Ottawa is a place where old Canadian stereotypes come to life: bilingual, hockey-crazed, bike-friendly, outdoorsy, and home to some of the friendliest locals on the planet. Through its sparkling waterways and canals, Ottawa offers the unique opportunity to experience Canada’s rich history — while also proving itself to be a hip, dynamic city.
In recent years, Ottawa has shaken off its “capital” vibes with a vibrant college and start-up scene. Located on the border of English-speaking Ontario and French-speaking Quebec, visiting Ottawa offers the rare opportunity to see both cultural sides of Canada in a single trip. If you’re seeking the perfect itinerary, look no further. Here are 35 of the absolute must-sees in Ottawa:
Each winter, the Rideau Canal freezes over and becomes the world’s largest skating rink. Stretching 8 km through the heart of Ottawa, the Rideau Canal Skateway is Ontario’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site where you’ll witness students traveling to the pubs, business people commuting to the office, and hand-in-hand couples taking in the winter scenery. Stalls are set up along the canal offering warm beverages, such as hot chocolate and soups.
Just 20 minutes outside of downtown, “The Rock” is an epic 200-foot water dip bungee drop. The 160-foot rebound itself is higher than any other drop in all of the U.S. and Canada! For a safe and thrilling way to experience the drop, head to the Great Canadian Bungee, which is set up on an amphitheater of solid limestone rock, staring below into the deep aqua blue of a spring-fed lagoon. In addition to bungee jumping, they also offer zip lining and rafting to take advantage of this incredible natural playground.
Glowfair Festival takes the classic summer block party and adds—you guessed it—tons of beaming lights. Each year in June, the city shuts down 10 blocks on the normally-bustling Bank Street for a weekend and sets up two music stages, which feature more than twenty bands and DJs. Among the normal festivities, the festival includes glowing yoga sessions, an enchanted forest, an outdoor gallery, and even an after-hours silent disco. The festival is an energetic combination of light, art, live music, food, and local community.
Every Wednesday from May to August, there are free yoga sessions on Parliament Hill. Hosted by Lululemon to promote health and wellness, these gatherings are regularly attended by thousands of all ages and levels (even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been known to pop in every now and then). Led by Ottawa’s most beloved local yoga teachers, the hour-long session is the perfect hump day break. So grab a mat and a water bottle and head to Parliament Hill to unleash your inner zen!
There aren’t many cities where you can go whitewater rafting just minutes away from downtown. Ottawa City Rafting offers the magical opportunity of urban whitewater rafting – an adventure to the backdrop of the Parliament buildings and pristine wilderness.
Spending the night in prison doesn’t exactly top out the bucket lists of many travelers (or maybe it does?), but the HI Ottawa Jail Hostel could be an exception. Formerly the Carleton County Gaol from 1862 until it was shut down in 1972, the facilities have since been transformed into a youth city hostel. Old jail cells have been converted into accommodation – cell bars, iron doors, and stone walls still intact. You can also spend some time in the solitary confinement and death row spaces where you will hear ghostly stories about the past.
During the month of December, Lansdowne and the Casino Lac-Leamy Plaza are transformed into a festive wonderland at the Ottawa Christmas Market. There’s no better way to get into the holiday spirit than by strolling under a canopy of lights, enjoying live performances, and savoring seasonal treats and warm drinks from local vendors. Access is free!
Even the site itself is an architectural marvel – a stunning ultra-modern glass dome with prism-like towers and guarded by a giant spider sculpture. There’s no better way to explore the country’s artistic heritage than the National Gallery of Canada, which lies within walking distance from both the ByWard Market and Parliament Buildings. Inside, you will find everything from Canadian classics and European masterpieces to local Indigenous sculptures.
Indulgence, the Canadian way! BeaverTails pastries are the world-famous artisanal donuts that come in endless flavor combinations. The delicious fried-dough pastry is served piping hot and garnished with anything from classic cinnamon and sugar, to nutella, bananas, and icing. The rustic red stalls are easy to notice across the city, especially in the busier parts like the ByWard Market and City Hall.
Ever wonder what life would be like if a nuclear conflict broke out during the Cold War? Built from 1959 to 1961, the Diefenbunker Museum is a chilling look at a real four-story underground bunker in rural Ottawa. Originally designed to shelter top government officials in the wake of a nuclear attack, it’s now a national historic site and operates as a museum. The tours take you through living quarters, government work spaces, and military spaces filled with vintage maps and first-generation computers. You can even view the designated Prime Minister’s Suite, the War Cabinet, and the Bank of Canada Vault.
What’s a visit to Canada without catching a little puck, eh? The nation’s capital is a pretty hardcore hockey town and the Ottawa Senators are one of seven NHL franchises based in Canada, so you can bet the games get rowdy. There are few things more symbolic with the Great White North than hockey, so taking a visit to the Canadian Tire Centre to catch a live game is a must.
In the heart of Ottawa, the Byward Market is a thriving hub of more than 600 specialty shops, street stalls, bakeries, and restaurants. It’s Canada’s oldest public market, dating back to 1826 (meaning it’s actually older than the country itself). During summer, you can find fresh fruit, vegetables, and flowers on the street, which complement the main market hall. By the evening, the market is filled with street performers, catering to those visiting the rustic taverns and fine dining establishments.
Film buffs will love the Mayfair Theatre, the city’s oldest active movie house that primarily showcases independent, second-run, and cult classic films. Inside, the atmospheric cinema has an old school feel to it. Think faux balconies draped in rich fabric and medieval-style wrought iron lamps.
The Canadian Museum of Nature is a fun visit in its own right, but Nature Nocturne brings it to another level. Situated in an incredible heritage castle, the monthly event allows guests to roam the museum after hours, partake in interactive themed activities with friends, and enjoy three dance floors – each with a different vibe. So grab some drinks and dance the night away under giant dinosaur fossils and animal exhibitions.
A short trip across the river and into Quebec lies the sprawling Gatineau Park— the largest green space in the entire Ottawa-Gatineau region. It’s the second most visited among the national parks in Canada, comprising more than 361 square miles of unique biodiversity, lookout points, lakes, and forests. From hiking trails and nature spotting to picnics by the lake, Gatineau Park has something to satisfy all outdoor enthusiasts.
Well off the beaten path, Hintonburg is a small gem that’s increasingly known for its cute cafes and family-run restaurants. Here, you will find some of the city’s best independent businesses, such as Art-is-in-Bakery, SuzyQ Doughnuts, and Stella Luna Gelato Cafe. Ottawa’s latest “it” area is also home to many creatives for its galleries and craft shops, as well as photography and music studios.
Another landmark that’s just across the border in Quebec (15 minutes from downtown Ottawa), the Casino du Lac-Leamy always makes for a fun night out. The extravagant casino contains six separate sections with all your usual suspects: poker, blackjack, roulette, slots, and more. If you’re not the gambling type, take to the party at either Bar 7, Bacchus cigar lounge, or ALÉA Nightclub, which features live music bands or DJs on Friday and Saturday nights.
For three weeks every February, the famous Winterlude Festival combines some cold weather fun with Canada’s artistic and cultural diversity. Expect to see mind-blowing ice sculptures, snow playgrounds, friendly mascots, hot chocolate stalls, and dazzling fireworks – a true winter wonderland. Don’t forget to bundle up!
The Canadian Aviation & Space Museum is a fun experience in itself with many model planes to view and stories to hear. The highlight, however, is a ride in a vintage biplane that allows you to see Ottawa from the skies. The bomber dates back to the 1930s and has an open cockpit (flying helmet and goggles included!). Not only will you marvel at the beauty of downtown Ottawa, but you can also choose between specialized routes, including the Parliament Hill, the Ottawa River, Gatineau Hills, and even an eco-tour through the countryside
Just a stone’s throw away from the bustling ByWard Market and packed Bank Street lies Elgin Street, the home of some of Ottawa’s most storied drinking holes. Filled with many classic British pubs and trendy eateries, this laid-back street is still in the heart of the action, yet feels far off the beaten tourist path. Popular pubs along the route include Sir John A, Lieutenant’s Pump, and Deacon Brodies.
Following WWII, Queen Juliana of the Netherlands gifted Ottawa 100,000 tulip bulbs to show her gratitude for sheltering her during the invasion of the Netherlands. She also promised to make this annual gift for the rest of her life to show her lasting appreciation. Now, the Canadian Tulip Festival is one of Ottawa’s signature events, taking place in May when the winter is behind us and the flowers are in full bloom. For 10 days, the canal banks, public squares, and green spaces come to life across the city. Commissioner’s Park and Major’s Hill Park are where you will find the main festivities, where several million tulips spring to life, accompanied by fireworks and street performers.
Harsh winters tend to give Canadians an appreciation for warm weather, so it’s no surprise most patios in Ottawa are packed during the summer months. The recent surge in rooftop drinks has really taken over the city – and even better at sunset! El Camino is a popular taco spot with an upbeat rooftop terrace, while Bazille is another with direct views of the Rideau Falls. If you’re feeling spiffy, head to the Andaz Ottawa ByWard Market to find incredible 16th-floor, open-air views.
The Parliament Buildings are a collection of Victorian-era sandstone buildings sitting pretty atop a 50-meter hill above the Ottawa River. Guided tours are offered in the chambers, but the outdoor square remains the city’s heart and soul. On any given day, you will find community-led events, marching protesters, or simply students hanging out. The grassy area is patrolled by Canadian mounted police (“mounties”) in the summer and you can also observe the ceremonial changing of the guard each morning.
Bonus tip: For killer sunsets, head to the back of the hill where you’re treated to a great lookout point of the river below (and one of the best photo ops in the city).
If you’re a concert goer, there’s no better time to visit the nation’s capital than during Ottawa Bluesfest. It’s among Canada’s largest music festivals, regularly hosting more than 200 acts across 10 days. Taking place at LeBreton Flats, Bluesfest is known for its wide array of musical tastes, ranging from the likes of Kanye West, Backstreet Boys, and Red Hot Chili Peppers to local artists trying to make a name for themselves.
Not many associate Canada with beaches – less Ottawa, which doesn’t find itself close to any major body of water. But Mooney’s Bay is the in-the-know spot to be during the summer months. Here, you will find a secluded beach area with a boardwalk lined by classic beach bars and hamburger joints. The supervised beach is popular among groups of friends who come to relax under the sun, but also among swimmers, rowers, and volleyball players (each year, the HOPE Volleyball Summerfest Tournament for charity draws thousands).
Want to see one of the best photos ops in the city? Head to Rideau Falls Park. This is the spot where the Rideau River empties into the Ottawa River, with the twin falls divided by Green Island. The falls takes its name from the French word for “curtain” due to its magnificent flowing appearance, which freezes over completely in the winter.
Ottawa has a sizable craft beer scene, offering a diverse collection of local breweries each with its own eclectic personality. Beer lovers should check out the popular tour from Brew Donkey. Guests tour big and small breweries across the Ottawa region, including Beau’s, Kichesippi, Les Brasseurs du Temps, and more. The public tours run every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday year-round, whereas private tours are also available to reserve. Just be sure you’re ready to taste new and exciting beers!
Taking place each summer night after the sun has set, the Northern Lights is a free 30-minute light and sound show that’s projected onto the backdrop of the Parliament Buildings. The immersive audiovisual journey is not only a stunning display, but it also takes viewers on a guided trip through Canada’s history. So step back in time and enjoy the colorful show!
Located in the scenic village of Old Chelsea, Quebec (15 minutes from downtown Ottawa), Le Nordik Spa-Nature is one of the world’s most unique oases. It’s the largest spa in North America, focusing on thermotherapy and relaxation techniques, all set to the gorgeous natural backdrop of Gatineau Park. Here, you can enjoy 10 pools, nine saunas, endless indoor and outdoor lounges (yes, even during winter), bars and restaurants, accommodation, and a long list of specialized treatments.
Ottawa isn’t normally atop the bucket list of typical Canadian travel destinations, but as the nation’s capital, the annual Canada Day festivities spare no expense. The majority of the action occurs on Parliament Hill where musical stages are set up for numerous concerts throughout the week. Leading up to July 1st, you can also expect family activities, live entertainment, and local vendors, topped off by a spectacular fireworks display.
Ottawa is increasingly developing its own identity as a hip, indie city (in contrast to its provincial counterpart in Toronto), and its local coffee roasters are a great example of this. These cafes provide unique and rich flavors that you simply can’t find at a chain. You can also throw in cozy atmospheres (warm spots to kick back during winter) and totally Instagrammable backdrops. You’re truly spoiled for choice in Ottawa, from Little Victories Coffee Roasters in the upscale Glebe neighborhood to Happy Goat Coffee, Equator Coffee Roasters and Poppa Bean Coffee Roastery.
There’s no better way to experience both the natural and urban setting of Ottawa than via a Rideau Canal cruise. From the unique vantage point of the sparkling waterways that dissect the city, you can marvel at all of Ottawa’s historic sights, including the Château Laurier, City Hall, National Arts Centre, TD Centre, and Lansdowne Park. The passenger vehicle also runs on 100% electricity – the only of its kind in North America!
Major’s Hill Park is a tranquil oasis in the middle of Ottawa. The green space is located at the intersection of the National Gallery of Canada, ByWard Market, and the Parliament Buildings, making for the perfect stopover to enjoy the picturesque scenery. Major’s Hill Park regularly hosts outdoor events in the summer, but it’s also ideal for everyday picnics, hanging out with friends, and killer sunsets.
There’s tons of adrenaline-pumping summer fun to be had at Morrison’s Quarry. The incredible limestone quarry is known for its green-blue waters, which reach a maximum depth of 139 feet. The water is so clear that you can see up to 100 feet below the surface! Morrison’s Quarry is a hidden swimming hole where many people come to hang out with friends, but it’s also a popular site among scuba divers with underwater planes, tugboats, and car wrecks available to explore.
The Canadian War Museum is the best place to dive into Canada’s military history through artifacts, personal stories, artwork, photographs, and interactive exhibitions. Here, you can see everything from authentic propaganda posters to tanks, weapons, and even Hitler’s limousine.