The jewel in Canada’s cultural crown, its capital city Ottawa, has dozens of national museums, galleries and historic sites to explore. Thanks to its relatively compact downtown core, heading out to binge-visit Ottawa’s cultural highlights is a breeze.
Head underground to visit the massive, 100,000-square-foot Diefenbunker, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s answer to midcentury Cold War fears, or delve into Franco-Canadian culture at the Vanier Museoparc, which opens its own sugar shack each spring as 10,000 trees are tapped for maple syrup.
In addition to these staples, a recent wave of federal funding (dedicated to help celebrate the nation’s sesquicentennial) allowed the city to add new wings and major renovations to many of its national museums.
There’s no better time to rack up a serious step count as you feed your brain and nourish your soul on a cultural jaunt around Ottawa. Here are five major must-sees to check out.
The National Gallery may well be one of the most beautiful buildings in North America, with a rose granite, glass and shining cherry and maple wood exterior. The space delights before you’ve entered, thanks to Louise Bourgeouis’s giant spider installation, Maman, lurking at its entrance.
For the first time in 2017, the National Gallery integrated its Canadian and Indigenous galleries, highlighting the story of art in Canada while interweaving Indigenous history and pieces. This is a fundamental change in how the gallery presents Canadian art, telling the stories that shaped the country, beginning with works from 2,000 years ago and ending with abstract modern art.
Don’t miss: Works by artists such as Tom Thomson, Emily Carr, Norval Morrisseau and Daphne Odjig, as well as new acquisitions, including works by James Wilson Morrice and the stunning Ceremonial Coat by an unknown Naskapi artist.
The Museum of Nature is a gloriously grand, castlelike building whose design was influenced by the Beaux Arts style with a decidedly Canadian edge — see if you can spot the carved moose at the main entrance!
Dating back to 1910, the museum explores the natural world, from fossils and dinosaurs through minerals, diverse marine life, plants, insects, mammals and birds. It’s a fascinating spot, stuffed with treasures.
A new permanent Arctic Gallery aims to transport visitors to the top of the Northern Hemisphere with a multisensory experience of the sounds, lights and sights of the frozen North. Thanks to a partnership with the National Film Board, this even includes an installation with real ice.
Don’t miss: The Focus on the Arctic, a programming series that will shine a spotlight on Northern culture, including the sights and sounds of the Arctic. From Inuit throat-singing and learning to build inukshuks from blocks to drum-dancing demonstrations, this will be a rare chance to soak up Inuit culture.
A short stroll over the Ottawa River from Parliament Hill to the Canadian Museum of History takes you into neighboring Quebec and French-speaking Canada. Where better to find a museum that seeks to explain the conflicts between the Britain and France that lie at the heart of Canada’s eventual creation?
After having been closed for a few years, the Canadian History Hall, reopening on Canada Day in 2017, has been totally reimagined and explores the full story of the country — even the uglier sides of colonialism, like residential schools and the Riel Rebellion.
The spectacular Grand Hall offers a chance to learn about the First Peoples of the Pacific Coast with soaring totem poles and stunning views over Parliament Hill. You’ll find the original plaster pattern here of the breathtaking Spirit of Haida Gwaii by celebrated Haida artist Bill Reid here — there’s a bronze-cast jade patina of the statue in Vancouver’s airport —and also the gold-on-bronze sculpture by Robert Davidson, Raven Bringing Light to the World.
Don’t Miss: The museum has reconstructed the faces of five Shíshálh nation people from 4,000 years ago who were buried with hundreds of thousands of beads — which indicates they were extremely wealthy and powerful. These are the first faces which will greet visitors when they arrive at the Canadian History Hall.
Previously known as the Currency Museum of the Bank of Canada, the space has undergone a massive, four-year renovation. The building stretches an entire block between Sparks and Wellington streets, and the museum is based entirely underground.
The museum seeks to share the work of the Bank of Canada and teach people about the economy and how it works. If only this had been open before the last economic crash …
Don’t Miss: Serious hands-on fun exhibits that teach complex issues, such as flying a rocket ship to show how inflation targeting works.
The Canada Science and Technology Museum has splurged on $80.5 million in repairs and upgrades for its 50th anniversary, including a 20,000-pound nuclear reactor artifact and an augmented reality gallery.
The museum will feature five main galleries with themes like Technology in our Lives and Creating and Using Knowledge, which feature more than 80,000 square feet of new exhibition space, including a 9,200-square-foot exhibition hall to accommodate traveling exhibits from around the world.
Don’t Miss: The no-drugs-required Crazy Kitchen gives visitors spacial distortion by confusing their eyes and ears with conflicting information. Cue instant dizziness and nonstop laughter as you try to stand up straight.