Canada’s capital city of Ottawa can often be overlooked when visiting the country. Most travellers set their sights on Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City or Vancouver; however it really is a great destination. It’s walkable and picturesque, with the Gothic-style Parliament Buildings dominating the skyline. Not to mention, its chock full of cultural and historic attractions.
A 4.5 hour drive from Toronto, this makes for a great weekend getaway. To make the most of your 48 hours in this vibrant city, I have some suggestions to share. Here are the 10 best things to do in Ottawa over a weekend.
I absolutely love Ottawa. I visited the city annually as a child and into my teens, lived there for four years during University, and within the last decade travelled there several times for business. To me, it always feels like I’m returning home.
Tour the Parliament Buildings
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. Visit the Parliament Hill’s official page here to plan your visit.
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 1960’s, the city decided to make it a pedestrian only zone, and it turned into a large outdoor mall full of shops and eateries. 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 savory 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 an 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 which 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.
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.
Stay at the Fairmont Château 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.
- It’s 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 Parliament Buildings.
- The views. Request Room 324 and treat yourself to double windows with views of the War Memorial, The Parliament Buildings and Rideau Canal.
- It’s central location. All of the main attractions are within walking distance.
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. It wasn’t until 1874, when government finally liked the idea of a dedicated park and it was formed.
Today, Major Hill’s Park remains an integral part of Ottawa life. It offers a beautiful and quiet space for locals and tourists alike to visit. It continues to be the focus for 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 houses one of the Canada’s oldest year-round farmer’s market. 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.
Visit the Museums
Ottawa’s newest museum is Canada War Museum that takes you through the country’s role from pre-confederation to 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 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 its story.
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
Anyone else love watching a sunset, especially when on holiday? Well, I’ve got you covered. Here are the best places to do just that.
As a holidaymaker…
Ottawa is a such a culturally rich city. From its history to its architecture to its museums to its year-round festivals. Despite its size, it offers that small town charm. Especially with some fantastic ethnic neighbourhoods like Chinatown and Little Italy. It really does offer something for everyone. It’s a mystery that such a beautiful, walkable city as this is often overlooked.
Hopefully this has inspired your future plans to this amazing capital city.