Ottawa is Canada’s fourth-largest city, selected as the capital by Queen Victoria in 1857. The city is located on the Ontario side of the Ottawa river, opposite the French-speaking city of Hull and less than an hour’s drive from the border with the US. Ottawa itself is bilingual, with most residents speaking both English and French.
The city is home to the country’s parliament – housed in three spectacular gothic buildings perched atop Parliament Hill on the Westside of the Rideau Canal – and something of a cultural centre.
Museums, galleries and theatres abound, including the National Gallery, the Museum of Civilisation and the National Libraries.
Lying on the confluence of three rivers (the Ottawa, Gatineau, and Rideau), it is also one of the greenest cities in Canada, with many public parks and spaces as well as easily accessible surrounding countryside.
Its compact size makes it all the more appealing for visitors as most attractions are within easy walking distance. The airport, Ottawa International, at which flights to Ottawa land, is well connected by public transport as well as by taxi and limousine.
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Winter can get very cold indeed in Ottawa: the second lowest temperature in a capital city was recorded in Ottawa in 1943 of -31 degrees Celsius and in terms of January temperatures it is the third coldest capital in the world (after Ulan Baatar and Astana). Temperatures in the summer, however, are relatively warm. The average July temperature is around 26C.
When to fly to Ottawa
As with most cities, Ottawa is a year-round destination with something to do even in the depths of winter.
The most popular season to visit the city is during its summer, roughly from June to late August. This is when the majority of visitors step off flights to Ottawa.
Rates of Ottawa flights can fall in the spring and autumn as temperatures and weather are unpredictable. Heavy snow has been known to fall as late as May. However, there is still much to do in the city: most attractions are open year round and there are annual events and festivals taking place. Check the events and festivals page of the Ottawa city website for detailed information.
Winter time (November through February) is the least popular time to visit Ottawa.
Getting around Ottawa
Public transport in Ottawa is provided by OC Transpo (buses and the light rail O-Train). Driving is pretty easy and parking spots are freely available. Ottawa is a great city for walking and cycling too. Most of the sights downtown area are within walking distance of each other. Taxis, tour buses and riverboats are all other ways of seeing the city.
Ottawa insider information
- The annual Canadian Tulip Festival is the largest of its kind in the world, and takes place every May through Ottawa and Gatineau. The festival dates back to 1945, when Queen Juliana of the Netherlands gave a gift of 100,000 tulip bulbs to Canada. Today, the festival showcases tulips throughout the city, with more than three million tulips on display for ten days in May.
- Canada Day, on 1 July, is celebrated best in the country’s capital. Major events take place throughout the city, but the focus of the entertainment is (understandably) on Parliament Hill. Hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets to celebrate with concerts, street displays and fireworks in the evening.
- Parliament Hill is the first spot most tourists visit. Don’t miss the sound and light show which runs on summer evenings. Half an hour long, the film about Canada is projected onto the Parliament Buildings accompanied by fantastic lighting effects. The show is free and no booking or tickets are required.
- The Byward Market, east of downtown, is a huge neighbourhood, characterised by its open air market stalls. Fresh fruit, vegetables, flowers and art are all on sale in the stalls, while the surrounding shops have become increasingly boutique in recent years. Visit during the day for some shopping or browsing, or at night time for some of Ottawa’s best restaurants, bars and clubs.
- For open air pursuits, the Rideau Canal is one of the best spots in town. Boat trips are available, for views of the city by water. These can usually be arranged at your hotel or at the canal. The banks of the river are popular routes for joggers and cyclists. Best of all, when the canal freezes over in the winter, it is transformed into a huge outdoor skating rink.