You’ll find plenty of things to do in Ottawa with kids. A lot of the fun places for kids in Canada’s capital are within walking distance of each other, and several world-class museums cluster right in the centre of the city. If your family does start to flag, cafés are plentiful, as well as the city’s iconic BeaverTails stands, which sell hot pick-me-up pastries slavered in sugar, cinnamon or chocolate.
Ottawa’s a place of extremes, with warm, humid weather in summer, and temperatures of -20° and below in winter. So the child-friendly museums in Ottawa make a great refuge, whether that’s from the cold or the humidity. I went to most of these family-friendly places to visit on a press trip to Ottawa during February’s festival of Winterlude, which you can read about here. The places I didn’t get to personally were highly recommended to me, and they’re heading my list for our next visit.
Canadian Museum of History
Address: 100 Laurier Street, Gatineau, Québec
The first museum on my list, and the most popular of all Ottawa museums, is in fact not in Ottawa itself but in Gatineau. The Quebecois town is just a hop (or a five minute walk) across the river from Ottawa.
Opened in 1989, the Canadian Museum of History‘s building is an architectural triumph, all sinewy curves and undulating cascades, to mirror the shapes found in nature. Inside, its collections tell the story of how modern Canada came into being. The first area I walked into was the impressive First People’s Hall. With a ceiling designed to resemble a dugout canoe, a floor like a glistening pool and the largest indoor collection of 19th Century totem poles in the world, it was a space that invited you to linger.
Built on First Nations (Algonquin) land, the Canadian Museum of History aims to bring together the different strands of narrative running through Canada’s past. Since 2018 a bronze statue of a native chief has sat just outside, while inside a large section covers First Nations and Inuit culture, as well as the injustices meted out to the indigenous population. These include the residential schools where the authorities sent First Nations children from the age of seven. 3,200 known deaths occurred up until the time when the final school closed in 1996.
Large parts of the museum showed Canada’s relationship with Britain, France and the other nations whose people came to the country as early settlers. There was even a Ukranian church, painstakingly reconstructed after conservationists moved it from its home in western Canada.
My guide recommended that families should spend at least two hours in the museum. There was a wealth of detail to take in, and although a lot of the exhibits were text-heavy, many of them were interactive – like the video reconstruction of a 4,000 year-old Canadian family, or the model of moose poo which early Canadians would have burned as fuel.
Canadian Children’s Museum
The Canadian Museum of History had its own Children’s Museum, with a miniature town including shops, double decker buses and a library. When I was there, small groups of children were enjoying themselves on ‘adventures’, clad in brightly coloured tabards while they played games, crafted or leapt around in a soft play area.
With two cafés, a bistro and a small cinema showing educational films, the Canadian Museum of History would easily take up the best part of a day for families looking for an interesting place to shelter.
The Canadian Museum of History is open seven days a week, all year round with some exceptions for public holidays.
National Gallery of Canada
Address: 380 Sussex Drive, Ottawa, Ontario
The National Gallery of Canada was an art gallery full of breathtaking paintings, sculptures, and photography. First up was Louise Bourgeois’ Maman, a giant spider who sat hulking outside the gallery entance. From the cosy vantage point of the gallery cafeteria, exquisite artworks by Roxy Paine and Michel de Broin sat elegantly against the city backdrop. And of all the places to shelter from the chill of in Ottawa in winter, the National Gallery’s Great Hall would be top of my list. Its glass walls stretched tens of metres above our heads, giving wide panoramic views of Ottawa’s Parliament Hill and Notre Dame Cathedral, which both looked beautiful in the snow.
In 2017 the National Gallery merged its indigenous and non-indigenous artwork, to tell a story of modern Canada.
As well as its permanent collection, featuring Canadian art from the 18th Century through to the modern day, the gallery hosts temporary exhibitions. When I visited there was Anthropocene, an immersive exhibition exploring humankind’s effect on the natural world, and a Paul Klee retrospective. This was aimed at children as well as adults. A ‘Young Explorers’ trail guided youngsters through the exhibition. They ended up in a soft play space, with sponge bricks based on Klee’s geometric shapes.
For child-friendly things to do in downtown Ottawa, the National Gallery was a surprisingly excellent find. It holds Family Sundays, with dancers and storytellers to bring art to life for tiny tots. Children can dress up in period costume, and then roam through the gallery to try and find the portrait whose model matches their dress. And Artissimo sessions for the over-3s, at the weekends and on public holidays, give children a hands-on experience of pottery, fabric printing, soap making and other artistic techniques.
My favourite part of the National Gallery was Rideau Street Chapel, a 19th Century place of worship that historians reconstructed piece by piece inside the gallery. It used to be part of a girl’s boarding school run by nuns, and its fan-vaulted ceiling was unique. The conservationists had even cleverly used lighting to make it genuinely seem as though daylight was pouring in through the windows, even though the chapel was inside the gallery walls. When I visited, Janet Cardiff’s beautiful sound installation, Forty-Part Motet, was set up in the chapel. Thomas Tallis’ piece Spem in Allium reverberated around the chapel walls from 40 speakers. It was an exquisite use of the space.
The National Gallery is closed on Mondays during the winter. It opens every day over the rest of the year, with some exceptions for public holidays. Inside are ATM machines, a large gift shop, two cafés and a tapas bar.
Ottawa Art Gallery
Address: 50 Mackenzie King Bridge, Ottawa, Ontario
The Ottawa Art Gallery was extensively rebuilt before its relaunch in 2018. It’s a bright, new space with five floors for contemporary and historical exhibitions, and community engagement. As well as art by key Canadian artists, visitors will find a large collection of works by the Canadian Group of Seven. These fêted landscape painters created the majority of their work in the 1920s and 1930s. The gallery offers free childcare to visitors on Wednesday evenings, as well as a café/restaurant.
The Ottawa Art Gallery is open every day, from 9am to 9pm, with some exceptions for public holidays.
Address: 1 Sussex Drive, Ottawa, Ontario
Rideau Hall is the home of Canada’s Governor General. It’s close to the centre of town and is surrounded by 79 acres of beautiful landscaped grounds, which are freely accessibly to the public throughout the year. So if your kids enjoy letting off steam in a green space, a trip to Rideau Hall is one of the best things to do in Ottawa with kids.
Public tours of Rideau Hall’s staterooms are free, and run daily. Sometimes you need to reserve a place, and other times you can just show up for a tour. It’s best to check the Rideau Hall website for details.
Canada’s Governor Generals have all lived in Rideau Hall since 1867, when this position of the UK Queen’s representative was established. Huge portraits of previous Governors General hung grandly near a couple of guards, who stood ceremonially in front of the door to the residence. Close by, a timeline showed different citizens who’d been honoured by the Governor General over the years, including a young boy who’d saved his sister from a bear.
The rooms in Rideau Hall were elegantly furnished. Each one exhibited a different style, from grand drawing rooms looked over by huge chandeliers, to more cosy sitting rooms. My favourite was the pink candy-striped room, reconstructed to look like the tented space used at the turn of the 20th Century. The Governor General of the time used the room as a dining space. But the candy-stripe walls were designed so that they could be rolled up to expose the bare walls. The Governor General and his guests would then use the area as an indoor tennis court.
Canadian Museum of Nature
Address: 240 McLeod Street, Ottawa, Ontario
The Canadian Museum of Nature is housed in a huge castle-like building. It’s the first building in Canada to be created as a national museum. It covers a broad collection, from a 19-metre blue whale skeleton in the Water Gallery, to 800 sparkling minerals in the Earth Gallery, and a new Arctic section. This includes exhibits on Inuit life in the North Pole, and the impact of climate change. Interactive games and worksheets make the collections accessible to children, and a Nature café offers snacks and light meals. Visitors can eat their own picnic food in designated spaces.
The Canadian Museum of Nature is open six days a week, and is closed on Mondays.
Canadian House of Commons
Address: Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Ontario
Canada’s House of Commons is undergoing a ten-year renovation. While it’s being modernised, the new temporary wing in West Block is open for free public tours.
For an older child, the tour would be an interesting way to see inside Canada’s democratic institutions. The influence of the English Parliament is unmistakeable. When I visited, the seats in the main chamber were lined with a familiar English ‘House of Commons’ green baize, and they were set in rows, facing each other, just like in Westminster.
But Ottawa’s new West Block House of Commons felt a good deal more fresh and airy than its London equivalent. The chamber room used to house a large garden, and its roof could open, to let in the breeze. Outside the chamber, clean, smooth tiling ran along the floor, and the high walls were lined with gleaming tiles of bright marble. Our tour ended with a look at the Canadian Books of Remembrance, in a dark room with shining maple leaves on the floor, and a ceiling fashioned to look as though bullet holes had been torn through it.
The free tour of Canada’s West Block House of Commons lasted forty minutes. It’s advisable to book well in advance. On the Parliament website you can also book tours of the Senate of Canada.
Address: 3929 Carp Road, Carp, Ontario, Canada, K0A 1L0
The Diefenbunker is a former Cold War bunker, built for the government and senior members of the military in case of a nuclear attack. It’s 23 metres underground in Carp, a small town half an hour from Ottawa. The top-secret hideaway was named after John Diefenbaker, the Prime Minister when it was built. The government has never used the place as a bunker. Instead, since the 1960s the military have used the Diefenbunker as a secret base. The last of the military left in 1994 and it’s now a Cold War museum, as well as a place to shoot movies, and a venue for kids’ holiday ‘spy camps’ and birthday parties.
I went on a tour of the Diefenbunker’s 100,000 square feet. It was a quirky warren of a place. I imagine the people living inside must have felt a real sense of claustrophobia, once the four-ton doors closed and they’d passed through the garish yellow decontamination zone. The original decor was mostly intact, with lots of beiges, forest greens and prefab walls. One room was even decked out like a family kitchen from the 1960s.
The giggles and shrieks of young children broke up the Diefenbunker’s ominous atmosphere. The kids seemed to enjoy poking their noses into the rooms containing narrow bunks, stacked impossibly close to each other. And although I half expected to see James Bond lurking round a corner, my tour guide told me I was more likely to run into someone playing a rowdy game of laser tag. Even so, I did breathe a sigh of relief when I left the Diefenbunker. Fascinating as the place was, I’m old enough to remember the Cold War. The Diefenbunker was a living memorial to the paranoia and claustrophobia of those times.
Tours of the Diefenbunker Cold War Museum run daily, and audio guides are available to people who want to do a self-guided tour. To book a place on the guided tour, visit the website.
Do you have any recommendations for things to do with kids in Ottawa? Let us know in the comments below.
For more downtown Ottawa attactions that a family could enjoy in the wintertime, check out our post on Winterlude.
How to get to Ottawa
Ottawa International Airport is a 20 minute drive from the centre of town. I flew from London Heathrow courtesy of Air Canada, who offer more daily flights from the UK to Canada than other airline. From London Heathrow this summer, the airline operates daily non-stop services to Ottawa, with Economy fares starting from £670.12 inclusive of all taxes and 1 x checked bag (subject to change). Find out more at www.aircanada.com or call Reservations on 00 800 6699 2222.
Where to stay in Ottawa
On my press trip I stayed in two hotels, both of which were in great locations for things to do in downtown Ottawa.
Best Western Plus Gatineau-Ottawa Hotel
Address: 131 Laurier Street, Gatineau Québec J8X 3W3
The Best Western Plus Gatineau-Ottawa Hotel is across the Ottawa River in Gatineau, Québec. The Canadian Museum of History is just a five-minute walk away.