You’ll Discover a Variety of Things to See and Do in Ottawa, Canada’s Capital City
Someone from Toronto once told me that there’s nothing much to do in Ottawa. Obviously, he hasn’t visited the town in years. I made the trip alone and experienced Canada’s capital city for myself and I ran out of time. I spent four nights wandering downtown, seeing the sights, meeting the people, and eating tons of delicious food . While I’m sure Toronto offers plenty, there’s growing list of things to see and do in Ottawa, so do not overlook this town. I only wish I would’ve had a few more days there.
Are you curious about this Ontario city? Here’s an overview of what to do in Ottawa, Canada.
Visit Parliament Hill
No Ottawa getaway is complete without visiting Parliament. Many years ago, I witnessed the Changing of the Guard in London, and it was pretty exciting. Well, Ottawa does a Changing of the Guard too, and it happens on Parliament Hill, the seat of the federal government. From June 24 to August 24, the parade and ceremony take place each morning starting at 9:50 a.m, so plan to arrive by 9:40. The Old Guard and the Pipes and Drums march to the East Lawn of Parliament Hill. It’s quite the spectacle. After the march, the “Changing of the Guard” ceremony happens surrounded by hundreds of gaping spectators. The whole event takes some time, I’d say at least 45 minutes, maybe a little longer, but it’s something to see.
I also want to mention that the same lawn on Parliament Hill hosts yoga at noon every Wednesday during the summer and a sound and light show at 10 p.m. each night. Basically, during the summertime, Parliament Hill is the place to be in Ottawa.
Tour Byward Market
Byward Market is an outdoor farmer’s market, an epicenter of shops, eateries, and local businesses in downtown Ottawa. It is the most touristy area because of the concentration of spots to experience, but locals live their lives here too. “Going to market” in Ottawa means shopping at the market or heading to the neighborhood, so you’ll find a lot of Ottawans getting their produce, grabbing a beer, or eating a meal.
I spent quite a bit of time in Byward Market including an afternoon wandering and grazing with C’est Bon Cooking, a local cooking school and culinary tour company. I met some of the city’s chefs and shop owners and tasted bites at each stop. I ate specialties from around the globe including India nan, a Mexican taco, and pizza Margherita, as well as tastes of cheese, tea, maple syrup (of course), cupcakes and beef tartare from Play Food & Wine, one of Ottawa’s go-to restaurants. If you visit Ottawa and like to graze, go to Byward Market and meander for an hour (or five). Or schedule a tour with C’est Bon Cooking. Just be sure to wear stretchy pants. I planned and did not wear pants. I wore a loose-fitting dress. Thank goodness.
Experience the Rideau Canal
Anyone who travels to Ottawa must visit the Rideau Canal. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the oldest continuously operated canal system in North America. Called “the canal” by Ottawans, the Rideau Canal is a scenic place for walking, jogging, bicycling, kayaking or taking a cruise. In wintertime, people skate on the frozen canal, also known as the “Rideau Canal Skateway.” The Guinness Book of World Records says it’s the world’s largest skating rink. The Rideau Locks, designed to help boats navigate uphill and downhill, have been in operation since 1832, with Canada Parks staff on hand to assist boats as they journey on the Rideau Canal.
The Bytown Museum sits along the canal and goes deep into the history of Ottawa as well as the planning and construction of the canal. The locks and museum are very close to Parliament Hill and Byward Market, so you cannot miss either. There’s a fantastic view for gazing and taking photos from the Plaza Bridge. Here you’ll see the locks, Ottawa River and the Alexandra Bridge in the distance.
Dine at Fairouz, 343 Somerset St W
I ate some of the best Middle Eastern food of my life at Fairouz, a charming restaurant set in a heritage mansion in a cute downtown nabe known as Somerset Village. Executive Chef Walid El-Tawel aims to redefine what most of us recognize as Middle Eastern cuisine with his modern interpretation, while also hoping to change the perception of this area of the world. The reality is, so many of us would never consider traveling to most countries in or near the Middle East, yet we don’t think twice about eating a big bowl of hummus or kebab. Fairouz’s menu is one of the most unique I’ve seen anywhere, with complex flavors and spices from countries including Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco, Turkey, Syria, and Jordan.
Fairouz is definitely a spot for sharing, but since I was dining alone and flying out the following morning (I couldn’t even take leftovers), I ordered the warm olives and one large dish – and grilled trout stuffed with swiss chard, garlic and citrus, crowned with preserved lemon confit fennel and served atop tomato and caraway sauce. I did a pretty good job finishing, considering it was created with two people in mind. As I watched each beautiful plate emerge from the kitchen, I wanted a bite of everything. The wines were also excellent. I drank a white from Niagara and a red from Lebanon. I would love to go back to Fairouz with an eating buddy and an empty stomach and feast for hours.
Update: Fairouz has since moved from Somerset Village to Byward Market.
See Mosaïculture Gatineau
On my last full day in Ottawa, I was so glad I went to this exhibit. In Parc Jacques-Cartier, Mosaïculture features 125 works of topiary-like sculptures composed from 5.5 million plants of 210 species and varieties. It was one of the most astonishing exhibitions I’ve seen in my lifetime. The park is technically not in Ottawa, but in Gatineau, Quebec. It’s a quick walk over the Alexandra Bridge (fabulous view alert!), though, and feels like an extension of downtown Ottawa. From the photos below, you can see that I am not exaggerating when I say it was amazing. This exhibit runs through October 15 and takes at least an hour to walk through, although you could spend all day oohing and aahing at the beauty. Find out more on the website.
Stay at Le Germain Ottawa
I had never stayed in a Le Germain property before (the company has hotels all over Canada), so I didn’t know what to expect. I was wowed by this new hotel. The property sits in a modern building that’s part of an arts center––Ottawa Gallery is next door. I loved this hotel for many reasons.
The team was super friendly and made me feel welcome from the moment I arrived. Because I stayed for four nights, I really felt at home at Le Germain Ottawa. So much so that I was sad to leave. The custom bed was one of the comfiest I’ve slept in, and Molton Brown bath products were an unexpected luxury. And finally, I was fortunate to dine in Norca, the on-site restaurant that opened just a few weeks earlier, where the food was both inventive and delicious. I suspect that Ottawa, Canada, and the entire world will hear a lot more about Norca and Chef Dominique Dufour, the talent behind it.
Want to stay in this lovely downtown Ottawa hotel? Book your room here.
What you need to know about visiting Ottawa
Ottawa is in Ontario, Canada, which borders Quebec. It’s a bilingual city. Almost everyone speaks English and French.
The people are friendly and from everywhere. Ottawa is a multicultural city.
For the most part, it’s very safe. Keep your wits about you, of course, but the crime rate in Ottawa is low as compared to many other cities, US cities included.
The summers can be hot, and the winters are frigid––it is Canada, after all. That said, spring and fall would be lovely times to visit. Although busy, May would be a spectacular month because of the Canadian Tulip Festival when more than one million tulips take over the capital region. No matter when you choose to go to Ottawa, check the weather and pack sweaters, down and boots in the winter, and sundresses, khakis and sandals in summer. Unlike New York City, summer nights do cool down, so I’d throw in a light jacket just in case.
Currency is the Canadian dollar.
The downtown area is walkable. Taxis are available as well. You won’t need a car unless you plan to explore areas outside the city.
A taxi to or from downtown to the airport should cost in the range of 30 to 40 CAD (23 to 31 USD).
Fly nonstop from New York to Ottawa on Delta Airlines, Air Canada, United Airlines, and WestJet. It’s a quick flight – only about 90 minutes.
Ottawa International Airport (YOW) is small. There’s one terminal, so you don’t need to arrive more than 2 hours for your return flight.
There are so many things to see and do in Ottawa. Plan a trip to this beautiful Canadian city and you’ll agree.
Have you visited Ottawa? I’d love to know what you did while you were there.