Canada’s capital is the perfect city break. Ready to spend the perfect 2 days in Ottawa? Explore with this itinerary.
There are cities that hit you with their overwhelming (sometimes chaotic) energy from the very first moment. Others take more time to reveal their charms. Ottawa is one such city: a slow burner that I came away completely smitten with.
It’s a smaller city full of big surprises. I just got back from a trip to this southeast Ontario charmer and I can’t really understand why Canadians aren’t shouting from the rooftops about their laidback capital. I know they have a reputation for being self-effacing but really, it’s too much.
Ottawa is the perfect city break, walkable and with plenty to do, whether that’s taking in Canada’s parliament buildings through modern VR technology, drinking in secret speakeasies, or meeting indigenous horses on a local farm, it is a rewarding trip full of charm.
I spent a chunk of time in the city last month – and in the process discovered where the locals like to eat, which museums you can’t afford to miss and the most efficient way to pack it all in, even if you’re on a short itinerary. So, of course I’m going to share that knowledge with you.
Vamos people, let’s go!
2-Day Ottawa Itinerary
Day 1: History, Art, and Lights
Day 1 is all about seeing the culture the city offers downtown. Explore the best museums, check out some holiday decorations, and cap it off with the most Canadian dinner you could ever have.
Breakfast Near ByWard Market
Wake up and head out from your hotel to grab some breakfast and catch a glimpse of local culture at Byward Market to kick off your first day.
When I say this market has been going strong for centuries, it’s no exaggeration. The popular indoor/outdoor space has served locals food and artisanal wares since 1826. This place was a farmer’s market before they were considered cool, and it continues to dish up local and international fare starting at 6 am.
Grab a breakfast sandwich and coffee at Byward Café, or venture a bit further (worth it) to Benny’s Bistro for an upscale farm-to-table-style breakfast.
But my pick? Chowing down on a beavertail at BeaverTails Byward Market is a must if it’s your first time in Ottawa. They’ve served up sweet and savoury flavour bombs on the deep-fried dough since 1978.
Which one should you try? Go for the Killaloe Sunrise – dusted with cinnamon and sugar and a slice of lemon to squeeze atop. Trust me.
Bring a tote bag when you head to ByWard. In addition to great food, you can find handmade jewellery and crafts at the market and around the vibrant neighbourhood.
Visit the Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica
Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica isn’t just the oldest church in the city; the Neo-Gothic building is easily one of the most beautiful.
I didn’t make it inside on my last trip, but even seeing the towering spires of the mid-19th-century church from outside grabs your attention. That said, I’ve heard going inside (they open at 9:00 am) is truly special.
So what is there to see when you visit? The vaulted ceiling is painted a royal blue with gold “stars” that contrast beautifully with the massive wooden columns and intricate stained glass windows around the cathedral.
As you can imagine, if you have a chance to visit around Christmas, you’ll want to attend an annual event. The free concerts or Christmas masses are great ways to experience the church with Ottawa residents during the holiday season.
Artwork and Architecture at the National Gallery of Canada
Ottawa is (at its heart) a city of galleries and museums. The Canadian National Gallery is one of the jewels in this crown.
The building itself is beautiful inside and out. Outside, towering granite pillars hold up a matrix of glass windows, interweaving to form a stunning display of geometric shapes. Inside, it’s a cavernous space with light peeking through that helps the artwork pop.
And artwork there is indeed. Sculptures, paintings, films, and drawings all help make up the vast collection spread across 3 floors. Even outside, Louise Bourgeois’s “Maman” (a massive spider protecting its eggs) fully captivates visitors’ attention.
Thousands of works from local and international artists are always on display, with an entire wing dedicated to indigenous artists and their works.
There’s also a host of special exhibits worth researching before you visit. One of these, “Crossroads in Time,” offers a fresh look at Jean Paul Riopelle’s work through literature and artwork by both the artist and future generations he inspired.
Lunch at Play Food & Wine
Play Food & Wine was one of those surprise finds I keep telling friends about every time Ottawa comes up in our conversations. You will, too.
It’s a cool neighbourhood restaurant serving small plates rich in flavours at great value. For around $30 CAD (£17.50 / $22) , you get 2 plates per person – or you can just choose whatever you want from the small but exciting menu.
I went for the crispy fishcake, which came with the tartar sauce and a lovely shop slaw. It was delightful. I also tried the slow-cooked beef with truffle fries (again, fantastic, still thinking about it tbh).
The space itself is light, sleek and airy. It’s relatively low-key and the perfect place for a relaxed lunch or dinner in the market area.
Make reservations if you’re going for dinner (especially on the weekend). It’s one of the most popular restaurants in town, so the 40-ish seats fill up fast.
Learn About Indigenous Culture at the Canadian Museum of History
I’ll be honest, The Canadian Museum of History is actually across the river in Gatineau – but it only takes 20 minutes or so to walk across the Alexandra Bridge. It’s absolutely worth the effort, and a great place to take a serious look into the history of the indigenous people and colonialism (about which they’re refreshingly frank and open).
Queen Victoria initially started the museum in Montreal. It grew and relocated to Ottawa, where they continued developing the museum, which opened in 1911. Again, the collection outgrew the space, this time splitting into 2 buildings: the National Gallery of Canada in 1988 and the Canadian Museum of History in 1989.
Its past is interesting enough, but it’s the museum’s present you should really get excited about. The arctic white building you see today was the work of an architect named Douglass Cardinal, an Alberta resident with Blackfoot ancestors.
Step inside the main entrance (which represents a prairie), and you’ll see the resemblance to a gigantic canoe – the mode of travel for indigenous people who arrived in the region 15,000 years ago and migrated inland as the ice melted away.
All of the exhibits were fascinating, showing a glimpse into how indigenous cultures used resources like red cedar trees to make their homes with the help of the entire community (they were gigantic structures with up to 100 people per house).
The hearts of the trees were made into totem poles (with a beautiful example right in the museum), which told stories and announced celebrations with brightly coloured designs, now faded off with time.
You can also learn about European colonialism with information spanning from when the Vikings landed around 1,000 AD to when the Algonquin people were pushed out in the 17th century. It was a sad reminder of colonialism and how vital the resources from Canada were during the Napoleonic Wars when the wood was sent from Montreal to England to build ships.
Museum VP Chantal Amyot will talk you through the history of First Nations and many of the practices during special guided tours. I cannot recommend booking this enough, Amyot provides a fascinating insight into the museum’s exhibits and the stories behind them. Tours cost $5 CAD – more info here.
Winter Lights Across Canada (Ottawa Circuit)
Now, you’ll need to visit Ottawa between early December and early January for this one but trust me, it’s worth planning a winter holiday to see.
Slowly walk your way around Winter Lights Across Canada, which you can take from the Portage Bridge back from Gatineau toward downtown following this winter lights circuit.
The well-planned loop lights up some of Ottawa and Gatineau’s most famous historical sites. Take a stroll along Portage Park, the Garden of the Provinces and Territories, War Memorial, and McKenzie Triangle to admire the 300,000 lights (!) that light up the pathways and landmarks of the capital city.
Bundle up in your best winter clothes if you choose to walk the circuit. Ottawa gets freezing cold, especially at night.
This walk is still nice in the warmer months, as you’ll see some of the city’s top historical attractions on the same walk (minus the holiday lights).
Oh, Canada, Eh? Dinner Theatre
Looking for a fun way to finish the first day of your Ottawa itinerary? Head to Oh, Canada, Eh? Canada’s longest-running dinner theatre for an exuberant show of all things Canadian.
It’s an over-the-top (read: outrageously fun) night of song and dance that celebrates all the Canadian hits you may know – and plenty you probably don’t.
From Céline Dion to Justin Bieber, this show packs in 2.5 hours of pop hits from some pretty amazing entertainers. There’s also some stellar food to accompany the live performances.
During my trip, we were treated to a delicious all-Canadian menu. Highlights included split pea soup, haddock, roasted chicken, and beef. But without a doubt, the performance was the star of the show and an absolute must-do for anyone visiting the city.
Day 2: Nature in the City
Now it’s time to venture off and see some of the best that Ottawa offers on its outskirts. From a nearly 5-mile ice skating rink to a farm with spirit horses, day 2 of your Ottawa itinerary is packed with adventure.
Brunch at Zak’s Diner
Get your carb on at local staple Zak’s Diner, which has served residents and in-the-know tourists all-day breakfast since 1986. It’s a retro-style diner with 3 locations throughout town, but the one on Elgin Street is just a short walk from the Lord Elgin Hotel.
Expect burgers, eggs, poutine, and even breakfast poutine, all made as well as you’ll find anywhere. But you go here for the monster milkshakes. You just do. And if you want to get one of the boozy ice cream concoctions to start your day, I’m not judging. Neither are the locals.
My Canadian Shake is the one to get – a ridiculously indulgent treat that consists of rye whiskey, maple syrup, and caramel (does it get better than this?)
Disclaimer: I didn’t go for breakfast (I had a fantastic burger and shake), but all signs point to it being an epic spot to start your day.
Explore the Canadian Museum of Nature
The fortress-like building of the Canadian Museum of Nature contains fascinating exhibits featuring dinosaur fossils and geological displays. They chart the earth’s history and the natural evolution of plants and animals. Not going to lie, it was a real highlight of my trip.
You’ll walk through 6 rooms that show you what Canada is (and was) like from the Pacific to the Atlantic coasts. It’s seriously fascinating, with lots to keep you entertained for 2-3 hours (at least).
Permanent exhibits are impressive, with life-size dinosaur replicas (and skeletons), nearly 500 taxidermy birds, and a tide pool with anemones and starfish. You’ll also want to check out the special exhibitions, which use videos, artwork, and live demonstrations to explore subjects ranging from wildlife to indigenous cultures.
Be sure to head to the basement, where there are all kinds of (live) creepy crawlies in their natural habitats.
Enjoy an Afternoon at Rideau Canal
The Rideau Canal is a 202-km (125.5-mile) stretch of manufactured waterways that connect Ottawa to Kingston on Lake Ontario. It was created after The War of 1812 to get supplies to the capital without getting too close to the US border.
Rideau Canal’s size and design (it was wide enough for steamships) have made it an important part of the Canadian economy for decades. Now, it’s used as a place to relax and enjoy the city.
What to do when you’re there? You can bike or jog along the promenade, learn about the unique locking system (with 45 locks along the canal), and ice skate on the world’s largest rink.
A massive 4.8-mile stretch allows you to rent skates and set out for a day of fun on the ice. Though I didn’t get to try this as the canal hadn’t frozen over yet (and, for full disclosure, I hate skating), it was recommended to me by a number of people as a must!
Meet the Ojibwe Spirit Horses at Mādahòkì Farm
Take the 20-30 minute drive (or Uber) down Mādahòkì Farm, where you can learn more about the fascinating Ojibwe Spirit Horses. They’re the only native Canadian breed of horses left, and we nearly lost them to extinction.
First, a quick backstory. In the 1970s, wild horses were eating from farmer’s fields and most were killed. A group took the last 4 living horses to Minnesota and slowly began raising them. There are over 180 now.
Mādahòkì Farm is home to nine of these horses and celebrates them by allowing them to roam on the 165-acre farm. From the “herd boss” named Fox to the newcomer Makwa (“black bear”), it’s a treat to meet each and every one.
You can also visit to learn more about Indigenous culture through food, traditional celebrations, and seasonal events held at the farm.
See The Parliament Buildings at Parliament Hill
Although they’re closed for construction at the moment, you should swing by to see the Parliament buildings on Parliament Hill to see the centre of Canadian democracy. The neo-gothic buildings are quite the sight to behold – with intricate details woven into their exteriors.
Check out the Centennial Flame, sitting in the heart of Parliament Square. The iconic symbol was first lit in 1967 to mark Canada’s 100th anniversary as a reminder of the country’s journey.
Take a Tour of the Capital at Parliament the Virtual Experience
While it’s a must to make time to walk by the real-life Parliament, there is currently the only way to “step inside” the 19th-century Gothic Revival building – through a virtual experience.
Construction around the centre block of Parliament Hill has closed the capital to residents and visitors temporarily. But the immersive experience shows you most of the well-known sections of the Parliamentary building.
You’ll “walk through” the Peace Tower, the House of Commons, The Senate, and The Library. It also takes you through the functions and historical importance of each. It’s an engaging, immersive experience with a VR headset that provides a snapshot of the Canadian Parliament in a unique and fun way.
Just a quick note – Parliament the Virtual Experience is on Sparket Street (not Parliament Hill), so plan accordingly.
Dinner at Rabbit Hole
Now that you’ve had a full day outdoors, it’s time to get your food and drink on. Rabbit Hole is a cocktail bar, come eatery, on Sparks Street and one you can’t afford to miss on your first trip to Ottawa.
Local ingredients are a thing of pride here, and they showcase them in the food and the cocktail menu (and they do both incredibly well).
If you’re this person, kick things off with some of the oysters from Prince Edward Island. They are incredibly fresh, and as the service said, East Coast rules when it comes to seafood in Canada. After trying it, I’m never going to quibble with that.
To be honest, I wasn’t expecting pizzas. But, by goodness, the light, fluffy dough, and tasty toppings were highlights of my time in the city. The pizzas were spot on, with a raised crust and high-quality ingredients, which you can see come right out of the oven (grab a table towards the back).
Drinks-wise, expect modern riffs on classic cocktails, all perfectly executed and served, ready for you to sip with relish. The Bad Bunny was a very drinkable combination of tequila, Martini Fiero, orgeat, lime, and ginger syrup – but the expert team can make anything you call out.
Cocktails at a Secret Speakeasy: The Jackalope
I hope you didn’t have too many cocktails at dinner, because it’s time to venture to one of the city’s best bars (bonus points for the fact that it’s only a couple of steps away from the Rabbit Hole).
Head outside of the restaurant and look next door – you’ll see what looks like a closed shop – head into the entrance, down some stairs and into a secret doorway. You found it… the Jackalope.
Achieving what many speakeasies set out to, this is a cool subterranean bar serving stellar cocktails.
I’ll be frank: there is a (very tempting) menu with the classics, but I recommend putting yourself in the mixologist’s hands, and simply talking them through what you like in order for them to make a custom creation. I did so, and the cocktails were some of the best I’ve ever laid hands on, no word of a lie.
Have More Time? Add These To Your Itinerary
Have a little more time to explore? The good news is you can tack on a brilliant day trip or another one of the city’s best museums pretty easily with this 2-day itinerary in Ottawa.
Canadian War Museum
Another of the city’s most visited attractions is the Canadian War Museum. I didn’t make it there on my last trip, but the sprawling collection of memorabilia from WWI, WWII, and The War of 1812 (when the US invaded Canada) is informative and eye-opening.
It’s just a short drive from downtown, near the scenic waterfalls of Pangishimo Park.
Patrimoine et Chutes de Plaisance
If hiking and sightseeing are more your speed, Patrimoine et Chutes de Plaisance is a great call.
You do need to hire a car, but it’s a short drive at around 45-60 minutes. It’s worth the effort. The 63-metre (207-foot) drop where the Ottawa and Petite Nation Rivers converge is one of the most scenic waterfalls in Canada.
It’s a short hike but incredibly scenic, even in the winter when the frosty pine trees add a charming touch that makes the best holiday photo backdrop.
Take the Via Rail to Montreal for one of the most exciting day trips you can add to an Ottawa travel itinerary.
Shop along Rue Sainte-Catherine, hang out in scenic Mount Royal Park, and sample bagels that stack up against any you’ll find in New York at St Viateur. Yeah, I said it.
Handy Tips for Planning Your Ottawa Trip
- Most of the parliament buildings are closed for construction for the foreseeable future. But Parliament the Virtual Experience is a cool way to “see inside” through a virtual tour.
- The weather in Ottawa is pretty extreme. Winters are very cold, and summers are hot and humid. Dress for the occasion.
- Dress oh-so-warm in the winter. The average low is just 6°F (-14.4 °C) in January.
- If you’re lucky enough to attend a festival, an already charming city is even more fun to visit. Canada Day (July 1) and the Canadian Tulip Festival (mid-May) are a couple of the best.
- You’re going to walk a lot on this trip. So carb up throughout the day with poutine, beaver tails, and any other hearty snack you can find – you deserve it.
What to Pack
Ottawa International Airport (YOW)
National Gallery of Canada, Parliament Hill, Ojibwe Spirit Horses at Madahoki Farm, Oh Canada Eh! Dinner Theatre, Canadian Museum of History
Purchase a Visit Ottawa Pass and save a little cash on the city’s best museums
You likely won’t need to hire a car for this trip. Public transportation is pretty good; you can walk to many of the top things to do from downtown, and Uber is readily available for longer distances.
Read More Canada Guides
- Insider’s Canada Travel Guide
- Unmissable Things to do in Canada
- How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Ottawa in Winter
- Canadian Rockies Road Trip Itinerary
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