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Best Things To Do in Ottawa

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Many of Ottawa’s top attractions are clustered within a short walk of the biggest draw of all: Parliament Hill. After the obligatory (and enjoyable) visit to the Hill’s turrets and towers, it’s easy to walk to the National Gallery of Canada, the Rideau Canal or the Canadian Museum of Nature. The shops and restaurants of the ByWard Market and the Rideau Centre are a stone’s throw from the seat of government. Even the Canadian Museum of Civilization, across the river in Gatineau, is only about a half-hour stroll away. And once you hop in a car, this national capital is surprisingly compact. Try your luck at a casino, hop into a space simulator, go hiking in a quiet forest or squeal as you hurtle down a waterslide—all within a half-hour drive of Parliament Hill.

Parliament Hill

Neighborhood: Centretown
You can’t skip “the Hill,” particularly if this is your first visit to Ottawa. It’s probably the city’s best-known tourist attraction—it’s on the money and the stamps, after all. It includes three neo-Gothic buildings, rife with spires and gargoyles: the West Block and the East Block, which house politicians’ offices, and the Centre Block with its soaring Peace Tower, grand Victorian library, the House of Commons and the Senate. If you’re Canadian and want to see Question Period (the fall-through-spring spectacle where politicians grill each other), contact your member of Parliament long before your trip. Non-Canadians are welcome, too, but you have to take your chances on seats being available. Admission is free for everyone, as are the Parliament Hill tours. In summer, show up early in the morning to book your tour to avoid the crowds. No parking onsite.

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National Gallery of Canada

Neighborhood: ByWard Market
Even if you don’t like art, check out this building anyway for the stunning glass-and-granite architecture, as well as the spectacular view of Parliament Hill, the Ottawa River and the Rideau Canal from the Great Hall. And if you do like art, you’re in for many treats, from the extensive collection of pieces by Canada’s Group of Seven to the reconstructed Rideau Chapel, a deconsecrated, serene space that now hosts exhibits and concerts. The collection ranges from aboriginal art, Asian sculpture and medieval and baroque paintings to contemporary multi-media pieces and photography. Blockbuster shows each summer usually focus on crowd-pleasers like impressionist masters, while quirkier shows take place the rest of the year. The boutique is a nice place to browse for art books, scarves, jewelry and gifts.

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Canadian Museum of Civilization

Neighborhood: Gatineau
This distinctive curved building hugging the shore of the Ottawa River, designed by Canadian architect Douglas Cardinal, is a Gatineau landmark. Inside, you’ll find well-designed exhibits on the human history of Canada, including six traditional aboriginal houses and a towering collection of totem poles in the Grand Hall (another spot with a sweeping view of Parliament Hill and the Ottawa River). The Canada Hall features a range of reconstructed buildings from various periods of Canada’s history, such as a whaling station, an 18th-century French-Canadian inn and a Ukrainian Prairie church. The Canadian Children’s Museum, included with admission and housed in the same building, is ostensibly aimed at children up to age 16 but is most appropriate for kids under 10. The museum is also home to an IMAX theatre (separate admission; buy tickets when you arrive or a day or two in advance by phone).

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Gatineau Park

Neighborhood: Gatineau
Your first stop before trying to navigate the 361 square km. of Gatineau Park should be the visitor centre in the village of Chelsea, just north of Hull. There’s something in the park for just about everyone—if you know where to find it. Hundreds of kilometers of hiking, cycling, snowshoeing and cross-country ski trails web the park. The Mackenzie King Estate, the onetime summer home of Canada’s 10th prime minister, attracts history buffs and “ladies who lunch,” who love the rustic tearoom. Lac Philippe has several beaches and is popular with canoeists and kayakers, while more remote areas of the park have secluded campsites. In some far-flung parts of the park, you need to be alert for bears and other large beasts. Admission to the park itself is free, but there are some fees for parking, camping, skiing and other activities. Open year-round.

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Canadian Museum of Nature

Neighborhood: Centretown
While this museum is particularly popular with kids, anyone fascinated by critters, plants or rocks will find lots to intrigue them. The castle-like building that houses the museum recently received a massive five-year facelift, which included the installation of a striking glass tower over the front entrance. Highlights of the exhibits include the dinosaur collection, the live insects in the Animalium, and galleries devoted to mammals, birds and marine life. Call ahead to find out whether the hands-on Discovery Zone is offering public activities that day (from fall through spring, it’s often reserved for school groups during the week). Closed most Mondays in the off season.

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Canal Rideau

Neighborhood: Centretown
What’s so interesting about a canal? Well, this one—which snakes over 200 km. from Ottawa to the city of Kingston on Lake Ontario—is a UNESCO World Heritage site. When it was hacked out of forest and rock in the early-1800s, its 52 dams and 47 locks—all built by hand—made it an engineering marvel. Today, you can rent a houseboat, canoe or kayak to travel its entire length, but most visitors to Ottawa content themselves with a quick bike ride along its banks or a paddleboat ride on Dows Lake. For a uniquely Ottawan winter experience, rent skates and glide along the 7.8 km. of groomed ice from the National Arts Centre to Carleton University. The Bytown Museum at the Entrance Locks—between Parliament Hill and the Fairmont Chateau Laurier hotel—provides a good introduction to the canal’s history.

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Calypso Theme Waterpark

With over 35 waterslides, some 100 water games and a wave pool that accommodates 2,000 people, this waterpark 25 minutes east of the city was an instant hit with families when it opened in 2010. Locals soon learned to go early in the day (the park opens at 10AM) to avoid the traffic jam at the park’s exit off Highway 417. The owners plan to open another 10 waterslides this year, including North America’s highest freestanding waterslide tower. Don’t bring in any glassware, alcohol, umbrellas or children’s inflatable toys. And be prepared to give park staff the finger, so to speak: After opening an account with a credit card or a cash deposit, you’ll “pay” for everything throughout the day with your fingerprint. Open daily from early June through Labor Day; closed the rest of the year.

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Casino Lac-Leamy

Neighborhood: Gatineau
Need a slot machine fix at 3AM? Craving a noon-hour game of blackjack? The Casino Lac-Leamy is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. As well as a big, glittering gaming hall echoing with bells and the laughter of excited winners, you’ll also find a range of restaurants. These include the glamorous Le Baccarat, one of the only CAA-AAA five-diamond restaurants in the region. You can also check out the Vegas-style shows—which, it must be said, sometimes verge heavily toward the tacky end of the spectrum—in the spacious theatre.

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Canada Science and Technology Museum

Neighborhood: Centretown
Perhaps not as razzle-dazzle as science museums in some other cities—it’s located in a former bakery on the edge of an industrial park—this museum makes up in heart and curatorial depth what it lacks in glitz. Generations of kids speak fondly of the space simulator and the collection of vintage locomotives. Knowledgeable staffers eagerly share the inside scoop on everything from antique cars and canoes to microchips and electronic instruments. The corporation that runs this museum also runs the intriguing Canada Aviation and Space Museum in a beautiful, hangar-like Rockcliffe Park building, and the small Canada Agricultural Museum at the Central Experimental Farm, both also worth a visit if you have a keen interest in either subject.

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Canadian War Museum

Neighborhood: Centretown
Far from a rah-rah celebration of patriotic derring-do, the Canadian War Museum is a thoughtful, fascinating exploration of Canada’s military history, from the early days of European contact with aboriginal people to the latest campaigns in Afghanistan and elsewhere. In fact, the museum has occasionally taken flak from veterans’ groups and others for its warts-and-all presentations. The dramatic building, which opened in 2005, resembles a bunker, is partly sheathed in copper and boasts an eco-friendly green roof. Chronological galleries make it easy to follow the timeline. Highlights of the collection of some half-a-million artifacts include medals, armored vehicles, letters, artwork and uniforms. Closed most Mondays in the off season.

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