Canada’s capital city is located in Ontario, just a few hours from the American border.
Since it’s the national capital, many of its attractions focus on Canadian history, culture, and politics. Guests can visit the Parliament buildings, admire Canadian and international art at the National Gallery of Canada, and take in a performance at the National Arts Centre. But that’s just the beginning of what Ottawa has to offer.
Here are some other great things to see and do on a vacation to the Canadian capital.
Tour The Diefenbunker
The Diefenbunker, a former bomb shelter, was built to protect the Canadian government in the event of a nuclear attack and has since found new life as Canada’s Cold War museum. It’s well worth the drive to the West End, especially since its next-door neighbor is a winery, KIN Vineyards.
Visit The Museums
Ottawa is home to a number of interesting museums.
Kids and adults alike will love the 700+ artifacts at the Canada Science and Technology Museum. Recently reopened after an extensive renovation, the museum is just a short drive from the Koyman Galleries, which represent more than 175 Canadian artists.
The thoughtfully designed Canadian War Museum covers Canadians’ experiences in wartime. There are excellent exhibits on World War I and World War II.
The small Bank of Canada Museum is free to visit and showcases currency from Canada and around the world. The mini exhibits are always creative, fun, and thought-provoking.
Explore The Rideau Canal
In winter, the Rideau Canal, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is the world’s largest naturally frozen ice rink. Visitors can rent skates or explore on foot and indulge in Ottawa’s favorite sweet treat, the Beavertail (a long, flat, deep-fried pastry). The entire canal comes alive for the annual Winterlude festival in early February.
In spring, the pathways alongside the canal are laden with tulips, and, come summer, it’s a popular destination for boating, canoeing, and kayaking. At the base of the canal next to the locks is the Bytown Museum, which chronicles the history of Ottawa.
Enjoy A Play By The Great Canadian Theatre Company
The Great Canadian Theatre Company produces Canadian plays that are socially relevant. The company has a great, cozy West End location that’s surrounded by popular restaurants. Keep an eye out for the public sculptures that look like a cross between fire hydrants and vegetables!
Attend One Of The City’s Best-Loved Events
Every May (usually the fourth Saturday of the month), Ottawa hosts two hugely popular events.
The first is the Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, one of the largest running events in all of North America. Don’t worry -- if running isn’t your thing, walkers are very much welcome, too.
At the same time, the Great Glebe Garage Sale is held in the Glebe neighborhood, home to some of the city’s oldest and most expensive homes. Real treasures are often unearthed here, and the entire community gets into the spirit of selling.
Eating And Drinking In Ottawa
Before leaving Ottawa, there’s one food all visitors must try: the shawarma. Popularized by the city’s Lebanese community in the 1970s, the shawarma is a wrapped pita bread sandwich filled with shaved and seasoned chicken or beef, hummus, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickled turnips, and a sweet, creamy garlic sauce. Everyone has their personal favorite shawarma spot, and this author is loyal to Shawarma Chef in the city’s East End Orleans neighborhood.
Here are some of Ottawa’s other culinary gems.
East India Company
East India Company is the best Indian food buffet in the city, but its a la carte menu shouldn’t be overlooked, since it offers many Indian specialties that can’t be found elsewhere in Ottawa.
Just across from the Rideau Centre in the heart of downtown, the Highlander Pub has over 250 different single malts and serves up a mix of traditional and modern Scottish classics, with a good selection of vegetarian options. Try the stout-battered onion rings.
North & Navy
North & Navy is a northern Italian kitchen with a superb wine selection and a seasonal menu. Reservations are essential, but you can usually just drop by the bar to snack on cicheti (traditional Venetian bar snacks).
Supply And Demand
This restaurant and raw bar west of downtown features oysters on the half shell, pasta like squid ink rigatoni, and mains like duck confit.
107 Fourth Avenue Wine Bar & Cafe
This intimate wine bar offers an amazing selection of wines not readily available in stores, and the limited menu is reminiscent of a French bistro.
Specializing in Tibetan dumplings, Sula Wok offers several vegetarian and vegan options plus noodle bowls and Asian-style tacos.
Tucked down a small lane off York Street, the charming Planet Coffee is woman-owned and serves incredible vanilla lattes and delicious baked goods.
Oh So Good
Oh So Good is the place to go for cheesecake in Ottawa.
Stella Luna Gelato Cafe
Stella Luna Gelato Cafe serves up some of the best gelato, sorbet, and European-style desserts in the city. If one of the members of your party is pregnant, ask the staff which secret flavor is rumored to induce labor!
Oat Couture Oatmeal Cafe
Just down the road from Stella Luna is this hip cafe that serves gorgeous concoctions of sweet and savory oatmeal.
Shopping In Ottawa
Farmers markets are a serious business in Ottawa. In warm weather, there’s one in nearly every community, and the ByWard Market downtown operates all year long, fringed by specialty food shops, gift shops, restaurants, and clubs.
Here are some other great places to shop in Ottawa.
The Log Farm
Located in the suburb of Nepean, The Log Farm is set on a property that dates to the 1860s and sells lots of delicious maple goodies.
The Unrefined Olive
The Unrefined Olive is a tiny shop that carries a dizzying array of flavored olive oil and aged balsamic vinegars.
J.D. Adam Kitchen Co.
J.D. Adam Kitchen Co., a small kitchen and home accessories store, is packed with beautiful things like cookbooks, fine soaps, flower pots, Turkish bath towels, and a serious selection of impressive cookware.
Books On Beechwood
This cozy independent bookstore also sells CDs and greeting cards made by local artists.
Purple Urchin is a woman-owned business that sells handcrafted, all-natural soaps and toiletries. The flagship store is located on Bank Street, but you’ll also see its products in hotels and restaurants.
Adorit Boutique, a tiny ByWard Market shop, sells stylish, sustainable women’s fashion and focuses on Canadian designers.
Magpie Jewellery sells gorgeous jewelry with a special emphasis on Canadian designers. The collection includes plenty of pretty pieces priced under $100.
World Of Maps
World of Maps sells maps, travel guides, and travel accessories. It’s a globe-trotter’s dream!
Where To Stay In Ottawa
The majority of Ottawa’s hotels are concentrated in and around the downtown core, but there are ample options farther out in the East and West Ends.
The high-rise Westin Ottawa is connected to the Rideau Centre shopping mall (extra nice in the winter) and offers spectacular views of downtown and the Rideau Canal. The hotel frequently fosters dogs that are available for adoption -- ask at the front desk if there’s a furry friend you can visit with.
Fairmont Chateau Laurier
A neighbor to the Westin Ottawa, the Fairmont Chateau Laurier looks like a castle and boasts service fit for royalty, especially when it comes to its afternoon high tea service. Be sure to check out the photography in the lobby -- photographer Yousuf Karsh lived in the hotel for 19 years.
Andaz Ottawa ByWard Market
The largest hotel in the city’s famed ByWard Market, the Andaz Ottawa boasts one of the best rooftop bars in the city.
The super stylish Metcalfe Hotel is a boutique property just three blocks from Parliament Hill. It’s situated on the site where the Canadian Father of Confederation Sir George-Etienne Cartier once lived.
HI Ottawa Jail
This Hostelling International property, which offers both private and dorm room and a long list of amenities and services, was indeed once a jail. Patrick J. Whelan, who was imprisoned and hanged there for murdering the politician Thomas D’Arcy McGee, is said to be just one of several resident ghosts.
If you love spooky history but draw the line at bunking with spirits, the Haunted Walk of Ottawa offers a special tour of the building.