Last Updated on June 22, 2020 by Laura Cooper
There’s something truly Canadian about visiting Ottawa: standing in the shadow of Parliament Hill’s bell tower, walking the downtown Ottawa streets, and indulging in a Beavertail or skipping across the Ottawa River for poutine in Gatineau. With museums aplenty, history and culture around every corner, and a unique shopping scene in the downtown core, downtown Ottawa and beyond is the perfect destination to unveil Canada’s beauty and charm. A perfect year-round destination with exciting events and festivals happening both winter and summer, play in Ottawa is contrasted by government and political undertones. With the city sharing French and English culture with its close relationship with Quebec, Ottawa is a top Canadian destination. Looking to explore your own back yard? We highlight the best for your Ottawa vacation and why a visit should be on your to-do list.
Who should visit Ottawa
Ottawa is truly a Canadian cultural icon and a top destination within North America for history, museums, nightlife, and travellers of all kinds. Whether your itinerary is family-focused, a getaway for couples, friends, solo-travel or weekend or longer vacations, Ottawa has something for you. Visit Canada’s capital city if you’re interested in history and Canadian culture and swell with pride as you stand on Parliament Hill and think back on our nation’s history. Ottawa is a popular spot for family vacations with educational activities for children sprinkled throughout the city and museums both acceptable and educational for children and parents alike. Travellers looking to walk off their vacation meals will find a perfect destination in downtown Ottawa; the main tourist area and tourist attractions are easily accessible by foot, often offering the best views of sites like the Rideau Canal and Parliament Hill from parks, paths, and side streets. Art buffs will find stunning Gothic and Chateauesque architecture, the National Gallery of Canada and statues throughout the city. Enjoy the busy hub of Ottawa between patio beers and local treats and dive into Canada’s capital.
Places to visit in Ottawa
There are so many places to visit in Ottawa, your itinerary can be as jam-packed or laid back as you’re looking for. With festivals for the whole family to enjoy, nightlife and dining for an adults-only vacation, and historical and cultural institutions to take in, downtown Ottawa attractions offer a lot. If you’re feeling adventurous and want to get your adrenaline pumping, travel across the Ottawa River to Hull, Quebec for the Camp Fortune ziplining adventure in the summer and skiing in the winter. Drive just under an hour southeast towards Cornwall to the Calypso Waterpark, one of Canada’s top 10 waterparks and make a splash in your vacation with the kids. Though we highlight the top places to visit, don’t overlook rafting on the Ottawa River, or an Ottawa sightseeing tour to hit it all.
Canada’s history is compacted into the walls and grounds of Parliament Hill, where senators and Members of Parliament now hold meetings and debates, changing the course of Canada’s political history. Take a free tour of the Centre Block, housing the home of the Senate, House of Commons and Parliament Library, or the East Block which is now set up like a museum with resorted heritage rooms and a look back at parliamentary life throughout the years. For one of the best views of the city, climb the Peace Tower and have your camera ready for a unique look at the Hill and downtown Ottawa streets stretching along the banks of the Ottawa River. If you’re visiting for Canada Day, pack onto the Hill for Canada’s biggest party including a flag raising ceremony, Snowbirds show, music, and fireworks over the Hill to finish the celebration.
The Byward Market:
In the heart of downtown Ottawa find the Byward Market: an area rich in history, culture, art, and culinary delights. With unique boutiques and restaurants, farm-fresh market stalls in the summer and a trendy setting, the market is in historic downtown and is perfect for a romantic dinner out, coffee with friends, or for exploring on your family vacation. Find local artisans, fresh flowers and produce, or eclectic shopping options and pubs as you wander the city square just steps from larger-scale shopping in the Rideau Centre and the always-popular Sussex Drive historic sites.
Museums and Memorials:
Your list of places to visit in Ottawa should include at least one of the capital’s museums. With a wealth of sites to choose from, popular museums are the Canadian Museum of History (formerly Canadian Museum of Civilization), War Museum, Museum of Nature, and the National Gallery of Canada. Other hidden treasures are the Diefenbunker, Canada’s Cold War Museum, and the Currency Museum at the Bank of Canada. With most exhibits geared to both children and adults, your Ottawa vacation can be full of fun-filled learning and hands-on activities (adults: don’t miss Nature Nocturne at the Museum of Nature for drinks, the museum after dark, special exhibits and live music). For the history-focused Ottawa itinerary, don’t miss the Canadian War Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the base of Parliament Hill for quiet reflection.
Fortissimo and the Ceremonial Guard:
Visit Parliament Hill every summer morning at 10 a.m. for the Changing of the Guard, and see the Ceremonial Guard of the Canadian Armed Forces soldiers and band celebrating our nation and military history. Visitors to the city in July can expect to take in Fortissimo, a military musical spectacular featuring the military bands, pipes and drums, soldiers, and guest performers drawing attention to Ottawa as Canada’s capital and performed on the grounds of Parliament Hill. Fortissimo honours the evening guns fired by soldiers and the Tattoo or inspections accompanied by the military band and drums and is definitely a spectacle with full regalia and band, turning the Hill into a sea of red and black.
Stroll along the Rideau Canal through downtown Ottawa and explore the series of lakes, rivers, and canals. Winding 202 kilometres from Kingston to Ottawa and designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the canal fills Ottawa with quaint bridges with waterfront views, and a system of paths to explore downtown Ottawa by foot and fresh air. In the winter, watch as the canal turns into the world’s largest naturally frozen ice skating rink and thousands strap on skates to commute to work or for play. Ottawa’s popular Winterlude Festival takes place over several weekends in February each year along the canal, featuring ice carvings, a snow playground, and skating.
Just 10 minutes from downtown Ottawa, the Nordik Spa-Nature is a must-visit for the traveller looking to unwind and relax after a long day of travelling or busy visit to the city. With packages ranging from body treatments, massage, thermal experiences and baths, and unique Kalla treatments, you’ll leave feeling refreshed and rejuvenated. Located at the entrance of Gatineau Park, the Nordik Spa-Nature is set away from the city to add to the relaxing atmosphere. Perfect for an adults-only vacation, girls day, or to pamper yourself and add something to your Ottawa vacation you deserve.
Downtown Ottawa hotels
Stay in the heart of downtown Ottawa and don’t miss any action; with hotels ranging from higher-end, luxury to family-friendly and unique (ever consider staying in a jail-turned-hostel?), downtown Ottawa hotels offer accommodation options perfect for any travel style or budget.
Fairmont Chateau Laurier: 4-star
Stay in this classic hotel fit for royalty on your Ottawa vacation. Steps from the Rideau Canal and just a short walk to Parliament Hill, and along the banks of the Ottawa River. The Chateau Laurier boasts an indoor pool, business centre, and fitness centre for all of your vacation needs.
Marriott Ottawa: 4-star
For the traveller looking to be close to the action and downtown Ottawa, the Marriott Ottawa on Kent Street is the perfect choice. Just a short 10-minute walk from Parliament Hill, the Marriott offer a kids club, pool, fitness centre, and easy access to most attractions. Whether you’re travelling with the family or on an adults-only vacation, the Marriott is always a trusted and preferred choice.
Cartier Place Suite Hotel: 3-star
Your stay at the Cartier Place Suite Hotel will be comfortable and affordable with its many amenities and prime location. With suites offering mini-kitchens, this hotel is ideal for families looking to prepare healthy snacks for the day or for guests staying longer-term. The Cartier Place Suite Hotel also offers special family packages, including children under 16 staying free.
Crowne Plaza Gatineau-Ottawa: 3-star
This hotel is the perfect choice for a more well-known brand of hotels. Located directly across the Ottawa River from the War Museum, the Crowne Plaza Gatineau-Ottawa offers affordable, comfortable rooms with stunning views of the Ottawa skyline. A great choice for family, adults, or business travel, the Crowne Plaza features many amenities in a perfect location slightly removed from the hustle and bustle of downtown.
When to visit and for how long
Ottawa is a popular destination year-round with festivals happening throughout the year. Though winter temperatures dip down to -15C, don’t dismiss the winter months for your Ottawa vacation. Winterlude Festival is a great family-friendly activity you’ll want to consider for fun in the snow and winter exercise. In the summer, Ottawa temperatures reach 30C but Parliament Hill will offer a cool breeze off the Ottawa River.
We recommend visiting Ottawa for 3-4 days depending on your interests. If you’ve been to Ottawa before, a shorter weekend trip may suffice to hit the top places to see and interest points.
Travellers looking to explore Ottawa typically do self-guided visits, booking hotels and flights separately. Ottawa is often visited as a destination on its own, or partnered with a visit to Montreal, which is just a 2-hour drive away. Take a walking tour of the city, or narrow-in on a guided tour of Parliament Hill, and piece your vacation together with information from a tripcentral.ca travel agent to explore on your own and hit the top attractions.
Fly in to the Ottawa Macdonald–Cartier International Airport (YOW) from any Canadian gateway (non-stop service may not be offered from all gateways). With multiple non-stop daily flights from Toronto, some smaller gateways have one early morning flight daily for business travellers. Find your way downtown from the airport by taxi, often lined up outside the arrivals gate on level 1 (approx. cost from airport to downtown: $30). A taxi ride into the downtown core off Wellington Street from the airport is approximately 20 minutes without traffic. The airport also hosts several car rental agencies for transportation options throughout your visit.
Regular bus service between Toronto and Ottawa or between Montreal and Ottawa also operate with Greyhound Canada arriving at Ottawa Central Station, 265 Catherine Street. Bus routes between Toronto and Ottawa are approximately 5.5 hours and $67 one way while the Montreal to Ottawa route will have you at your destination in 2.5 hours and $30 one-way. Regular VIA Rail service sees trains arriving from between three and eight departure times daily at 200 Tremblay Road ranging from a 2-hour trip from Montreal to almost 5-hour trip from Toronto.
Ottawa and all major attractions are very easily accessible by either foot or public transit. Most attractions, included those listed in the places to see in Ottawa section are located in the heart of downtown Ottawa along or off of Wellington Street. If you’re looking to give your feet a rest, hop on OC Transpo for $3.45 or using the Presto Pass smart card for easy travel. When using change to board OC Transpo, ensure you have exact change. For those looking to rent a car to access more areas of the city, parking at most downtown hotels range from in the $20 per night range, with parking garages offering affordable hourly rates near many downtown attractions. Car rentals for a weekend in Ottawa are approximately $30/day and can be rented from both the airport and downtown locations. For travellers looking to visit Gatineau and attractions outside downtown Ottawa, a car rental may be an affordable, and timely, option to see the city.
Flights range from $250 non-stop from Toronto to upwards of $600 non-stop from Calgary, while hotels can range from $150/night for downtown family-oriented hotels to $250/night for the best available rate at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier. Packages from Toronto range from $350 to $670. Your travel agent should be able to find you the best available rate to fit your preferences and budget for your Ottawa vacation.