Situated at the confluence of the Ottawa, Rideau, and Gatineau rivers, Canada’s pretty capital city isn’t as buttoned up as you might expect. Ottawa is one of those self-possessed places where history and local life playfully co-exist.
Discover both along the banks of its waterways, in its distinctive neighborhoods, massive museums, booming culinary scene, and unique festivals. Spring is an ideal time to discover Ottawa’s upbeat side. This guide is all you need to be enchanted by this sophisticated city on a spring weekend getaway.
Icons to discover
Rideau Canal downtown Ottawa
Rideau Canal: An exhilarating way to discover Ottawa’s deep heritage and natural beauty is by getting out onto the Rideau Canal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For an immersive experience, take a cruise or settle into a 34-foot replica voyageur canoe, led by gouvernail who host interpretive tours down the stone-walled canal. Want to explore on your own? Rent a stand-up paddleboard right from downtown and you’ll soon be gliding by historic sites. Take time to gaze at enchanting landmarks such as the castle-like Fairmont Chateau Laurier, which has earned accolades like Travel and Leisure magazine’s Greatest Hotels in the World Award.
National Gallery of Canada: With its twin towers rising from an octagonal building, the National Gallery of Canada is like a gigantic glass jewel box. Light floods into this airy venue that houses the world’s largest collection of Canadian art. Before you cross the gallery’s threshold you’ll be greeted by Maman, artist Louise Bourgeois’s 30-foot bronze spider sculpture. Once inside, explore ancient Indigenous art objects, paintings by Canada’s celebrated Group of Seven, and see Gauguin: Portraits, the world’s first exhibition dedicated to the French artist’s portraiture.
Yoga on Parliament Hill. Photo credit: Tourism Ottawa
Parliament Hill: Ottawa’s storied Parliament Hill is Canada’s core of political power but not everything here is about pomp and ceremony. Political junkies will get a rush out of watching a live debate in the Senate or House of Commons, or taking a guided tour of the Gothic-Revival buildings to learn how Parliament works. Get your muscles moving with free yoga and Zumba classes held on the sprawling lawn in front of the copper-roofed buildings.
Flora Hall Brewing: When the weather warms up the garage doors at Flora Hall Brewing roll open in the 1927 heritage building, formerly an automotive-repair business. The two-level structure in Central Town retains its industrial bones, but today it’s all about bringing together community and craft beer like its Strawberry-Rhubarb Gose, a celebration of spring in a glass. An extensive food menu invites you to linger over bites like miso-spiced chicken wings and deep-fried Brussels sprouts served with garlic aioli — perfect pairings with the Belgian Table Beer, a session brew that’s only 4.5% ABV.
Dominion City Brewing: Pride of place is evident at this unpretentious micro-brewery where you can chill out in the tap room and sip suds while reading the daily newspaper. The tasting-bar menu includes crisp and refreshing Civic Pilsner, plus cool collaboration brews with venues like Jabberwocky Bar. The two establishments teamed up to create the craft cocktail-inspired Second Breakfast Oat Special Bitter made with barley, oats, cherry bark, and maple syrup.
Brew Revolution: Ottawa’s craft beer scene is on an upswell and the tide is rising again with the addition of Brew Revolution. Located in Stittsville on the edge of Ottawa, you can spin some old-school vinyl in the brewery’s tap room and quaff creative offerings such Smoke on the Porter, Lemon Daze, and Here Comes your Mango.
Jackson Café: With its glam decor that’s a warm blend of bronze and blue hues, Jackson Café oozes with understated elegance. A top-notch weekend brunch is offered at this new restaurant tucked inside the Ottawa Art Gallery (after eating, check out Cheryl Pagurek: Connect, an interactive audio and video installation). The menu focuses primarily on plant-based fare and supports small businesses and farms. To-die-for dishes include the ricotta hotcakes accompanied by maple-whipped butter, and a hearty brunch bowl composed of green-tea noodles, sesame-crusted tuna, avocado, and turmeric-pickled onions.
The Rabbit Hole: Freshly-shucked oysters and inventive libations are the draw at The Rabbit Hole, a new two-level restaurant and cocktail den that’s luring locals to the 122-year-old building it occupies on Sparks Street. A “tunnel” of lights twinkle from the ceiling in the street-level room anchored by a long bar. Here, whet your appetite with small dishes like crab cocktail, then dive into dinner with straightforward items such as steak frites and pizzas. The subterranean area is a hip warren of intimate corners swathed by stone walls that date back to 1886. Find a seat at the cocktail bar to savor drinks like the Above Average Joe, made with coffee-infused aged whisky.
OCCO Kitchen & Bar Downtown: Scratch, local, and craft are the watchwords of OCCO Kitchen & Bar Downtown, which opened its new location this spring. Its artisanal street food is prepared daily with premium local ingredients, like the sesame-herb buns and homemade poblano ketchup that accompany its candied-bacon cheeseburger made with local AAA beef.
Eat local at the market: Springtime ushers in the start of patio season and celebrations of Ottawa’s exploding culinary scene. Along with the city’s famous Byward Market, four additional farmers markets teem with local crafts, seasonal produce, and foods produced from within 60 miles of Ottawa. Check out Jargon Preserves’ small-batch pickles and jam, as well as Carlington Booch’s traditionally brewed kombucha.
Canadian Tulip Festival: When Holland’s Queen Juliana returned home after seeking shelter in Ottawa during the Second World War she gifted the city with 100,000 tulips; so began the annual Canadian Tulip Festival where spring is welcomed in Canada’s capital with more than a million tulip bulbs bursting into bloom. During this breath-taking fest you can listen to musicians perform, take a legacy walking tour, and watch Ontario artists paint outdoors among the flower beds.
Nordik Spa-Nature, minutes from downtown Ottawa.
Nordik Spa-Nature: Unwind in a spa surrounded by nature at spectacular Nordik Spa-Nature, located less than 30 minutes from Ottawa, in Old Chelsea, Quebec. Ten outdoor baths, quiet resting areas, and a vast menu of relaxation and wellness treatments let you truly escape at Nordik Spa-Nature, the largest spa in North America. In the Panorama Lounge, nibble on tapas, drink cocktails made with local spirits, and enjoy organic beer.
Ottawa Biplane Adventures: Fly over Ottawa 1930s style, by riding in vintage open-cockpit biplane. Located inside the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum, Ottawa Biplane Adventures offers a range of exhilarating flight tours that take you high above the city, zipping past sites like iconic Parliament Hill, glorious Gatineau Park, and eastern Ontario’s rolling farmlands.
Roadtrip: Canada’s indie brands are the mainstays at Roadtrip, an Ottawa-born boutique in buzzing Byward Market. Men and women can find easy-to-wear clothing and accessories like eco-friendly “vegan leather” bags and cool kicks by Mat + Nat, fashionable outerwear from Soia & Kyo, and jeans in a range of styles, fits, and washes from Fidelity.
Maker House: “Buy from your neighbor” is the ethos that underpins Maker House’s products made by artisans from across Canada. Gareth Davies founded the community collective with the aim to bring the maker movement into the mainstream. Original products span the spectrum from Beard Oil by Zoe’s Corner, Justin Trudeau “Hey Girl” greeting cards from Whaaat? Studio, and DIY-friendly Sugar Shack Log Cabin Kits by Panabo.
Adorit Boutique: Ottawa native Emma Inns is the brainchild behind the decade-old Adorit Boutique, filled with ethically-made and fairly-traded items from Canada and around the globe. Find original pieces from designers like Birch Jewelry’s handmade acorn necklaces, and jersey dresses and blazers sewn from sustainably sourced fabrics from Miik.
Workshop Studio & Boutique: More than 150 independent Canadian designers from Vancouver to Montreal are represented at Workshop Studio & Boutique and sister store Flock Boutique. Co-owners Bridget and Christina also design under their eponymous label, crafting a collection of ethically made T-shirts screened with vintage-inspired Canadiana images, plus Ottawa-themed artwork, tote bags, and more.
National Arts Centre: As one of the world’s largest bilingual performing arts hubs, the National Arts Centre brings together classical and contemporary dance, music, theater, and more, in Canada’s capital. Check out innovative programming like Le Patin Libre, contemporary dance combined with figure skating, and Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell’s The Fiddle and the Drum, performed by the Alberta Ballet.
West Fest: Hip-hop artist Aspects is just one of the talented Canadian performers headlining West Fest in Tom Brown Arena Park. Juno award-winning country crooner Charlie Major and psychedelic folk-metal experimentalists Yamantaka // Sonic Titan will also take to the main stage. The free three-day event is an all-age party with local food vendors, artisans, and an Indigenous pavilion.
Indigenous Walks: Stroll through downtown Ottawa’s public spaces and get an Indigenous perspective on the city’s art, architecture, landscape, and history. Led by Indigenous Walks’ founder Jaime Koebel and other guides, a ranges of walks and talks take you to places like Confederation Park, Parliament Hill, and Byward Market.
The Grand Hall at the Canadian Museum of History. Photo Credit: Canadian Museum of History
Canadian Museum of History: Two thousand years of human history are chronicled at the Canadian Museum of History. Learn about the nation’s Indigenous peoples through the 1856 museum’s permanent collections and visiting exhibitions such as Grand Hall. It’s an enthralling primer on the First Peoples of Canada’s Pacific Coast, shown through six Indigenous houses, totem poles, and Haida artist Bill Reid’s original plaster pattern for Spirit of Haida Gwaii. (One of only two every cast sits in front of the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C.) Another mind-expanding must-see is Neanderthals. Scientists have determined that these cave dwellers were most advanced than originally thought. Fossils rarely shown to the public outside Europe are also on display.