Things to Do in Ottawa
Canada’s political heart focuses on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill, crowned with a flurry of grand government buildings.
The most impressive building is the Gothic-style Centre Block, the main Parliamentary Building, with its soaring central Peace Tower and gabled copper-topped roofline. The building is flanked by the matching East and West Blocks. Centre Block houses the Senate and Commons chambers, where public galleries are provided for visitors wishing to watch the parliamentary proceedings. It’s well worth taking one of the free daily tours to admire the interior of Centre Block and its hand-carved stonework. Listen out for the 53-bell carillon concerts ringing out from the Peace Tower, or climb the stairs for views of Ottawa from the tower’s observation deck.
Canada’s premier art collection is housed in the National Gallery of Canada, a strikingly modern building of glass and pink granite overlooking the Ottawa River.
The collection focuses on Canadian and European works, both classical and contemporary. The chronological display of art in the Canadian galleries is especially illuminating, providing a cultural overview of Canada’s history in paintings. You’ll also find photography exhibits, Asian collections and the art of indigenous and Aboriginal Canadians in the Inuit Gallery. The gallery also prides itself on the quality and energy of its ongoing contemporary collection.
The Rideau Canal is a signature Ottawa landmark, dividing the city’s downtown into eastern and western segments. Opened in 1832, it’s the oldest still operational canal system in North America.
In winter, the 8 km (5-mile) stretch of canal running through the center of Ottawa transforms into the Rideau Canal Skateway, the world’s longest skating rink. In summer, joggers, sightseers and cyclers promenade along the canal’s banks. One of the best ways to experience life on the canal is aboard a scenic canal cruise.
Canada’s oldest market, operating since 1826, the ByWard Market is one of the most entertaining attractions in Ottawa.
Come here year-round, rain or shine to get a taste for Ottawa’s food culture and lively city ambiance.
There are more than 260 fresh produce, arts and crafts stands to browse, and 500 businesses operating within the market. Choose from 88 restaurants, two dozen nightlife venues, and scores of shops and boutiques. You’ll also find the National Gallery of Canada nearby.
Rideau Hall is the residence of the Governor General of Canada, and because of the country’s status as a member of the Commonwealth, is also where the monarch stays when visiting Ottawa. Rideau Hall was built in 1838 by the lumber baron Thomas MacKay and eventually became the official residence for the Canadian head of state in 1867. Most of the 175 rooms in the federal heritage building are used for state business, formal ceremonies and functions, with only a small space being dedicated to living quarters.
The grounds are just as historical as the stately mansion and represent Canada’s character and cultural diversity to the core. During the summer months the hourly changing of guard ceremony can be observed at the main gate. A characteristically colorful totem pole with a thunderbird gracing the top and a fisherman holding a salmon stands in the garden as a gift from the Kwakwaka´wakw people in the Pacific Northwest.
The Canadian War Museum tells the story of Canada’s past conflicts, how the country and its people were affected, and remembers the sacrifices made by those that served the country in wartimes. Among an ever-changing display of new exhibitions and themes, there are several permanent exhibitions. The Legion Hall of Honour, for example, commemorates the past through personal stories, photographs and artifacts and explores common burial practices throughout history. The Military Technology Collection on the other hand is more scientific and documents the technological progress through both personal stories and a collection of different artillery and vehicles, such as fighter jets.
Four Canadian Experience Galleries called “Wars on our Soil, For Crown and Country, Forged in Fire and A Violent Peace” delve into separate conflicts and battles.
Confederation Square is a triangular plaza wedged between Wellington Street and Elgin Street right in front of Parliament Hill. It is a planned urban space that was, together with the National War Memorial, officially completed around 1939. The big granite memorial sits at the very center of the square and was originally a tribute to the Canadians who fought in World War One, but has since become more of a symbol of all Canadians serving the country in times of war. Bronze soldiers, including infantry, nurses, dispatch riders and many more regiments and corps portray “The Response” under the big granite arch, the heroic sacrifices made by Canada. They are watched over by two figures representing peace and freedom mounted on the top of the arch. Located at Confederation Square and right in front of the National War Memorial is also the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a second monument that holds the remains of an unidentified soldier fallen during the First World War in France.
More Things to Do in Ottawa
Ottawa’s Roman Catholic Notre Dame Basilica is the largest and oldest church in the city, dating back to 1839.
The building has a somewhat austere exterior, but the interior is rich in color and detail. Built in Gothic style, the building is topped with a pair of slender spires and features large stained-glass windows. Inside, the long central nave is lined with pointed Gothic arches topped with terraced galleries. The nave runs to the semi-circular sanctuary with its blue painted ceiling, ribbed vaults and carved altars. Pop in to admire the sculptures and painted detail, or take a guided tour. Church services are held in both French and English.
Ottawa is blessed with a number of great museums, but one of them really stands out: the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum. From the moment you walk in and see the old Snowbird plane dramatically suspended in midair, you realize why this place is called one of the most interesting museums in the world. Over 130 aircrafts present a comprehensive history of Canada’s aeronautical achievements, ranging from an old Silver Dart, the first airplane to fly in Canada, to the Canadarm, a robotic arm that made Canada a partner in the International Space Shuttle Program. Basically, the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum is a gigantic hangar filled to the brim with planes hanging from the ceiling and parked on the ground, but there are some interactive elements as well. A full-motion Redbird flight simulator normally used to train pilots lets you control an aircraft first hand and makes you realize that flying isn’t as easy as it looks.
The grand-sounding Canadian Museum of Civilization takes an up-close look at Canada’s history and culture with an entertaining and educational array of exhibits.
There’s a topic to intrigue every interest. Special exhibitions examine everything from the role of the horse in civilization to the history of Canada’s fur trade.
The museum’s permanent displays explore Canada’s natural world, social history and First Peoples, drawing on the collection’s 3.75 million artifacts.
The Children’s Museum is specially designed to spark the imaginations of little ones, and the on-site IMAX cinema entertains all ages with big-screen movies.
Sprawling across the Ottawa River from downtown Ottaway, Gatineau Park is an amazingly huge stretch of parklands, circling 179 km (110 miles) of summertime hiking trails and wintertime cross-country snowfields.
Locals head here in droves to breathe in the fresh air and, most importantly, get active. Mountain-bike and hiking trails wind their way through the different landscapes to beaches, campgrounds and picnic grounds.
Hire a canoe, go swimming, strap on a pair of skis or, for something gentler, gasp at the seasonal colors during the annual Fall Rhapsody. Make your way to Champlain Lookout for views over the Ottawa Valley, or visit the tearooms at Mackenzie King Estate, a former prime ministerial home.
Gatineau is a city of about 300,000 right across from Ottawa on the northern shores of the Ottawa River. While Gatineau belongs to Quebec and Ottawa to Ontario, together they form Canada’s National Capital Region. Gatineau is a popular place to live, especially for young families and professionals and is actually the most bilingual city in Canada with over 60% of inhabitants speaking both English and French. The city is also known for its cultural value and is home to a variety of events and venues, such as one of the largest hot air balloon festivals in the world, filling the sky with hundreds of passenger balloons in every shape and color and the Casino du Lac-Leamy. The casino isn’t only a posh gambling hall though. Each year in August, the location hosts an international firework competition called the Sound of Light, where countries demonstrate their pyro-musical skills in the sky.
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