You’ve probably guessed that Canada is one of my favourite countries. After exploring the gorgeous spots in Alberta (like those iconic Ice Castles) and delving into west coast city life in Vancouver, I just knew I needed to see every inch of Canada. Though, let’s start with baby steps, eh? After all, it’s the second biggest country in the world! There really are so many things to do in Ottawa and it’s a great starting point to visit so much more of the easterly provinces.
Now, even if it’s your first or fiftieth time in the city, you’ll always find something new and exciting to do (especially with all its buzzing festivals).
Take a look at some of the best things to do in Ottawa and places you shouldn’t miss on your first visit. You’ll love the city!
1.) Explore Parliament Hill
Possibly, the most famous hill in Canada, it’s pretty close to the Ottawa River that, during the summer months, sees the Changing of the Guard every morning.
You’ll also find daily free guided tours of Parliament Hill, available on a first-come-first-serve basis (so arrive bright and early).
2.) Gorge at ByWard Market
If you have a hankering for good food and local shops, ByWard Market simply must be found. In an area that covers about four square blocks, there are literally scores of delicious restaurants and loads of little boutiques that you’ll love.
Within the main market, you can find tasty little treats on top of local produce too. The market itself was built a few hundred years ago and quickly became one of the largest public markets in Canada.
There are even a few, more secluded, cobblestone squares giving us visitors something special to look for. Probably the most popular of these is Clarendon Court, which has five yummy restaurants alone. Oh yeah, and pop over to the pretty Notre Dame Cathedral that’s close by.
Once your tummy starts to rumble, head over to Play Food & Wine – they’ve got some amazing foods and a huge wine selection too.
If you’re craving a hearty breakfast, pop into The Scone Witch which serves one of the best brunches in the city.
3.) Explore the Rideau Canal
Both an engineering feat and a scenic place for a picnic (in the summer months)! The Rideau Canal is a popular little spot that’s perfect to visit. The Canal itself was awarded as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the cities most famous.
Apparently, the idea of the canal was to have a secure supply route from Montreal to Kingston, in case the Americans tried to attack Canada (again?!? Think the war of 1812).
Today, everyone enjoys the Canal all year long, having strolls and picnics along the paths, kayaking down it during the summer, and ice skating along it in the winter.
A proper little focal point and one of the best things to do in Ottawa in the chilly months.
4.) Head inside the Bytown Museum
If you’re a total history buff you’ll definitely enjoy Bytown Museum where you can learn all about the history of Canada’s capital city. The Museum is housed in Ottawa’s oldest stone building and tells the story of the early years of Ottawa (when it was still called Bytown) up to present day.
In 2017, the Museum celebrated its grand old age of 100th. It’s well worth a little visit if you want to learn more about the local history and when the weather takes a turn for the worse.
5.) Enjoy a Festival
Ottawa has become famous for its festivals, that seem to have everything from winter wonderlands, dragon boats and even snow sculptures! Now, if you’re planning a trip to the city, always make sure to check out the festival schedule, here.
Probably some of the more popular festivals are; Canada Day, the Tulip Festival, Capital Ribfest (Yum), the Dragon Boat Festival, and the Children’s Festival. Oh yeah, If you’re in Ottawa in January or February, the Winterlude festival can’t be missed. This is when you’ll get to see some of those lovely ice and snow sculptures.
If you happen to be in Ottawa on the first of July (Canada Day), you’ll experience a mind-blowing party across the city, ending with massive fireworks above Parliament Hill that is out-of-this-world.
6.) Visit the National Gallery of Canada
The world’s largest collection of Canadian art is, rather appropriately, found in the capital city, and it’s pretty hard to miss. housing nearly 65,000 pieces of art, the Gallery is known worldwide for its Canadian artworks showcasing local and national pieces.
The gallery also holds many First Nation, International, and Contemporary art too. Best of all, no visit will ever be the same – the gallery has seasonal exhibits that change almost monthly. You’ll love it.
Oh yeah, along with the artworks and stunning architecture, visitors will find a cloistered garden courtyard, a glass-bottomed pool, and a reconstructed 19th century chapel on the Gallery grounds.
7.) Have a tipple at Ottawa’s Craft Beer Scene
Over the last few years, it seems that craft beer breweries have become properly en vogue, and Ottawa is no exception.
To discover the different craft beers in the capital city, why not sign up for a tour? Brew Donkey Brewery Tours offer year-round bus and walking tours of the different craft breweries in Ottawa.
If you’re in the capital in September, be sure to stop by Beau’s Oktoberfest, run by Beau’s All Natural Brewing Co. Open since 2006, Beau’s brews up certified organic beers, which can be enjoyed both at Oktoberfest and during the rest of the year. Cassel Brewery and Kichesippi Beer Company are also popular brews in the city.
8.) Fulton’s Pancake House and Sugar Bush
What could be more Canadian than maple syrup, right?
Less than an hour from Ottawa is the 170-year-old Fulton’s Pancake House and Sugar Bush, where five generations of the Fulton family have been producing some of the tastiest maple syrup. Once there, you can enjoy things such as horse-drawn sleigh and wagon rides and tours along the Heritage Maple Path.
There is a pancake house on-site, as well as a Maple Shop, where you can nab everything from maple candy to maple bath bombs. Typically, the maple season runs from mid-February to mid-April, but Fulton’s is open all year. Yay! 🍁
9.) Try Whitewater Rafting
If you’re a sucker for the outdoors, you’ll love the whitewater rafting you can do around the region. Best of all, Ottawa is one of the top spots for whitewater rafting in the world. There are quite a few companies in the city that offer rafting river trips, from those lovely tranquil levels through high-intensity, sweat-inducing, adventures.
For a ride right in the capital, Ottawa City Rafting company offers the Urban Whitewater Rafting Adventure for visitors aged 5-65. The trek is about 3.5 hours long and ends with a stunning view of downtown Ottawa.
For something a bit outside of the city, try River Run Rafting and Wilderness Resort. The company offers adventure rafting, family rafting and river tubing (my favourite).
10.) Learn more at Diefenbunker
A four-story tall building with 300 rooms and 100,000 square feet of space meant to house 535 Canadian government officials. Sounds normal, right?
Not when you find out that it is actually a secret underground building that was built during the height of the Cold War. Definitely more interesting now, eh?
Diefenbunker offers us a glimpse into the secret workings of the Canadian Cold War era. Named after the Prime Minister of the time, John Diefenbaker, the building was meant to house the Canadian government if nuclear war were to break out. *gulp*
Just be sure to dress warmly, as it is always cooler underground!
11.) Gorge at China Town
Ottawa’s China Town is one lovely place to go once your tummy begins to rumble. Not just made up of Chinese spots to see, China Town has a huge array of nationalities, cultures and restraints to experience.
With Korean, Philippine and Indian foody joints making up the China Town district, you’ll be spoilt for choice on places to gorge.
12.) Go thrift shopping in Westboro Village
Now, Westboro Village is a lovely little area of the city that’s filled to the brim with tasty restaurants and little shops. I always think of this area as the cool area of the city (a little bit like Shoreditch in London). It’s one of the best things to do in Ottawa and a great place for some local thrift shops, vinyl stores and cute little coffee haunts.
Oh yeah, make sure to visit The Works for one of the biggest and juiciest burgers in the capital.
And, last but not least, if you want a day out of the city…
Algonquin Provincial Park is an hour or two outside of Ottawa that’s great for a little escape from city life. In the summer, there are loads of hiking trails that are perfect for a little stroll (like the Whiskey Rapids Trail).
Whilst in winter, you can head on some of the Nordic ski trails that criss-cross the park.
If you’re looking for views, head onto the Barron Canyon Trail which isn’t hard but offers some gorgeous vistas across the canyon and park.