Home Canada Ottawa in a Day – A Walking Tour of the Best Sites

Ottawa in a Day – A Walking Tour of the Best Sites

by Valerie Vanr

Visit Parliament Hill and all the major sites around downtown Ottawa on our one-day walking tour. We visit the best that this world-class city, Canada’s Capital, had to offer.

What to See in Ottawa

One day in Ottawa is perfect to easily visit the city’s main attractions. With a second day, explore Ottawa’s fantastic national museums.

1 Day in Ottawa

2 Days in Ottawa

  • Complete the Day 1 itinerary above.
  • Visit a few of Ottawa’s National Museums.
  • Walk the Ottawa River Pathway, part of the Capital Pathway, from the Rideau Canal Locks to Richmond Landing, near Victoria Island, OR Visit beautiful Rideau Falls and the parkland to the northeast of downtown.

Ottawa Walking Tour Map

This self-guided walking tour of Ottawa is about 3.5 kilometres long and can easily be covered in one day.

Ottawa Walking Tour Points of Interest Map
Click on the above Ottawa Tourist map for an interactive version

The settlement around where the Rideau Canal meets the Ottawa River was originally called Bytown. Founded in the 1820s during the construction of the canal, its name was changed to Ottawa in 1855.

In 1857, Ottawa was chosen over Kingston, Montreal, Quebec City and Toronto as the capital city of Canada.

Our walking tour starts on Parliament Hill, the seat of the Canadian government.

Parliament Hill

The Hill is 22 acres of land bounded to the north by the Ottawa River, the east by the Rideau Canal, the south by Wellington Street and the west by Kent Street. There are a number of interesting things to see here.

Person Centennial Flame Centre Block Peace Tower
The Centennial Flame fountain behind me was built for Canada’s Centennial Year (1967) festivities. It was meant to be temporary but Canadians enjoyed it so much that it remains today. The flame burns year round and the fountain’s water never freezes.

Centennial Flame

The Centennial Flame monument and fountain is one of the first spots people stop when visiting the Hill. On the southern edge of the lawn along Wellington Street, the fountain base is 13-sided, one for each province and territory of Canada. Each side shows the provincial or territorial coat of arms, its floral emblem and the year that it joined Canada.

The Flame was built for Canada’s Centennial Year festivities and meant to be temporary. However, Canadians liked it so much that it became permanent. The flame burns year-round and the fountain’s water never freezes.

Looking north from the Flame, there are three, large, neo-Gothic buildings around the lawn. From left to right, they are the West, Centre and East Blocks. Their construction began in the 1850s. All were complete by 1866 to welcome the first Parliament of Canada after confederation in 1867.

Monument 3-storey yellow-brick green-roofed East Block
The War of 1812 Memorial was installed in 2012 as part of the bicentennial of the conflict. The beautiful, neo-Gothic East Memorial Building is behind it.

Centre Block and the Peace Tower

In 1916 a huge fire destroyed the Centre Block. The current Centre Block and the Peace Tower were built in the 1920s.

Over 90 metres tall, the Peace Tower is a freestanding bell tower connected to Centre Block. Centre Block contains the Senate Chamber, the House of Commons and the offices of a number of members of parliament, senators, and senior administration.

In 2019, a multi-billion dollar restoration project began to remove hazardous materials, repair and modernize Centre Block for completion in 2031.

Centre Block Peace Tower Parliament Hill
A massive project began in 2019 to restore and modernize the Centre Block. It is a busy construction site. The project is expected to be complete in 2031.

Library of Parliament

The circular library at the back of Centre Block is topped with a dome 40 metres above the floor. The wood-panelled walls are carved with over 1,600 designs.

Circular 3-storey stone library of Parliament
The Library of Parliament, at the back of Centre Block, opened in 1876.

It opened in 1876. It has a hallway separating it from Centre Block with fire-proof, iron doors. These doors allowed the library to survive the 1916 fire which destroyed Centre Block.

Tours of Canada’s Parliament

During the renovation of Centre Block, tours of the Peace Tower and the library are not available.

Free guided tours of Canada’s Parliament are available at the temporary locations of the Senate Chambers and the House of Commons and the East Block. While the renovation is underway, the Senate will sit in the Senate of Canada Building, formerly Union Station, and the House of Commons sits in the West Block. Be sure to plan your visit in advance, as visits are not allowed when the chambers are in session. Only 1 small bag is allowed and will be screened prior to entry. Lockers are not available.

Borden Statue yellow-brick West Block building
Sir Robert Borden was the 8th Prime Minister of Canada. His statue sits in front of the West Block where the House of Commons is meeting during Centre Block renovations.

Monuments on Parliament Hill

There are many monuments on Parliament Hill honouring important figures in Canadian history.

Walk the path behind Centre Block to see the Statue of Queen Victoria and the Victoria Tower Bell. From the path enjoy the view over the Ottawa River to Gatineau, Quebec and the beautiful Canadian Museum of History. Find the statue of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s 1st Prime Minister.

Four pictures statues Parliament Hill Ottawa
There are more than 20 statues and memorials to see around Parliament Hill. Clockwise from upper left: William Lyon Mackenzie King,10th Prime Minister, southeast of the East Block; Queen Victoria, Canada’s Queen from 1837 to 1901, west side behind Centre Block; the Victoria Tower Bell, from first Parliament Buildings destroyed by fire in 1916, north side; and Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine, two statesmen important in Canada’s confederation is on the east side.

Continue along past the monument of Robert Baldwin and Sir Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine, important figures in the work toward Canada’s confederation. Three monuments face Wellington Street in front of the East Block. From west to east, they are the War of 1812 Memorial and statues of Sir Wilfred Laurier 7th Prime Minister and William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada’s 10th Prime Minister.

As you reach Wellington Street, turn left and walk toward the Rideau Canal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Rideau Canal Locks

The Ottawa Locks, numbers 1 through 8 on the Rideau Canal, are the largest single set of locks on the entire Rideau system, providing a lift of 24 metres. Transiting this set of locks takes about 1.5 hours.

Water flowing over Rideau Canal lock gates
Can you see me standing on the walkway over the Ottawa Locks? This is a set of eight locks connecting the Rideau Canal to the Ottawa River. The canal is about 25 metres above the river.

The 202-kilometre-long Rideau Canal, joining Ottawa and Kingston, was completed in 1832. A series of natural lakes and rivers make up ninety percent of the system. They are linked by hand-dug canals, dams and locks. The canal is operated by Parks Canada for the use of pleasure craft only.

In the winter, the canal from these locks to Hartwells Locks (7.8 kilometres) is drained almost dry. When the remaining water freezes solid, the world’s longest skating rink is opened for FREE public skating, 24 hours a day. Typically the skateway is open from January to late February.

The Bytown Museum is on the west side of the locks. 

For a great road trip from Ottawa, be sure to check out our article, Rideau Canal Towns – A Scenic Road Trip to Ottawa. Discover more locks and beautiful towns along the famous Rideau Canal.

On the east side of the locks is the Fairmont Chateau Laurier.

Château Laurier

Built for the Grand Trunk Railway between 1908 and 1912, the hotel was designed to look like a chateau in France’s Loire Valley. Over the years this luxury hotel has hosted royalty, politicians from Canada and around the world, celebrities and Canada’s wealthy. Today the hotel welcomes guests to over 420 rooms.

Rideau Canal Locks Chateau Laurier behind
Majestic Fairmont Chateau Laurier opened in the early 20th Century for the Grand Truck Railway. It was one of a network of grand, European-style, railroad hotels built to lure well-heeled travellers to the new trans-continental rail lines.

When the Grand Trunk Railway became part of Canadian National Railways (CN) in the early 1920s, Chateau Laurier was one of its most important hotels. CN’s hotels were purchased by Canadian Pacific Hotels (CP) in 1988. The hotel was renamed Fairmont Chateau Laurier in 1999 when the CP chain merged with and became Fairmont Hotels and Resorts.

To the north of the hotel is one of Ottawa’s popular green spaces.

Major’s Hill Park

During the construction of the Rideau Canal, the area was a military reserve. Lieutenant-Colonel By, canal construction supervisor, and his family lived on site. When construction was complete, the hill became a park and was named for By’s successor, Major Bolton.  It’s always been a popular place for outdoor relaxation, hosting many of Ottawa’s major events.

Enjoy a lovely walk through the park. The paths on the west side of the park offer expansive views of the Ottawa River over to Gatineau, Quebec.

Person colourful trees caste-like building behind
The Chateau Laurier is framed by the colourful trees in Major’s Hill Park as Andy walks along a park path.

Leave the park at the intersection of Mackenzie Avenue and Murray Street at the northeast corner of the park.

Reconciliation: The Peacekeeping Monument is on the large traffic island at this intersection. Canada has a long history of peacekeeping. This monument honours the thousands of Canadians who’ve served and continue to serve as peacekeepers in the world’s conflict zones.

Continue across Murray Street to Maman, a spider sculpture by French-American artist Louise Bourgeois, and the National Gallery of Canada.

Spider sculpture National Gallery behind
Close to 10 metres tall, this bronze, stainless steel, and marble sculpture is one of the largest in the world.

The Royal Canadian Mint is on the north side of the art gallery. Tours must be arranged in advance to this Victorian-style building, home of the mint for over a century.

From the Maman sculpture, walk across Sussex Avenue to the beautiful, twin-spired church.

Notre Dame Cathedral

Notre Dame Cathedral, a Roman Catholic minor basilica, is the oldest, and largest, church in Ottawa. It was listed as a Canadian National Historic Site in 1990.

Silver twin-steepled stone church
Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica’s twin steeples shine in the sun. They were originally covered in tinplating which was popular in 18th and 19th century Québec churches. In 1999 they were replaced and made of stainless steel.

The cathedral was constructed between 1841 and 1846. A design change in the middle of construction led to different architectural styles between the lower and upper levels. On the lower level, the doorways and windows are simpler and less ornate, typical of neo-classical style. The upper window openings are more typical of neo-gothic style.

The steeples were completed by 1862. Originally covered in tin (as was typical of many French-Canadian churches), today they are covered in steel.

The beautiful, painted interior is filled with many wooden statues of religious figures.

Walk east along St. Patrick Street, the boundary of the ByWard Market neighbourhood.

Red Byward Market 2-storey building
Ottawa’s first market was held in the late 1820s closer to the Rideau Canal on George Street when the town was known as Bytown. This building, at York and William Streets, was built in the 1930s. It is the 5th building to house the ByWard Market.

ByWard Market

The ByWard Market Heritage District is bound by St. Patrick, Dalhousie, Rideau and Sussex Streets. The area includes some of Ottawa’s oldest heritage structures.

York Street is the commercial core of the district. ByWard Market Building is an indoor public market, popular with locals and tourists alike. Enjoy the area’s shops, eateries and bars.

Yellow chair clock ByWard Market building behind
This clock is outside the ByWard Market building at the intersection of George and William Streets.

Before the 1820s, this area was a bog. It was drained when construction began on the Rideau Canal to build housing for construction workers. The resulting town was called Bytown in honour of Colonel By. Along with the housing, there was a commercial district and an outdoor market area. The first formal market building was built in the 1840s.

Over the years the market and area served the neighbouring farming communities and the lumber industry of the Ottawa Valley. It was the core of the French-Canadian and Jewish communities.

After exploring the market, grab a selfie by the Ottawa sign at the west end of York Street. Get a picture the funky stairs which connect Sussex Street and Mackenzie Avenue in the background.

Person red chair Ottawa sign
Andy is enjoying a rest in front of the Ottawa sign at the west end of York Street is the perfect selfie
Person base painted stairway
The stairway behind me at the west end of York Street between Sussex Drive and Mackenzie Avenue makes a nice picture backdrop. It has featured a number of murals since 2016.

Walk back toward Parliament Hill. Across from the Chateau Laurier, on the southwest corner of Sussex and Rideau Streets is the old Union Station building.

Senate of Canada Building

This is the temporary home of the Canadian Senate Chambers, while Centre Block on Parliament Hill is under renovation. When the building opened in 1912, it was the Grand Truck Railway’s Central Station. It was later renamed Union Station.

Continue west on Rideau Street which becomes Wellington Street.

National War Memorial

The War Memorial reminds visitors of the sacrifices of Canadians in wars around the world. It stands 21 metres high. The arch and base are granite and the figures are bronze.

War Memorial castle-like building background
This memorial was the winning entry by Vernon March of Kent, England in an International design contest. The bronze figures depict all branches of the military.

The original memorial only noted the years of World War I. It was dedicated in 1939. Nothing changed until 1982 when the memorial was updated to include the years of World War II and the Korean War and rededicated. In 2014, the years of the South African War and the mission in Afghanistan were inscribed.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was added in 2000. It contains the remains of an unknown Canadian soldier from a war cemetery near Vimy Ridge, France.

The National Arts Centre is to the southeast of the memorial, along Elgin Street. See theatre productions in both English and French, opera and other musicals, and classical and contemporary dance performances.

Confederation Park, an urban park with sculptures and fountains, is across the street from the Arts Centre. Created in 1967 as part of Canada’s Centennial celebrations, the park hosts many of Ottawa’s festivals.

The walking tour ends at Sparks Street.

Pedestrian streetscape coloured 3D triangular figures
Enjoy a stroll down the Sparks Street, a pedestrian-only street in the heart of downtown Ottawa.

Sparks Street

From Elgin Street on the east to Lyon Street on the west, Sparks Street is a pedestrian zone. End the day by grabbing a bite to eat at one its many restaurants.

Ottawa at Night

Ottawa is a stunning city at night as many of the buildings and monuments are illuminated.

A great place to start is the Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill. It is impressive at night.

Continue east on Wellington Street to see the National War Monument, the Rideau Canal and Château Laurier, all beautifully lit.

4 pictures night scenes Ottawa
Many of Ottawa’s beautiful sites are illuminated at night. Clockwise from upper left: Centennial Flame, Rideau Canal Locks, War Memorial and Fairmont Chateau Laurier.

Best Museums in Ottawa

On your second day in Ottawa, visit a few of these great museums.

  1. National Gallery of Canada
  2. Canadian Museum of Nature
  3. Canadian War Museum
  4. Canadian Museum of History (Gatineau)
  5. Canada Science and Technology Museum
  6. Diefenbunker Museum
  7. Bytown Museum
  8. Bank of Canada Museum
Concrete building with glass tower background
The National Gallery of Canada opened in 1988. Its total exhibition space is larger than the area of two football fields.

The gallery displays Canadian artwork, including works by Inuit and First Nations artists, as well as some European artworks.

National Gallery tickets can be purchased in person or online.

Canadian Museum of Nature

Discover Canada now and through time from coast to coast to coast in six natural history galleries. There are also live creature exhibits.

Timed-entry tickets to the Museum of Nature are required and can be purchased in person or online

Canadian War Museum

Opened in 2005, the museum has a number of exhibitions on Canadian and world history.

Timed-entry tickets to the Canadian War Museum are required and can be purchased online, in advance.

Canadian Museum of History

The museum’s permanent collections and temporary exhibitions explore Canadian and world history.  There is also a world class Children’s Museum.

Canadian Museum of History Ottawa River
The Museum of History began as a geological museum with a very small history section in the 1850s. This building was designed by Metis architect Douglas Cardinal and opened to the public in 1989.

On the banks of the Ottawa River in Gatineau, this beautiful building is over 25,000 square metres on 4 floors. Opened in 1989, it was designed by Metis architect Douglas Cardinal.  The first documented Canadian history exhibit was a small exhibit in part of the geological museum in 1856.  

Timed-entry tickets to the Canadian Museum of History are required for both general admission and the children’s museum. They must be purchased online, in advance.

Canada Science and Technology Museum

The exhibitions, demonstration stage and Exploratek bring Canada’s history in science and technology innovation to life. There’s so much to discover in the museum’s 7,500 square metres of fun. Built in 1967, an $80 million renovation of the whole building was complete in 2017.

Timed-entry tickets to the Canadian Science and Technology Museum are required. It is recommended that they be purchased online, in advance.

Diefenbunker Museum

This 9,300-square-metre, 4-storey, underground bunker was completed in 1961. Built to shelter top government officials during a feared nuclear attack, thankfully, it was never used. It was decommissioned in 1994.

Tickets to the Diefenbunker Museum can be purchased in person or online for both self-guided and guided tours. 

Bytown Museum

This well-maintained museum is in the oldest stone building in Ottawa. It houses many interesting exhibits about building the Rideau Canal. It was the supply house for food and equipment to Colonel By and the Royal Engineers.

Check the museum website for opening hours and ticket information.

Canal locks Ottawa River Bytown Museum
The Bytown Museum, beside the Rideau Canal, showcases the early history of the area. Learn about the construction of the canal, frontier Bytown, selection as the capital of Canada and much more.

Bank of Canada Museum

The museum is the home of the Canadian Currency Collection, the most complete collection of Canadian coins, tokens and paper money in the world. Every denomination of Canadian bank note from every series up to today is part of the collection. There are also international currencies and trade items.

Learn about the economy, inflation and the history of money itself. From using seashells as money, to tree bark bank notes, it’s all here.

Check the Bank of Canada Museum website for opening hours and ticket information.

Are Ottawa Museums Free to the Public?

Unfortunately, unlike the museums in Washington DC (the United States capital), most of Ottawa’s National museums are not free.  Almost all charge admission.

Beyond Downtown Ottawa

These are some great options if you want to explore some of Ottawa’s green spaces.

Rideau Falls and Green Island

At Rideau Falls, the water of the Rideau River drops 12 metres to the Ottawa River. Rideau Falls is actually two waterfalls with Green Island between them. This area was once dense, red-and-white pine forest.

For millennia, the Rideau and Ottawa Rivers were the highways for Indigenous traders and hunters. The name Rideau (curtain in French) was given to the river and falls by Europeans arriving in the 1600s.

Waterfall building behind leaves front
Rideau Falls are twin waterfalls at the Ottawa River. The parkland surrounding the falls is a pretty place to explore.

New arrivals to Bytown in the 1830s saw the falls as a way to generate power. By the end of the 19th century, several mills were producing many products including flour, timber and cloth. Much of it was exported to the United States and Europe.

Power is still generated at the falls but the mills are long gone. In the 1920s some were converted into government buildings.  In the 1950s, the government reclaimed the land around the falls, adding it to the system of parkland along the Ottawa River. It remains open for all to enjoy.

This is also the heart of the international sector of Ottawa where many international embassies are found. The Prime Minister’s residence and Rideau Hall are just north of the falls along Sussex Drive.

Official Residence of the Prime Minister of Canada

24 Sussex Drive is the official residence of the Canadian Prime Minister. Built in the 1860s for a lumber baron, it was acquired by the Canadian government in 1943. It’s been the Prime Minister’s residence since 1949 and is NOT OPEN to the public.

Rideau Hall

1 Sussex Drive is the Governor General’s residence and workplace. Stonemason Thomas McKay completed it in 1838. He worked on the Rideau Canal and built several mills at the falls. Originally there were 11 rooms. Expanded over the years, there are now 175 rooms and the building is over 5200 square metres. Less than 10% is dedicated to living quarters with the rest used for affairs of state.

The hall and the grounds including many heritage gardens are open to the public.  Free guided tours of the residence and the grounds are available.  See the Rideau Hall website for further details of the tours and security protocols in place.

Capital Pathway

The pathway, one of the most extensive in North America, has more than 200 kilometres of off-road multi-use paths in the Ottawa-Gatineau area. These connect with on-road cycling routes, municipal trails, sidewalks, and walkways in urban parks, and hiking trails in Gatineau Park. Part of the pathway is on Canada’s cross-country Great Trail.

The Pathway is for everyone; pedestrians, joggers, cyclists, in-line skaters, people with a mobility impairments, skiers, snowshoers and snow bikers.  Visit the Capital Pathway website for maps and further details.

White memorial foreground Ottawa River background
At Richmond Landing on the Ottawa River, visit the Royal Canadian Navy Monument, a tribute to past, present and future members of Canada’s Royal Navy.

Victoria Island

This island is located on the Ottawa River. Two bridges linking Ottawa and Gatineau span the island but access by car is only available from the Chaudiere Bridge. Non-vehicular traffic can access the island by the Capital Pathway system.

The island was important to the development of industry in Ottawa and Gatineau due to the power generation from Chaudiere Falls. Much of the island is now green space. Ruins are all that’s left of the first mill to produce acetylene gas from calcium carbide. The process was invented by Thomas Wilson in the late 19th century.

Couple Parliament Hill Ottawa
Hope you have a great time in Ottawa, just like we did!

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