When my oldest son was three years old, one of his favourite books was a simple alphabet book illustrated with Canadian words and imagery. After hundreds of readings, “O is for Ottawa” is now ingrained in his 4-year-old brain so when I asked him if he wanted to visit “the building on the ‘O is for Ottawa’ page” (the Parliament buildings) he gave me a very enthusiastic YES!
In contrast to his pre-school enthusiasm, the first time I visited Ottawa was on a field trip in grade 8. I remember schlepping around on a bus from one historical site to another but just wanting to hang out with my friends. Since then, I’ve been back a number of times, for business, and for pleasure, however, I hadn’t yet visited Ottawa with my kids. As Canada Day approached, I figured it was a great time to take them to our nation’s capital – no need to wait until they’re almost teenagers.
If you have never been to Ottawa, or just haven’t been back since your own middle school trip, there’s no time like the present to introduce your kids to our capital city. And contrary to what you may remember, it’s not just history and politics – Ottawa offers plenty for fun, too! You can show your kids Canada’s capital by hitting these quintessential Ottawa sights and stops:
Most young kids won’t quite be up for the 45-minute guided tour inside the Parliament buildings but that doesn’t mean they can’t appreciate the view. Stroll the grounds, talking about what happens inside and admiring the architecture. That can be enough of an introduction for small kids. (note: the Parliament Buildings Centre Block is under construction for the next few years, so some areas are blocked off and your view may be partially obscured by scaffolding).
Take some time to check out each province’s shield around the Centennial Flame and, in summer months, take in the Changing of the Guard.
Once you’ve done your tour, cross the Rideau Canal and walk about half a kilometre to Major’s Hill Park. We brought a picnic so we could stretch out, have a picnic, let our kids run and get a different view of Parliament Hill.
Keep on Walking
While you’re out and about, take time to stop at some of Ottawa’s statues and monuments. You’ll see Terry Fox, Wilfrid Laurier, the Famous Five, and more – not to mention flags galore and the National War Memorial, all in the general vicinity of Parliament Hill. They offer great bite-size teaching moments for little kids.
Explore the sights, sounds and hustle and bustle of the ByWard Market, one of Canada’s largest and oldest public markets, at your own pace. Check out the fresh farmers’ market, street vendors and unique shops and businesses.
The sweetest introduction to the city award goes to BeaverTails! The original kiosk is right in the ByWard Market and their visual menu is perfect for helping kids pick their toppings. The classic cinnamon and sugar was a hit with our under-five audience.
Once you’ve gobbled down your pastries, don’t forget to snap a fun family photo at the big Ottawa sign at the York Street Plaza while you’re exploring (at the corner of York Street and Sussex Drive).
There’s no shortage of museums to choose from in Ottawa. The Museum of Nature and the Canadian Children’s Museum were top picks for our family – we spent a whole day at each with three kids under 5 and there was plenty to see and do. Our kindergartner could have spent longer at both.
The Children’s Museum is inside the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau. Kids enter with their very own passport in hand and can stamp it as they work their way through a series of globally-themed centres, chock full of hands-on activities.
Similarly, while the National Gallery may not be of interest quite yet for browsing Canada’s top art, the gigantic spider installation out front – “Maman” – is a hit with kids and easy to walk to between other stops near the Byward Market.
If your kiddos prefer to be learning and exploring outside, the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum is a great option and adventurous kids will love hopping in a plane at the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum for a bird’s eye view of Ottawa.
Ottawa by Water
For a different perspective, hop on board a boat for a Rideau Canal or Ottawa River cruise. Guided cruises are an easygoing way for kids to see the city and learn a few things along the way, too.
If you’re departing on a river cruise from Ottawa, spend a few minutes in the ByTown Museum or strolling near the locks at the Rideau Canal while you wait to board your vessel.
While there is so much more to see, do, eat and explore in Ottawa, these must-dos make for an excellent first trek to the capital for kids.
By Adrienne Brown
Adrienne Brown is a freelance writer based in Ontario. She hopes to pass her love of learning and for travelling to new places to her three sons, one adventure at a time. She has a particular interest in exploring Canadian destinations and is willing to try almost anything once.