How to Have the Ultimate Ottawa Weekend: An Ottawa Itinerary
With a nearly unlimited host of Ottawa activities to choose from, it's safe to say that Ottawa is extraordinarily underrated.
Personally, I hadn't been to Ottawa in over seven years since I'd been living abroad for much of the past decade or so, which is what inspired me to go back. I wanted to see what had changed in the time that had elapsed since I'd last been, and I was more than impressed with what I found. Bri and I actually met as tour guides in Ottawa circa 2009, so I have a pleasant history with our nation's capital.
Ottawa, in my humble opinion, really does have it all. You've got a healthy nightlife scene, a burgeoning food scene, a cacophony of museums and culture. Having been outside of Canada for so long, I genuinely relished the opportunity to go back and explore through the lens of a travel writer and photographer.
My goal in revisiting Ottawa was to play the role of tourist for a few days so I could construct a post on how others could do so (namely, you), and ultimately aid you in establishing an itinerary. Since I've returned from Istanbul, I've been writing a lot about Ontario and Canada at large, and the response has been both encouraging and reassuring. I've put together collaborations on 36 hours in Toronto, relished the opportunity for a touch of winter camping, went back to the Medieval era in my home city, and discovered places a bit off the beaten path.
Now, it's time to create a guide for you based on my experiences and knowledge of the city. I'll focus on how to build the ultimate Ottawa weekend. I'll cover some of the bigger sights, but I'll also be touching on some lesser known experiences that I feel are worth tacking on to any solid Ottawa weekend. Regardless, everyone's Ottawa itinerary is going to look different, I just want to make sure I'm giving you the "framework to explore." I like that phrase, think that should be the name of my first novel.
As always, I'll try to provide you with some genuine insight that you can't just find on TripAdvisor, so your Ottawa weekend will be unique, and tailored to you.
NOTE: This post may contain some affiliate links. That means, simply, that I may get commissions from some of my recommendations. That being said, my opinions are fully my own.
Where to Stay in Ottawa
Ottawa is a relatively centralized city with many of their most famous attractions within walking distance, so I'd personally suggest that, in thinking about your Ottawa weekend, you do pick a hotel with a central location.
The easiest way to conceptualize where to stay in Ottawa for me is to stay near the ByWard Market. The ByWard Market (or nearby) is the ideal place to stay because you're in a central location for getting around the city either by foot or by transit, but also because the ByWard Market is a nightlife hub. Ottawa happens to be a pleasant city to walk around, so being somewhere like the ByWard Market ensures you're spending as much time outside as possible.
The other thing that is convenient about the ByWard Market is the sheer number of hotels right nearby. You've got the Westin Hotel which connects to the Rideau Centre, a Novotel, the Les Suites Hotel, and a Courtyard Marriott as well. Basically, all the major hotel chains have something going on. However, if I had my pick I wouldn't stay at any of them.
I'm partial to the Andaz Ottawa ByWard Market. It's chique, modern, and cool. I've seen hotels which try really hard to be cool, but don't pull it off, but the Andaz Ottawa ByWard Market definitely does.
The first thing they gave me when I arrived was a glass of wine - now that's service, my friends! I'm not sure about you, but I can't personally think of another way I'd like to kick off my Ottawa weekend. Seriously, it's a good hotel by any standard, and not outrageously priced either. It's fairly new to the Ottawa accommodation game, but their newfound presence is both exciting and refreshing.
Usually I do offer a handful of alternatives in terms of what area to stay in, but I really do feel that if you want to get the most out of your Ottawa weekend that staying in or around the ByWard Market is going to be your best bet. I think that holds true if you're someone who likes to take it easy and just see the sights, or whether you're interested in being out late and having a few beverages (I'll give you some recommendations for all that further down!)
If you'd like to check out prices on accommodation for your Ottawa weekend, you can do so below:
Let's Talk Ottawa Activities
If you're thinking about what to do in Ottawa, thankfully there's an extensive list of Ottawa activities to choose for your ideal Ottawa weekend.
I should also stipulate, after Bri and I had our Ottawa weekend, we left strongly considering moving from Toronto to Ottawa, so that should give you some indication of how much we enjoyed ourselves.
Also, keep in mind that in this post, I'm going to lay out all that I'd consider doing on my own Ottawa weekend, but understand that the list is meant as a guideline that you can use, but it's unlikely that you'd be able to tackle everything I'll lay out for you in one weekend. That being said, there's no harm in attempting it, and I'm likely crazy enough to try, so you might be as well.
This list will be varied and include some more off-the-beaten-path and obscure suggestions, but I simply can't bring myself not to include Ottawa's Parliament Hill at the top of this list. This list isn't in any order per se, but, yet, I still didn't have the gull to keep this from being first.
I wanted to pass along the following message as it relates to Parliament Hill tours from Ottawa Tourism:
"For Parliament Hill tours – as of September 2018, the Centre Block will close for approximately a decade of renovations (the activities on the Hill will continue throughout summer of 2019) but the House of Commons will move to the oldest of Parliament buildings, the West Block (a new House of Commons was constructed over an outdoor courtyard) and the Senate is moving to the new Government Conference Centre (located right across the street from the Fairmont Château Laurier in what used to be the old railway station) so this is the very last summer for people to enjoy tours of the existing buildings, and then as of September, they’ll be able to enjoy brand-new tours of two spots no one ever visited before)."
Personally, I'd recommend spending some time on Parliament Hill near the Centennial Flame and taking in the sights, especially if the weather is nice. Then, I'd walk around back to get a closer view of the Library of Parliament, which is like something out of magical realm. The views from that area are just outstanding, as you can see right across the Ottawa River and into Quebec.
As noted from Ottawa Tourism, though - if you want to take a Parliament Hill tour, you better do it this summer!
The Canada Science and Technology Museum
When I first stepped foot in the Canada Science and Technology Museum in 2009 - well, let's just say that it wasn't what it is today. Recently, the Canada Science and Technology Museum underwent a massive renovation, and it's never looked better. It's one of those fun places in Ottawa to bring the whole family. In fact, it's the place I think of first when I think of family fun in Ottawa.
What's nice about the Canada Science and Technology Museum is that, as far as Ottawa activities go, this is a really hands on learning experience. The kids love the "Crazy Kitchen" which has angled floors that skew perception, but, generally speaking, I saw engaged kids everywhere I looked.
I love that the redesigned museum is also very conscious of accessibility, and they recently received an award for that actually. There's always plenty going on, so check out their site for details!
It's not just a place to be filed under "kid's activities in Ottawa" either. Bri and I had a blast there. I mean, doesn't Bri look engaged in that photo above?
Ottawa's ByWard Market is always abuzz, and I love that. It's like a physical manifestation of my mind - there's always something going on.
I particularly like the ByWard Market in the warmer months when they have outdoor vendors. It's one of those unique things to do in Ottawa where everyone can find something that they enjoy. Inside, you've got a ton of different food worth trying. For one, you can head to Moulin de Provence to get an "Obama cookie" or "Trudeau cookie," as both leaders stopped by for one.
In my opinion, the best thing to do is just to walk around, observe, and get a bit lost. It's not an enormous building, but it's a hub in the city, and the whole neighbourhood feels built around it. I love it there, which makes it a must visit for me on any Ottawa weekend, and it simply has to be a part of any Ottawa itinerary.
Ottawa Art Gallery
Ottawa has no shortage of big name museums and tourist attractions, so it's easy for a place like the Ottawa Art Gallery to get lost in the fray, and not make it into your Ottawa itinerary. That being said, it's worth it to pop in. It's just undergone a massive renovation (In fact Bri and I attended the opening party!), and it's come out with a new sheen and, dare I say, swagger. The Ottawa Art Gallery was founded in the late 80's as an effort to showcase local art and the artistic community, but it's sure come a long way since then.
The gallery has plenty of workshops and opportunities for family fun in Ottawa as well, though I do think it has a rightful place in any Ottawa weekend. The Firestone Collection of Canadian Art is really something to behold if you're a fan of famed Canadian paintings and painters (namely the Group of Seven). They've actually got a few pieces from Lawren Harris, which I absolutely adore.
If you don't want your Ottawa weekend to look like everyone else's Ottawa weekend, then you've got to spice things up a bit, and a visit to the Ottawa Art Gallery would accomplish just that. Check to see their calendar if you're thinking of visiting and see what's on!
National Gallery of Canada
All the way back in 2009, I was actually a tour guide in Ottawa, and I can tell you that no matter how many times I visited the National Gallery of Canada, I never got bored. Their collection is impressive enough that it'd likely take a lifetime to cover it all.
Due to the sheer size and volume of the collection, it's worth looking at what's on, and formulating a bit of a game plan. They actually have some specific programming for kids and families, which means I would include it on a list of things to do in Ottawa with kids, especially if your idea of family fun in Ottawa means exposing them to Canadian art and culture.
One thing to consider if you do indeed want to build in a visit to your Ottawa itinerary is that the National Gallery of Canada has the potential to take a full day if you're thorough or an art aficionado. In light of that, I'd likely plan to spend a couple of hours and focus on the big stuff, then plan to come back another time, or twenty. I'll tell you what, if I lived in Ottawa I'd certainly look into a membership.
They'll got an extensive Canadian art collection, but they've also got an impressive collection besides, including a few Andy Warhols. You also can't miss Louise Bourgeois's Maman, the giant spider sculpture which looms outside of the gallery.
National War Memorial
Based on the layout of the city, there's a good chance that you'll wander past Ottawa's National War Memorial by chance, but I'd encourage you to stop and appreciate its meaning and significance. It's not one of those Ottawa activities that is meant to is necessarily going to brighten up your day, but it's not meant to. It's meant to be a conduit of reflection, especially for Canadians.
It was initially constructed in 1939 as a reminder of the sacrifices of Canadian soldiers in World War One, but, of course, that wasn't the only major conflict of the century. Now, it's meant as a shrine for all Canadians who gave their life for their country. For me, it's a must during any Ottawa weekend, even if you've only got 15 minutes to spare - so find a way to tack it onto your Ottawa itinerary, whether that's in passing to another site or not.
You'll see in this photo that the famous Fairmont Chateau Laurier is right behind it. If you've got the time, it's nice to walk around the austere lobby, and appreciate what was and still is one of Canada's most recognizable and famous hotels.
Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica
The Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica was founded in the mid 19th century, but the most recent renovation and iteration is from 1990. My personal favourite part of the church is the two gothic spires who shine like a bright beacon on a sunny day. This is an important church by any standard. In fact, in 1879 it was designated as a minor basilica by Pope Leo XIII.
While the exterior is certainly impressive, the interior is no less grandiose, so it's worth taking a peak inside if you're able. If you do want to take a deeper dive into the history of the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica, think about taking a guided tour. It's funny, everything has got a website these days, even historical Canadian churches.
This isn't one of those Ottawa Activities that is going to take you too, too long, so it should be easy to sneak into your Ottawa weekend. Not to mention, it's just across from the National Gallery of Canada, so you should be able to tack this onto a visit without too many complications.
I had the pleasure of exploring this vibrant neighbourhood through a C'est Bon Cooking Food Tour, and we stopped at nine different places which exemplified the growing culinary scene here. I'll be honest, I'd been to Ottawa a number of times before, but had never heard of Hintonburg, but I absolutely fell in love with it. You might not be able to fit it into your Ottawa itinerary with just a weekend because of the location of the neighbourhood, but it sure is enjoyable.
It helped that a place like Stella Luna Gelato Cafe is around there, but, besides food, there is a real diversity in this area. Hintonburg is an area that seemed to be a more working class neighbourhood prior, but has quietly emerged as a beacon for food lovers and culinary innovation. It's a bit out of the way, as I said, but it's worth it to include in your Ottawa weekend. I also thought our tour guide did an excellent job of contextualizing the experience and neighbourhood, so I would indeed recommend the tour quite strongly, especially as there's plenty of food and drink included. In my opinion, the tour offered great value.
If you're looking for a good excuse to Hintonburg, but you're not looking to go on the tour, I'd recommend getting some brunch as Art Is In Bakery, then walking about 8-10 minutes and getting a cup of coffee (or a beer) at Happy Goat Coffee Company.
Brew Donkey Tours
This is a recommendation for those who are looking for some Ottawa fun. Almost every other recommendation I've given is appropriate for those looking to have some family fun in Ottawa, but this is one of those Ottawa activities where you might want to leave the kids at home. I did the Y East End Express Tour with Brew Donkey, and it was a blast.
It's worth noting that this isn't just a tour where it's one big excuse to get drunk (not that there's anything wrong with that!). I learned a fair bit about beer, and even more about the craft brewing scene in Ottawa. It's also a four hour tour, so you get a good chance to interact and meet the other people on your tour. We ended up going to North of 7 Distillery, Stray Dog Brewing, as well as Dominion City, and all were great to be honest.
This is just a fun way to spend a few hours after a day of sightseeing and talk part in a different form of sightseeing, but one it's worth adding to your Ottawa itinerary.
Ottawa Activities (Honourable Mentions)
So, I looked down at my list of ottawa activities left to include, and it just occured to me that it's likely easier to just mention the rest of my list below, as opposed to doing a write up for each. I also didn't want to try to include a million museums in my main list because I'm guessing your average person doesn't want their entire Ottawa weekend to be spent indoors, especially if it's nice weather.
Again, I love all these sights below, but some of the museums especially can be time consuming, so it's really just going to be based on preference. For example, if you're a war historian, then it makes sense for you to prioritize something like the Canadian War Museum over the Ottawa Art Gallery.
- The Canadian Museum of History
- Canadian War Museum
- Canadian Museum of Nature (If you like a bit of beer with your exhibits, be sure to check out Nature Nocturne. It's a unique and exciting event as far as Ottawa fun is concerned.)
- Rideau Hall
- Canada Aviation and Space Museum
- Canada Agriculture and Food Museum
- The Bank of Canada Museum
- Riding a bike, running, or walking along the Rideau Canal (or skating in the winter time)
Ottawa Pubs and Ottawa Nightlife
Ottawa is a city that is known for its solid array of activities after dark. For me, with Ottawa, it's all about those Ottawa pubs. There are a ton of great pubs and bars worth visiting in Ottawa, and they always seem to be packed to the brim. I'll include a list of some of my favourite Ottawa bars below, and then you can go from there! I'm personally not much into clubs anymore, so you'll have to get that info elsewhere if that's something you want to build into your Ottawa weekend. Apologies! Note, the following list is in no particular order!
I'm also not saying these are the only ten places worth going, they're just ten places you might want to consider.
- Heart & Crown Irish Pub
- Moscow Tea Room
- Clocktower Brew Pub
- Union Local 613
- The Moonroom
- Lowertown Brewery
- Brothers Beer Bistro
- Pints and Quarts
Ottawa Food and Cuisine
The Ottawa food scene has really grown up since I last visited the city. There are some world class restaurants in Ottawa now that deserve international recognition. It's say to say that I left Ottawa a few pounds heavier and happier. The list I'm going to include are places that I've either had the pleasure of trying in the past, or have been personally recommended to me. The list is in no particular order - they'll all be delicious.
Also, note that I'm largely including restaurants/shops that aren't off the walls pricey, and most of these options should be in the grasp of people who are looking for a bite to eat. It's really just an eclectic list of ten places you might enjoy. I make this caveat because I know foodies tend to be rather ruthless, and I just want to premtively tell you to calm down.
- Fairouz (I'd strongly recommend this restaurant if you're into innovative Middle Eastern cuisine and cocktails. I ate there while in Ottawa recently and was blown away)
- Rooftop Sunday Brunch at the Copper Spirits and Sights (on the top floor of the Andaz Hotel) - It's an excellent brunch with a live DJ and unbeatable views.
- Art Is In Bakery
- Kettleman's Bagel Shop
- Wild Oat Bakery
- Dunn's Famous Deli
- Das Lokal
- Asian Alley
- The King Eddy
- La Bottega
Ottawa Fun, in Sum
I wrote at the beginning that I couldn't believe how much Ottawa had changed in the seven years since I had visited. I want to note that my time there, what I've referred to throughout as my 'Ottawa weekend' has really proved to me that the next seven years will likely bring greater changes. I wonder what my Ottawa itinerary would include seven years from this day?
Ottawa is in the midst of massive, beautiful, and welcomed transition, and one that I very much can't wait to watch unfold. There's an influx of good everything in the city (whether that be bars, cuisine, or culture), and it's great to see as a Canadian. While I don't have the numbers on hand, I can only imagine that tourism is steadily on the rise, and rightfully so.
It's certainly interesting to watch a city change so much over such a short period of time, but I'm more than enthused that I took the time to notice it, and to embrace my nation's capital. With no shortage of festivals and events in the future, I'm sure I'll be back in Ottawa before too long.
And, after reading this, I can only hope you'll be keen to join me in that venture. I can't tell where I might end up next on this life journey, but if I do end up in Ottawa, I certainly won't mind.
I was received as media by Ottawa Tourism, whom I humbly thank. All opinions are my own. Have you been to Ottawa before? Has this convinced you to make the trip? Is there anything you felt I missed, or was absolutely spot on? I'd love to know what you think!
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