Ottawa quickly became one of my favourite destinations in Eastern Canada. It could have been because of the way we started it or the way we ended it. Or perhaps both. Whatever it was, if you’ve only got 3 days to discover this gorgeous city like we did, then here’s your ultimate guide to squeeze delight out of every minute.
Where Is Ottawa?
Ottawa is the capital of Canada, located in the most eastern point of Southern Ontario on the south bank of the Ottawa River.
The oldest part of the city is known as Lower Town and is situated between the Rideau Canal, Rideau River and Ottawa River.
Where To Stay In Ottawa?
There’s only one area you’ll want to stay in central Ottawa – Lower Town, near ByWard Markets and Parliament Hill.
This means you won’t find a better hotel than Fairmont Château Laurier. It’s an icon. Built in 1912, this castle-inspired luxury hotel will, itself, be a highlight during your 3 days in Ottawa. We received handmade sweet treats upon arrival which always makes a fabulous start to any hotel stay.
Make A Splash Entry
We were driving from Montreal to Ottawa so we felt compelled to make a splash entry at Canada’s biggest and best waterpark, Calypso.
Calypso is located in Limoges, about 35 kilometres east of Ottawa. After our previous visit to Magic Mountain in Moncton, Calypso blew our socks off.
One of my favourite aspects of Calypso is they allow you to bring in your own food and drink, unlike Le Ronde in Montreal and Canada’s Wonderland in Toronto. The park was dotted with countless picnic tables and grassy areas for a family picnic. So bring along your travel cooler!
The next best thing is the water temperature is heated at a constant 27°C (80°F). There were moments when the sun hid behind the clouds, but if we stayed in the water, we were perfectly warm.
There are 35 waterslides, including a 500-metre (546-yard) jungle river ride called Kongo Expedition, which had me losing my sunglasses in an attempt to rescue my frightened daughter from a very dark cavern.
The kids play area was well equipped and a convenient spot to set up camp. Water fountains and toilets were always nearby.
The 52,000 square foot concrete pool is one of the largest in North America. And we discovered new slides that we’d never seen in any waterparks. It has all the right ingredients: clear signage, smart park layout, reasonably-priced food, plenty of shade and seating, and of course oodles of slides that will please toddlers up to thrill seekers. Overall, it was one of the best waterparks we’ve been to anywhere in the world. Right up there with our beloved Waterbom.
I wish we could have stayed longer than the 6 hours we spent there. Make sure you devote an entire day and evening to the park - you won’t regret it.
Dinner On La Terrasse
Straight from the waterpark to 5 star luxury. We checked in at Fairmont Château Laurier, headed to our room to get dressed and made our way to the terrace for fine balcony dining.
Delicious cocktails, fabulous kids meals and a steak to die for made this dinner the perfect end to a jam-packed day.
Northern Lights: Sound & Light Show
Well the day may have been over for my kids as they fell fast asleep in their comfy beds, but Josh just couldn’t resist the lure of the Sound & Light Show. It was located nearby at Parliament Hill, and he dashed out for the 10pm performance.
It was a great introduction to Canadian history, whilst still being engaging for locals and non-Canadians alike. The show used a combination of narration, laser lights and projected animation onto the Parliament building. The show has been running since 1984 and is currently in its 6th edition. The atmosphere was friendly and relaxed, with the audience sitting on the grass or lawn chairs. Here’s a small taste:
It’s best to arrive at least 15 minutes early to claim a good vantage point on the grass.
Goodnight day one.
A Slice Of History On Parliament Hill
After a leisurely breakfast buffet at our castle, I mean hotel, we walked the 2-minute journey to Parliament House for a free tour. Whilst free, you still have to book the tour in advance.
The kids didn’t find this the most stimulating of tours, but they had been warned that the morning was a “mummy and daddy activity”.
Built between 1859 and 1927 this neo-Gothic and Gothic structure is a beautiful piece of Canadian history. My favourite feature happens to be the only original portion that survived the 1916 fire – The Library of Parliament. If I ever stop travelling the world it will be because I want a library like that.
By the way, if touring parliament doesn’t excite you, from May to September you can enjoy free “guerrilla yoga” classes on the lawn every Wednesday at 12 noon for 1 hour!
Am I Back In London?
We rushed out of our Parliament tour to the lawn in front of Centre Building to watch the Changing of the Guard, modeled on the similar spectacle at Buckingham Palace in London, England.
The troops march up Elgin Street, to arrive on the Hill at 10am. After the ceremony our kids got to pat the “kitty” hats (as they call them) and meet one of the guards.
Pirate Adventures On The High Seas, Arrghhhhh!
After the so-called “boring” government business, our kids were over the moon for real “kids time” and we headed to Mooney’s Bay for a pirate adventure.
Before we boarded a pirate cruise, the kids got dressed up and applied cute face paint, then we hit the water for an hour of adventure. The kids adored the whole journey of finding treasure, making bad guys walk the plank and shooting raiding pirates with water cannons. They didn’t stop talking about it for days.
Parents will have fun getting involved or simply relaxing in the beautiful surrounds of the bay.
More Family Fun At The Children’s Museum
After a small rest and quick bite to eat at our hotel we hopped back in the car to drive to the Canadian Children’s Museum. Be mindful that you do need to pay for parking if arriving by car.
We didn’t have time to discover the whole Canadian Museum of History, but we did enjoy several hours wondering through the Children’s Museum, letting the kids perform on stage, visit numerous countries, and build towers of Lego. There are plenty of hands-on exhibits, and our kids were having so much fun, they didn’t even realize they were learning about culture, arts and history at the same time.
The only downside is I found the ticketing service to be lacking, so try to book online in advance to save time when you get there.
Any visit to Ottawa wouldn’t be complete without browsing the famous ByWard Market, one of the oldest and largest farmers’ markets in Canada.
The Grand is located in a stunning historic building dating back to the 19th century and serves traditional Napoletana Pizza, amongst other delights (like a scrumptious beet salad).
If You Still Have Energy…
If you still have energy head back to Parliament Hill for the annual military and musical spectacular event – Fortissimo: Beating Retreat Ceremony (it runs for a very limited time each year).
Luckily for us we had met the PR manager at the Changing of the Guard ceremony that morning and he invited us to VIP seating for this ceremony, of which we had to dress up for.
As you might expect, our kids were not particularly interested in watching massed military bands of pipes and drums, however once the cannons and gunfire were introduced things suddenly got exciting.
It is a long show so I had to sneak off with the kids about 8:30pm to get them into bed. Josh stayed for the entire event.
Entry is free, but other than the VIP section there are no seats so arrive early to secure a prime spot on the grass otherwise you will be standing for at least 2 hours.
Goodnight day two.
Discovering The Castle
The Fairmont Château Laurier is a remarkable piece of history worth exploring from its decadent indoor pool to its delicious pastry kitchen. You can do so with the help of the hotel’s iPad on a self-guided tour (just ask at the front desk, or download the app to your own device - on iOS or Android).
We were offered a kid-friendly version of the tour with the hotel’s PR Manager. Our kids’ favourite part, as you could guess, was a behind-the-scenes look at the pastry kitchen where they were enticed with freshly baked cookies. Josh and I took a deep whiff of the devilishly delicious smells and silently regretted our efforts to eat more healthily.
Insider tip: If you're eating breakfast at the hotel, you must try the maple butter crepes. Don't think about the calories, just the taste ;-) You'll thank me for it.
Exercise And Brain Power
After our tour and a delicious breakfast we checked out of our beloved castle, I mean hotel, to continue towards Toronto.
But before we left Ottawa we pulled into Saunders Farm, about 45 minutes southwest of the city, to run around the world’s largest collection of hedge mazes.
More popular in October with its haunting theme, this attraction was still a barrel of laughs that we wish we could of enjoyed longer. From the tractor ride to jumping on hay bails, sliding down long slides to jumping on giant inflatable pillows, this place is a picnicking parents paradise.
There are loads of hedge mazes to get lost in, each designed to test your perseverance and problem solving skills. Our favourite was the finger maze. As we wandered through the maze there were 5 colours of paints to dip our fingers in. At the end of the maze there was a board with 120 different character traits based on the ordering you added colour to each finger.
I got a witty character while Mia had creative genius and Caius scored wisdom. Josh, who didn’t complete the maze, guessed his numbers and out of 120 chose Mia and Caius’ numbers before they even came out. What luck!
Phew! That’s 3 Days.
Finally our 3 days in Ottawa was over. What a splendiferous 72 hours. Naturally our experience was just a small slice of the countless family friendly attractions and activities around Ottawa. But hopefully it’s provided you with a handy starting point for your summer vacation in Canada’s capital. Or perhaps you just realised that 3 days is simply not enough.