Once a humble lumber town, Ottawa was controversially chosen by Queen Victoria to be the capital of Canada all the way back in 1857. Since then, it has grown into the country’s fourth-largest city, and it now has countless world-class museums, tourist attractions and fascinating National Historic Sites to check out.
Set at the spot where the Ottawa, Rideau, and Gatineau rivers meet, it lies in the southeast of Canada on the border with Quebec. Things to do in Ottawa include visiting important institutions such as the Canadian Parliament and Supreme Court, as well as exploring the city’s beautiful buildings and attractive architecture.
In addition, plenty of parks and green spaces dot the city while the remarkable Rideau Canal which runs through the heart of the capital offers up some great outdoor activities and sightseeing cruises.
In this post, we'll cover:
12. Supreme Court of Canada
Perched atop of a high bluff overlooking the Ottawa River is the Supreme Court of Canada which lies right next to the city center. The highest court in the country, it was built between 1939 and 1945 with Queen Elizabeth herself actually having laid the first cornerstone.
Thanks to its outstanding Art Deco architecture and close proximity to Parliament Hill, the court is very popular to visit with tours taking you all around its interior. While the Grand Entrance Hall is certainly its standout sight, it is also interesting to see the courts where trials take place and hear the history of the building. Outside you can find some superb statues of Canadian Greats and snap great photos of the court and its chateau-esque roof.
11. Rideau Hall
The official residence of both the Canadian monarch and Governor General of Canada, the stately Rideau Hall can be found just ten minutes’ drive to the north of downtown. In total, the massive mansion has 175 rooms to explore with the fancy residence, and its grounds are open to the public for tours throughout the year.
Built back in the 1830s with later governors adding ever grander elements, it exhibits some lovely Regency-style architecture with enormous wings lying to either side of its main facade.
Inside, the humongous Rideau Hall is sumptuously decorated with fine furnishings and period pieces dotting its ballrooms, state rooms and private apartments. Besides learning about the National Historic Site, visitors can enjoy strolling around its gardens which contain lots of uniquely Canadian landscapes.
10. National War Memorial
The focal point of the capital’s Confederation Square, the National War Memorial lies just a short distance from Parliament Hill and many of the city’s other main sights. Originally erected in 1939 to commemorate the Canadians who died during World War I, the moving memorial has since been rededicated to all Canadians killed in all conflicts both past and future.
Towering to 21 meters in height, the granite arch is adorned with striking sculptures that represent various branches of the Canadian forces. These bronze figures can be seen emerging from the arch, allegorically passing from war to peace and liberty. Lying at its foot is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and ceremonial sentries who perform the Changing of the Guard each hour.
9. Royal Canadian Mint
Just a short stroll to the north of the National War Memorial is the Royal Canadian Mint which, until 1969, manufactured much of the country’s coinage. Nowadays, however, the National Historic Site only produces hand-crafted collector and commemorative coins as well as medals, medallions and gold bullion bars and coins.
The headquarters of the Royal Canadian Mint now occupy an historic Tudor-Gothic style building that looks very much like a castle as two turrets line its entrance. Visitors can take tours around the facility to see how the coins are designed and produced, learn about the mint’s history and even hold a solid gold bar. In addition, there is also a shop where you can buy gifts and souvenirs of your visit.
8. Ottawa Locks
While 47 in total can be found dotted along the Rideau Canal, it is the steep set of almost step-like locks at its northern end that attract the most attention. Known as the Ottawa Locks, they can be spied in between Chateau Laurier and Parliament Hill with the flight of eight locks making for some fabulous photos.
Completed in 1831, the small series of locks really are an astonishing engineering achievement as they connect the Rideau Canal to the Ottawa River 24 meters below. Despite lying in the heart of town, the Ottawa Locks are set in a serene spot amidst leafy parks, hills and historic buildings. As such, many people enjoy walks here and take photos of boats rising up and down the lock system.
7. Notre Dame Basilica
Both the oldest and largest church in Ottawa, Notre Dame Basilica was built in 1841 and boasts two towering twin spires which can be seen from both the city center and Parliament Hill not far away. While its neoclassical exterior looks quite austere, its inside is a feast for the eyes with elaborate carvings and magnificent stained-glass windows wherever you look.
Now preserved as a National Historic Site, the cathedral’s exquisite interior is home to hundreds of sculptures of religious figures with the carvings in its choir being particularly impressive. Besides this, it also has a huge pipe organ on show while glittering stars dot its colorful ceiling. During the summer, visitors can take tours of the basilica and learn about its fine features and interesting past.
6. Canada Aviation and Space Museum
Lying just fifteen minutes’ drive to the northeast of the city center is the Canada Aviation and Space Museum which is home to a huge collection of artifacts and aircraft. Through its extensive exhibits you can learn all about the history and evolution of aviation in Canada and the country’s significant achievements in space.
Established in 1964 on Rockcliffe Airport, a former military base, the museum’s humongous hangar houses over 130 civilian and military aircraft. Besides seaplanes and the Space Shuttle Endeavour’s Canadarm, it also has lots of vintage bushplanes from the 1920s to ‘40s on show. Besides exploring the museum’s interactive exhibits, visitors can try out its flight simulator or even book a sightseeing flight over Ottawa in the summer.
5. Canadian Museum of Nature
Boasting one of the best natural history collections in the world is the Canadian Museum of Nature which remarkably houses more than fifteen million specimens. Set just a short stroll to the south of the center, its interesting artifacts and exhibits explore over four billion years of the Earth’s history.
Originally founded in 1856 in Montreal, the massive museum now occupies a fine Tudor-Gothic Revival-style building which itself is a National Historic Site. Inside you can find everything from dioramas and displays on mammals and minerals to dinosaur fossils and the full skeleton of a huge blue whale. In addition to all its galleries on geology and exhibitions on Canada’s landscapes and wildlife, the museum also showcases some artwork and films relating to natural history.
4. Canadian War Museum
Set not far from downtown on the banks of the Ottawa River is the Canadian War Museum which serves as both a museum and memorial to the country’s military past. Inside its strikingly modern building are lots of excellent exhibits to explore which shine a light on Canada’s contributions to World War I and II and many other battles beside.
Opened in 1942, its collection of over three million items includes everything from uniforms and weapons to tanks, planes and even a replica of a WWI trench. Accompanying them are informative displays, photos and short clips of film. The museum also has a moving Memorial Hall for visitors to stop by and a Regeneration Hall which fittingly looks out over Peace Tower.
3. National Gallery of Canada
One of the largest art museums in North America, the National Gallery of Canada can be found on the banks of the Ottawa River overlooking Parliament Hill. While its captivating collection is a treat to peruse, the gorgeous glass building in which it is housed already makes for a spellbinding sight as it is designed to look like a cathedral.
Inside, the architectural marvel is just as impressive as its galleries are packed with fabulous photos, paintings and sculptures by Canadian and international artists. Alongside renowned names such as da Vinci, Michelangelo and Picasso you can also find exquisite artworks by the indigenous peoples of Canada. One of its most famous works is the striking spider sculpture Maman which lies just in front of its entrance.
2. Rideau Canal
Running right through the center of the city is the remarkable Rideau Canal which connects Ottawa to Lake Ontario some 200 kilometers away. One of the capital’s standout sights, it is lined by pretty paths to walk, run or cycle along with sightseeing cruises in the summer and ice skating in the winter when the water freezes being particularly popular.
Now primarily used for pleasure boating, the charming canal was actually built between 1826 and 1832 to secure supply and communications routes in the case of war with the United States. The National Historic Site has lots of picturesque parks, lakes and towns for people to stop off at along the way as well as the spectacular Ottawa Locks to check out in town.
1. Parliament Hill
The city’s main attraction for most visitors, the phenomenal Parliament Hill can be found right in the heart of downtown, overlooking the Ottawa River. Perched atop of a rocky outcrop, its complex of gorgeous Gothic Revival style buildings is home to the Parliament of Canada which is the seat of the country’s government.
Built between 1859 and 1927, the Parliament Buildings exhibit some astounding architecture with the prominent Peace Tower rising up high above its Center Block. Besides basking in breath-taking views of the capital from its observation deck, you can also take tours of the House of Commons and its grounds which are dotted with statues and memorials. Many people also enjoy watching its Changing of the Guard ceremony which takes places daily in the summer.