That, however, is all changing as in recent years. Ottawa has developed its own distinctive character — which means it now rightfully deserves to be on the top of your Canada Bucket List.
With nature, food, history, and more find out why Ottawa is fast becoming Canada’s Capital of Cool!
While many questioned Queen Elizabeth’s wisdom when she chose Ottawa as Canada’s Capital in 1857 – 160 years later, its seems her choice has been vindicated as Ottawa has since been transformed into a thriving metropolis, home to many of Canada’s best museums but working hard to maintain an identity outside of being ‘just another capital’.
Today Ottawa is actually the 4th biggest city in Canada with a booming high-tech business sector and a distinctly cosmopolitan vibe. There are plenty of multicultural local neighborhoods to explore – many of which are easily walkable from the city center – and stunning views to be had, whether it’s of the Ottawa River, Rideau Canal, or the unique cityscape vantage points.
Situated right on the border of English-speaking Ontario and French-speaking Quebec, Ottawa is the only genuinely bilingual city in North America. It represents a unique opportunity to understand Canada.
Of course, there are many, many more reasons why to go to Ottawa, but let me just start by giving you these top fifteen fun things to do in Ottawa!
15 Fun Things To Do In Ottawa: Canada’s Capital of Cool!
- 15 Fun Things To Do In Ottawa: Canada’s Capital of Cool!
- 1. Sample Delicious Offerings At The Historic ByWard Market!
- 2. Discover The Political Heart Of Canada At Parliament Hill!
- 3. Understand The Rich History Of Canada From Pre-Colonization Through To The Modern Day!
- 4. Uncover The Best Of Canadian Art At The National Gallery Of Canada!
- 5. Learn More About The Many, Many Expanses Of Wild Nature In Canada!
- 6. Admire The Historic Rideau Canal UNESCO World Heritage Site!
- 7. Splurge On Affordable Luxury With Ottawa’s Bargain Price Hotels!
- 8. Attend The Seemingly Endless Series of Events and Festivals Occurring Annually in Ottawa!
- 9. Be Inspired By The Vibrant And Flourishing Street Art In Ottawa!
- 10. Partake In Libations In Some Of The Trendiest Locations In Canada!
- 11. Drink Your Way Around Ottawa With A City Beer Bus Tour Of Breweries!
- 12. Get Closer To History At The Canadian War Museum.
- 13. See The City From Two Wheels On An Ottawa Express City Bike Tour!
- 14. Enjoy The Spooky Shivers On The Original Haunted Walk Of Ottawa.
- 15. Revel On A Rideau Canal Cruise…
1. Sample Delicious Offerings At The Historic ByWard Market!
With over 600 shops and businesses, the ByWard Market is a unique blend of fine dining, delicious snacks, baked goods, and the not-to-be-missed Beaver Tails or Obama Cookies.
ByWard Market is actually older than the Canadian Nation. While it has changed drastically over the years to meet the changing trends and needs of Ottawa, this market has always been the ‘go-to’ meeting place for Ottawans in search of high-quality food, cutting-edge trends, and boutique stores.
There is a bustling outdoor market to sample high-end organic produce, fresh flowers, and plenty of eclectic shops catering to all interests – and at night, the area is well known for its cosmopolitan nightlife scene.
Perfect for brunch, lunch, dinner, or even later, the ByWard Markets is a refreshing alternative to today’s bland and boring downtown shopping mall experience.
2. Discover The Political Heart Of Canada At Parliament Hill!
Not just a collection of some of the most exquisite Gothic Revival architecture in the world, Parliament Hill in Ottawa is the beating heart of the Canadian Nation. And a true landmark of Canada.
To truly understand how such a dynamic and multicultural state can exist, opt for one of the many daily free tours of the parliament (on a first-come, first-served basis) to get a look inside and discover the history, art, and function of Canada’s parliament including the senate, house of commons and library. Just wandering the grounds is an awe-inspiring experience. If you are traveling to Ottawa in the summer, be sure to time your visit to catch the daily changing of the guard.
In December, the Parliament building is also covered in hundreds of thousands of lights for the Christmas Lights Across Canada festivities. Throughout the year, there are various other celebrations and performances that take place on the lawn here. Whether you are a Canadian or a visitor, everybody can learn something from a visit here.
3. Understand The Rich History Of Canada From Pre-Colonization Through To The Modern Day!
As the most-visited museum in Canada – and arguably the most important – the Canadian Museum of History is a drawcard all on its own with outstanding exhibits focused on First Nations, Canadian, and world history.
Whether you have only a few hours or entire days, the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa offers a critical retrospective on the events which led to the formation of the Canadian state and since, given visitors a greater awareness of Canada, it’s identity and place in the world.
It’s hard to oversell this museum as I was truly blown away by its expertise, scale (with over four million documents and artifacts) and open willingness to reflect on less savory parts of their history, which many would rather forget. If you only have time to do one thing in Ottawa, then this should undoubtedly be it.
4. Uncover The Best Of Canadian Art At The National Gallery Of Canada!
With a great mix of contemporary, indigenous, modern, and historic art from practically every era, the National Gallery of Canada has something for everyone.
This is undisputedly the largest collection of Canadian Art in the world. Of particular interest are the Inuit and Aboriginal art collections, which offer an exact point of difference to other world-class galleries around the world.
Set inside a striking glass and granite building overlooking Parliament Hill – designed by esteemed architect Moshe Safdie of Habitat 67 in Montreal fame – a visit here is worth it alone just for the building. If you are short of time, you simply can’t miss the instantly recognizable Louise Bourgeois Maman (1999) piece outside the main entrance, now an icon for modern Ottawa.
With over 40,000 pieces over multi-levels, an on-site cafe, and a well-curated set of exhibitions and events, art lovers should plan a day to make their way through this extraordinary attraction. Sure, kids might disagree with me – but for culture lovers, you can’t leave this off any list of fun things to do in Ottawa.
5. Learn More About The Many, Many Expanses Of Wild Nature In Canada!
As the second-largest country in the world, with a ridiculous amount of expansive nature, biomes, and animals, it is impossible to see them all, which is where a trip to the Canadian Museum of Nature comes in.
With over 14.6 million (yes, million) specimens, this museum brilliantly showcases the botany, mineralogy, paleontology, and zoology of Canada in a modern and fun manner suitable for all ages.
Thanks to a recent multi-million dollar upgrade with the addition of many new interactive exhibits and a dazzling ‘glass lanternn’, there is no better place to get a real understanding of the scale or relationships in the Canadian wilderness — and why it is so important we protect it.
There is also a modern exhibition hall with regularly changing exhibitions and an IMAX cinema showing nature documentaries meaning there is a nice mix of locals and visitors here and a vivacious feel during the week!
6. Admire The Historic Rideau Canal UNESCO World Heritage Site!
Where it all started, Ottawa (or ByTown as it was initially named) would simply not exist without the Rideau Canal, a monumental 19th-century construction spanning over 200 kilometers. Built primarily for military purposes to protect against an American invasion that never happened, the Rideau Canal is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the best-preserved example of a slack water canal in North America.
Today it is still used – but for boat tours on the Rideau Canal or pleasure cruises – and offers something for everyone, whether it is a fabulous winter vacation or picnicking and tanning in the summer. The Rideau Canal cuts through the heart of Ottawa, and there is a legendary trail along its length, which is a great way to explore the city from a new perspective.
To truly understand the scale of the grand endeavor and the effect it had on Ottawa and Canada, a visit to the ByTown Museum is recommended, which sits conveniently next to the Rideau Locks under Parliament Hill in Ottawa’s oldest stone building.
7. Splurge On Affordable Luxury With Ottawa’s Bargain Price Hotels!
Compared to nearby Toronto, or other cosmopolitan cities in North America, Ottawa has rather affordable hotels – many of which have been built recently with funky designs coinciding with Ottawa’s high tech boom.
Given the downtown and surrounding suburbs are so walkable, there is no real ‘bad location’, and a comparable hotel in Toronto is generally 50-100% more expensive, so take advantage of this situation as I’m sure it won’t last!
I stayed at (and loved) the Alt Hotel Ottawa – a modern, high-rise hotel with everything you could need, great funky design and two blocks from Parliament Hill – but to really spoil yourself I recommend the Fairmont Château Laurier, the iconic grand limestone property overlooking the Rideau Canal, or the HI Ottawa Jail Hostel set in a 19th-century former jail if you want something unique but are still searching for budget accommodation in Ottawa.
8. Attend The Seemingly Endless Series of Events and Festivals Occurring Annually in Ottawa!
Yes, Ottawa truly punches well above its weight when it comes to events and when planning a trip to Ottawa, you would be hard-pressed to find a date where there was nothing going on.
This is a destination for all seasons, from the snowy depths of winter and the yellow-orange glow of Autumn to the long days and warm weather of summer – and they genuinely know how to use all these conditions to their advantage when planning events.
I have selected a few of my favorites you might want to plan around, but if you have specific dates in mind, already check out this more comprehensive list of Ottawa annual events. No list of fun things to do in Ottawa would be complete without at least one event…
- Winterlude (February) – A special winter festival famous for its snow and ice sculpture competitions. Watch as Ottawa becomes a winter playground like no other
- Rideau Canal Skateway (Winter) – The sun may have gone, but as the temperatures drop, watch at the Rideau Canal comes to life as the world’s largest outdoor skating rink at 7.8 km!
- Ottawa ComicCon (May) – A pop-culture bonanza featuring the weird, wild, and just plain wacky. Enter the realm of comic books, sci-fi, and anime!
- The Canadian Tulip Festival (May) – World famous, watch in disbelief as over a million tulips bloom all over Ottawa with over 250,000 in Commissioners Park alone.
- Gatineau BeerFest (May) – Germany is over-rated, as is Oktoberfest. Just head to Ottawa for typical Canadian food, a jovial atmosphere, and of course, delicious artisanal beer!
- WESTfest (June) – Canada’s biggest street party bringing together music, art, and people in one incredible event.
- Canada Day (July) – What better place to celebrate Canada than its Capital, which truly comes alive in the annual celebration!
- RBC Ottawa Bluesfest (July) – One of the world’s largest music festivals with over 220 artists and 300,000 music fans coming together for plenty of fun in the sun!
- Gatineau Hot Air Balloon Festival (August) – What more could you ask for than Canada’s biggest balloon festival where hundreds of these colored contraptions fill the sky.
- Capital Fair (August) – All the fun of a carnival, hundreds of attractions, and plenty of locals and Canadian spirit.
- Lights Across Canada (December) – The days might be short, but that simply means Ottawa decks out the city in a ridiculous amount of Christmas Lights to make up for it.
9. Be Inspired By The Vibrant And Flourishing Street Art In Ottawa!
Of all the beautiful surprises that Ottawa threw my way, the proliferation of street art in hidden spaces here was the most exciting.
Again, eschewing the stereotypical expectations of ‘plain and safe’ world capital’s, Ottawa invites murals and street arts in every imaginable public space, in alleys, doorways, parks, and buildings through programs such as “Paint it up!” or “Paint the Pavement” helping to remove the stigma of street art and graffiti meaning exploring the urban streets of Ottawa has never been so enjoyable, or photographable.
Otherwise dull locations are given a splash of color, and then suddenly cafes, galleries, and food trucks cater up – transforming a neighborhood overnight. Democratic art that allows self-expression, street art can be highly charged, controversial, or wholly irrelevant and non-sensical (or often a combination of both).
It is, of course, free to enjoy these outdoor masterpieces, and the best locations to scout out street art in Ottawa are the neighborhoods of Westboro, Quartier Vanier, Little Italy, and The Glebe. You might also want to visit other budget-friendly destinations in Canada if you are visiting on the cheap.
10. Partake In Libations In Some Of The Trendiest Locations In Canada!
As you can probably gather by now, Ottawa is not as straight-laced as you might expect and has a lot of cool places and events to explore for yourself.
Far from a museum city where you retreat to your hotel room at night, Ottawa has plenty of vibrant nightlife spots for a casual drink, to enjoy the sunset or to party the night away. And yes, the after-work cocktail game here is on point!
One of the most popular places is the Copper Spirits and Sights rooftop lounge with fabulous city views and delicious craft cocktails. There are also plenty of other less obvious and utterly places if you ask around and do some research.
I’ll help you out with a few of my favorites though: the Saturday Drag Show at Lookout Bar (Ottawa’s all-inclusive gay club), the Clocktower Brew Pub to sample the craft-brew scene in Canada in a friendly environment or the Rainbow, an international known live blues venue at ByWard Markets. And if a night out isn’t one of the most fun things to do in Ottawa – then I totally give up!
11. Drink Your Way Around Ottawa With A City Beer Bus Tour Of Breweries!
After all the serious sightseeing (and cycling!), you’ll be in need of a drink! Luckily, this 4-5-hour tour will offer plenty of opportunities for that!
But be warned: this is a brewery tour for serious beer aficionados, or those who are aiming to become serious beer aficionados. It’s a long time to spend learning about beer ingredients and brewing processes, so make sure you’re ready for that. For us, it’s definitely one of the top things to do in Ottawa. The city has plenty of breweries to choose from – you’ll visit about 3 – and you’ll meet a fun bunch of people who love beer as much as you do.
At each brewery, you’ll spend time on a tour, learning about how they make their product, before moving on to the tasting. There are tasting note cards provided so you can keep track of what you tried – and remember the name of your favourite one! You’ll leave with new friends and a new-found appreciation for Canadian craft beer, trust us. The organizers, Brew Donkey, are friendly and offer excellent customer service. Just make sure you line your stomach before heading out!
12. Get Closer To History At The Canadian War Museum.
This modern building is home to thoughtful exhibitions about conflict and its impact on countries, and humanity at large. With textured walls reminiscent of a bunker and the striking copper cladding, you can’t help but notice the Canadian War Museum.
This is particularly true at night when the flickering lights spell out ‘Lest We Forget’ and ‘CWN’ in Morse Code (both English and French). This original perspective continues inside, with the permanent exhibitions taking visitors on a journey through Canadian military history.
There are over 3 million items commemorating the triumph and despair of war throughout the ages. Starting with a gallery covering early conflict through settlement to 1885, continuing with the South African and First World Wars, on to the Second World War and the lengthy aftermath of the Cold War, these galleries are interactive and engaging spaces.
Visitors often enjoy the tanks and airplanes, but the audio recordings are particularly evocative. There’s a deeper understanding of armed conflict than you find in a lot of war museums, so it’s worth setting aside several hours to explore.
13. See The City From Two Wheels On An Ottawa Express City Bike Tour!
OK, we know we go on about seeing a city from the water, but seeing it on a bike is just as brilliant (and probably better exercise, let’s be honest!). A bike tour is a fun way to engage with a new city.
You get to see the major highlights of Ottawa but also can take regular breaks from the sightseeing in the form of a relaxing cycling session. It’s a wonderful way to experience daily life in a city, in addition to the touring advantages. Gliding along a leafy street by the canal, taking in the scenery and watching people on their commutes, you feel like you’re really part of your destination.
Amidst this glorious feeling, you’ll also get the chance to learn more about the top attractions around you. This two-hour tour will take you to the War Memorial, Parliament Hill, past significant museums and galleries, and over the river to Gatineau. Fun and energetic guides somehow catch their breath to tell you more about the places you visit, keeping you laughing even after the toughest patches of cycling (don’t worry, it’s never that strenuous!).
It’s a perfect thing to do in Ottawa for families or people who like their city-breaks at a leisurely pace!
14. Enjoy The Spooky Shivers On The Original Haunted Walk Of Ottawa.
When you think about ghost walks, your mind might jump to lousy acting, and cheap jump scares – think again! This fascinating tour is actually one of our favorite things to do in Ottawa because it manages to combine historical accuracy with some genuinely blood-curdling tales of the city.
Starting near Parliament Hill, your guide will take you to some of the oldest places in the city and show you a completely different side to its unusual appearance! One of the great things about a haunted walk is that it offers an alternative viewing of a city, and this Ottawa tour is no exception.
The guides keep you totally enthralled along the way, interacting with participants to involve them in all of the stories. You’ll learn about the famous haunted high school, why the Rideau Canal is haunted, and hear the story of the landmark hotels connection to the the Titanic.
Whether you’re a true believer (in ghosts) or just love history, this tour will keep you hooked until the last chilling tale has finished.
15. Revel On A Rideau Canal Cruise…
We’ve already mentioned the spectacular Rideau Canal, a 202-km-long feat of engineering that links Ottawa to Kingston and remains the oldest working canal system in North America. Amazingly, of the total length, only 19km is entirely human-made as the rest of it utilised existing rivers and lakes.
After visiting the Bytown Museum for the background to its construction, the best way to enjoy it, obviously, is from the water, so make time on your itinerary for this lovely Rideau Canal Cruise. This one-and-a-half-hour tour takes you along a stretch of the canal from Dow’s Lake to the Ottawa River in a quirky blue cruise ship with snacks and an engaging tour guide.
The views of the riverbanks from the boat are attractive and culturally fascinating. It’s the perfect perspective to see top sights like the National Arts Centre, the Canadian Museum of Nature, and the University of Ottawa campus. It’s a relaxing trip with excellent commentary from the guides, which give you lots of extra information about what you’re passing in a fun and educational manner.
You know what we always say – if you want to really enjoy a city, see it from the water!
So there you have it! Fifteen fun things to do in Ottawa on your next trip to Canada, but of course they’re still plenty more wonderful museums, gourmet food, and attractions to tempt you if you are somehow still not sold. Ottawa – a modern cosmopolitan city, embracing its status as Capital while simultaneously seeking to forge a unique identity on its own will be a highlight of any trip in Canada and North America.
No matter what season you visit or your budget and time commitment, Ottawa is a city with something for everyone and indeed can lay claim to its title as Canada’s Capital of Cool!
A special thanks to Ottawa Tourism and Alt Hotel for helping me with my stay, including plenty of great local hints and tips that you can find included above. They also generously provided a few photos of events for this article that I was unable to attend during my stay.
As always, all opinions are my own, and I would have loved Ottawa regardless!