The centre of Canada’s federal government, Parliament Hill is a fantastic place to learn about how the country is run and where laws are made.
Located right on the bank of the Ottawa River in downtown Ottawa, the site has plenty to explore and is usually very open to visitors.
Ottawa’s Parliament Hill
The hill is the home of the federal Parliament Buildings and is a National Historic Site of Canada. On top of its important government function, Parliament Hill is also a massive attraction. Around 3 million people visit the site each year.
History of Parliament Hill
In the years prior to Confederation and Canada formally becoming a country in 1867, the capital of “Canada” moved back and forth between Toronto and Quebec City every four years. In 1857, Queen Victoria selected Ottawa as the new, permanent capital. The reason for this was its location. It was further away from the Canada-US border, which made it easier to defend militarily. It was also on the Quebec and Ontario border, so a compromise location for the colony’s French and English-speaking populations.
Construction, Fires and Renovations
Construction began on Parliament Hill in 1859, just four years after Ottawa was incorporated as a city. This means that the hill and a couple of its longest-standing buildings are about as old as the city itself! After all the work and years of planning and implementation, Ottawa finally became the official capital of the colony in 1866, and then the capital city of the Dominion of Canada in the following year.
After repeated renovations in 1870, 1876 and 1905, a massive fire (which began while the House of Commons was in session) destroyed the main Centre Block building. Several people were killed, and it took four years before the building reopened.
In 1927 the Peace Tower was unveiled, including its massive 53-bell carillon. This ceremony, led by Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, was also the first live radio broadcast to be played across the entire country.
There was another (thankfully smaller) fire in 1952 which almost destroyed the Library of Parliament. A new National Library was built close by a few years later.
Today, still as of the early 2020’s, Parliament Hill is in the middle of a massive restoration and renovation project that began years ago. You’re likely to see ongoing construction work at different places on the hill when you visit.
What to see at Parliament Hill
There are plenty of events that take place on Parliament Hill, especially in the summer. Year-round, the different buildings offer plenty to learn about and the opportunity to experience government in action. Below is some of what you can check out at Parliament Hill.
Take a Tour
While the Centre Block building and the Peace Tower are currently closed to the public for renovations (still as of January 2022), there are other buildings that can be explored.
Both the Senate and House of Commons buildings are available for guided tours when Parliament is not in session. As well, the East Block, which is one of the few buildings on the hill that is more or less what it was in the 19th century, is similarly accessible from July to early September.
During the summer there is also a free Discover Parliament Hill outdoor tour. All of the above tours are a great way to learn about the history of not only the site but of Canada’s government as a whole.
If you prefer a self-guided experience, you can ask for a Discover Parliament Hill booklet during the summer. This gives you a map and information about all the various sites around the hill and allows you to explore at your own pace.
For more information on tour times and reservations, visit the Parliament of Canada website.
Attend a Debate
When the House of Commons and Senate are in session, their debates are open to the public. Unless the buildings are full, visitors are welcome to come and observe the proceedings. As well, many committee meetings are also open to the public.
Visitors are not allowed to say anything or otherwise join in on either the debates or meetings in any way (as that could get messy). Despite that, it can be fascinating to sit in on a session for a little while.
Other Events at Parliament Hill
The following are other events and activities that happen at different times of the year:
- Carillon Concerts – a year-round event, the Peace Tower’s carillon plays continually-changing recitals. From September to June it plays from 12:00 pm to 12:15 pm every weekday. In July and August that time extends and the bells play from 11:00 am to 12:00 pm every weekday. (Note: A carillon is a set of bells that are located inside a tower. They can be played, almost like a piano, with a keyboard or automated system.)
- Canada Day Celebrations – as you would expect, Parliament Hill is home to Canada Day entertainment every July 1st. This includes a big fireworks show in the evening which is worth checking out if you’re in the area.
- Changing of the Guard Ceremony – From late June to late August, you can see this theatrical ceremony every morning. With marching, music and most importantly the flashy uniforms, it’s a fun and entertaining tradition.
- Sound and Light Show on Parliament Hill – another summertime activity, this one runs from July to September. Every night, Parliament Hill lights up with a spectacular 30-minute light show that presents important moments from Canadian history.
- Christmas Lights Across Canada – for around a month every Christmas season there’s a massive light installation along Confederation Boulevard. It lights up every evening, providing a nice walking tour during the cold nights. Similar exhibitions take place at capital buildings across the country.
Admission and Accessibility
There is no public parking on Parliament Hill. If you drive there, you have to park at one of the municipal parking lots nearby. There are busses that go directly to the hill.
Visitors must undergo a security screening before entering the various buildings on Parliament Hill. Because of this, expect lineups if you go on a nice day. Only one small bag is allowed per visitor and you can expect to be turned away if you exceed the bag-size limitations.
Everything at Parliament Hill is wheelchair accessible. It is also all open to service animals.
Other articles that might be of interest include the following:
- Ottawa’s Top Attractions
- Hotels in Ottawa
- Museums in Ottawa
- Ottawa’s Calendar of Events
- Canada’s Parliament Buildings