Ottawa Things to Do
Ottawa, Ontario is the capital of Canada. Ottawa, like most capital cities, has many things to do and most of them free or very low cost. We cover 13 of the top things to do in Ottawa in our week visit to this beautiful capital of Canada. Find out how to visit Ottawa on a budget for as low as $26 a day.
The best time to go to Ottawa is June and September. July and August is high season and is very crowded and busy. You will pay a lot more for accommodations and car rentals. June is warm with flowers starting to bloom while September is still warm and the leaves begin to change colour. There is less visitors to Ottawa at this time.
Ottawa is very safe with a very low crime rate. Surveys rate Ottawa as the safest city in Canada. That is pretty safe. The regular travel precautions should be followed. Do not go down dark and lonely streets. Stay clear of large crowds. Be attentive of what is happening around you. Be in control of your facilities. Protect yourself from the sun. Stay hydrated. Have a wonderful and meaningful experience in Ottawa.
Ultimate Guide for Ottawa
Top Thirteen Things To Do In Ottawa
1. Parliament Buildings | Free
The Parliament Buildings on the Hill are three separate buildings; the West Block, the Centre Block, and the East Block.
This picture is of the East Block. The West Block underwent an 8 year, $863 million renovation. The courtyard was enclosed with a glass ceiling to create the sitting chamber for the House of Commons while the main Centre Block undergoes a major 15 year renovation.
We visited just before the renovation began so we were able to tour the Main Block, go up the Peace Tower and dine in the Parliamentary Dining Room.
Tours are free but you must book advance tickets here
There are three different tours available and you can read about them on their website.
2. Rideau Hall | Free
Rideau Hall is the Official Residence of the Governor General of Canada who is the Queen’s representative in Canada.
Located on Sussex Drive it is just a few kilometres from Parliament Hill. Rideau Hall is in the centre of a 79 acre park. Parking on the street and admission is free to the public. You can catch a bus from downtown.
It is easy to spend a few hours wandering around the grounds. The park contains the Canadian Heritage Garden, a tree planting area where visiting Heads of State have planted commemorative trees, statues throughout the grounds and winding paths through the forest.
Tours of the residence on the weekend are first-come basis or you can book tours a minimum of 48 hours in advance. We booked for a Thursday and toured the actual residence. The tour took about an hour and we saw the public areas of the residence. The history and stories of the residence was interesting.
3. National Gallery | $16-$14 Seniors. Free Thursday 5-8pm
Established in 1880 with one picture the collection has grown to over 75,000 pieces. The collection has been housed in many different buildings over the years. The new National Gallery opened in 1988. The light and spacious art gallery was designed by world renowned Canadian architect Moshe Safdie.
The National Gallery hosts great travelling exhibitions as well as their permanent collection. When we visited it seemed to me that the focus seems to be on the building itself rather than the collection. Having been to National Galleries all over the world I thought that the collection display was somewhat lacking but still worth seeing.
Every Thursday from 5pm to closing the inhouse 7 Tapas Bar has a $7 menu with $7 beer and wine in the spectacular Great Hall. We enjoyed our Tapas and wine after touring the National Gallery.
4. War Museum | $17-$15 Seniors - Free Thursday 5-8pm
Located at 1 Vimy Place the The Canadian War Museum dates back to 1850. The current museum opened in 2005 marking its 125 anniversary and the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II.
The museum is designed to show the human experience of war. It is recognized as one of the top museums in the world for the study and understanding of armed conflict and draws 500,000 visitors a year.
It is easy to spend a few hours wandering through the museum. We were pleasantly surprised at the extensive exhibits and displays.
5. Canada Aviation and Space Museum | $15-$13 Seniors - Free Thursdays 5-8pm
Located on Sussex Drive about 6 km from Parliament Hill and just past the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Musical Ride stables. The museum focuses on Canadian Aviation history from a International context.
If you love planes, this the museum for you. In addition to the full sized restored airplanes there are interactive demonstations and you can even book real flights as the museum is on the site of a former military base.
A friend, who is a retired curator, arranged for free tickets and we spent over two hours wandering through the exhibits. The Sabre jet is on display. That was the type of jet that my dad flew in the Royal Canadian Air Force during Canada’s NATO commitment in France from 1952-1966. It was one of the first military jets in the world.
While the museum was quiet when we were there, it is recommended to buy advance tickets.
6. Canada Museum of History | $17-$15 Seniors - Free Thursday 5-8pm
The Museum’s history dates back to 1856. It is the most popular museum in Canada with 1.2 million visitors a year. The museum is housed in a modern 4 level building. Level 1 is dedicated to First People exhibits, Level 2 has 3 halls of changing exhibits and Level 3 and 4 are dedicated to telling the story from First Humans to Present Day.
If you were to pick one museum to pay full admission in Ottawa, I would pick this one. But, if you opt for the free admission on Thursday you still need to get an advance ticket online here.
7. Lansdowne Park | Free
Lansdowne Park is a world class facility that hosts modern and heritage buildings with lots of green space. It is home of the Ottawa Farmers’ Market held every Sunday from 9 am -3 pm outside the Aberdeen Pavilion during the summer and inside during the winter.
We spent an afternoon here and took part in the Croatian Festival that was going on at that time. There were cultural activities, displays, workshops, dancing and food. The Croatian people were proud to show us their culture and spend a long time talking with us.
The park is a popular venue and there is usually something going on at Lansdowne Park. You have a choice of a number of restaurants and there is a new shopping area that holds a Cinemax Theatre, Whole Foods store, an Ontario Liquor Store, and a stadium for Canadian Football League games.
8. Rideau Canal | Free
The Rideau Canal joins Ottawa with Lake Ontario. Opened in 1832 the 202 km canal was the economic highway of that time. Goods could cheaply flow up and down the canal. The picture shows the series of 6 locks where the canal enters the Ottawa River
The canal is a National Heritage Site of Canada, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the winter it becomes the Rideau Canal Skateway making it the largest skating rink in the world as it winds 7.8 km through the middle of Ottawa. From December to March almost 1.5 million visitors skate the canal that is ranked the number one winter experience in North America by Lonely Planet.
During the non winter months, people walk and bike along the pathways. On the canal there is canoeing, kayaking and boating. It is a lovely place to stroll along.
9. Gatineau Park | Free
Gatineau Park is a 15 minute drive from downtown Ottawa. It is the National Capital Region’s conservation park made up of a 361 square kilometres. There are over 183 km of trails through varied biodiversity.
It is the second most visited park in Canada. On nice days and weekends throughout the summer the park is heavily used with the trails and parking lots full to capacity. It is best to go during the week in off season. We went in June during the middle of the week and there was literally no one anywhere we went. We only saw a few cars wherever we went.
In addition to trails and lookouts you can visit the Mackenzie King Estate in the park and in the winter the trails are groomed for cross country skiing, snow shoeing and snow biking.
10. Byward Market | Free
Byward Market started in 1820 and was named for Colonel John By who was in charge of building the Rideau Canal. The market is full of Canadiana from T-shirts to cookies. Surrounding the market four square blocks of bars, restaurants, food trucks and outside eating areas.
Located in the heart of Ottawa it is a very popular spot for visitors and locals. On the weekends the bars and restaurants around the market are full of people. Be careful at closing time as the area can get quite rowdy with drunken revelers.
11. Central Experimental Farm | Free
The Central Experimental Farm is a 400 hectare farm just three kilometres from the Parliament Buildings and inside the City of Ottawa at 930 Carling Avenue. It was created in 1886 to improve farming methods through the use of scientific discovery. The farm is a National Historic Site and the most visited attraction in Ottawa.
The Farm is laid out in a 18th-century English landscape design with large stretches of lawn and fields, use of water, masses of trees and shrubbery and winding pathways. There is an abundance of flower beds that are cared for by volunteers belonging to the Friends of the Farm.
We spent a couple of hours wandering through the flower beds and down the winding paths. The volunteers are friendly and anxious to spend time with you talking about the history of the gardens.
12. Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica | Free
Built between 1843 and 1866 the Cathedral was built in Gothic Revival style. This ornate Cathedral is recognized by its twin spires. In 1879 the Cathedral was given the designation of a Basilica minor by Pope Leo XIII. It was named a Canada National Historic Site in 1990. In 1999 it underwent a year long major restoration
Pope John Paul II spoke at the Cathedral in 1984 and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was baptized here on January 16, 1972. Private tours are available by contacting the Cathedral staff.
13. Royal Canadian Mint | $8-$7 Senior
The Royal Canadian Mint occupies the historic building where it began in 1908. The 45 minute interactive tour is very informative and well reviewed.
The facility makes handcrafted collector coins, bullion coins, medals and medallions. You will learn about the Million Dollar Coin that is officially the largest gold coin in the world, weighing in at 100 kilograms. There have been five made to date.
Reservations are recommended. Click here to reserve your tour.
We cooked most of our meals on this trip. The house that we stayed in had a wonderful kitchen and a deck right on the Ottawa River. We only ate two meals out while in Ottawa. At a local pub and at Canada’s Parliamentary Dining Room.
Parliamentary Dining Room
We had an opportunity to be some of the last people to eat at the Parliamentary Dining Room in the Parliament Central Block before they closed it for a 15 year renovation.
Any Canadian can eat in the Parliamentary Dining room by invitation of their Member of Parliament. To do so all you have to do is contact their office either by phone or email. The Member of Parliament assistant will put in your reservation for the time and day that you select.
The dining room is jacket and tie for men. I was told it was office casual with collar shirt, tie, and trousers. I did not bring a jacket. Fortunately they have loaner jackets that you can wear to enter.
The dining room is very elegant with seating in the centre and 10 private rooms off the main dining room. The servers all wore black and white attire. The food was fabulous. We ordered off the three course set menu. The bill with wine and tip came to $70.
The Aude Dubliner
Located across from the Byward Market building. The Aude Dubliner was started by two Irish lads in 1992 and is one of the most popular pubs in Ottawa.
The pub focuses on Irish cuisine and traditional pub food. On the weekends there are live acoustic bands. We had a wonderful lunch here along with a pint of Guiness. Click here for the menu.
Is Ottawa Worth Visiting?
If you like browsing museums, watching Canadian politics in action, and being surrounded by beautiful green spaces then Ottawa is the place for you. We loved Ottawa and had wonderful experiences the week we visited.
Being the Capital City of Canada, Ottawa has an abundance of parks and green space. We stayed about 10 km East of downtown and drove along the John A. Macdonald Parkway that follows the Ottawa River park to the downtown area. No traffic, beautiful road, scenic beauty all around you, what is not to like? It was a pleasure to drive from our house to the centre of Ottawa.
The draw of Ottawa is Parliament Hill, the National Museums, and historical areas like the Rideau Canal. It is easy to spend several weeks and not do all the things that Ottawa has to offer. I love walking around historic areas like the Rideau Canal and the Parliament buildings. For architecture buffs there are plenty of wonderfully designed civic buildings. Museums around the world today are functional art pieces and Ottawa has its fair share.
Ottawa is a young people’s city with most of the people working in government and support services and making good salaries so there are a lot of good restaurants, shopping and event centres. We went to the little known but most prestigious restaurant in Canada at the Parliament building.
A highlight of the our trip was to sit in on a Question Period and see Canadian politicians engaged in political stratagem as the opposition gets their turn to ask tough questions of the government’s actions. Like sports, it is much more fun in person than on a TV screen.
Parks are everywhere in Ottawa as the Federal, Provincial, and Municipal governments all throw in huge amounts of money to showcase the city. The gorgeous parks are filled with people biking, walking, kayaking and doing other outdoor activities but there are plenty of places of solitude to meditate as well.
We found the fresh food to be first rate. That is important to us when we travel. We love to cook regional dishes with regional ingredients so we are always on the lookout for exemplar markets. We found two great markets and were able to cook most of our meals at the wonderful place where we were staying. Our home was located right next to a major park on the Ottawa River with our deck to the water edge.
Ottawa is definitely on our list of places to revisit when the opportunity presents itself.
Our Budget for 7 Days in Ottawa
How Can You Have A Cheap Vacation in Ottawa?
We were able to organize a cheap vacation in Ottawa. We have fine tuned budget travel to an art. Our flight to Ottawa was free. We booked a round trip from Calgary to Halifax with a layover in Ottawa for a week and our week layover in Ottawa was free. Our house accommodation was free as we did a home exchange with the home owners who were in our house while we were in their house.
The car rental for the week was $180 and $50 for gas. The admission into 4 museums costs us $30 and our two meals in restaurants cost us $100 for a total of $360 for the week. Loie won $1500 at the casino so we were actually ahead $1140. It paid to slow travel to Ottawa.
There are a lot of free things to do in Ottawa. We were there for a week and did not do every free activity. The first thing we did was go to Parliament Hill. We spent time walking around the 25 acre grounds, looking at the buildings from different viewpoints, reading plaques on the statues in the grounds, and watching peaceful rallies and assemblies going on in front of the Parliament Buildings. We watched the thousand people who take part in the lunch hour yoga on the central lawn. If you are there in the summer make sure you get there by 9:30 am for the daily Changing of the Guards. It is something to see with all the pomp, pageantry and music.
Parliament Hill is free.
Parliament tours are free with three different tours available. We took one of the tours that took us up the articulated elevator to the top of the Peace Tower. Afterwards we sat in on a Question Period in the House of Commons gallery while Parliament was in session. We could see our Member of Parliament way in the corner. The Prime Minister sat right below us looking at his iPhone the entire time.
We spent two interesting days on the Hill learning the history of the building and watching Members of Parliament taking part in the democratic process of running the Canadian Government. We even got to dine at the Parliamentary Dining Room which is by invitation only through your Member of Parliament.
Visiting Rideau Hall is free.
The next day we went to the residence of the Governor General of Canada who is the Queen of England’s representative in Canada. The residence in on Sussex Drive just down from the Prime Minister’s residence in the middle of a 79 acre park.
It was raining the entire afternoon we were on the grounds and we had the whole park to ourselves. We spent several hours walking around the park looking at the rose garden, the forest area where different national leaders have planted trees, the meadow area with a statue park, beautiful scenery along the winding pathways and we were singing and dancing in the rain like Gene Kelly in his 1952 movie.
At the Visitors’ Kiosk we booked a free semi-private tour of the Governor General’s residence for later in the week and got to see the working area of the residence. Visitors are not allowed into the back half of the mansion. It looks lovely with its stone walls, classic windows, along with a green house and beautiful private park.
Bike riding was free.
The house were we were staying had bikes and is a block from the Ottawa Bike Trail. We spent two afternoons biking along the walking/bike pathways along the Ottawa River. You can go for hours in either direction and stop along the way to have a picnic lunch in one of the parks. There are places to buy food and drinks as well. The pathways are quite busy so it is important to follow the rules. Bikes on one side and walkers on the other side of the pathway. You also have to be on the lookout for people and other bikes.
Museums are free.
We went to 4 of the National Museums over several days and only paid $30 instead of the regular $114. Here is how we did it.
All the National Museums have free admission from 5-8pm on Thursday. If you plan it right you can see two museums. We chose the National Gallery and the War Museum because they are close together. We only spent an hour in the War Museum because we have been to lots of war museums, read extensively about the various wars and had seen many documentaries and movies so the information was not new for us, but the displays are first rate and the museum is an immersive experience. We spent most of our time at the National Gallery.
We got free tickets to the Canada Aviation and Space Museum through a friend. So we only had to pay $15 each to go to the Museum of History. Interesting note: We pay for admission into the Canadian National museums in Ottawa but the National museums in London and Washington DC are free.
Becoming a researcher at the Canadian Archive is free
The Canadian Archives is the collection of all the past official Canadian documents ranging from Birth, Marriage and Death Certificates, Censuses, Immigration, Indigenous, Genealogy and other government records. We took the time and became registered as Researchers and received a wallet card and clip-on pass. I spent a few hours searching through the Archives for information on people from the 1850s. It would be easy to swallow up a couple of weeks researching things. Fortunately, much of the collection is now on-line and it is not necessary to go to Ottawa for research.
Gatineau Park is free.
One day we drove to Gatineau Park, the regional Capital Park. Just across the Ottawa River in Gatineau, Quebec is a large Las Vegas style casino. We were driving by and Loie spotted it at the end of a very long tree lined driveway. Within 10 minutes she was sitting at a slot machine. Within 45 minutes she had won $1500 and cashed out. We actually made money visiting Ottawa. After expenses we left Ottawa with $1140 more than we came with.
With all the great things to do in Ottawa, all the wonderful experiences and all the cash in our pocket, we had a fantastic visit the week we spent in Canada’s Capital City and look forward to returning sometime in the future.
Accommodations in Ottawa
Our home for 7 nights was a beautiful house in Brittania Beach in Ottawa. It was on a quiet street right right on the river. The back of the house was a glass wall looking out onto the Ottawa River. On half of the back of the house was a stunning kitchen with all the latest modern appliances including a 6-burner gas stove and a massive stone European stove hood. The other side was the living room with a large leather sectional sofa and a gas fireplace.
We walked out onto a massive deck with separate hot tub, cooking, dining and sitting areas. It was lovely to have our dinners outside every evening overlooking the expansive Ottawa River, watching the sun go down and the lights shining way across the river when it got dark.
Travel Gear You May Need For Your Trip To Ottawa
We needed an umbrella, rain hat and jacket for our first two days in Ottawa and then we needed sun block and water bottles the last five days. It’s these little things that we forget to pack.
I find it so handy to order online from Amazon for these things. If you click on any of the items you will be taken to Amazon and you can browse for the items that you want. You get great prices and convenience and we get a small commission that helps support our website. Thank you.
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Cheap Flights To Ottawa International Airport
Budget travellers are always looking for the deals. Scott’s Cheap Flights is always looking for those unbelievable prices for us that make travelling on a budget doable. If we had to pay full fare or even discounted fares, we would not have travelled to a tenth of the places that we have over the years. We use Scott’s Cheap Flights and other smaller speciality websites to find those lower than rock bottom prices. Click above on the blue heading.
Budget Tip for Free Flights: Our flights to Ottawa were free. This is how I did it. I booked Ottawa as a week layover on a return flight from Calgary to Halifax that we used Aeroplan points to book. So, the Ottawa layover was free and the tickets to Halifax return for two were $170 for the taxes, our only cost for the flights.
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Personal and Travel Insurance
We never leave home without travel insurance. We want travel insurance from a company that is experienced with local and world travel and gives us the best rates possible. For budget travellers it is important to get the best rates possible and we have found World Nomad Insurance the best in the industry. Click on the blue heading.