Despite its relatively small size, the capital city of Canada is home to a wide variety of public museums and galleries that are well worth taking the time to explore. The city boasts an impressive seven national museums, including one of the largest art galleries in North America, and most of them are located right in the city’s downtown core. Whether you’ve found yourself in Canada’s capital on a particularly rainy day or you’re looking for an afternoon activity to satiate your family’s curious minds, here are the absolute best museums in Ottawa.
National Gallery of Canada
The National Gallery of Canada is a must-visit for contemporary and fine art aficionados. The sprawling museum is home to the world's most comprehensive collection of Canadian art and is considered to be one of the largest art museums in North America in terms of exhibition space. Don’t have time to explore the interior of the museum? It’s still worth passing by the exterior—which is home to "Madam," a gigantic spider sculpture by French-American artist Louise Bourgeois.
Canadian Museum of Nature
Established by the Geological Survey of Canada in 1856, this national natural history museum contains more than 14.6 million specimens within its permanent collection and it plays host to a rotating curation of traveling exhibitions. The Canadian Museum of Nature is also a patron of various science research programs across the country and has taken part in various scientific expeditions worldwide including the China-Canada Dinosaur Project and other dinosaur-specific excavations.
Canadian War Museum
While a museum commemorating war history doesn’t exactly sound like a walk in the park, the Canadian War Museum is much less macabre than the name implies. The national museum focuses on the country’s military history, from an educational and remembrance standpoint, and includes a distinctly Canadian perspective on early wars in Canada, World War I, World War II, the Cold War, and more contemporary war history.
Canada Aviation and Space Museum
Who doesn’t love a deep dive into the world of aviation and space advancements? The Canada Aviation and Space Museum is an incredible resource for families and individuals alike who are curious to learn more about the history of air travel in Canada and its influence on the rest of the world—from the pioneer era before WWI to the present day.
Canada Science and Technology Museum
The Canada Science and Technology Museum examines technology and science from a distinctly Canadian lens—from medical developments to wearable technology. The museum also plays home to a children’s innovation zone with various kid-friendly activities as well as practical resources for parents (like a bottle-warming station and diaper-changing area).
Canadian Museum of History
Formerly known as the Canadian Museum of Civilization, this museum explores more than 20,000 years of human history, including Canadian history as well as other cultures and civilizations from the past. The museum is also a practicing research institution and staff includes leading experts in folk, archaeology, and ethnology history, should you have any questions or are interested in booking a rich guided tour. Note that the Canadian Museum of History is technically located across the Alexandra Bridge, in Gatineau; about a 5-minute drive from downtown Ottawa.
Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
Curious about the history of food and farming in Canada? The Canada Agriculture and Food Museum explores all aspects of practical agriculture science in the country, from both past and present. The museum is set on a practicing “Central Experimental Farm” that includes a variety of farm animals, including a herd of 50 dairy cows, beef cattle, horses, pigs, and sheep, all of which guests can observe and interact with during their visit.
The Diefenbunker was originally built in 1959 as a response to the escalation of the Cold War and was commissioned to act as a safe house for key parliament members in Canada. It was left empty until 1997 when it was turned into a public museum—and it’s well-worth the visit for anyone interested in military history or general survivalism. While the bunker itself is interesting to walk through and explore, the museum is also home to a rotating artist in residence and various visiting exhibitions on the Cold War.
Hoping to learn a little more about the history of Canada’s capital? The Bytown Museum takes visitors on a whirlwind tour of past and present Ottawa—and everything in between. From the construction of the Rideau Canal to exactly how the city emerged as Canada’s capital, this charming history museum is well-worth the visit for anyone interested in learning how Ottawa became the center of Canadian politics. The museum is also very centrally located right across from the ByWard Market.
Deemed an official National Historic Site in 1956, the Laurier House was the former residence of Canadian prime ministers Sir Wilfred Laurier and William Lyon Mackenzie King. The house has welcomed international guests including King George VI, Charles de Gaulle, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Today, it serves as a historic house museum with artifacts dating all the way back to 1878. Note that the museum is only open to the public for tours from Victoria Day in May to Canadian Thanksgiving in October
Bank of Canada Museum
Located in the heart of the downtown core, the Bank of Canada Museum (formerly Canada’s Currency Museum) offers an interesting perspective on international currency, counterfeit money, and other currency-related discoveries that date all the way back to the Middle Ages. The museum features more than 100,000 currency-related artifacts from around the world showcase the powerful impact currency and coinage have on society.