Ottawa's Chateau Laurier Hotel and Parliament Buildings in Winter

Your Trip to Ottawa: The Complete Guide

••• Richard T. Nowitz / Getty Images

Formerly known as a sleepy town for civil service members and diplomats, Ottawa has recently become a hot spot for startups, creatives, and young professionals—and with the influx of culture and capital has come a burgeoning food and festival scene. Much more than just parliament and government buildings (although, admittedly, they’re still quite the draw), this charming city boasts internationally renowned museums, a plethora of government-funded festivals, and a surprising amount of natural splendor tucked into the city center.

Hoping to get to know Canada’s capital city a little bit better? Whether you’re planning a summertime trip or you’re dying to experience what the city has to offer come wintertime, here’s everything you need to know about planning a trip to Ottawa—from where to stay to what to do once you’ve dropped your bags.

Planning Your Trip

  • Best time to visit: While it really depends on what you’re hoping to get out of your trip, the best time to visit Ottawa is between June to August—the weather is temperate and there are tons of festivals and outdoor activities to check out. If you’re hoping to experience the winter season, consider booking in December or January before it gets too cold.
  • Language: French and English; while both are official languages in Canada, the majority of people in Ottawa speak English despite being right on the Quebec border.
  • Currency: Canadian dollar
  • Getting around: The Ottawa city center is very walkable and can be explored almost entirely by foot. Public transit is also available and is quite reliable for trips outside of the downtown core. 
  • Weather and climate: Weather in Ottawa ranges from extreme heat in the summer to quite cold in the winter—and the in-between seasons are short. The city has typical Canadian winter weather, with lots of snowstorms and a constant layer of snow on the ground. The temperature is usually around 21.6 degrees F in the winter and can get up to 80 degrees F come summertime.

Things to Do

Ottawa often gets an unfair reputation of being boring or quiet due to the abundance of government officials in the downtown core, but in reality, the opposite is true. Whether you’re planning on spending Canada Day in the capital city or you’re exploring the winter activities during the holiday season, there’s a ton of things to see and do year round.

Go shopping: While it’s no Toronto or Montreal when it comes to shopping, Ottawa still has a significant amount of shops and markets to explore. Be sure to head to the ByWard Market—a mix of tourist shops, boutiques, and farmer’s market stands, this open air market in the middle of the city draws locals and visitors alike. From there, check out the CF Rideau Centre, an expansive four-story shopping mall with distinctly Canadian retailers, including The Hudson’s Bay and Chapter’s.

Visit Parliament Hill: The main draw in Ottawa is without a doubt the historic Parliament Hill government building on the bank of the Rideau canal. The exterior of the parliament building itself, which dates back to 1859, is a worthwhile photo opp thanks to the Gothic Revival architecture style—but consider booking a guided tour of the interior buildings if you have the time. You can even watch a debate in the official chamber of commons if you catch the right day.

Go museum-hopping: In the mood to soak up some art and culture? You’re in luck! Ottawa is home to some of the country’s best museums and galleries. Check out the National Gallery of Canada to take in classic and contemporary artwork from Canadian and international artists, then head to the Canadian Museum of History for a trip back in time by way of distinctly Canadian artifacts. From there, be sure to check out the Canadian Museum of Nature—especially if you’re traveling with kids—where you’ll be met with an impressive permanent collection of dinosaur fossils and Arctic artifacts as well as seasonal visiting exhibitions.

Attend the events and festivals: Ottawa plays host to a wide variety of festivals and activities, ranging from Canada's largest and North America's second largest blues festival, Ottawa Bluesfest to the world’s largest skating rink, the Rideau Canal Skateway. That said, the most prevalent celebration in the capital city is Canada Day. Every July 1, the city welcomes thousands of travelers with fireworks, live music all across the city, busker performances, and other festivities to celebrate all things Canada.

Find even more worthwhile attractions and activities in Canada's capital city with our article on the top things to do.

What to Eat & Drink

While Ottawa isn’t particularly known for its restaurant scene, in recent years the tides have begun to turn on dining in the capital city. These days, the city is brimming with classic Canadian fare, local wine bars, and excellent international cuisine as well as smaller coffee shops and bakeries that rival those in neighboring Toronto and Montreal. From third wave coffee shops to high-end establishments, there's something for every palate in Ottawa.

To find the best restaurants in Ottawa, refer to our complete list here.

Where to Stay

Due to the large quantity of government officials flying in and out of Ottawa, there are quite a few hotels to choose from, including well-known chains like Hilton, Fairmont, and Marriott. Most hotel properties are clustered around the city center, but boutique hotels and bed-and-breakfasts are all over the city.

The esteemed Fairmont Château Laurier is certainly the reigning queen of Ottawa when it comes to accommodations. Set in the middle of the city center on the bank of the Rideau canal, this stunning chateau offers an eclectic mix of history and modern day luxury.

Looking for something with more of a boutique feel? Consider dropping your bags at Le Germain Hotel Ottawa. The Canadian boutique hotel brand places emphasis on comfort and a personalized experience. It doesn’t hurt that the charming property is right next to the ByWard Market, either.

Ottawa isn’t necessarily known for its bed and breakfasts, but there are a handful of charming options at affordable prices if you know where to look. The Century House Bed and Breakfast Ottawa is an excellent, centrally located option that features cozy rooms complete with kitchenettes for cooking up all those fresh veggies you picked up at the market.

Explore Ottawa's best neighborhoods to stay in for your trip, and choose your lodging for your stay from our list of the city's best hotels.

Getting There

Located about 125 miles west of Montreal, the capital city of Canada is perched on the Ontario/Quebec border, making it a great pitstop to check out when traveling between Montreal and Toronto. Ottawa is about a two-hour drive from downtown Montreal, a four-hour drive east from Toronto, and about seven hours north of New York City.

  • Air: Ottawa International Airport is about 9 miles (15 kilometers) or a 20-minute drive from downtown Ottawa.
  • Train: VIA Rail transports travelers to the Ottawa Train Station (a 9-minute drive from downtown).
  • Bus: Orléans Express, Ontario Northland, and Maheux serves Ottawa from Montreal, Toronto, and various other cities in Eastern Canada and Ontario. Buses arrive at the Ottawa Central Station on Catherine Street,
  • Car: Ottawa is roughly 59 miles (95 kilometers) from the nearest American border, in Ogdensburg, New York.

Culture & Customs

  • Canada’s two official languages are English and French, and while most signs and menus will be bilingual, Ottawa locals mainly speak English—no need to test your French at the restaurant!
  • Most restaurants and bars will add a 13 percent tax on your total bill—but you should still anticipate tipping on top of that. A proper tip should be anywhere from 20 to 25 percent—but 15 percent is considered the minimum.

Money Saving Tips

  • Go on a parliament tour: Looking for a great rainy day activity? Consider making the trek to Parliament Hill for a tour of the interior of the main government buildings. The walking tour is completely free and is a surprisingly engaging way to spend a couple of hours even if you’re not very interested in politics.
  • Go skating: Skating the lengthy Rideau Canal in the wintertime is completely free—and is considered to be one of the main draws in Ottawa. The 5-mile stretch of skating is used by everyone from visitors to locals commuting to the office and is considered to be the world’s largest skating rink.
  • Cross the border: While there are plenty of nature walks in and around Ottawa, one of the coolest hikes to do is trekking across the Royal Alexandra Interprovincial Bridge. The walking bridge serves as a pedestrian connector between Ontario and Quebec and offers great views of both provinces.
Article Sources
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  1. The Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages. "Portrait of Official Languages Groups in the Ottawa Area."

  2. WorldAtlas. "Parliament Hill: Home of the Parliament of Canada." Dec. 2, 2019

  3. Ottawa Tourism. "Local Information and Services."