A visit to Canada isn’t complete without a stop in the capital city, Ottawa. Although many people assume the capital city is Toronto, Ottawa has held the title since 1857. It began as a militaristic hub but has grown into the cultural centre many Canadians have come to love and we have listed the best things to do in Ottawa to get your adventure started.
Before you visit Ottawa, you may hear some people call it “the place fun goes to die”. But I’m about to show you that’s not the case! By the end of this post, you’ll be booking a ticket to Ottawa to enjoy the thrills of the city.
What is the best time of year to go to Ottawa?
Canada is best known as the coldest country on earth – even though that is not remotely true. Let’s get some myths out of the way: we do not live in igloos, do not ride moose to school, and many of us have never seen a polar bear in the wild.
If you’re worried about the cold, definitely don’t visit Ottawa in the winter. Temperatures are about 5 degrees C colder than Toronto, with February and March regularly dipping below -20C (-4F). However, visiting in winter will let you explore some of the fantastic snowy things to do in Ottawa – including skating on the world’s longest outdoor skating rink.
The great thing about Ottawa is that literally, any season is exceptional.
In spring, Ottawa is home to the world’s largest tulip festival. Across the city, tulips spring up, creating a mosaic of reds and pinks everywhere you look.
In summer, the warm temperatures make hiking a fantastic activity, where you can even try to spot beavers in the wild!
In autumn, the leaves around the city paint the skyline a marble of reds and oranges. Pair that view with a fantastic food tour, and you’ll be in love with the city in no time!
How many days should you spend in Ottawa?
I recommend spending at least three full days in Ottawa. It’s perfect for a long weekend. However, if you want to get the most of the city, come back at different seasons to experience a long weekend in the different temperatures with many other fun things to do in Ottawa.
Here Are Our Picks for the Best Things to Do in Ottawa:
1) Parliament Tour
An essential every Ontario child did during school was a tour of Parliament or Parliament Hill. This is the area where Canada’s Parliament sits. It’s one of the most ornate buildings in the country, with a hint at our 150+ year history with its classic architecture. Stop by for a free tour and see the eternal flame burning bright in front of the famous clock tower.
The tours aren’t the most exciting thing. You won’t be seeing Justin Trudeau – as Parliamentary meetings are held nearby during renovations of the building’s exterior. But you will get to learn more about Canada’s government. Plus, the building is stunning! You may not care what your tour guide says because you’ll be so busy admiring the historic wood embellishments.
2) Ghost Tour
Ottawa is notoriously known for being haunted. With its military history and being one of the primary settlements of historic Canada, there have been a lot of deaths here. That makes it the perfect spot for anyone looking for a haunted experience!
There are two ways to experience the spookiness of the city: by staying overnight in the Ottawa Jail Hostel and taking a ghost tour at night.
The Jail Hostel is not for the faint of heart. This hostel was literally a jail, where you’ll be sleeping in an old cell and almost guaranteed to get some ghostly shivers.
Previous visitors have encountered spirits of deceased prisoners and guards, who have woken them up in a more unpleasant way than the usual drunk hostel roommates. Personally, I prefer to get my terrifying stories outside of a bedroom.
That’s why Ottawa is home to the best ghost tours in Canada. You’ll find guides in long black cloaks holding lanterns, roaming downtown Ottawa each night. Join one of the tours to learn more about the ghastly past of the city.
3) Rideau Canal
The Rideau Canal is the best spot to visit in Ottawa, no matter what time of year it is. In summer, the canal is teeming with boats, kayaks, and more! People routinely jump off of the bridges into the water on Canada Day when the celebrations get a bit too hot and the drinks run a bit too freely.
Stop by the Rideau Canal’s lock system to see why it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These locks are credited with being why the United States didn’t claim more of Canada as its own. The complex system ensured that they could not bring more boats into the country to siege additional cities.
It helped the Canadian forces preserve Ottawa as Canadian territory.
The canal is a beautiful spot to observe the famous tulips that pop up every year in spring. In autumn, the Rideau Walkway is home to some of the best fall colours in the city.
My favourite time to visit in winter is when the Rideau Canal freezes into a 17.4km ice rink. Skating the Rideau Canal is a rite of passage for every Canadian. My family used to bring my siblings and me to skate the canal as a kid. First, we’d stop for hot Beavertails, sip cider, and get way too hopped up on sugar from the frozen maple syrup. Then we’d burn all of our energy skating as fast as we could across 1km.
Visiting now and skating the entire length of the canal, I can tell that our little path was nothing compared to the entire length of the canal.
Students and businesspeople even use it as a winter highway!
You can rent skates on the canal if you haven’t brought them with you. Be sure to bundle up, as it’s always a few degrees cooler when you’re on the canal.
4) Ottawa Tulip Festival
Most Canadians don’t know this, but Ottawa is home to the largest tulip festival in the world. The Canadian Tulip Festival, or Ottawa Tulip Festival as it’s more commonly known, exists thanks to the Netherlands. Each year, we receive a shipment of flowers that turns Dow’s Lake into a hub of tulip-viewing splendour.
The shipment is a thank you gift for helping to hide the princess during World War II. Then, when she was about to give birth, the Canadian government declared her hospital room as Dutch soil so her child could stay in line for the throne.
Decades later, we still receive enough tulips to surpass the Netherlands as the country with the largest tulip festival! Visit in May and June to see these bright bulbs around the city.
5) Visiting the Museums
Ottawa is a cultural centre in Canada. You’ll find many museums with a rich history for visitors to enjoy.
My favourite museum in Ottawa as a kid was the Canadian Museum of Nature – where you can see live animals and learn about other famous Canadian wildlife. War buffs will want to visit the Canadian History Museum and the War Memorial outside of Parliament.
Children will love the Canada Science & Technology Museum and the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, where they can interact with the exhibits. If you’re more of an art lover, check out the National Gallery of Canada – known for the famous spider statue outside. But if you’re afraid of spiders, don’t worry! Not all the exhibits feature arachnids!
Many museums in Ottawa also have free nights to ensure every citizen and visitor can enjoy them. Check online to see when they’re open for free admission.
Some notable museums and their free times are:
- Canadian Museum of Nature (Free 5-8pm on Thursday)
- Canadian Museum of History (Free 5-8pm on Thursday)
- Canada Agriculture and Food Museum (Free 4-5pm Daily)
- Canadian War Museum (Free 5-8pm on Thursday)
- Canada Science and Technology Museum (Free 5-8pm Daily)
- Canada Aviation and Space Museum (Free 5-8pm Daily)
- National Gallery of Canada (Free 5-8pm on Thursday)
6) Going on a Food Tour
Take a food tour of Ottawa to experience the rich cultural history of the city. Culinary Adventure Co runs a fantastic tour that will help you learn more about the city while filling your belly with the most amazing treats.
If you’d rather go on your own, I recommend hitting up the following spots for a delicious and educational experience:
- Dumpling Bowl in Chinatown
- Wellington Diner in Westboro
- Whalesbone on Elgin Street
- Aroma Mezze on Nepean Street
- Level One in Byward Market
- BeaverTails in Byward Market
You’ll need to take a car or the bus to get to them all, and you’ll want to spend a day eating your way through so you don’t get too full!
7) Have High Tea
High tea at the Chateau Laurier is a must-do in Ottawa. This experience is perfect for solo travellers, families, and couples. It can feel equally cozy, family-friendly, and romantic somehow all at once.
For $75 CAD per person, you’ll get a tower of tea treats. The best are the homemade scones with clotted cream and the selection of sandwiches that aren’t just watercress or cream cheese! The sugar is a lot for one person, so ask to take away some of the cakes, or you’ll have children bouncing off the walls.
Final Thoughts on the Best Things to do in Ottawa
As you can see, Ottawa is a city with much to offer all types of travellers. Whether you’re travelling solo or want to show your kids the best time possible while they’re on holiday, it’s worth taking some time to explore Canada’s capital!
To get started right away, head over here for our list of The Best Things To Do in Ottawa With Kids. We’ve got everything from museums and parks to festivals and markets – so no matter what your family likes doing together, there will be something new waiting for them in this great city!