings: the East, West and Centre Blocks. It’s the seat of the Canadian federal government where policies are vigorously debated, bills are introduced and new laws are passed.
The tour also showcases outstanding Gothic Revival architecture. The structures were built between 1859 to 1927, complete with spires, soaring columns, pointed arches, stained-glass windows and impeccably carved stone. The details are impressive.
The Centre Block
Most tours take place inside the Centre Block where all the political action takes place.
Visitors can also take a peek inside the Library of Parliament. Clearly, it’s known as “The Most Beautiful Room in Canada” for a reason.
The Memorial Chamber commemorates Canadians who served our country and never made it home.
And above it, the 92-metre Peace Tower offers this view.
Don’t want to climb the tower? Fret not — use the elevator instead.
The East and West Blocks
Tours of the East Block, which houses the offices of senators and their staff, are available between July and early September only. It was also once the office of Sir John A. MacDonald, the first Prime Minister of Canada.
The West Block is currently closed for renovations.
Tips for Visiting the Parliament Buildings:
- Guided tours of the Centre Block run daily, every half hour.
- Tickets are free and must be obtained from an office across the street at 90 Wellington St. on the south side of the Parliament Buildings. I recommend arriving 20-30 min. before the office opens (there will already be a line-up) as there are a limited number of tickets for each tour. The tickets are distributed on a first-come-first-serve basis. If you need to kill time before your tour, take a stroll along Sparks St., located just behind the office (see below).
- Large bags (including standard-sized backpacks) and tripods are not allowed inside the Centre Block so check them in upstairs where you obtained your ticket.
- Arrive at the Centre Block 15-20 min. before your tour begins to give yourself time to pass through security. Expect an airport-like screening process.
- Photography is permitted but not of Constables and Parliamentarians.
- Shooting video is forbidden inside the building.
- Starting September 2018, the Centre Block will undergo significant renovations that will last 10 years, so don’t wait to visit! During the transformation, the House of Commons will be relocated to the West Block and the Senate to the Government Conference Centre down the street. Free tours will be offered for both.
- Visit Parliament Hill’s official page here to plan your visit.
2. Stroll Sparks Street
Visit Sparks Street before or after a tour of the Parliament Buildings (they’re a mere block apart) for shopping, eating and to spot journalists reporting on national politics. The location of many festivals like RibFest, PoutineFest and the Busker Festival, this pedestrian-only heritage street extends from Elgin to Lyon St.
Tip for Visiting Sparks Street:
Go during the week or during a festival. Not much is open on weekends.
3. Explore ByWard Market
ByWard Market is an area that includes one of the oldest and largest farmers’ markets in Canada, and the neighbourhoods surrounding it.
Outside, vendors sell everything from knitted crafts to fruits and vegetables every day except Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
The ByWard Market Square building is where you can check out artisans and food vendors indoors like Corazon de Mais for Mexican eats and Curry in a Hurry for Indian food.
Look for the charming cobblestoned courtyards too for restaurant patios and public art — they’re tucked behind the Sussex Dr. shops.
Unique retailers also call ByWard Market home, as well as some of the city’s best cafes, bistros, clubs and restaurants. It’s entertainment central so if you’re looking for nightlife, this is the place to be.
4. Try a BeaverTail
The beaver — a brown, furry rodent with a broad, flat tail — is one of our national symbols with a centuries-old history. I love seeing the reaction of visitors to Canada whenever I suggest they taste a BeaverTail. I’ll set the record straight though: we do not hack their tails off for our tastebud pleasure.
BeaverTails are, in fact, donuts that resemble the tails of our furry friends in shape only. Hand-stretched and deep-fried, this flat, doughy pastry is an irresistible, sweet Canadian treat served with a variety of toppings like sugar, bananas or Nutella.
Where do you find them? At ByWard Market, head to the BeaverTails kiosk at the corner of George St. and William St. (you can’t miss it).
My personal favourite is the Killaloe Sunrise, a tail sprinkled with cinnamon, sugar and drizzled with lemon juice.
But wait… what’s this? A pumpkin pie BeaverTail topped with cinnamon sugar, pumpkin puree and whipped cream? Drool.
This is a seasonal item so if you visit Ottawa during the fall, sink your teeth into this!
5. Step into Notre-Dame Cathedral
Elaborate houses of worship like this are a rarity in Canada so it’s worth a visit. Dating back to 1841, Notre-Dame Cathedral is the largest and oldest church in the city and the head church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Ottawa.
The cathedral’s interior is a splendid example of medieval religious art, complete with vaulted ceilings, Gothic arches, wood carvings, stained-glass windows and detailed paintings.
6. Visit the National Gallery of Canada
There are so many reasons to spend an afternoon at the National Gallery of Canada, a fine art museum that houses the country’s most renowned collection of Canadian and European art.
It’s just across the street from Notre-Dame Cathedral and impossible to miss. Famous architect Moshe Safdie designed the spectacular glass and granite structure where visitors are greeted by Louis Bourgeois’ giant spider sculpture, Maman.
Inside the gallery, a colonnade leads you to the Great Hall where you can catch a glimpse of the Parliament Buildings, Ottawa River and Quebec’s Gatineau Hills through the soaring glass windows.
From there, you’ll gain access to the almost 40,000 works of art and the largest collection of Canadian art in the world, some as old as 5000 years. On display in the newly transformed Canadian and Indigenous Galleries are the rich cultural influences that have shaped our country, from Inuit sculptures to paintings by the Group of Seven.
The National Gallery of Canada is a national cultural treasure and the most impressive art gallery in the country.
7. Walk Up to Nepean Point
Just behind the National Gallery of Canada is Nepean Point, one of the best vantage points for postcard-worthy photos opps. It’s a short uphill walk to the top where a statue of French explorer, Samuel de Champlain, stands. From there you’ll get an unobstructed, panoramic view of the Ottawa River with Quebec on one side and downtown Ottawa on the other.
Tips for Visiting Nepean Point:
- For the best photos, head to Nepean Point in the late afternoon when the sun directly hits the Parliament Buildings. In the morning, the sun is behind them so you’ll lose the buildings’ details to the shadows.
- A telephoto lens will come in handy here.
8. Bliss Out at Nordik Spa-Nature
Cross the provincial border from Ontario to Quebec and you’ll find Nordik Spa-Nature, the largest spa in North America. This epic R&R retreat is a mere 15-drive from downtown Ottawa in Chelsea at the entrance to Gatineau Park. Based on the ancient Nordic practice of thermotherapy (cycling between hot and cold temperatures), guests can detoxify and re-energize in the 10 baths, seven saunas, two steam rooms and an infinity pool. Nordik Spa-Nature also offers visitors the Källa Pool, one of two of its kind in the world. This saltwater floating pool is dug 5 metres into the rock and contains 10 tonnes of Epsom salt.
There are also massage rooms, a lounge and bistro so a visit to Nordik Spa-Nature can easily be an all-day affair that will leave you rejuvenated and more balanced.
To find out more about this epic spa, read this post.
9. Get a History Lesson at the Canadian War Museum
If you didn’t learn enough about Canada’s past at the Parliament Buildings, then make your way west to the Canadian War Museum for a history of warfare through a Canadian lens. It includes exhibits on the conflicts between the country’s Indigenous peoples, right up to our involvement in international wars from the Cold War to Afghanistan. You may also be surprised to learn that United Nations peacekeeping missions have its origins in Canada’s significant role in the 1956 Suez Crisis.
The Canadian War Museum isn’t just any war museum. It’s an energy-efficient building. It displays not only artifacts like artillery and tanks, but a large, impressive collection of life-sized war art.
It focuses on the human experience of armed conflict, taking visitors on a journey from one Canadian story to another.
Tip for Visiting the Canadian War Museum:
Don’t forget to explore the Royal Canadian Legion Hall of Honour, a gallery that highlights the history of remembering and honouring our country’s service men and women.
10. Pay Your Respects at the National Holocaust Monument
From the Canadian War Museum, cross the street to reach the open-air National Holocaust Monument. Built as a memorial for the mostly Jewish lives lost to the Nazi regime, the monument also pays tribute to survivors of the Holocaust and their contributions to Canada.
It’s a powerful site rich in symbolism. The shape of the monument is the Star of David when seen from above. The concrete walls slanting in different directions give the feeling of coldness and isolation. From the gathering space, the Stair of Hope offers a view of, and leads to, the Peace Tower.
11. Attend the Remembrance Day Ceremony
Planning a visit to Ottawa in November? Consider attending the National Ceremony of Remembrance which takes place every November 11th at Confederation Square’s National War Monument to honour the country’s fallen. This event is especially important and moving for Canadian visitors.
The National War Memorial draws large crowds: members of the military and their families, civilians, men and women, young and old. Government dignitaries, including the Prime Minister and Governor General, lay wreaths during the solemn ceremony as they pay their respects.
Tip for Attending the Remembrance Day Ceremony:
Arrive early to claim your spot on the sidelines of the parade and wear warm clothing, including well insulated boots (I didn’t think they were necessary but my toes were frozen after an hour of standing still outside).
12. Score a Room With a View
Thanks to city regulations, developers in Ottawa are forbidden from building downtown structures taller than the Peace Tower. This means visitors win! A number of hotels in Ottawa offer fabulous views of Parliament Hill, including The Westin and landmark Fairmont Chateau Laurier.
At the Andaz Ottawa ByWard Market, one of the city’s newest properties, you can request a west-facing room on a high floor and wake up to this panorama each morning:
And witness dazzling sunsets like this:
Also impressive are the hotel’s minimalist design, clean lines and copper tones.
Its location is convenient too, right in the heart of ByWard Market and walking distance to most of the city’s major attractions.
Tip for the Andaz Ottawa ByWard Market:
If you can’t spend the night, at least hit up the hotel’s indoor/outdoor rooftop lounge, Copper Spirits and Sights, to watch the sunset with a cocktail in hand.
Click here to search other Ottawa hotels on Booking.com.
What have I missed? If you have other suggestions for compelling things to do in Ottawa, let me know in the comments below!
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Disclosures: I visited Ottawa with the assistance of Ottawa Tourism. Rest assured, however, all views expressed in this post are my own. I also earn a small commission from Booking.com if you click on one of their links and make a hotel reservation through their site – at no cost to you. Thanks for your support!