Among the many bucket list destinations for Canadians, Ottawa has to be high on that list. The nation’s capital embodies the heart of Canada’s heritage as it continues to be the living soul of the country. And just as Washington, D.C., is a worthy travel destination for Canadians, Ottawa is for Americans and for tourists from around the world. Recently, my wife and I made a road trip to Ottawa to revisit this important region.

Of course, the central focal point of any visit to Ottawa has to be the Parliament Buildings complex including the Peace Tower with its carillon which towers high above and the library which sits behind the Centre Block. Visitors can reserve free tickets for tours of parliament, including the Peace Tower, the House of Commons, the Senate and the Library. Of course, the chambers are closed to tours when they are in session but Canadian residents can contact their Member of Parliament to obtain a pass to sit in the gallery and observe debate.

You book the tickets at 90 Wellington Street, across from Parliament Hill, at the Capital Information Kiosk which also has a well-stocked supply of free maps and tourist information. It’s your best starting point for a first-time visit to Ottawa.

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The Centre Block, but not the Library, burned down in 1916 and was rebuilt in its current form. This year, the 100th anniversary of that fire will be marked. During the summer months a special Canadian Forces contingent called the Ceremonial Guard, dressed in impressive uniforms performs a “Changing of the Guard” ceremony in front of the parliament buildings. Of course, parliament hill is the site of the biggest Canada Day celebrations in the country, a day of live entertainment which finishes with an evening concert and fireworks display.

Ottawa’s origins lie in the historic tension between Canada and the United States. The Rideau Canal was built here soon after the War of 1812 to give Canada a safe water route inland from the border with the U.S. Later, for similar reasons – and as somewhat neutral location between the French and English populations – Queen Elizabeth made the tiny outpost of Bytown the capital of the new country of Canada, ignoring the more obvious choices like Montreal or Kingston that were closer to the American border. In recent years, in addition to its role as Canada’s capital city, it has become something of a Silicon Valley North. Now it is a thriving city of over a million residents in the greater Ottawa area, the second largest city in Ontario.

As you would expect Ottawa offers many national museums and those museums are another major part of the attraction of this city. Admission to the museums can add up but, if you are planning to visit a number of the participating museums with a family, the Canada's Capital Museums Passport available at the museums or the Wellington Street kiosk , could save you some money.

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Perhaps the most popular museum is the Canadian Museum of History, formerly the Canadian Museum of Civilization before a decision was made to focus on Canadian history here. It is located just across the Ottawa River in Gatineau, Quebec, across from the Parliament Buildings. It has been designed to have a special appeal to children with a Canadian Children’s Museum within it and non-stop IMAX film presentations. We were there on the first weekend of Spring Break and the place was hopping with kids.

Perhaps our preference would be for something a little less hectic such as the National Gallery of Canada on Sussex Street near the fortress-like American Embassy. The building, a striking design by architect Moshe Safdie, sits on a promontory of the Ottawa River with another good view of the Parliament Buildings. There are usually about 800 examples of the 10,000 works of Canadian art in the collection on display. I enjoyed seeing some Group of Seven and Tom Thompson pieces but I was especially struck by a huge Greg Curnoe painting, The Camouflaged Piano or French Roundels, from 1966 which exemplifies his striking modern style. When I was at Western in the early 1960s, Curnoe was one of a group of young London-based artists displaying their skills to us students at the university. His promising career was cut short in 1992 when he was killed by a motorist while biking on the roads around London. While the Canadian collection is the main attraction here, there is a decent collection of other artists’ work – for example, a number of impressionist paintings.

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The Canadian War Museum is another very popular museum here. The museums in Ottawa are being renewed one-by -one over the recent years and this one re-opened in its modern form in 2005 as a modern-style museum experience. There are eight permanent galleries which trace the conflicts involving Canada over the course of its history, with an emphasis on the two World Wars and the sacrifice of Canadian military personnel. Don’t expect much discourse on the anti-war side of things.

A drive along the scenic riverside Sir George Étiene-Cartier Parkway takes you out to the old Rockcliffe airport and the newly-refurbished Canadian Aviation and Space Museum which opened in its present form in 2008 – with a few additions since. While such a museum of aviation will naturally have a significant emphasis on the military aircraft of WWII and later, this does not overbalance the presentation of aviation history from early days – including Alexander Graham Bell’s pioneering contributions – to now. The museum does give appropriate treatment of the WWII British Commonwealth Air Training Plan which saw over 107 training schools across Canada which trained over 167,000 servicemen, including 50,000 pilots by war’s end. After the war some of these airfields served as the basis for race tracks including Edenvale, Harewood and Green Acres in Ontario. This museum has a popular children’s program, making it a destination for the whole family.

There are many other museums in Ottawa. The Canadian Museum of Nature is the modern development of the collections of the Geological Survey of Canada. Ironically, the building which houses it and which was built in 1905 was structurally compromised because it was built on an geologically unstable base. This building was used as the temporary home for parliament while the Centre Block, which burned in 1916 was rebuilt. It once housed the Canadian Museum of History before the new building across the river; this allowed the Museum of Nature to expand to fill the entire building. A major renovation was completed in 2010.

The Royal Canadian Mint is where Canada’s coinage is made. Nowadays, the Mint’s facility in Winnipeg produces the standard circulation coinage while Ottawa makes collector coins only. You can take the tour or perhaps a visit to the boutique to see the special coins on sale might do.

Outside the city, towards Carp, is the infamous Diefenbunker, a huge underground bunker which is a relic of the Cold War – now open for tours.

The Byward Market, on the site of the original town, is a popular destination with a produce market and touristy shops as well as many places to eat – from stand-up food to fancy restaurants.

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Up at the eastern end of Sussex are two famous residences. Rideau Hall is the official residence of the Governor-General. You can take a tour of the residence or wander the 70 acres of the grounds. The Prime Minister’s residence, which is nearby at 24 Sussex Street, is currently undergoing a massive renovation which will take some time to complete. In the interim, the Prime Minister will be living at Rideau Cottage, a 22-room residence on the Rideau Hall grounds in an area not open to the public.

Through the year, there are various seasonal attractions in Ottawa. In winter, when the Rideau Canal freezes over, it becomes famously the “world’s largest skating rink. We visited in March when the maple sap was running and discovered a sugar bush and an operating sugar shack right in the heart of the city, at the Vanier Museopark. It offers genuine pancakes and maple syrup breakfasts but can only seat about 30 at a time, so reservations are recommended. Come May and it’s the famous Tulip Festival which sees Ottawa bursting out in tulips everywhere. This commemorates the time when Ottawa gave refuge to part of the Dutch royal family during WWII.

Of course, Ottawa is the place to be to celebrate Canada Day, July 1st; it is the biggest annual birthday celebration in the country. Parliament Hill is the focal point for this day-long event, from the early morning flag-raising ceremony and a noon hour show through to the evening show with a bevy of Canadian performers topped off by a massive fireworks show. Gatineau Park, across the river in Quebec, is always a scenic place to visit but seeing the colours of the foliage in the fall is a special treat. Remembrance Day in November is marked with ceremonies at the National War Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown soldier.

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Ottawa has a big selection of hotels in all price ranges. The most famous – and pricey -- is the Fairmont Chateau Laurier, a big block of a building designed in the French Gothic Châteauesque style to harmonize with the nearby parliaments buildings. There are many top choices in the area near Parliament Hill. Prices are lower farther from the centre or across the river in Gatineau. 

As for the road trip part of it, we drove from Toronto to Ottawa, taking Highway 401 to Kingston. We turned off at the eastern side of Kingston and took Highway 15 to Smiths Falls. While this route follows the trail of the Rideau Canal it runs a few kilometres to the east and you have to follow the turnoff signs to detour over to the canal to see the locks. Smiths  Fall is a decent-sized town which grew up around the canal. It has the Rideau Canal Visitor Centre, the flagship interpretation centre on the Rideau Canal, and five lockstations surrounding and within the town.

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The best route to see the canal is the run from Smiths Falls to Ottawa via Merrickville, Kemptville, and Manotick driving along either Highway 19 or 43 or a bit of both. These roads run along each side of the canal close enough for you to be able to see lots of the canal and the locks in this stretch.

Many serious amateur photographers love to take photos of old decrepit barns, stone houses, and rail fences. Some like to take photos of interesting rock outcrops and river views. This Kingston to Ottawa route is a happy hunting ground for these photo enthusiasts.