The Canadian capital of Ottawa, Ontario is one of the most family-friendly destinations in the country. No matter the season, families will discover a city which boasts world-class museums and other attractions, encourages outdoor activity and is home to several outstanding festivals.
There are so many attractions in the Capital Region that it is nearly impossible for a family to do everything in one visit. We have visited Ottawa with kids many times and still haven't managed to check off everything on my list - mostly because we have a few favourites that we have to repeat every time that we are in town.
1. The National Gallery of Canada
The National Gallery of Canada which was established to showcase Canadian art and to preserve our nation's cultural heritage has become one of the world's most respected art institutions with a collection of works of art that now exceeds 36,000. Kids will be fascinated by the 30 foot high bronze spider sculpture called "Maman" which greets them outside the front doors of the museum and parents will be pleased to discover that there is a family program featuring hands-on activities to encourage kids to explore art.
The Canadian Museum of Civilization is not only my favourite museum in the Ottawa area (it's actually across the river in Gatineau, Québec) but one of my favourite museums anywhere. I love that it's a natural history museum focused on Canadian history and culture which educates my children about our country's past in a fun way. It also includes the amazing Canadian Children's Museum which introduces children to the idea that experiencing the world is a great adventure by providing them with a passport to get stamped as they travel the world and do some hands-on learning. The museum is located on the banks of the Ottawa River and when the weather is nice visitors should spend some time outside appreciating the beautiful views of Parliament Hill.
3. Parliament Hill
When most people think of Ottawa the first image that comes to mind is probably Parliament Hill which is located along the banks of the Ottawa River and home to the Parliament of Canada. The Peace Tower is the dominant feature of the front of Centre Block (home to the Senate Chambers and the House of Commons) and the Library of Parliament is at the rear of the building. The Parliament buildings and the grounds of Parliament Hill were each designated as National Historic Sites of Canada in 1976.
We enjoy taking a simple stroll around Parliament Hill each time that we visit but there are also free tours of Parliament available for those who wish to learn more about the workings of government. (offered on a first-come, first-served basis) I think my younger daughter is finally old enough that we will probably take the tour the next time that we visit. Kids might also enjoy the self-guided climb to the observation deck of The Peace Tower and the Changing the Guard ceremony which is held daily during the summer months (end of June through end of August).
4. Rideau Hall
Another lovely attraction in the Ottawa area is Rideau Hall which has been the Official residence of the Governor-General of Canada (the Queen's representative) since 1867. Rideau Hall is located only a few minutes from downtown and tours of the grounds and the public rooms of the residence are available year-round. All tours and activities are free.
5. Other Museums
Ottawa is home to a number of additional museums that will appeal to children of varying ages including The Canadian Museum of Nature; The Canada Science and Technology Museum; The Canada Aviation and Space Museum; and The Canadian War Museum. We have also taken a guided tour of The Royal Canadian Mint and visited The Canada Agriculture Museum (which is a working farm) with our kids.
The National Arts Centre (NAC) was created by the Parliament of Canada in the 1960s and opened in 1969. Since then it has become Canada's foremost showcase of the performing arts. The NAC, which is located in downtown Ottawa, has programming in music, dance and both English and French theatre and also has a wonderful sculpture of jazz great Oscar Peterson outside which passers-by love to pose with.
7. Rideau Canal and the Ottawa River
The Rideau Canal which winds its way through the city of Ottawa before connecting to the Ottawa River is not only a National Historic Site of Canada and a UNESCO World Heritage Site but also a primary recreation site in the city of Ottawa. During the warm weather months it is common to see kayakers paddling on the canal and during the winter the frozen waterway becomes the world's largest (7 kilometres) naturally frozen skating rink. Tours on the Ottawa River provide a beautiful perspective of the city and our favourite is the Lady Dive amphibus which tours on both land and water.
If there are any horse lovers in the family then it might be worth adding a stop at the RCMP Musical Ride Centre. The Musical Ride is performed by 32 Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers and their horses and consists of a program of drills choreographed to music. The Musical Ride tours throughout Canada and internationally between the months of May and October. Visitors to the centre will be able to tour the stables to learn more about the RCMP and the Musical Ride program and meet some of the horses.
Ottawa's historic ByWard Market, established in 1826, is one of the country's oldest and largest public markets. Today's visitors will find a farmer's market, a variety of restaurants and cafés, galleries and shops. ByWard Market is the perfect place to just go and hang out in Ottawa particularly in the summer months when you can browse the shops, grab a bite to eat or just pull up a chair and people watch while sipping a drink. ByWard Market is also home to the original BeaverTails outlet and everyone should feel obligated to sample the famous pastry at least once while visiting Ottawa.
Ottawa has an abundance of beautiful green spaces and visitors should follow the lead of residents who take advantage of this to spend as much time as possible outdoors. Some favourites include:
- Major's Hill Park which is located behind the Château Laurier and is perfect for viewing the Ottawa River, the Rideau Canal and the Parliament Buildings. The park also features beautiful displays during The Canadian Tulip Festival and hosts events during Canada Day celebrations and other festivals.
- Confederation Park is another downtown Ottawa park (located across from the Lord Elgin Hotel) that features an open lawn, a large fountain, paved pathways and many monuments. Events are also held in this park during the Ottawa Jazz Festival, Winterlude, and Canada Day celebrations.
- Gatineau Park is a conservation park located about 15 minutes from downtown Ottawa and is very popular with outdoor enthusiasts who can enjoy a range of activities such as hiking, swimming, cycling, rock climbing, boating and fishing in the summer and cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and hiking in the winter. The Mackenzie King Estate (summer home of Canada's 10th Prime Minister) is also located within the park.
- Commissioners Park which is located across from Dows Lake features the largest display of tulips during the spring Tulip Festival.
Winterlude is the Capital Region's festival that celebrates winter for three weeks each February. Families will enjoy skating on the world's largest skating rink, checking out the ice sculptures in Confederation Park, playing in the snow at Snowflake Kingdom, and attending musical performances and outdoor dance parties.
Tulips were originally gifted to Canada by the Netherlands as a thank you for providing a safe haven to the Dutch Royal Family during World War II and as a symbol of the special friendship between the two countries. The Canadian Tulip Festival, held in Ottawa in May each year, has been celebrating this relationship as well as the return of spring for more than 60 years now and attracts more than 600,000 visitors.
The Ottawa Jazz Festival is held annually from the end of June through to the beginning of July and features some of the best Canadian and international jazz musicians performing both at outdoor concerts as well as club venues.
The country's largest Canada Day celebration takes place in Ottawa on Parliament Hill each July 1st. The festivities include the Changing of the Guard, concerts, aerobatic flight demonstrations by the Royal Canadian Air Force's Snowbirds and a giant fireworks show in the evening. I have not yet had the opportunity to spend Canada Day in Ottawa but it's at the top of my list and I hope to get there soon.
Where to Stay
Ottawa is a wonderful city to see on foot and for that reason we prefer to stay in a central location that allows us to walk nearly everywhere that we want to go. On various trips to Ottawa, we have stayed at the The Fairmont Château Laurier, Minto Suite Hotel, The Westin Ottawa, and most recently at The Lord Elgin Hotel.
Where to Eat
In terms of finding a range of places to eat in Ottawa, ByWard Market can't be beat as the variety of cafés, restaurants and chains like Hard Rock Cafe and The Keg make it easy for a family to find someplace that appeals to everyone.
Outside of the market area, my younger daughter and I recently ate at Johnny Farina which is a casual Italian eatery with a great atmosphere and within walking distance of the Lord Elgin hotel where we were staying. We also dined at The Lieutenant's Pump British Pub which Emma thought had some of the best fish & chips ever.
Anyone with a sweet tooth visiting Ottawa must visit BeaverTails in ByWard Market for a delicious pastry at least once and on hot summer days, Piccolo Grande which is also located in the market has an incredible selection of delicious gelato.
The Canadian Capital Region is a great choice for families whether they are looking for a weekend destination or for a longer stay. Chances are that the kids will have so much fun that it will be just the first of many trips to Ottawa.
Please let me know in the comments if you have more suggestions for family-friendly places to stay, eat or visit in the Ottawa region.
The Ottawa Tourism website is a great source of information for visitors to the capital region.
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