With Toronto and Montreal often stealing the limelight from Ottawa, it can be a destination that gets missed off visitors’ itineraries. But, as I quickly found out, there’s so much to see and do in Canada’s capital city. Here’s my guide on how to spend 48 hours in Ottawa:
The start of 48 hours in Ottawa – Friday Evening
There are lots of places to stay near the centre of the city. While some people opt for the bustling ByWard Market, others choose to splash out at the fancy Fairmont Chateau Laurier hotel. However I decided to stay at Alt Hotel which is located in the business district of the city, as I liked its sleek design and promises of a good bed and amazing shower. (Both of which were true.)
I found the hotel was in the perfect location for exploring all of the areas of the city I wanted to get to and the chain has also introduced a free late check-out for guests, which is perfect when you’re trying to make the most of every minute of your trip.
After checking-in I was greeted by a lovely handwritten welcome note in my room and a scroll with all of the activities going on in the city that weekend, as well as some restaurant recommendations. I loved this personal touch from a big hotel and have seen other visitors mention the same online. For example, one keen cyclist who had asked about cycle routes in the area received a personal map highlighting them for him – that’s what I call great service!
One of the first spots to head to during your 48 hours in Ottawa is Parliament Hill, home of the Parliament of Canada and where Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (everyone’s favourite politician) carries out his day to day work.
It’s possible to take tours of the Parliament building by reserving your tickets online. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to do this. However, I was lucky enough to be there for its spectacular Northern Lights Sound and Light Show, which told the history of the country by projecting images onto the building. It was such an impressive show and a really special way to use the city’s most famous building.
For your first night in the city head to ByWard Market for dinner. Established in 1826 and now one of Canada’s oldest and largest public markets, visitors really are spoilt for choice for restaurants here. I chose to eat at Luxe Bistro, mainly because I can’t walk past a menu offering moules et frites. The contemporary restaurant has a nice buzzy atmosphere and attentive waiters. It was a great spot to watch the marketplace come to life as the surrounding bars and restaurants filled up.
One of the things I really liked about Ottawa city centre is that it is so compact. I could easily walk back to my hotel in 15 minutes after dinner and felt very safe as a lone female traveller.
Saturdays are made for exploring and I was keen to get out and about on my first full day in the city.
I was lucky to get one of those perfectly crisp autumn days, when there’s a slight nip in the air but the sunshine takes the edge off. That was lucky as I’d planned to take a ride on a Gray Line Ottawa open top sightseeing bus. This was a perfect way to see the city, as some of the main attractions, such as its museums, are quite spread out. Doing the tour allowed me to hop off a couple of times to explore, as well as provided me with a greater understanding of the city as a whole.
Thanks to the commentary, I also learnt some facts that are sure to help me out in a pub quiz one day. They included my favourite one about why Ottawa is famous for its tulips. During World War Two the Dutch Royal Family sent Princess Juliana and her daughters to Canada for safety. In 1943, while in exile, Princess Juliana gave birth to her daughter Princess Margriet at the Ottawa Civic Hospital. In order to ensure that the princess would hold Dutch nationality, the site was temporarily declared extraterritorial by the Government of Canada and a Dutch flag was flown.
After the war, the Dutch Royal Family sent 100,000 tulip bulbs to say thank you to the city and have continued to send them over the years. There are now more than a million bulbs along the Tulip Route and the Canadian Tulip Festival, held every May, attracts 500,000 visitors a year.
Any visit to Ottawa should definitely include a stop at the Canada Museum of History, the country’s most visited museum. I was particularly keen to go, as I realised that I actually knew very little about its history. The building itself is beautiful. Set right next to the Ottawa River (as many buildings in the city are) it is surrounded by parkland and a plaza.
Inside the building The Grand Hall is home to the world’s largest indoor collection of totem poles and traditional house fronts of the First People of the Northwest Coast. In The First People’s Hall an exhibition showcases the history and diversity of Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples. I loved finding out more about their different cultures and learning more about the traditions they continue to practice today.
After getting my history fix I hopped back on the bus and continued with the tour. After passing other sights like Rideau Hall, the official residence of every Governor General since 1867 and the Rideau Canal, which cuts through the city and in winter turns into the world’s biggest skating rink, I jumped off again at ByWard Market to taste the city’s most famous snack.
BeaverTails, so named because of their shape, are stretched pastries which are served warm with a variety of toppings to choose from. I opted for the classic cinnamon and sugar and devoured it within minutes, despite its size. It’s definitely worth a taste!
I also loved walking around the market, especially as all of the autumn produce was hitting the stalls.
If you’re a fan of Mexican food, then you should definitely check out El Camino. I went after reading online recommendations and was not disappointed. They don’t take bookings, so you just turn up and even though I arrived just before it opened there was already a queue to get in. (Just to note, it’s down a flight of stairs if you’re looking for it). Once inside I was seated at the bar, which is perfect for lone travellers, and was instantly spoilt for choice by the menu. After seeking recommendations from the staff I opted for a lamb taco (which came in a soft taco) and a chorizo taco (served in a hard shell). I pretty much inhaled them as they were so good, with the perfect blend of seasoning and sauces. I was so impressed that I was tempted to instantly order more. However, I managed to restrain myself as I knew I needed to save room for the churros and salted caramel dip, an essential I’m sure you’d agree.
After a satisfying meal my evening wasn’t yet over, as I joined one of Ottawa’s Haunted Walks. In hindsight, I’m not entirely sure why I did this, as I’m the biggest wuss ever! The tour was great though, with our guide Paul leading us around the city and talking about various ghost stories and strange happenings which have gone on in particular buildings. He also added in some of his own spooky experiences. This is the perfect night out for anyone who loves supernatural happenings and I’m not going to lie, I did have to sleep with my light on that night!
If you’re looking for a totally different view of the city, there’s only one place to head and that’s Ottawa River. With another beautiful morning ahead, I took a tour with Paul’s Boats Lines. The river played such an important part in the history of the city and continues to do so to this day.
Our guide was excellent and was one of those speakers who effortlessly adds a bit of humour into his spiel, which always makes them more fun. He also knew exactly which ambassadors lived in all of the fancy riverside houses, which is always of interest to a nosy parker like me.
The views from the boat were simply gorgeous and with the sun shining down on us, it was hard to believe we were at the beginning of October.
With my head full of facts about the city, I needed to sit down to digest everything I’d heard. Obviously, the best way to do that was by digesting some food at the same time. So I headed off to find the famous The Scone Witch cafe. Now anyone who knows me knows that I am the Queen of Scones. Many a time have I raised an eyebrow among friends when I’ve turned down a piece of chocolate cake or a fresh Danish pastry in order to eat a scone instead. So I have high standards when it comes to scones.
The shop offers both sweet and savoury filled scones and, as I’ve never had a filled scone before I ordered the poached salmon and cucumber option which was served in a herb scone. It came like a sandwich and was so good, with a flaky melt-in-the-mouth texture. Now I see why Scone Witch has gained such a reputation!
In the afternoon I wandered over to the National Gallery of Canada, keen to check out the country’s biggest collection of Canadian art. The building itself is a huge impressive structure made of concrete and granite. I was actually sad that Mr A, who appreciates the beauty of concrete buildings like no one else I’ve ever met, wasn’t there with me to see it.
Unfortunately seeing any national art wasn’t to be, as the Canadian and Aboriginal Art and Inuit Art galleries were both closed for refurbishment during my visit.
However I did get the chance to check out some work from other international artists, including a piece by the Chinese artist Ai WeiWei. His piece, simply entitled “Tree” was perfectly located in a beautiful open space and could be viewed both up close and from above.
I wanted to end my 48 hours in Ottawa with a nice dinner and, on the recommendation of staff at Alt Hotel, ventured to North and Navy. I almost missed the building as I turned down the side street and passed what I thought looked like a townhouse. However, once I ventured inside I discovered a cosy restaurant, with leather seats and mood lighting. The menu is inspired by Northern Italy and, once again, I was spoilt for choice. In the end I opted for a selection of small dishes as it was too hard to choose just one. The menu is constantly changing and had some really unusual dishes on there. If you happen to be there when they’re serving salted cod pasta then I can definitely recommend it!
Being the early bird that I am, I was actually the only person in the restaurant when I first arrived. However, the service was so attentive and the waiter clearly loved the food and made some great recommendations.
It was a lovely way to round off the weekend and all too soon it was time to head back to the hotel ready for my flight the next morning. But my 48 hours in Ottawa definitely taught me that while it may be a small city, it certainly packs a punch.
I received a tourist pass to use during my 48 hours in Ottawa, which gave me free entry to many of these attractions, and a discounted rate at my hotel. However all view, as always, are 100% my own.