Top Ten Must Do's in Ottawa


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Toronto and Montreal get all the hype when people visit Central Ontario, but Ottawa is absolutely worth a visit and provides its own unique charm and activities. With a welcoming and safe reputation, Ottawa offers the most truly Canadian experiences in Central Canada.

With 1 million residents, it's smaller than both Toronto and Montreal. The capital of Canada is the best place to learn about Canada's history, partake in great outdoor activities, and offers something to do any time of year. There's really no bad season to visit Ottawa with plenty of outdoor activities in both summer and winter.

To take advantage of the winter fun, target your visit between late December and early March. Summer peaks in July, August, and early September, but fall and spring are equally beautiful.

If you fly directly into Ottawa's international airport, you'll most likely be connecting through Toronto or Montreal in Canada, or a northern US hub like NYC or Detroit. With a relatively small airport, there aren't many direct flights - and they can be a bit more expensive than neighbouring destinations. Keeping your travel dates flexible and booking in advance is an excellent start to finding cheap flights into Ottawa.

A perfect city for a long weekend, or to break up the big cities on your Central Canada tour, use our top ten list to guide your visit and get the most out of your trip to Canada's National Capital Region.

  • 10 activities
Brittania Beach Sunsets, Ottawa, Ontario
A beautiful sunset from the shores of Brittania Beach by Flashpacker Co
Parliament Building, Ottawa, Ontario
The Capitol Building, currently under construction (March 23) by Flashpacker Co

Skiing - Downhill or Cross Country

Ottawa has multiple nearby ski hills, including Camp Fortune and Mont Cascades. They may not be the size of the mountains you can find in Western Canada, but if you're visiting Ottawa in the winter, hitting the slopes is the perfect day or night outdoor activity (reduced rates are available for night passes). Both hills are conveniently located less than a 30-minute drive from the city, are inexpensive, and can accommodate novice and experienced skiers.

Looking for a more unique skiing experience? Ottawa has some of the best cross country skiing around. Multiple parks in and around the city can be accessed in just 10 minutes. They are well marked, and groomed trails can suit beginners. You can rent your gear at retailers, including MEC Outfitters and Great Escape Outfitters, then drive over to the park and take off for as long as you want. Ask the experts at MEC + Great Escape Outfitters where they recommend you go.

Relatively easy to pick up, but often a surprisingly harder workout than many expect, it doesn't get more refreshing than cross country skiing in the Canadian capital.

Winterlude

The ultimate Canadian winter fun festival! If you’re planning a winter visit to Ottawa, we absolutely recommend timing it around Winterlude, which runs the first three weekends of February.

Perfect for grown-ups to kids, there’s something for everyone:

  • Skating and special events, including dragon boat ice racing
  • Winter playground with ice sculptures, sledding, and various kid’s activities
  • Live performances and interactive light shows
  • A range of food vendors, including the world-famous Beaver Tails

Winterlude is a free event with activities and experiences running across the downtown core. Verify the exact dates on the Tourism Ottawa website before heading out.

River Fun

Situated at the confluence of the Rideau and Ottawa rivers, there’s no shortage of water-based activities to do in Ottawa. White-water rafting is available within minutes of the city core from multiple outdoor adventure providers. Trips can range from easy & family-friendly to surprisingly intense rapids.

Head to the beach (yes, Ottawa has beaches!) for some fun in the sun or stand-up paddleboarding. Britannia Beach and Mooneys Bay Park are the two most popular. You can rent SUPs on site and explore the calm sections of these rivers. Or spend the day playing sand volleyball!

Explore the conservation areas and parks spread out across the city along the rivers. Within only a few minutes of walking, you can go from urban sprawl to Canadian hinterland. These tranquil, isolated, and undeveloped conservation parks will give you an opportunity to spot Canadian wildlife like beavers, loons, and geese while getting some fresh air and exercise.

We love:

  • Britannia Conservation Area
  • Fletcher Wildlife Garden, part of the Experimental Farm & Arboretum (Botanical Garden)
  • Remic Rapids Park
  • Dows Lake

Parliament Buildings

A must see during your time in Ottawa, spend an afternoon taking a free guided tour of the heart of Canada’s federal government. Some of the tours are temporarily closed due to renovations, but you can still take the House of Commons and Senate tours. Book ahead to reserve your spot and learn all about Canada’s government.

Even if you don’t take a tour, the parliament buildings offer plenty to see and do with year-round events including:

  1. Changing of the guard every morning in the summer
  2. Projection light shows; nightly, in both summer and leading up to Christmas
  3. Yoga on the lawn, Wednesdays over lunch all summer

Sugar Bush

Some of the best Ottawa experiences might take you a bit out of the city, but that doesn't make them any less worthwhile. If you're in Ottawa during the maple season (Mid-February to Mid-April), include a half-day on your itinerary to visit a nearby sugar bush.

Lanark County, a 30-minute drive west of Ottawa, is the maple syrup capital of Ontario - and features a plethora of sugar bushes! Head over for an all-day pancake breakfast, a walk through the maple forest, to learn about the maple syrup making process (samples included of course), and the ability to keep kids entertained with endless outdoor activities like sledding and sleigh rides.

Some of our favorites include:

  • Fulton's Pancake House & Sugar Bush
  • Temple's Sugar Bush
  • Fortune Farms

Hiking

Technically not in Ottawa, or even in Ontario, Gatineau Park is a 15-minute drive across the river in Quebec. This conservation area offers some of the best hiking in the area as well as a protected area for a range of species. You can even swim, bike, or camp here, and ski or snowshoe in the winter.

Ottawa Canal

Winter:

Probably the most popular activity in the city, no winter visit to Ottawa is complete without a skate on the world’s longest outdoor skating rink: The Rideau Canal. When ice conditions are at their peak, it can stretch up to 7.8 KM (4.8 Miles) long. There are multiple access points along the canal, huts to put on skates, rentals, and warm beverages and snack stops. There’s no better way to see the city and experience Ottawa than a skate down the canal.

Summer:

A river cruise is the ultimate way to experience the canal in the summer. Check out operators like Ottawa Boat Cruise at Plaza Bridge downtown, across from the parliament buildings. Prices start at $28 CAD and run from early May to early October.

Or, you can walk or bike along the canal for amazing views and fresh air. Visit the Dows Lake portion of the canal in May to see the breathtaking Tulip Festival.

Museums

Ottawa has a range of museums, and there's at least one for any preference, but some of our favorites include:

  1. Canadian War Museum: National museum of Canada's military history, from the earliest times to present day.

  2. Canada Aviation and Space Museum: Showcases the history of Canadian aviation with well over 100 aircraft in its collection, with some dating back to the early 1900s.

  3. National Gallery of Canada: One of the world's largest art museums and home to the most comprehensive collection of Canadian art.

Neighborhoods

Westboro: One of the trendier neighborhoods in the city, a long walk down this street and you’re guaranteed to stumble upon any number of unique stores, an array of fantastic restaurants, quaint coffee shops, and everything in between. All summer long, there is a farmer’s market every Saturday.

Byward Market: Your one-stop neighborhood for nightlife, bars, and restaurants. A large and easily walkable neighborhood near downtown & the parliament buildings, you can easily spend a full day exploring here. At a minimum, go for dinner and drinks one night, or have lunch on a patio and then check out one of the many craft breweries.

Little Italy: Sights, events, experiences, and of course, food; this neighborhood has developed into a foodie’s dream destination offering far more than just pasta and pizza. Equally walkable, this is your go-to neighborhood for lunch or dinner. Greek, Indian, & Asian flavors have made their way here in addition to the array of Italian options.

Nordik Spa

Located less than 15 minutes from downtown, Nordik Spa is the largest spa in North America. Highly recommended any time of year, they offer the full range of Scandinavian spa experiences with more baths, saunas, lounges, and relaxation areas than you’ll know what to do with. Particularly beautiful when enjoying the outdoor baths in the winter snow, you could easily spend a full day here.

Massages and related services are available, but many go simply for the baths which are $71 CAD. A fabulous way to treat yourself in our opinion!

In Summary

Regardless of the time of year, any combination of these activities will guarantee an enjoyable visit in the city. The heart of Canada, Ottawa, is a must-see during your time in Central Ontario. You’ll be warmly welcomed by the locals and likely surprised to find a vibrant and diverse city just waiting to be explored.

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Written by Jason Kraemer

Jason_FlashpackerCo I'm an avid traveler, most recently spending a year in Southeast Asia. My home base is in Ottawa, Ontario - but one day I would love to live in the Caribbean!


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