Road Trip Ontario wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t curate the ultimate list of fun things to do in Ottawa. It is the country’s capital (despite what most Torontonians think, feel or choose to accept), and it’s definitely one of the best places to spend a weekend getaway.
Despite the hockey rivalry between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Ottawa Senators, like Toronto and most big Canadian cities, the lifestyle can be expensive. O-Town – as it’s passionately nick-named, is no different.
Here’s a suggested itinerary for spending a weekend in Ottawa and getting the most out of your trip.
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- 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.
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 one, 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. Hertz Mobile
You can catch a train to Ottawa from almost any major city in Canada. VIA RAIL offers several daily trips, 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 this will be expensive unless you’re travelling in the middle of winter.
The Ottawa Macdonald–Cartier International Airport is only 20 minutes from downtown, so you’ll have easy access to the city. Hundreds of international and domestic flights to and from the airport are daily.
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. You can either find a taxi or shuttle to get you to your accommodation or rent a car at the airport.
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.
Since we are in Canada’s capital city, the first 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 want 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 as a Canadian will give you such a burning feeling of patriotism and pride.
The Peace Tower, located in the core of Ottawa’s Parliamentary Hill, is an icon of the country featured on Canada’s twenty-dollar bill. The tower, formally known as the Tower of Victory and Peace, extends over 300 feet high and is a distinctive component of the Ottawa skyline. The Peace Tower replaced Victoria Tower, which burned down in 1916 and was rebuilt in the ornate Victorian Gothic style to complement the remaining Parliamentary complex buildings. The tower is considered a memorial to the Canadian soldiers who died during the First World War and contains extensive symbology, design features, and architectural details depicting Canadian history. The focal bell and clock in the Peace Tower are striking features of the building.
Terry Fox Statue
This statue commemorates Terry Fox, a Canadian boy who ran across Canada to raise awareness about childhood cancer. He died after running 575 km (354 miles) across Canada in 1980. His goal was to run 1,000 km (621 miles), but he only made it halfway through his journey.
If you attended any elementary school here in Canada since the ’80s, then you’ve definitely learned about Terry and participated in a mock run around the neighbourhood to raise money. He’s a Canadian icon.
Indigenous Peoples Space
The Indigenous Peoples Space is a building designated for the use of the First Nations, Inuit, Métis and later Algonquin Nation peoples. Located in Block 2 of Canada’s Parliamentary precinct, immediately south of Parliament Hill, the current Beaux-Arts building was built in 1931 to house the first permanent United States Embassy in Canada but was abandoned for a new location in 1999.
After remaining vacant for almost 20 years, in 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the former United States Embassy would become an Indigenous Peoples Space and represent the cultures and histories of the four indigenous groups of Canada.
The short-term vision for the Indigenous Peoples Space is to provide an opportunity for engagement between Indigenous partners and peoples to determine the future design of the space. The first floor of the building currently houses a gallery of contemporary Indigenous artifacts that offer non-Indigenous peoples an honest representation of Indigenous culture and society in the 21st century.
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 servicemen and women and holds the remains of an unidentified Canadian soldier who died in France during World War 1.
The National Arts Centre
The National Arts Centre (also known as the NAC) was built in 1967 and opened its doors to the public in 1968. Today, the NAC offers performances year-round, including concerts, dance recitals, plays, musical theatre productions, film screenings, comedy shows, children’s programs, lectures, workshops, and special events.
The NAC is Canada’s bilingual, multi-disciplinary centre for the performing arts. It presents, creates, produces and co-produces performance art in various streams – the NAC Orchestra, Dance and English Theatre; French Theatre; Indigenous Theatre; and Popular Music and Variety. The NAC nurtures the next-generation audience and artists from across Canada.
Oscar Peterson Statue
Oscar Peterson’s statue is located just outside the National Arts Centre at the corner of Elgin and Albert streets. Oscar Peterson was a Canadian musical genius who ranks among the world’s greatest jazz virtuosos. He continues to influence generations of musicians everywhere and is a legend in his own time.
The statue was created by Ruth Abernethy in 2010
Laura Secord Statue
Although most Canadians associate Laura Secord with the Laura Secord chocolate company, which was named after her on the centennial of her walk (which we’ll take about in a second), she actually has nothing to do with chocolates.
Laura Secord is known for her 32 km walk out of American-occupied territory in 1813 to warn British forces of an impending American attack. Based on her warning, a small British force and a larger contingent of Mohawk warriors were ready for the American attack. The British and their allies defeated the Americans, most of whom were casualties or taken prisoner in the Battle of Beaver Dams.
Her contribution to the war was little known during her lifetime, but since her death, she has been frequently honoured in Canada.
The Rideau Canal & ByTown Museum
Rideau Canal, the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in Ontario’s “Cultural” category, is a must-see and one of the best things to do in Ottawa. The Rideau Canal connects the city of Ottawa, Ontario, on the Ottawa River to the city of Kingston, Ontario, on Lake Ontario.
It is 202 kilometres long and was opened in 1832 as a precaution in case of war with the United States. It remains used today primarily for pleasure boating during the warmer months and ice skating in the winter. During winter, this section of the canal officially becomes the world’s largest skating rink, with a cleared length of 7.8 kilometres.
We were told that the canal needs to have ten consecutive days of -10° weather for the river to be deemed safe to skate on. You can rent skates at the Rideau Canal Skateway, but go early because they can and do run out! We should also note if you’re visiting during warmer weather, I’d suggest taking a canal cruise to view the city from a new perspective.
Ottawa Lock station is a popular area to check out near the Parliament Buildings – it’s a series of 8 locks. Here, you’ll find the ByTown Museum, which walks you through the historical past of the waterway and the area.
Down the street from Notre Dame and the National Gallery of Canada is the Byward Market. This is a definite must-do in Ottawa. The name refers to the old ‘By Ward’ of the City of Ottawa. The district comprises the central commercial part of Ottawa’s historic Lower Town area.
The market’s history 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.
You can find many great spots to stop and grab a bite to eat at the market. This makes for a brilliant lunch stop and allows you to go sightseeing while finding food.
While in the ByWard Market, here are 5 Hidden Gems you can not miss!
Royal Canadian Mint
The Royal Canadian Mint, located in a grand historical building down the street from the Byward Market, was founded in 1908, and today, it produces collector and commemorative pieces, including handcrafted specialty coins, medals, medallions, and gold bullion coins.
The headquarters provides guided and interactive tours plus access to its boutique gift shop. The tours provide information on how coins are made, a viewing of the medals from Vancouver’s 2010 Olympics, and the million-dollar coin, a record-breaking piece famous for being the largest coin ever produced.
Plus, visitors can hold a solid gold bar worth three-quarters of a million dollars.
Take in the Views from Nepean Point
Before leaving Ottawa, you will want to stop 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.
Notre-dame Cathedral Basilica
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 on Tuesday and Friday mornings and Wednesday and Thursday afternoons.
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 exact historical location, “The Grand” was reborn. The restaurant combines old-world traditional recipes with modern décor, which is authentic to Southern Italy.
Our waiter confidently bragged about their traditional Napoletana Pizza and was bold enough to say it was better than the pizza in Naples. Unbeknownst to our waiter, as a travel writer, we had the pleasure of eating lots of pizza in Naples…
Verdict: Definitely delicious pizza, but you can’t touch Naples.
Day 2 of Your Ottawa Trip
We got a few more things to see in Ottawa in one day, most of which are museums. Ottawa isn’t just our nation’s capital; it’s home to various museums. Museums can take some time to explore fully, so feel free to see one or two or spread a few out between day one and day two.
National Gallery Of Canada
The National Gallery of Canada was established in 1880, and its collection consisted of a single 19th-century landscape. Now, 140 years later, the Gallery is home to more than 75,000 works of art and extensive library and archival holdings.
The Gallery has one of the finest collections of Indigenous and Canadian art in the world and masterworks from numerous other artistic traditions. You can shop for souvenirs or stop for coffee at the cafeteria.
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 and a place of remembrance.
You can visit any day from Wednesday to Sunday, from 10 am.
Canada Air and Space Museum
Located on a former military air base, the Canada Aviation and Space Museum focuses on aviation in Canada within an international context – from its beginnings in 1909 to today. Everything from the original Canadarm on the Endeavour space shuttle to the Lancaster bomber from the Second World War.
As Canada became more involved in aviation and aerospace technology, the museum’s collection of aircraft and artifacts grew to include space flight. With more than 130 aircraft and civil and military service artifacts focusing on Canadian achievements, it is considered one of the finest aviation museums in the world.
In addition, visitors can book a flight on an authentic WWII Biplane, the Waco UPF-7 open-cockpit biplane from 1939.
Fairmont Chateau Laurier Historic Display
You’ll find the Fairmont Historic Display on the main floor of the Fairmont Chateau Laurier in the grand hall past the boutiques. The display is free and includes photos documenting the history of the property and the city, including Winston Churchill, who frequented the Chateau Laurier.
Canadian Museum of Nature
The Canadian Museum of Nature is a natural history museum with several interactive activities and educational tours.
Some permanent exhibits include the Talisman Energy Fossil Gallery with skeletons and dinosaur demonstrations, the Vale Earth Gallery with geological forces, rocks and minerals, and the mammal gallery with displays of well-known Canadian creatures like moose, grizzly bears, caribou, and cougars.
Just west of Wellington Village, where Wellington Street West becomes Richmond Road, is the trendy, lively and outdoorsy Westboro Village neighbourhood. A fantastic little area of the city that’s filled with tasty restaurants and shops, everything from food trucks to upscale restaurants to local thrift shops, vinyl stores and cute little coffee haunts.
Join locals as they sip fair trade coffee and tea at Bridgehead and delicious craft beer at Clocktower Brew Pub – both local chains.
End Your City Visit on a Sweet Note at Beavertails
One of the final fun things in Ottawa is trying 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 our favourite is Salted Caramel. Beavertails was the sweetest way to end 48 Hours in Ottawa.
Lastly, if winter is not your thing, here is a summary 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 much 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 and 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 at. This is also a great choice if you haven’t driven yourself, because transport won’t be an issue.
Rideau Hall is a national historic site and home of the Governor-General of Canada. Rideau Hall offers group and private tours daily to explore the quarters of the Governor-General. F.Y.I., the Governor-General of Canada, has the same duties as the Queen of England.
This is definitely one of the most interesting things to see in Ottawa. To book a tour, please visit the Rideau Hall Website.
Although Gatineau is a city in Quebec, it’s on the other side of the Ottawa river with plenty of bridges, water taxis and ferries to get you there and back. With its own nightlife, restaurants, bars, museums, and hiking trails, it’s a destination in its own right.
However, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Gatineau Park.
Gatineau Park is a 365 square km conservation park with its entrance located just 4 km from Downtown Ottawa. The park features 165 km of hiking trails and 90 km of mountain biking trails, as well as a variety of other outdoor activities such as swimming, canoeing, and camping.
Visitors can also tour the William Lyon Mackenzie Estate, a 231-hectare (acre) estate of Canada’s 10th Prime Minister.
Where to Stay For 2 Days in Ottawa
The great thing about spending more than one day in Ottawa is that staying the night gives you a better look at the city’s hospitality. I’ve listed three of the best accommodation options for your weekend getaway.
Ramada by Wyndham Ottawa On The Rideau
You can get a really good room for an affordable rate (by Ottawa standards) at Ramada by Wyndham. The hotel has views of the Rideau Canal, and the free breakfast is a bonus.
ByWard Blue Inn
The Byward Blue Inn is also quite affordable, and its location is almost unbeatable. It’s near many city centre attractions, like the National Gallery of Canada and the Byward Market, as the name suggests.
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.
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, two 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!