The capital city of Ottawa can often be overlooked when visiting Canada. Most travellers set their sights on Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City, or Vancouver. However, with so many top attractions, Ottawa really is a great sightseeing destination. It’s a vibrant, diverse, and walkable city with all the top attractions located in the downtown core. Not to mention how picturesque it is with the Gothic-style Parliament Buildings dominating the skyline. Lastly, it’s a cultural and historic mecca with lots of fun things to see and do.
From Toronto to Ottawa it’s a 4.5-hour drive making it a great weekend getaway for couples and families. Wondering what to do in Ottawa over the weekend? No worries, I’ve got you covered with these recommended best things to do in Ottawa. (Updated August 2022)
I absolutely love Ottawa and feel like a bit of a local. Growing up I would visit the city annually as a child and into my teens. I lived here while in University, and in the last decade traveled often for business. To me, Ottawa always feels like I’m returning home.
Best Things to Do in Ottawa
Most visit Ottawa during spring, summer, and fall- but if you truly want to experience a quintessential Canadian winter Ottawa is one of the best cities in Canada to visit. Yes, it’s cold, but the warmth of the city and the winter activities will make you forget the frigid temperatures.
Read more | Check out our Guide on the Best Things to Do in Ottawa in the Winter.
TOUR THE PARLIAMENT BUILDINGS
This is an Ottawa must see place to visit. Overlooking the Ottawa River, Parliament Hill, consists of three buildings: the East, the West, and the Centre Blocks. This is where representatives from across Canada gather to make laws that affect every single Canadian.
Take a self-guided tour of the exterior. Wander the grounds to take in the amazing Gothic architecture. The buildings were built between 1859 and 1927 and the details are impressive – the soaring columns, spires, stained glass windows, and peaked arches. At the back of the buildings, you will have river views straight across to the province of Quebec.
The guided tour of the interior will take you to the Senate, the House of Commons, and what is notably known as, the most beautiful room in Canada, the Parliament Library.
On July 1st Canada Day birthday celebrations are held on the lawn of the Parliament Buildings. This is Canada’s biggest celebration featuring live entertainment and fireworks. The gardens on the lawn of the Parliament Buildings are also one of the areas where you can see the spring display of the world’s largest Tulip Festival.
STROLL SPARKS STREET
This historic street is chock full of 19th buildings. It became where parliamentarians would live and work and where commercial banks and businesses set up their offices in the late 19th to early 20th centuries. It was named after Nicholas Sparks, a farmer from Ireland, who purchased this land unseen. He ploughed a path through this barren landscape which allowed for the development of Ottawa to begin.
In the 1960s, the city decided to make it a pedestrian-only zone, and it turned into a large outdoor mall full of shops and restaurants. It’s also where the city hosts festivals year-round – Poutinefest and Ribfest – just to name a few.
WANDER ON ELGIN STREET
Take a stroll down Elgin Street full of historical monuments and amazing architecture. At the top of the street is the National War Memorial originally built to commemorate Canada’s sacrifice in the First World War (1914–18). It now honours all who have served Canada in wartime.
Just beyond you will come across the Central Chambers National Historical site, built in 1890 with its striking red brick in Queen Anne Revival style. A little further down, you will come across the Lord Elgin Hotel built in 1941. It’s a modern adaptation of the French Chateau architectural style. Across the street sits Confederation Park, a small but lovely park with fountains and statues.
Lastly, end your stroll with a stop in at The Scone Witch, where their sweet or savoury scones are the best I’ve ever had!
WALK THE RIDEAU CANAL
The Rideau Canal is the waterway that connects Ottawa to Lake Ontario and the Saint Lawrence River. At 202km in length, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its historic significance. Opened in 1832, it is the oldest continuously operated canal system in North America.
Along the canal, there are 45 operational locks that function from May to October. Valves open letting the water out of the lock, and as the water drains, the boat floats down. When the water in the lock matches the water level of the downstream water, the gates open and the boat moves out and follows down the canal.
Experience | See Ottawa’s famous landmarks and enjoy entertaining commentary in both English and French on a must-do sightseeing river cruise, click here to book
Locals and tourists alike enjoy the canal all year long. Whether it’s out for a stroll, run, or cycle along the paths. Kayaking down it in the summer or ice skating along it in the winter it is always full of people enjoying the city.
Experience | Rent a city bike or an electric bike and head off on a fun journey through the Ottawa-Gatineau region. Ride along safe and scenic bicycle paths on a self-guided tour, click here to book.
STAY AT THE FAIRMONT CHATEAU LAURIER
Known as the city’s castle, this French Renaissance-style architecture, with a touch of Gothic Revival style is an attraction in itself.
Here are the top 10 reasons why you need to stay at the Fairmont Château Laurier.
- The hotel is pet-friendly. Any chance to travel with my dog will always be top of my list.
- It’s where royalty stays. Past guests include Queen Elizabeth II, Winston Churchill, King George IV, and Nelson Mandela to name a few.
- Enjoy an afternoon tea service in their exquisite Jasper Team room.
- Get the best night’s sleep of your life. Enjoy the lux bed and bedding making it hard to get out of bed in the morning.
- See all of the exquisite design details of the hotel’s interiors, like the Tiffany stained glass windows, Belgian marble floors, conical turrets and elaborate staircases.
- Savour a delicious meal at Wilfred’s fine dining restaurant.
- Enjoy the spacious rooms. Or even better, upgrade to a King Suite and you get double the space – including two full bathrooms, two separate closet spaces, and two separate views.
- Land yourself on the best outdoor patio at La Terrasse – a secluded terrace with scenic views of the Parliament Buildings.
- The views. Request Room 324 and treat yourself to double windows with views of the War Memorial, The Parliament Buildings and the Rideau Canal.
- It’s a central location. All of the main attractions are within walking distance.
Plan your trip | If you haven’t booked your accommodations, click here to start your search
HANG OUT AT MAJOR’S HILL PARK
Take a stroll through the capital city’s very first park. What was supposed to be the site for the Governor General’s residence (our country’s representative of the Queen or King of England), locals petitioned hard to designate it as a public park unsuccessfully for decades.
It was even the site for a huge party and bonfire to welcome the birth of the Dominion of Canada on July 1, 1867. Not until 1874, was when the government finally liked the idea of a dedicated park and it was formed.
Today, Major Hill’s Park remains an integral part of Ottawa’s life. It offers a beautiful and quiet space for locals and tourists alike to visit. It’s a popular hang-out spot for families and continues to be the focus of the city’s events and celebrations. In particular the annual Canada Day festivities on July 1st.
EAT, DRINK AND ROAM THE BYWARD MARKET
The historic and wonderfully vibrant ByWard Market area houses one of Canada’s oldest year-round farmers’ markets. It’s a major tourist attraction by day and a popular hot spot at night, but don’t let that deter you from visiting here.
Seek out the cool vibes at Clarendon Court, an inner courtyard with secluded cobblestone squares filled with small restaurants, coffee shops, and galleries. Some of my favourites are Oz Café, Sidedoor, and Planet Coffee. Stroll along Colonel By Drive for some of the best architecture and shops.
VISIT THE MUSEUMS
An interesting thing to do in Ottawa is to visit some of the city’s best museums. Ottawa’s newest museum is Canada War Museum which takes you through the country’s role from pre-confederation to the present day. Have an interest in flying, then a stop at the Canadian Aviation Museum is a must. A surprisingly fascinating and interactive experience all about money and the economy can be found at the royal Canadian mint at the Bank of Canada Museum. Lastly, visit North America’s largest art museum at the National Gallery of Canada.
Or why not enjoy the temporary public art that is all around the city? Like this spectacular one called Birds of a Feather. Look for the sign where it tells you about the artist and the story behind the piece.
GAZE UPON NOTRE DAME BASILICA
Visit Ottawa’s oldest and largest church completed in 1846. It offers dual-language services in English and French.
The cathedral is open for self-led and guided tours, as well as, hosting concerts throughout the year. It’s situated right across the street from the National Gallery of Canada and is a beautiful cathedral to see.
WATCH A SUNSET
Does anyone else love watching a sunset, especially when on holiday? Well, I’ve got you covered. If you are visiting Ottawa, here are the best places to do just that.
As a holidaymaker…
The culturally rich city of Ottawa is such a fun, family-friendly destination. From its top attractions all year long this list highlights the best of things to do. Despite being a large city, it has a small-town feel. Especially within some of the amazing ethnic neighbourhoods like Chinatown and Little Italy. There are so many interesting things to see and do but this top 10 list was focused on the must-do when in Ottawa.