Delicious and Fun Things to Do in Ottawa, the Cool Capital of Canada

When I told people I was going to visit Ottawa back in 1998 most of them looked confused. Not about the where so much as the why.

As I was to discover, back then it was easy to appreciate the ‘city that never wakes’ jokes, but I still had a soft spot for Ottawa and wondered what it would be like to visit again.

The first time I went it was Christmas, a time for eating beaver tails as you ice skate on the frozen Rideau Canal, doing a little dog sledding, lots of thermal layering, and things that involved staying out of the below freezing temperatures.

When I returned again almost 20 years later the weather was warmer, the canal was in liquid form rather than solid, and I could easily walk around in a t-shirt as I got to know the city by foot.

But it wasn’t just the weather that had changed since my last visit.

This time, Ottawa was cool.

A tour of Parliament in Canada's capital is a top thing to do in Ottawa.

Exploring Downtown Ottawa and Beyond

I do love a city that is easy to walk around, and Ottawa’s downtown is friendly to those who like to explore on foot.

I was staying at Arc The Hotel, one of the city’s first boutique hotels with a wickedly good breakfast to prepare you for a big day of walking.

After waking up in downtown Ottawa it was an easy walk to Parliament Hill to do some sightseeing, and across to ByWard Market. The name for both the farmers market and the area around it, ByWard Market has lots of great food and fashion finds.

Dalhousie Street was one of my favourites to potter along, looking at interesting designers. It was also where I felt myself drawn into The Crystal Dawn to have my cards read by Kelly and came out of there with a spring in my step after she helped clear some confused cobwebs.

The Byward Market area is a great place to explore and a top thing to do in Ottawa

A taxi or bus ride away the neighbourhoods of The Glebe, Hintonburg, Westboro and Wellington West are fun to explore too with lots of independent stores and cafes.

Those who love to do some museum and hopping and get a feel for the layout of the city can take advantage of the Ottawa hop on hop buses. Or you can take to the water.

Rideau Canal Boat Tours

Ottawa’s historic Rideau Canal is the oldest continuously operating waterway in North America and a UNESCO World Heritage site. In winter it becomes a 7.8km skate way, while in summer it’s a rather relaxing way to see the city on one of the new electric canal cruises.

The electric boats only started last summer and I’m told are quieter and less smelly than the previous tour boats and so are an even nicer thing to do in Ottawa than they were before.

A Rideau canal cruise is a relaxed and lovely thing to do in Ottawa in the warmer months.

Cruising along the canal that I’d once skated (and fell over a lot) on was so pretty and peaceful, and our guide shared some good tales about the history of the city and its people as we went along.

The new Rideau Canal Cruise boats are open air with a roof for sun and rain protection. There’s also a small bar on board so you can enjoy a beer as you glide past the more active kayakers and ducks in the water, though the bar is only open before you start moving or after turning around at the half way point as the guide is also the bar tender.

The Most Popular (and Free) Thing To Do in Ottawa

As the country’s capital, Ottawa is home to the Parliament of Canada.

That may not seem that exciting to some, but it turns out of all the things to do in Ottawa, Parliament Hill is the most visited tourist attraction. And not just because Justin Trudeau can often be found there.

As I discovered on my visit, the neo-Gothic centre block is not just beautiful to look at from the outside, it’s also beautiful within, and as we were taken around it felt like being in a gorgeous cathedral at times.

Most of the Centre Block was lost in a great fire in 1916, but the one room to survive is exquisite. The library is often described as the ‘most beautiful room in Canada’ and features thousands of carvings of flowers and mythical creatures.

The beautiful Library of Parliament, Ottawa, can be visited on a free tour of Parliament Hill

This view from above comes on a free tour of Parliament Hill, one of the top things to do in Ottawa.

The Peace Tower with its large clock is one of the most recognisable symbols of Ottawa and Centre Block tours include a chance to go up the tower for 360 degree views over the city.

In the Memorial Chamber below I felt tears start to well when I looked at one of the Books of Remembrance, which holds the names of more than 118,000 Canadians. Every morning at 11am one page is turned, and families and friends can do an online search of the Books of Remembrance or contact the Memorial Chamber to find out when their loved one’s name will be shown.

Tours of Centre Block, including the Peace Tower are free, and are on a first come first served basis, although groups of ten or more do need to book their Parliament Hill tours in advance.

The Book of Remembrance in the Peace Tower in Canada's Parliament, Ottawa, holds the names of 66,655 Canadians who lost their lives in the First World War.

In summer Parliament Hill also has a daily Changing of the Guard ceremony. Based on the one in London, the ceremony involves dozens of new and old guards changing to the sounds of the regimental band and pipers.

They also have a Sound and Light show projected onto the side of the building at night. For this Aussie the light show was a bit like Sydney’s Vivid light projections with a history lesson thrown in, and it was fun to kick off my shoes and feel the grass between my toes as I sat under the stars, learning a thing or two.

The daily changing of the guard ceremony on Parliament Hill is a popular thing to do in Ottawa in the summer.

Fun Foodie Things to Do in Ottawa

First lets clear up a little something about the eating of beaver tails that I mentioned earlier.

No beavers are harmed in the making of these beaver tails, as they are really fried dough pastries stretched into the shape of a beaver tail.

The original BeaverTail stand is at ByWard Market, and is where fans including President Obama have gotten their fix. Seriously, the President’s motorcade stopped near the BeaverTail kiosk on the way to Ottawa airport at the end of an official visit.

There are lots of great foodie finds around the market, and I had the chance to meet some of the owners and get a history lesson of the area by taking part in a C’est Bon Food Tour.

ByWard market is also where I had a delicious dinner at Play Food Wine. Here the emphasis is on seasonal small plates and while most of the menu changes regularly, the hangar steak is so popular they have to keep it there. After finding out for myself how tender and tasty it is after being marinated in soy and rice wine vinegar I can definitely see why.

My other standout meal of the trip took place downtown at Riviera. The third restaurant from chefs Matthew Carmichael and Jordan Holley, the guys behind Datsun and El Camino (yes they are all named after cars) is in an old bank building with good vibes inside.

A Big Easy cocktail by Stephen Flood at Riviera, one of the hottest additions to the Ottawa food scene

As I perched at the bar my eyes immediately went to Stephen Flood, the bar manager with the warm smile and floral apron. After asking him to help me pick a cocktail from his list I was soon drinking a Big Easy with Dillon’s unfiltered gin, lemon, simple syrup and scrappy’s lavender bitters, before savouring every incredible bite of the prawn crudo and black cod dishes that came out of the open plan kitchen.

Tea Time in Ottawa

As a tea lover and someone who is partial to a little luxury in life, I couldn’t visit Ottawa without having afternoon tea in the Fairmont Chateau Laurier.

The most famous hotel in Ottawa, the Fairmont Chateau Laurier looks like a castle out of a Disney film, and you don’t have to be staying there to get a taste of their five star style.

The Fairmont Chateau Laurier’s afternoon tea in Zoe’s Lounge is a great treat with fluffy buttermilk scones, delicate sandwiches and decadent cakes. There’s also a man I could have spent hours chatting to – Alex the tea sommelier.

A special afternoon tea friend, Alex the tea sommelier at Fairmont Chateau Laurier in Ottawa

Alex brings around a trolley filled with little tea drawers and lets you smell their aromas as he helps you choose your tea and then makes it for you at the table.

I also had some lovely tea moments over at ByWard Market where the Tea Store has a dizzying array of blends to choose from, including some staff blends with names that made me smile. Ye-Tea anyone?

And having discovered the joys of drinking quality vinegar that actually tastes good (none of that apple cider stuff for this gal, thanks!) on a luxury cruise down the Rhine I had been worrying about running out of my Rhine stash in Canada. Then I found Emulsify in Wellington West where I could try their very tasty vinegars before buying, and snapped up a few bottles to continue my vinegar drinking travels.

Speciality staff tea blends at the Tea Store, Byward Market, Ottawa

Spooky Things to Do in Ottawa

Those who like to hear some of the more macabre and spooky stories of the places they’re visiting should also put a Ghosts and Gallows Haunted Walk Tour on their list.

The tours start downtown, just a few doors up from Riviera on Sparks Street, and end at the old Carleton County Jail.

It was beautiful as we walked the streets and watched the sunset over the canal beside the Fairmont Chateau Laurier, and I was getting a history lesson but wasn’t feeling too spooked at first.

That changed at the old Carleton County Jail where the hairs on my neck stood up as we heard death row and ghost stories as we looked in the old jail cells. I also got a hit of adrenalin when some of my fellow tour goers started screaming when a bat flew around our heads.

These days the old jail is the HI Ottawa Jail Hostel where you can spend the night.

Sunset in Canada's Capital, Ottawa

I had to laugh when our guide said some people taking part in the tour had no idea their hotel was one of the most haunted buildings in North America when they booked their room, and only found out when the ghost tour ended where they were supposed to sleep that night.

Some of the other people on our tour were booked in to stay at the hostel that night, but after a very sleepless night when I stayed over after a ghost tour at Q Station, one of Australia’s most haunted locations I was very happy to head back over the canal to my downtown digs for the night after that one.

2017 Birthday Celebrations in Ottawa

While I would say any year would be a good year to visit Ottawa, this is a particularly good one thanks to Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations.

Ottawa is putting on a great list of one off things to do and see, including a 45 tonne fire breathing dragon and mechanical spider moving through the city, and an incredible interactive sound and light experience in an unfinished underground light rail station.

A lot of the big events will be taking place this Canadian summer, so check out the list of Ottawa 150th Birthday events before booking that trip and you may be able to line up your Ottawa vacation with something that has never been done before in this cool capital.

Amanda Woods travelled as a guest of Ottawa Tourism but as usual all opinions remain her own

This post contains some affiliate links, so if you click on a link and buy something I will get a small percentage to help pay the blogging bills and keep my site ad free. But don’t worry, it’s absolutely no extra cost to you. Thanks! 

Heading to Canada? You may also like to check out my piece about three (very) different Quebec City hotel and what it’s like to travel to Quebec’s charming  Charlevoix. 

View of Ottawa from above, in the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill, a special thing to do in Ottawa.

About the Author

As a journalist who loves to travel and is fond of a chat I'm oh so happy when I'm sharing travel tales and tips through my blog and on my weekly travel segment on Sydney Radio 2UE. When I'm not travelling or writing about it I can be found out and about with friends, curled up at home with a good book or watching an addictive tv show promising I'll stop after one more episode. Amanda on Google +

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