Ottawa’s most notable building is its majestic gothic parliament and it’s one of the landmarks you can take in when exploring the city on foot. Try Ottawa Walking Tours, Ottawa Free Tours, or your own river- and canal-side wanderings on paths around Parliament Hill. For bygone tales of brawling French and Irish gangs, don’t miss the city history on show at the old stone Bytown Museum. Finish the day at ByWard Market, the hub of the city’s most happening central district and one of Canada’s oldest and biggest public markets. Shop the unique stores along the market streets and cobblestone courtyards. You can sip on a locally brewed craft beer and try a gourmet hotdog at Tavern on the Hill, with a spectacular view of Parliament Hill.
If the weather’s fair then don’t wait to head to the Gatineau Hills. The Gatineau Park Visitor Centre will help you choose the right hiking trail and is located in the village of Chelsea, where the Nordik Spa-Nature vies with Le Pub Chelsea as the best place to unravel after a day in the hills. Which is better: a view of Ottawa’s twinkling city lights from a hot tub, or a craft brew in a gregarious country tavern? Best do both to check.
With both central Ottawa and its most attractive park under your belt, it’s time to explore everything in between. This is best done by bike and RentABike has a good selection of tours and downloadable routes. Key options follow the city’s waterways: the Rideau canal loop connects attractive neighbourhoods such as Little Italy and The Glebe with waterfalls; the longer Ottawa River paths provide grand city views.
Before you head out, limber up at the free drop-in Parliament Hill yoga session (summer Wednesdays at noon). You’ll be among hundreds, so no need to worry about smooth moves – though PM Justin Trudeau has been known to pop by and greet participants. Try trendy Hintonburg for a delicious meal at Supply and Demand or Bar Laurel.
At least one day in Ottawa should be devoted to its terrific national museums – they’re all free on Thursdays 5-8pm, though three hours is rarely enough. With Canada’s National Museums Passport, you can choose admission to any three museums for just $35.
Guarded by a giant Louise Bourgeois spider sculpture, the National Gallery of Canada is memorable for its indigenous art. If you like this, then visit the ethnographic collections of the wide-ranging Canadian Museum of History, whose on-site Children’s Museum is in a class of its own for educational interactive play.
There’s more education and play, along with painstakingly made dioramas of wildlife habitats, at the Canadian Museum of Nature. For a change of pace, try the Canadian War Museum, whose coverage of Canadian conflicts and military hardware collection is moving and engaging. There’s also the chance to continue your museum visit after hours – on specific Fridays the Canadian Museum of Nature turns the museum into an adult zone, with music and mingling.
You could grab a nightcap at Copper Spirits & Sights, the rooftop patio of the Andaz Ottawa Byward Market hotel, and watch the sunset.
Enjoy Ottawa’s out-of-town attractions before the weekend crowds arrive. Parc Omega is a Canadian safari park with deer, elk, caribou, bison, bears and wolves – you can even feed many of them. There’s more action to be found at the Great Canadian Bungee, where North America’s highest jump (61 metres) and a giant zip-line are located beside a pleasant little beach and picnic spot (for non-thrillseekers). From June to September, you can also get your thrills white-water rafting – try River Run Rafting or Wilderness Tours Packages for organised trips on the Ottawa River. For a more vintage experience, don flying goggles with Ottawa Biplane Adventures, which offers open-cockpit city tours from its base at the Canadian Museum of Space and Aviation, itself a worthwhile aeronautical outing. Back in town you may round the day off with an After Dark Tour, a walking tour that recounts some seedy and grisly history before dropping you at the free Northern Lights show, a must-see nightly laser-light extravaganza at the parliament from early July to early September.
Ottawa’s neighbourhoods bustle most on Saturdays. Breakfast on the Golden Triangle’s Elgin Street, visit the home of the city’s LGBT community on Bank Street, have lunch in Chinatown; then head to the hipster frontier of Hintonburg to pick up repurposed souvenirs by local artists and craftspeople at Maker House, such as coat hooks made from an old ice hockey stick. It’s also from here that brewery tour operator Brew Donkey strikes out on fun five-hour weekend tours of local craft beer breweries in an old school bus.
Sunday is farmers’ market day in Ottawa and the biggest option is the Ottawa Farmers’ Market in the Glebe, a blue-collar-gone-hip neighbourhood where old-school independent shops and restaurants thrive. Don’t miss Kettleman’s, a longstanding 24-hour place where you can watch and smell bagels being baked. The Glebe’s TD Place is where the Redblacks play Canadian football, Ottawa Fury play football (or rather soccer), and the Ottawa 67’s play ice hockey. Between them, there’s at least one fixture most weeks, often on Sundays. Round your busy week off with a well-earned nightcap at Chateau Lafayette, also known as the Laff, Ottawa’s oldest tavern (it dates from 1849).
Photography: Cole Burston for the Guardian except lead image and the view from Gatineau Hills (Alamy)
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