The capital city of Canada, Ottawa has a lot to offer for the first-time traveler to the country. Not only is it the site of the national government, but it is also a metropolitan mecca for tourism, food, and culture. One of the best aspects of Ottawa is its abundance of free attractions and activities – perfect for the budget traveler.
If you only have three days in Ottawa, make sure to check out these highlights.
After arriving in Ottawa International Airport, you can either take public or private transportation to get to your accommodation.
For the budget traveler, the public bus will be your best option. The airport offers a bus service called OP Transpo, which operates nearly 24/7. The bus route follows Route 97 into the city center, and costs around $3.50 CAD. Tickets can be purchased inside the airport.
If you are in a rush or just want to have private transport, the airport also offers a private taxi service, with an average cost of $30 to get to the city center.
Once in Ottawa, you can take advantage of the city’s extensive and innovative public transport system, which is comprised of buses and trains. There is also a booming e-scooter scene in Ottawa, where you can rent one of the many scooters located throughout the city for a more immersive and fun transportation experience.
Day 1: Arrive in Ottawa, Parliament Hill, Rideau Hill, Major Hill’s Park
After arriving in Ottawa, head out to see the important government landmarks and the city’s most famous canal.
Ottawa Parliament Hill
Visit the Parliament building in the capital, where the Senate and the House of Commons of Canada convene to make governmental decisions. The building itself is an architectural masterpiece, so make sure to take plenty of photos from the outside. Before your visit, book a free guided tour of the inside of the building, where a local guide will explain the governmental system of Canada, and you can have an inside look at where governmental officials convene. Tours last between 30-40 minutes depending on the type of tour you choose.
First built as a strategic military canal in the 19th century, today, the Rideau Canal is a popular tourist attraction and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also one of the oldest continuously operating canals in North America. It is a great place to lounge, take photos, or walk along it. If you are lucky, you may witness the gates open and close, which are still operated manually to this day.
For water activities, the river is a large attraction to locals and tourists alike for kayaking and boating. There is a multitude of operators that run tours. The most well-known company is Rideau Canal Cruises, which offers electric boat cruises along the canal from downtown Ottawa to Dows Lake.
The canal is even more enjoyable in the winter. Between the months of January and March, the canal transforms into the world’s largest skating rink, ranging 7.8 kilometers in length. The rink is free to visit and enter and is open 24 hours a day. If you didn’t bring ice skates, no problem, as many rental stations exist along the canal with skates and equipment available for rent.
Major Hill’s Park
After a long day of walking, head over to Major Hill’s Park for some light strolling, lounging, or a picnic in a beautifully maintained public park. A great getaway from the city, the park spans 5 hectares with a backdrop of the Ottawa skyline. The park is even more enjoyable during the spring and autumn months, as you will be able to catch a glimpse of the blossoming flowers or the brightly changing fall foliage. If you are lucky, you may be able to catch a live show in the evening at the park, as it is known as a venue for many musicians to perform at night, especially during the summer.
Where to eat
Where to stay in Ottawa
- $$$ – Le Germain Hotel Ottawa
- $$ – The Grand Hotel
- $ – Ottawa Backpackers Inn
Day 2: National Gallery of Canada, Canadian Museum of Nature, ByWard Market
Visit some of Canada’s most influential museums and have a bite to eat and go shopping a local market
National Gallery of Canada
A trip to Ottawa wouldn’t be complete without a visit to one of the city’s influential museums. One must-see is the National Gallery of Canada, which houses Canada’s largest collection of indigenous and Canadian artwork, as well as other special world-class exhibitions. It is home to some world-famous art pieces, such as Hope I by Gustav Klimt. There are over 40,000 pieces in the museum from over 6,000 artists. Although art museums may seem boring, this one is not – there is a variety of niche exhibits, such as an indoor garden court, a 30-foot spider sculpture, and a replica of Parliament Hill. The museum has free admission.
Canadian Museum of Nature
For those more interested in science and nature than art, there is also a museum for you. Make sure to also check out the Canadian Museum of Nature in downtown Ottawa, which houses exhibits from geology to animals to fossils. Some of the exhibits are interactive, making for a fun museum experience. One example is the Canada Goose Arctic Gallery, which is a separate room purposefully kept at a very cold temperature to offer an exhibit on indigenous traditions in polar climates. The museum is one of the only ones in the world which has an entire blue whale skeleton. The Canadian Museum of Nature is fun and educational for all ages and walks of life – plus, it is free admission!
After a long day of museum hopping and exploring, stop by the ByWard Market in Ottawa for some shopping and food sampling. The market is one of Ottawa’s most popular attractions and is the best spot in the city for shopping, dining, and entertainment – with over 500 businesses. The market has special themes for any time of the year that you visit, such as Christmas markets in the winter and farmers’ markets in the summer. It also frequently is the site for live musical performances and night markets. When at the market, don’t forget to make a stop at the large letter sign that says OTTAWA for photos.
Where to eat
Day 3: Day Trip to Gatineau Park
A short drive outside of Ottawa, Gatineau Park gives a nice escape from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Gatineau is only 15-20 minutes away from Ottawa by car. The easiest and cheapest way to get there is by public bus, which averages around $3 CAD per ride. Taking a private taxi is also possible, although it may be difficult to find a ride back to Ottawa.
If you are an outdoorsy person by heart, you will be happy to know that Gatineau Park, the second most visited park in Canada, is only a short drive away from the city center of Ottawa. To get there, you need to cross over the border which takes you into Quebec.
It is completely free to enter the park, and it offers a multitude of activities, such as hiking, camping, kayaking, and skiing in the winter. The park is massive, measuring over 139 square miles with nearly 100 miles of trails. One of the most unique trails is called Trail 36, a two-mile out-and-back trail that leads you to the ruins of Carbide Wilson, an abandoned industrial complex.
After a long day of hiking, head into the cute small town of Chelsea, which lies directly outside the park. Here, you can stop and have ice cream at one of the many stores, the most famous being La Cigale. Make sure to brush up on your French while strolling through Chelsea, as you are now in the French-dominated province of Quebec.
If you are traveling to Ottawa during the winter, no problem, as Gatineau Park is a world-class destination for skiing and snowshoeing. The park has some of the best slopes for cross-country and slope skiing. For the beginner or novice, there is also equipment for rent or guided tours which are available at the visitor center.
Where to eat
Useful tips for traveling in Ottawa
The best time to visit Ottawa
The best time to visit Ottawa is during its shoulder seasons of spring (April-May) and fall (September-October). This is due to the cooler and more pleasant temperatures in the city, the changing of foliage, and lesser tourist crowds. During the spring, you will be able to witness the magnificent blooming of flowers across the city. If visiting during the spring, you cannot miss the annual Tulip Festival in Ottawa, which occurs every May. It is the world’s largest tulip festival and receives over 650,000 attendees annually. It spans for 11 days, and you will be able to see over 300,000 tulips blooming in Commissioner’s Park. There are also other attractions, such as fairs, live music, and fireworks shows.
If visiting in the fall, you will be able to witness the amazing change of foliage throughout Ottawa, as the trees change color in response to the cooling weather. The city becomes bathed in colors of bright red, orange, and yellow – a perfect photo opportunity that only occurs 2-3 weeks out of the year.
What is the currency of Ottawa?
Ottawa used the Canadian dollar (CAD), which is nicknamed the “loonie” by locals. The Canadian dollar can only be used in Canada, so you won’t be able to use it in other countries.
Can you drink tap water in Ottawa?
Yes! The tap water in the entire city of Ottawa is safe to drink. There is no need to buy bottled water while traveling in Ottawa.
The language of Ottawa
The official languages of Canada are English and French, which are both also spoken in Ottawa. If you do not speak French, it is not a problem, as most people in the city speak English as their first language. The city (and Canada overall) has a large French influence, so you will notice a lot of signs, announcements, and conversations in French. It would be helpful to download a French translator when visiting Ottawa, in case you need to talk to someone who only speaks French.
Is Ottawa safe?
Yes, generally, Ottawa is a very safe city for tourists. Canada is considered the safest country in North America. Overall, the risk of experiencing crime is very low in Ottawa, but it is smart to always stay cautious – avoiding going out late at night and keeping valuables safe.
Ottawa is an excellent city to visit for tourists in Canada. As the capital city of Canada, the city offers a great mix of history, culture, and attractions. Not only is it one of the safest cities in North America, but also one of the most hospitable, thanks to Canada’s overwhelming culture of friendliness. Make sure to bring a French translator or dictionary when visiting Ottawa, as a large portion of the population also speaks French.