As you may know, Ottawa is Canada’s capital city. It is a compact city that offers a varied and fulfilling lifestyle for those looking for a more affordable and maybe less chaotic city than the big three of Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal. As Canada’s capital, Ottawa is a bilingual government city but one that also has plenty of opportunities for those working in the tech, NGO and finance sectors. However, this page isn’t about career advancement in Canada’s capital city. Instead we want to bring you a quick and accessible list of things to do in Ottawa.
This list is by no means exhaustive but we have endeavored to include as many of our top tips as possible for those moving to or visiting Canada’s capital city for the first time. So, let’s get started.
Things to do in Ottawa
1. Visit some of the city’s many museums
Unsurprisingly, one of the best things to do in Ottawa is to visit one of the cities many impressive museums. Whether you are a science geek, military nerd or an all-round generalist, you will not be disappointed with what Ottawa has to offer.
Some of our favorite museums to visit when we are deciding what to do in Ottawa are as follows:
The Bytown Museum puts Ottawa into focus. Located on the Rideau Canal, between Parliament Hill and the Fairmont Château Laurier hotel, the museum, which adopted the original name of this city, is housed within the oldest stone building in the capital. The Bytown Museum takes special care to fully understand the building of the Rideau Canal, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The museum also examines how Ottawa transformed from a rowdy lumber town, full of pubs and brawls, into the capital of the country.
Canadian Museum of History
Gorgeous architecture and world renowned exhibitions convene to create Canada’s most visited museum. Located on the banks of the Ottawa River in Gatineau — with a stunning view of Parliament Hill, the National Gallery of Canada, and downtown Ottawa — the Canadian Museum of History (previously known as the Canadian Museum of Civilization) provides a detailed insight into 20,000 years of human history. Let your eyes wander high into the sky as you take in the world’s largest indoor collection of totem poles, walk through impressive life-sized recreations of Canadian settlements over the past 1,000 years, and sit back to enjoy an IMAX film. Children are also welcome, with many exhibitions catered towards the younger visitors. The museum is home to the Canadian Children’s Museum, filled with hands-on games and exhibits.
Canadian War Museum
The first thing you’ll notice as you drive toward the Canadian War Museum, on the western edge of downtown Ottawa beside the Ottawa River, is the building itself. Its magnificent design — with its low-lying body that suddenly sweeps upward to create a peak that reaches 80 feet into the air — speaks to the theme of regeneration. Inside you’ll find incredible exhibitions that reveal Canada’s involvement in conflicts from the beginning of time until now. Tanks, artillery, combat gear, art and so many more artifacts and collections, bring an added level of realism to the country’s war history.
Canada Aviation and Space Museum
The Canada Aviation and Space Museum places the wonder of flight into your hands. Under its hangar-esque roof, the Museum holds approximately 130 military and civilian aircraft — the finest collection in the country and one of the most comprehensive in the world. Uncover the development of the flying machine, its role in conflicts, and its overall significance. Once you’ve learned it all, jump into the Redbird to feel the rush of flying high. The full-motion flight simulator, used to train pilots, will put you in control as you fly around the Ottawa area. And, during the warmer months, hop into the circa 1939 open cockpit biplane for a real-life flight around the capital!
As well as the museums covered above, Ottawa is also home to the impressive Canada Science and Technology Museum. In addition, the Bank of Canada Museum offers interesting insights into country’s currency across the centuries, and the Canadian Food and Agriculture Museum is well worth a visit for those interested in tracking the history of farming and food production in Canada.
2. Spend a day in some of Ottawa’s amazing art galleries
While it is fair to say that Ottawa isn’t renowned as Canada’s capital of art, the city is home to some of the best and most prestigious international and domestic art that Canada has to offer. Top of this list is the ever-impressive National Art Gallery of Canada.
National Art Gallery of Canada
Easily recognizable with its 30-foot spider sculpture outside of the building, the National Art Gallery of Canada is well worth a visit for those with an interest in art. Maman, the sculpture created by Louise Bourgeois, complete with 26 white marble eggs under its belly, welcomes you to the National Art Gallery of Canada. Once inside, you’ll discover one of the greatest art institutions in the world — home to more than 36,000 works of art, including a large number by the Group of Seven, and strong collections of Indigenous, Asian, and International works. The Gallery hosts special exhibits throughout the year that bring light to a specific topic or discipline, as well as renowned and up-and-coming artists.
Ottawa Art Gallery
While the Ottawa Art Gallery, or the OAG as it’s often more affectionately known, may be less renowned that the aforementioned National Gallery of Canada, it is certainly worthy of a visit. This is especially true if you want to make sure that your trip to Ottawa is as cultured as possible. The OAG is an independent, not-for-profit, charitable organization governed by a volunteer board of directors. It was founded in 1988 as the Gallery at Arts Court by a group of local artists and community leaders and renamed the Ottawa Art Gallery in 1992. Check it out!
As well as the National Gallery of Canada and the OAG, there are many other smaller, independent art galleries dotted around Ottawa that are well worth taking the time to visit. From the Karsh-Masson Gallery on Laurier Avenue to the fascinating Alpha Art Gallery, there really is something for everyone in Ottawa. With so much art on display in the city, you’ll never be short of things to do in Ottawa.
3. Experience Canada’s Parliament in Ottawa
OK, first things first. Yes it is true that Canada’s original parliament building, located in the iconic Center Block, closed for a decade of renovations in 2019. However, that does not mean that there’s no beautiful buildings for you and yours to visit after moving to Ottawa. The House of Commons is now situated in the recently renovated, and equally spectacular, West Block Building. While the Senate has moved to the nearby Old Ottawa Train Station for the duration of the renovations at the Center Block. Guided tours for both buildings are available in English and French and last approximately 40 minutes. If you are looking for things to do in Ottawa as a newcomer or a tourist, this should be at the top of your list.
4. The Rideau Canal Skating Rink
In what could be Ottawa’s most famous attraction, the Rideau Canal transforms into the world’s longest skating rink during the winter months. Any visitor to Ottawa during the winter should take the opportunity to practice their skating skills on the icy expanse. The Rideau Canal is free (once you have your own skates) and runs for eight kilometres. You can also buy a beavertail, a coffee or even a poutine on the ice. I encourage anyone looking for things to do in Ottawa to get out on the canal, soak up the friendly atmostphere and take in the awe-inspiring beauty of Canada’s capital.
Winter is where Ottawa comes into its own, and one truly appreciates the city during the colder months. Camp Fortune and Edelweiss, on the Quebec side, are within 30 minutes of the city centre. They provide cheap options to get out on the slopes for the day throughout the winter. Within a few hours’ drive is Mont Tremblant, arguably Eastern Canada’s best-known ski slope, less than three hours from Ottawa.
6. Go to a Sens game!
Ice-hockey, or hockey as it’s known locally, is without a doubt the biggest sport in Ottawa with the Ottawa Senators being the most popular team in the city. The pinnacle of the Senators, or Sens as their often referred to as, was reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2007. Senators games are a must-see. The atmosphere in pubs and restaurants on game nights can be electric, especially when playing rivals Montreal or Toronto. Of course, nothing beats the real thing — information on tickets is on the Canadian Tire Centre website. The stadium is located in Kanata, about 35 minutes from downtown, but traffic can be heavy on game nights. Buses run directly to the stadium, and some pubs offer dinner and a shuttle to the game from close by.
7. Don’t sleep on Gatineau
What many people fail to realize about Ottawa is that it is more akin to a capital region rather than merely a capital city. The reason for this is because Ottawa has a very important twin-sister-city in Quebec called Gatineau where many exciting things happen. There is no doubt that Ottawa is the better known of the two cities but Gatineau contains some very interesting thing to see and do in its own right and should be part of any itinerary for any newcomer or visitor to town. As well as the previously mentioned Canadian Museum of History, there’s also the curated gardens of Jacques Cartier Park as well as the gem of the Ottawa-Gatineau region: Gatineau Park.
Gatineau Park is a vast and scenic space located less than a 20 minute drive from downtown Ottawa and is ideal for walking, biking or cross-country skiing. It also houses the MacKenzie King Estate, once the home of Canada’s former Prime Minister.
8. Get lost outside the city
When it comes to things to see in Ottawa, one of the biggest advantages that the city offers is that it has some of Eastern Canada’s most quaint towns a short distance from downtown. At the foot of the aforementioned Gatineau Park are the towns of Wakefield and Chelsea. These two beautiful Quebec towns are home to a number of charming restaurants and pubs as well as the famous Nordic Spa in Chelsea and the idyllic covered wooden bridge in Wakefield.
If you decide to travel west out of Ottawa then you can could head for Almonte, Ontario. A picturesque town that can claim to be the birthplace of basketball as it was the hometown of the game’s inventor, Dr. James Naismith. Almonte also celebrates its reach Celtic lineage each July in the aptly named Almonte Celtfest – definitely worth a visit if you get the chance.
9. Sample the culinary delights of Ottawa
While Vancouver is famous for world class sushi and Montreal has created a culinary culture predicated on emphasizing the most decadent aspects of Qubecoise cuisine, Ottawa has allowed its newcomers to tell its food story. From some of the best shawarma restaurants this side of Beirut to a host of Vietnamese restaurants that larger North American cities can only dream of, Ottawa has a lot to offer foodies and those who simply want to sample something a little different now and then.
So, if you’re new in town and want some top tips for fun and affordable places to eat then the following five restaurants and eateries come highly recommended:
- New Pho Bo Go La serves delicious pho and other Vietnamese staples at an affordable price-point in the vibrant Chinatown neighborhood.
- Ceylonta is a Sri Lankan and South Indian restaurant located in the Centretown area and is a must-try for those who like South Asian cuisine.
- Di Rienzo’s is a traditional Italian deli is located in Little Italy and has subs and sandwiches to die for. A perfect lunch spot.
- Although the accolade of best Shwarma in Ottawa is highly contested, if you want a no frills approach to some late-night dining then you need to try the much-loved Shwarma King on Bank Street.
- Finally, Art-Is-In Bakery in Hintonburg offers amazing coffee, brunch and sandwiches to eat in or take out.
10. Explore Ottawa’s nightlife
Although often derided as the town that fun forgot, Ottawa is actually a pretty fun-loving place. Bored of a weekend and looking for things to do in Ottawa? Why not hit up one of the many excellent pubs, clubs, and restaurants and enjoy the city’s ambiance with the welcoming locals. A night out in Ottawa is always a fun one.
So, if you are looking for to sample a delicious IPA or sour beer then Ottawa has a number of excellent microbreweries to choose from with Flora Hall Brewing being a personal favourite. However, if you prefer your drinks to be a little more on the traditional side then The Manx Pub is a must. This quaint pub is located in the center of town on Elgin Street and an institution among the nine to fivers and weekday drinkers alike.