As expected of a national capital, Ottawa has many institutions devoted to preserving and interpreting Canadian History. The Museum of Civilization tells the story of Canada’s people from the arrival of aboriginal peoples over the Bering Strait through Viking settlements and European colonization to the present day. The collection of artifacts is quite spectacular, including full-size Salish totem poles, a Viking ship, and even a grain elevator. Do also take a moment to appreciate that the museum is shaped like male genitalia (see the floor plan).
The Canadian War Museum, now housed in a monolithic new building tells the story of Canada’s military history, from colonial conflicts to the World Wars, Korea, its peacekeeping missions, and its involvement in NATO and UN operations. A joint ticket for the War Museum and Museum of Civilization is cheaper than buying them separate.
A quirky war-related institution is the Diefenbunker, a former top-secret bunker built to protect the government in case of nuclear attack. It now houses a museum of the Cold War.
In Centretown, just south of Parliament Hill, a gayborhood has emerged in recents years, with a concentration of gay/lesbian establishments. Chic Somerset Street and Bank Street are at the center of any map of gay Ottawa with the Centretown Pub piano-bar and disco. Gay shops line Bank Street and side streets, along with cafés, restaurants, bookshops, saunas, and erotic shops. Edge Club is another popular nightclub over on Sparks Street, nearer Parliament.
The Canadian Museum of Nature (240 McLeod Street) is another Centretown attraction that houses Canada’s natural history collection.
Beyond Rideau Canal, Byward Market is at the center of Lower Town, traditionally Ottawa's French-speaking district, and another hub of local gay life. The market is full of the fruit and vegetable stalls of area farmers, surrounded by fine restaurants, cafes, delis, and boutique shops. Bars here, even if not specifically gay, are quite friendly and welcoming to all.
Other attractions in the neighborhood include the National Gallery (380 Sussex Drive) with Canadian, Indigenous, and international art collections.
The National Arts Centre (53 Elgin Street) with English and French theater productions, dance and music performances is midway between the two neighborhoods, by Confederation Park.
Ottawa has a lovely system of paved trails that are ideal for running, biking, rollerblading, or in the winter, cross-country skiing! Each of the city’s waterways (Ottawa River, Rideau Canal, and Rideau River) are lined with paved paths on both sides. Gatineau Park on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River has fantastic scenery and facilities to rent bikes from.
For Canadian visitors, Parliament Hill is generally the main attraction of Ottawa. The seat of Canada’s government rests atop a cliff with a commanding view over the Ottawa River. The 19th-century building is an example of gothic revival architecture and a guided tour will highlight its fine interior detailing. It’s best to arrive early to secure a tour. Self-guided walks around the Parliament grounds allow great views over the river. Don’t miss the Hill cats, a colony of feral cats that live at the southwest corner of the Centre Block and are cared for by volunteers. Not far away is the Supreme Court of Canada, a fine example of Art Deco architecture.
The Rideau Canal was a mammoth feat of engineering when it was built in the mid-19th century, and has since been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. In the winter, it becomes the world’s largest skating rink. You can rent skates right on the ice. While you’re there, be sure to enjoy a real Ottawa treat, the “beaver tail.” Beaver tails are a fried dough similar to funnel cakes, served with powdered sugar, cinnamon, and lemon (in western Canada, they’re more commonly called “elephant ears”).