I vividly remember a warm June Saturday morning in 2015, desperately trying to finish my masters’ dissertation when my parents dropped the news that they were moving to Ottawa, the Canadian capital for a year. After the initial surprise sunk in and after a few tears about being so far away from my mum, I put my planning hat on and got stuck into organising some holidays.
Ottawa is located in southern Ontario, a short drive from the city of Montreal and the US Border. Ottawa’s unique position means that it is one of the coldest cities in the world with average temperatures in January sitting around -10 degree however summer temperatures can hit 25-30 degrees centigrade. With such a vast range in climate, Ottawa has something fabulous to offer in every season.
Here are thirteen reasons why Ottawa should be on your Canadian bucket list.
- Get active on the Rideau Canal
Originally built for military purposes to provide a safe supply route in the event of war with the USA, the canal has been a focal point of life for the people of Ottawa and the millions of tourists who visit each year.
Stretching for two hundred and two kilometres, the canal passes through wildlife reserves, conservation areas and the city itself. With such a wide variety of landscapes to enjoy the Rideau canal offers something for every season.
During those bitter winter months, the Rideau Canal transforms itself into the world’s largest naturally frozen skating rink. Many local’s countdown the autumn days until the canal freezes over and they can get their skates on. The skate way becomes a bustling highway for commuters into the city and families are out in force enjoying the canal.
In summer the canal becomes a hot spot for picnics, walks, biking and paddling. It is without a doubt the lifeblood of the city and one of the best things to explore during your time in the city.
2. Hike in Gatineau Park
If you need some green space and time out from the big city then head to Gatineau Park. In just fifteen minutes from downtown Ottawa, you can bask the glory of this 90,000-acre parkland. Gatineau Park is home to hundreds of hiking trails, swimming spots, snowshoeing trails and cross-country skiing routes. Gatineau Park is the ultimate outdoor playground.
These beautiful hills provide the perfect vantage point in the summer months for panoramic views, secluded coves and old ruins. The wide variety of hiking trails provides something for every level of experience and skill. If you are looking for a leisurely Sunday morning stroll then I can recommend the Pink Lake circuit. This 2.3km hike is super chilled and has some spectacular scenery and wildlife. This is a great trail for families although there are several sets of steps, something to bear in mind if you have a pushchair.
Here are a couple of things to note to help you plan your trip to Gatineau Park:
Parking: Car parks are available for nearly all of the hiking trails but there is a fee when parking between June and September at the beaches. If you know you’ll be spending a decent chunk of time in the park then I would recommend looking at a parking pass https://ncc-ccn.gc.ca/places/parking-passes#entry:261:url
Emergencies: If you find yourself needing some assistance then you can call the 24-hour emergency line on 613-239-5353 alternatively if you need some help although it’s not an emergency you can call the visitor centre on 819-827-2020 or 1-866-456-3016 (toll-free). The visitor centre is open daily from 9 am to 5 pm.
Sunday Bikedays: If you are planning your trip during the summer months, take note that every Sunday morning nearly all of the parkways are closed to cars. This allows cyclists, inline skaters, runner and hikers free run of the trails. For more information and to check your route use the bikeways information page https://ncc-ccn.gc.ca/places/sunday-bikedays.
Toilets: This can be an important one if you’re not a fan of a wild wee. At the start of your chosen trail, there should be a facility you can use. There are also public toilets at all of the beaches.
Dog Free Trails: Before setting out with your four-legged friend it’s best to check that the trail is dog friendly. Some of the hiking trails do not permit dogs, this is to protect and preserve the delicate ecosystems and natural flora and fauna of the area. Please respect these trails and double-check before letting your pooch off the lead.
3. Visit the Glebe
The Glebe neighbourhood is located south of downtown and is bordered by the Rideau Canal on the south and east sides. The Glebe plays host to Lansdowne Park and TD Place Stadium, home of the Ottawa Red Blacks football team (that’s American Football…not British Soccer). The whole stadium area was regenerated in 2012 and is now the vibrant hub of the Glebe neighbourhood. Shops, bars, restaurants, skate park, open green space, playgrounds and even a bustling farmers market; the Glebe is the perfect place to take a stroll, grab lunch and spend an afternoon chilling with a coffee in the park.
If you’re feeling a little more energetic you can hire kayaks from Dows Lake Pavilion. The pavilion is just a short walk through the Glebe. A kayak is a great way to spend some time exploring the Rideau canal from the water. For me, this was one of the best afternoon’s we spend in the Glebe, although I have to say I am a pretty poor paddle partner as I am far too easily distracted by the scenery. If you’re anything like me, make sure you give your buddy a heads up they will be doing most of the work or you can always opt for single kayaks.
This was the neighborhood where my parents set up home. It’s got a real community vibe and coupled with welcoming locals it should be on your Ottawa bucket list.
4. Visit parliament hill
Sitting atop parliament hill is the imposing gothic structure of the parliament building, with similarities to the UK parliament and the parliament building of Budapest the Ottawa parliament buildings have been the seat of government since 1866.
During the summer months, there is even a changing of the guard ceremony which is well worth a watch. The parliament also offers free daily guided tours. Tours last from 40 minutes to an hour depending on which part of the government buildings you want to explore. Tickets for tours can be booked ahead of time https://lop.parl.ca/sites/Visit/default/en_CA/#include_html
If history and politics aren’t your things then parliament hill still has something to offer. In the winter months, the whole building becomes a giant canvas for a light and sound show, it really is quite mesmerising. Alternatively, if you’re visiting in summer and fancy reconnecting with your body and the great outdoors, then yoga on the hill is for you. Every summer Parliament Hill welcomes seasoned yogis and novices alike to participate in uplifting midweek yoga throughout May, June, July and August. Don’t forget to pack your yoga mat!
5. White water rafting
This has to be one of my all-time favourite adventure activities I’ve ever done. If you like that slightly nauseating but intoxicating feeling of starring potential death or physical injury in the face then white-water rafting should be on your list. It’s an adrenaline rush like no other. We booked up a day adventure rafting with Owl Rafting. This family-run business is located right on the Ottawa river to the west if the city, an hour drive from downtown.
The adventure rafting package was medium intensity meaning that despite our incredibly skilful guide doing the steering we were in charge of paddling the raft. Our trip lasted eight hours and included a BBQ supper which was just the ticket after a day on the river.
The Ottawa river is widely considered to have some of the best white-water rafting in the world. Professional rafters and kayakers flock to the river to challenge themselves on its class five rapids.
To make the most of your rafting experience you absolutely need water shoes (no flipflops…if you end up in the water, you’ll be hard-pressed to find them!), swimsuit, a dry change of clothes, sun cream and a towel. It’s also worth considering your swimming capability; although you are wearing a life jacket and are surrounded by trained guides you really should be comfortable being in the water…the possibility of falling out is real.
6. Visit the Fairmont Chateau Laurier
This imposing fairy tale castle sitting on the banks of the Rideau Canal has played host to royalty, world leaders and countless celebrities. Built in 1912 the hotel has some of the best views of the city and is one of Canada’s most iconic landmarks.
The restaurant, Wilfred’s is widely known as one of the finest culinary experiences in Ottawa but the gastronomic glory isn’t limited to the main restaurant. The recently renovated Zoe’s and La Terrace also offer first-class food and service in a slightly more relaxed environment. But if you haven’t got a spare night for dinner then you should definitely reserve an afternoon slot for afternoon tea. Exquisitely presented cake, sandwiches and steaming hot tea, the Chateau Laurier gives you everything you could wish for in a proper afternoon tea.
Dining aside the hotel presents a historic display, located on the main floor. The display is free to view and documents the history of the chateau and the city.
7. Cruise the canal
Taking a cruise from Chateau Laurier to Dows Lake is a great way to learn about the history of the city and the canal. The cruise takes you past some of the cities best landmarks including City Hall, Lansdowne Park and the National Arts Centre.
A standard canal cruise lasts an hour and a half and costs $30. The cruises are available from May to October. For more information and different types of package check out Ottawa Boat cruises https://www.ottawaboatcruise.com/cruises-and-guided-tours
8. ByWard Market
Located in the heart of downtown Ottawa, the ByWard Market is one of Canadas largest oldest markets. In addition to the fabulous range of indoor stalls, you’ll find the outdoor vendors selling their wares in blistering sunshine and sub-zero temperatures 363 days a year.
If you need of a lunchtime snack or just fancy a wander through the stalls the ByWard Market is sure to inspire your taste buds and curiosity. If you’re visiting during the months, I would suggest finding a stall serving beaver tails…fried doughy goodness covered in your choice of sweet or savoury topping. Nutella covered sugary dough is the perfect pairing for a chilly afternoon stroll through the city.
9. Dow’s Lake
Dow’s Lake is a small man-made lake surrounded by Commissioners Park. Every year the park sees the ground explode with colour in the celebration of the Canadian Tulip Festival. Over 300,000 tulips bloom along the lakeside in May making this one of the most beautiful times to visit Ottawa.
There is also a large pavilion at Dow’s Lake where you can hire kayaks, canoes, and paddleboats. There is also a changing facility for skating in the winter.
You don’t have to be activity keeno to enjoy Dow’s Lake, you can simply enjoy the lakeside views from any one of the three restaurants.
10. A pint at the Chelsea Pub
Few things are better than finishing a long trail hike and finally sitting down with a cold beer, salty chips and a heart attack inducing cheeseburger. If you’re salivating at the thought then the Chelsea pub should be right at the top of your post-hike list.
This family-friendly pub offers gastro style food, cocktails, beers and all the usual soft drinks. The pub has been a pivotal part of Chelsea village life since 1875. This place is anything but a secret, in the summer months, you can find the wide terrace, enclosed beer garden and indoor space packed with guests. So, if you need an après hike pick me up it’s worth calling ahead to secure a table.
11. Check out the museums and galleries
As the Canadian capital, Ottawa is awash with world-class museums and galleries that rival the likes of Paris or London. There are no fewer than seven national museums, you are sure to find something to capture your imagination and a place to while away an afternoon. Take your pick from social and military history, world-class artwork, technological and natural wonders and aircraft collections, the choice is yours.
My top pick for culture vulturing in Ottawa has to be the National Gallery. Welcomed by the giant arachnid Maman the gallery has an extensive collection of Canadian art and photography as well as European works from ranging from artists such as Picasso to Hockney. The National Gallery also holds a large collection of First Nation artwork.
If art isn’t your bag then the Ottawa is home to the Canadian Museum of History, the Aviation and Space Museum or the Canadian Science and Technology Museum all make for a brilliant day out with the family. If you want to sample multiple museums during your stay in the capital, I recommend a museum passport. The museum passport will help save you money during your trip as for $35 you can gain access to any three of the seven national museums. http://museumspassport.ca/
12. Visit the Nordic Spa
Tucked away near the village of Chelsea is North America’s largest spa. With ten baths, nine saunas, one infinity pool, one saltwater pool, restaurants, treatment rooms and lounges it is easy to spend a whole weekend having some ‘me time’ at this nature enveloped retreat. Located only twenty minutes outside of Ottawa it is easily accessible and definitely worth a visit.
The Nordic Spa experience is all about improving your wellbeing and promoting relaxation. For me, the last few months of lockdown have taught me that I can afford to slow down and prioritise myself. Self-care is not about being selfish. So, if you have the time during your trip then take some time out and focus on you.
13. Catch a show at the Ottawa Little Theatre
The Ottawa Little Theatre is Canada’s oldest community theatre. With performances throughout the year from September to July, there is something for all audiences. Drama, comedy, farce, mystery and family adventure are all on show at the Ottawa Little Theatre. A visit to this charming theatre is well worth an evening during your trip to the Canadian capital.
I hope that you have found some inspiration here for your trip to Ottawa. I am always on the lookout for new experiences, so please let me know if I’ve missed something brilliant off the list. I am in no doubt that Ottawa now has a firm place in my family and we will be visiting again soon.