Canadians happily enjoy the freedom to explore their Parliament Buildings whenever they choose. The grounds are affectionately referred to as “the Hill,” and are used for everything from Canada Day concerts to summer yoga classes, from light shows to winter festivals. Canadians and travellers can walk through the gates at any time and take in the three English-inspired buildings that make up Parliament.
I was eager to visit Parliament this year, particularly after learning that the Centre Block library is considered one of the most beautiful libraries in the world.
Tours of Parliament are free and available year-round, on a first-come, first-serve basis. Tickets are available at the visitors centre across the street, at 90 Wellington. It’s unlikely that you’ll get your ticket and start your tour immediately, so here are some things to check out while you wait.
The Parliament Sculptures
The Parliament Buildings are surrounded by sculptures, from founding fathers to the women who fought bravely for the vote. There are QR codes near some of the sculptures, so you can learn more about what you’re looking at.
Moulin de Provence
Walk one block past the visitors centre along Metcalfe, and you’ll find one of my favourite cafés. Moulin de Provence is famous for theme cookies, like lady bugs, tulips, maple leafs, and even the prime minister. I like to stick to generic maple leaf and flower cookies, personally, but to each their own. If your wait is long enough for a coffee break, this is the best place for it.
If you’ve got a really long wait, do both!
There is security at the Parliament Buildings, if you’re entering for a tour. Parliament security is similar to airport security. Remove your jacket, empty your pockets, step through a metal detector, and go join your tour group.
Fun Travel Facts about Parliament
What you learn about Parliament will depend on which guide you get, and what questions you or members of your group ask. Without giving everything away, here are some of my favourite fun travel facts that you may or may not hear on your tour.
- Buildings in Ottawa must not be taller than the Peace Tower.
- The most expensive book in the library is Audubon’s historic Birds of America, worth $14 million.
- Agnes Macphail was the first woman elected to Canadian Parliament. When she spoke, many of the male members of the House of Commons would leave as a protest to her presence.
- (This one you’ll definitely hear on your tour) The library is the only component of Parliament that was part of the original Centre Block, built in 1876. Everything except the library burnt down in 1916.
- The train of Queen Victoria’s gown is cropped off in a portrait that hangs in Parliament. Normally, this would be inappropriate, but the edges of the portrait were burned in the fire and this was done to preserve it.
- The National Art Gallery is designed to look like the library.
In we go…
The tour includes the House of Commons, the Senate, a couple of beautiful lobbies and hallways, and the library. The ceiling arches high, and multiple levels of books climb upwards on cherry and oak shelves. The wood and red carpet gives the library an ongoing warm glow.
“Have you really read every one of these books?” ~Belle
“No… some of them are in Greek.” ~ The Beast
The Peace Tower
When the tour ends, you can walk out the front doors or make your way up to the Peace Tower. I chose the Peace Tower. The elevator ride up gives an incredible view of the bells that ring across the downtown every 15 minutes, and the view from the top is breathtaking. Some of what you can see from the top:
- the library from above
- the National Art Gallery
- Major Hill
- the Ottawa locks
- the Ottawa River
- East and West block of Parliament
- the entire downtown
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I got lucky on my visit, and happened to be at the top of the tower while a 21 canon salute was going on below. I watched as hundreds of people gathered, and soldiers set off the salute, flames followed by smoke exploding from the canons one after another.
Where to next?
One of my favourite parts of visiting Parliament was leaving. Everyone exits through the front doors, and it’s incredible to pull open thick wooden doors and walk out in to the sunshine.
Once you’ve left Parliament, the best thing to do is go for a walk and see all the sights that you just saw from a bird’s eye view at eye-level. Then, stay for sunset.
Things to know before you go to Canada’s Parliament Buildings:
- More information about Parliament tours can be found here.
- Tours last approx. 40 minutes. Take the tour in French or English.
- Take as many pictures as you want!
- Plan to spend the day exploring the downtown, so that you can take whichever tour time is available. There’s really no way to plan it!
Finally, a very important note. 2017 is your last chance to visit Centre Block for 10 years. The West Block is currently under renovations, and after Canada’s 150th, it will be Centre Block’s turn. The East block will be open, and West block will reopen soon! Come to Ottawa soon to see this fairytale library! Grab a lemonade, and get in line.
What do you think? Does Canada’s Parliament look like something you want to do on your next trip to Canada? Leave a comment below!
Next up: The Story of Ottawa’s Tulip Festival