So, what would you do if you had 2 days in Ottawa? More than most would think, and it doesn’t have to cost you that much, either!
Can you believe I was born and raised in Toronto, Canada, and had not visited my country’s capital Ottawa until a few years ago? Sure I’ve been to Kingston, Montreal, Quebec City and as far East as St. John’s in Newfoundland & Labrador. I know, it’s shameful but I righted the wrongs when we took a quick trip to spend 48 hours in Ottawa. It might have something to do with the hockey rivalry between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Ottawa Senators or the failure to understand why Ottawa is the capital of Canada and Toronto, the bigger city isn’t. But I digress.
Ottawa is definitely one of the best places to spend a getaway. Like Toronto and most big Canadian cities, the lifestyle can be expensive. O-Town – as it’s passionately nick-named, is no different.
Since there are no financial breaks from our national airline Air Canada either – it’s ridiculously costly to fly within Canada. This leaves most travellers with options two and three; take the train or drive. Although I love taking trains we opted to rent a car and drive so we could have to option to drive around when we arrived. Granted, I’m not a huge fan of driving long distances but since it’s only about four hours from Toronto, I sucked it up and hit the road.
Depending on where you’re coming from, a road trip may be the best option for you too. If not, there are options one and two to choose from. Here’s a suggested itinerary on how you can spend a weekend in Ottawa and get the most out of your trip.
- Before Ottawa became the capital of Canada, it was a humble trading and lumbering community.
- Members of the Algonquin First Nation (Native Americans) inhabited Ottawa early on and settled in the Ottawa River Valley. These people were known traders, and the city’s name is even believed to come from the Algonquian word meaning “to trade”).
- The very first town established in Ottawa was Wrightsville, which came to be in 1800 when a bunch of farmers from Massachusetts came to settle just north of the river. This group was led by Philemon Wright.
- During the early 1900s, Ottawa saw two major fires that raged through the city, the first burning the Hull and the second blazing through the Parliament Buildings. Restoration began in 1922.
Getting To Ottawa, Canada
By car, Ottawa is 4.5 hours from Toronto and around 2 hours away from both Montreal and Kingston. As mentioned, we decided to do the road trip to the city, but if you’re not wanting to drive, you have other options as well.
For those planning a similar road trip to my own, there are 6 highways in Ontario and 3 in Quebec that will get you to Ottawa. If you have your own car and don’t need to rent, this is typically the cheapest way to travel to Ottawa. And if you’re coming from a nearby city, you won’t be spending too long in the car either.
Just make sure you have a valid driver’s licence and take note of the speed limits on the various highways.
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You can catch a train to Ottawa from almost any major city in Canada. VIA RAIL offers several trips each day, and the travel time is similar to travelling by car. You can travel from most of the cities around Ottawa, with varying travel times.
Ottawa’s station is near downtown, which makes it easy to arrange transport to get to your accommodation. Train travel is more expensive than driving but still cheaper than most flights. And it’s an enjoyable way to journey through the country.
Air Canada and Westjet flights are quite easy to catch from major cities. But unless you’re travelling in the middle of winter, this is going to be an expensive option.
The Ottawa Macdonald–Cartier International Airport is only 20 minutes from downtown so you’ll be within easy access of the city. There are hundreds of both international and domestic flights to and from the airport every day.
Flights are much faster than driving or trains, so if you’re short on time or just hoping to enjoy more sightseeing, and don’t mind the price tag, this is a great option. At the airport, you can either find a taxi or shuttle to get you to your accommodation, or you can rent a car.
Day 1 of Your Trip to Ottawa
Let’s start with all the best things to do and see when you visit Ottawa in one day. Day one is all about exploring all the must-see highlights of the capital city and visiting the most attractive parts of Ottawa.
See The Notre-dame Cathedral Basilica
A great place to start your 48 hours in Ottawa is Notre Dame. The Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica is a beautiful Roman Catholic minor basilica that was once the home to the small wooden St. Jacques Church built-in 1832. It was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1990. You can pay the cathedral a visit, and take advantage of the guided tours that happen Tuesday and Friday mornings, as well as Wednesday and Thursday afternoons.
Marvel at the National Gallery Of Canada
Typically I don’t recommend Museums on short trip itineraries but this is Canada’s capital and this is Canada’s national art museum – the largest museum in Northern America by exhibition space. Inside the building, you’ll find the library of archives which is home to an array of books on Canadian art literature. There’s also a large collection of artworks, photographs and other culturally significant pieces. You can shop for souvenirs or stop for coffee at the cafeteria.
Entrance to the museum is $16 for an adult who’s not a member.
Find Lunch at Byward Market
Down the street from Notre-Dame and the National Gallery of Canada is the Byward Market which is a definite must-do in Ottawa. The name refers to the old ‘By Ward’ of the City of Ottawa. The district comprises the main commercial part of the historic Lower Town area of Ottawa. The history of the market dates back to 1826 and is centred on a man named Lieutenant Colonel John By of the Royal Engineers. This Lieutenant was sent from England to oversee the construction of the Rideau canal system.
At the market, you can find an abundance of great spots to stop and grab a bite to eat. This makes for a brilliant lunch stop and still allows you to get in sightseeing while you find food. While you’re in the ByWard Market here are 5 Hidden Gems you can not miss!
Visit Parliament Hill
Since we are in Canada’s capital city, the next stop on the list of things to do in Ottawa, Ontario has to be the Parliament of Canada, on Parliament Hill. Parliament Hill, also known as The Hill, is an area of Crown land on the southern banks of the Ottawa River. Its Gothic revival suite of buildings is the home of the Parliament of Canada and has architectural elements of national symbolic importance.
Parliament Hill attracts approximately 3 million visitors each year. Originally it was the site of a military base in the 18th and early 19th centuries. You can take guided tours for free here, although if you are wanting to do that, it’s better to make this stop earlier in the day. Or you can visit at noon and watch the guard change.
Admittedly, standing here gives me such a burning feeling of patriotism and pride.
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier | National War Memorial
The Canadian Tomb of the Unknown Soldier just before the National War Memorial in Confederation Square is dedicated to Canadian service men and women and holds the remains of an unidentified Canadian soldier who died in France during World War 1.
In 1882 construction of the building at the corner of George & William was completed & the Grand Hotel officially opened for business. On May 1st, 2009 in the same historic location “The Grand” was reborn. The restaurant combines old-world traditional recipes with modern décor, known for being authentic to Southern Italy.
Our waiter confidently bragged their traditional Napoletana Pizza and was bold enough to say it was better than the pizza in Naples. Always excited to speak about all the places I’ve been I simply replied “I’ve been to Naples so let’s see if you’re right” Verdict: Definitely delicious pizza but you can’t touch Naples.
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Day 2 of Your Ottawa Trip
If this is your first time in the city and you’re like me, you’re likely starting to wish you had come sooner. We can’t change that, but thankfully there are another few hours to enjoy and continue discovering all the gems. We got a few more things to see in Ottawa in one day before you head home.
Discover the National War Museum
Spend some of your second-day diving into the military history of the city. This museum contains artwork, photos, artifacts and personal accounts of the wars we’ve been through so far. It’s an excellent place to learn more about historical military events but also serves as a place of remembrance.
You can visit any day from Wednesday to Sunday, from 10 am.
Check out the memorial wall, the lockers, or simply visit one of the many diverse exhibitions.
If you missed morning coffee there is a cafe and a gift shop on the premises as well.
Ice Skate or Go Boating in Rideau Canal
One of the best things to do in Ottawa is The Rideau Canal which connects the city of Ottawa, Ontario on the Ottawa River to the city of Kingston, Ontario, on Lake Ontario. It is 202 kilometres in length and was opened in 1832 as a precaution in case of war with the United States. It remains in use today primarily for pleasure boating during the warmer months and ice skating in the winter months. During winter, this section of the canal officially becomes the world’s largest skating rink with a cleared length of 7.8 kilometres.
I was hoping to put my rollerblading skills to good use but it was empty. I was later informed by the locals that the canal needs to have 10 consecutive days of -10° weather for the river to be deemed safe to skate on. Arghhh oh well. Maybe next time. If you’re visiting during warmer weather, I’d suggest taking a canal cruise to view the city from a new perspective.
Take in the Views from Nepean Point
Before you leave Ottawa, you’re going to want to stop off at Nepean Point. This viewpoint is in a park located on a cliff overlooking some of the best parts of the city. You’ll share your visit with the statue of Samuel de Champlain, who played a key role in the French Expansion into the New World. The viewpoint is also behind the National Gallery of Canada. It’s especially majestical if you head there during sunset.
End Your City Visit on a Sweet Note at Beavertails
One of the final fun things to do in Ottawa is to try Beavertails. Beavertails is a pastry that has been stretched to resemble a beaver’s tail. For those who don’t know, the beaver is Canada’s national animal. The topping choices and combinations are endless but my personal favourite is Salted Caramel. Beavertails was the sweetest way to end my 48 Hours in Ottawa but I know there is still so much more to see, I’ve only just scratched the surface.
Luckily, my friends over at The Crazy Tourist have compiled a fantastic list of the 15 Best Things To Do In Ottawa.
Lastly, if winter is not your thing then here is a summer list of how to have the ultimate Ottawa weekend.
Ottawa One-Day Tours
For some, planning out the days is part of the fun when visiting anywhere new. But for others, having something planned for you makes the trip a whole lot more fun. So if you’re in the latter group, check out these tours that you can book for a day (or shorter) and get a feel around the city.
Half-Day City Sightseeing Tour
Price: ± $130 CAD
Take a half-day tour that will take you to see downtown Ottawa, the Parliament buildings, and includes a behind-the-scenes tour of the Royal Canadian Mint headquarters. The tour includes both land and water trips, and having a guide means you have access to a wealth of information and knowledge about the city.
Night-time Cruise Tour
Price: ± $155 CAD
Take a sunset cruise on the Ottawa River and view all the important sights and landmarks as you slowly float past them. Look out for Rockcliffe Park, Major’s Hill Park and Nepean Point, and be sure to take a camera and capture the views.
Hop-on-Hop-off Bus Tour
Price: ± $50 CAD for a day’s ticket
A hop-on-hop-off bus is a great way to enjoy a guided tour but still have the freedom to enjoy your trip in your own time. The bus will take you past all the landmarks in the city, and you can select the ones you’d like to stop off at. This is also a great choice if you haven’t driven yourself, because transport won’t be an issue.
Fairmont Chateau Laurier
This hotel is a little more on the pricey side, but if you’re in town for a luxury retreat, it’s ideal. Fairmont Chateau Laurier is set in a historic building, overlooking the city centre. The rooms here are large and spacious, with some offering double bathrooms, fireplaces, and varying views out the windows.Trip Advisor Booking.com
Spend a Weekend in Ottawa – You Won’t Regret It
There is more than enough to keep you busy for a full weekend in Ottawa, with plenty of history, food, and culture to explore.
Using this suggested Ottawa itinerary, 2 days is just enough to enjoy the highlights. And if you miss anything, you can always come back and see or do it next time.
Have you been to Ottawa recently? What are your favourite places to visit? If you haven’t been, don’t wait any longer!
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