Photo Essay: An Afternoon on Parliament Hill

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No, it's not a scene from some medieval storybook, nor a set built for one of the Harry Potter films. Instead, the spires of Gothic buildings visible all over downtown Ottawa mark the seat of Canadian government — Parliament Hill.

Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

When Queen Victoria chose Ottawa as the capital of the Province of Canada in 1857, it looked a heck of a lot different than it does today. Back then, it was just a rough lumber town, with shanty houses lining muddy streets.

Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
A far cry from what it looks like now!

But those in charge saw Ottawa's potential as a capital (it's location, for instance, was perfect), and plans for a magnificent Parliament complex began in 1859.

Today, Parliament Hill sees close to 1.5 million visitors per year, with many of them taking the free tours offered of Center Block and visiting the observation deck at the top of the Peace Tower. It's not just Canada's center for government, though. Its grounds are almost garden-like in the summer, and people can often be found lounging and even sunbathing on the front lawn.

Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
The lawn in winter.

If you find yourself in Ottawa, be sure to set aside some time to spend at Parliament Hill. It's an easy walk up Rideau/Wellington Street from anywhere in the downtown area, and I doubt you'll regret it.

A history of Parliament Hill in Ottawa

The imposing East and West Blocks will likely be the first buildings you'll see when approaching Parliament Hill. These buildings — both constructed in the 1860s in High Victorian Gothic style — were originally built to house ministries and federal public servants. However, as Canada rapidly expanded, Senators and members of Parliament took over these buildings.

Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
The East Block.
Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
The West Block.

But it's Center Block that really dominates the scene — and perhaps rightly so. It's home to the Senate and House of Commons, as well as the Library of Parliament. This is where all the important stuff happens.

Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

It's also the newest building in the complex.

On February 4, 1916, a vicious fire ripped through Center Block, nearly burning the whole building to the ground. Only the beautiful Library remained, saved by its heavy iron doors and the direction of the wind on the day of the fire. When it came time to rebuild, even though the Gothic style of architecture was out of style by the early 1900s, architects decided to rebuild Center Block to fit in with the Gothic Revival style of the Library (built originally between 1859 and 1876).

Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Center Block, seen through the imposing Victorian gates (or “Wellington Wall”).

Because of this, touring Parliament is highly recommended — it's an absolutely gorgeous building. Free guided tours run daily at Center Block, including in the winter time, and are much more interesting than they might at first sound.

Touring Canadian Parliament in Ottawa

Tours will take you into the House of Commons and the Senate on most days, as well as into the Library (where sadly you can't take photos) and through the Hall of Honor. Fun fact about the Senate and HoC chambers — there are thrones in each just in case the Queen should ever decide to stop by (Canada is still a member of the British Commonwealth), even though she hasn't been in the country since 1977.

House of Commons

I'm not a huge fan of government tours (or anything related to politics, really), but this tour was great. I had a young, enthusiastic tour guide (I'm told these gigs are difficult to get) who knew a lot about the building, and pointed out areas that most Canadians could recognize from seeing on TV.

Hall of Honor, Parliament Hill, Ottawa
Hall of Honor, Parliament Hill, Ottawa
Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

And even if you could care less about the rest of the building, seeing the inside of the Library of Parliament is worth the tour itself. It's a beautiful round room covered in carved, polished wood and filled with colorful government-y books.

After the tour, take a quick elevator ride up to the top of the Peace Tower. This 302-foot bell tower was constructed after the 1916 fire and opened in 1927 to honor the Canadian soldiers lost during WWI. Its bells chime every 15 minutes, and views from the observation deck span over all of downtown Ottawa, as well as across to Ottawa River into the province of Quebec.

Peace Tower, Parliament Hill, Ottawa
The view over toward Quebec.

On your way out, head to the west side of Center Block to visit the Cat Sanctuary — a cute collection of little wooden huts where volunteers have been caring for the stray animals of Parliament Hill since the 1970s.

Cat Sanctuary, Parliament Hill, Ottawa

Lastly, be sure to strike a pose in front of the Centennial Flame. Erected in 1967, the Flame was built to commemorate Canada's 100th anniversary of Confederation. It is divided into 12 segments, each representing one of the provinces/territories that existed in 1967.

Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

I was also lucky enough to arrive in Ottawa just after the holidays, when the city was still decked out in its Christmas finery. Parliament Hill is particularly pretty when its contribution to Christmas Lights Across Canada is illuminated after dark.

Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Even prettier with some fresh snowflakes!

Ottawa's Parliament Hill certainly stands out in my mind as one of the more striking seats of government I've ever seen up close. Maybe it's just the Harry Potter/Gothic architecture nerd in me, but I couldn't help walking up to the Hill at least once a day my whole time in Ottawa.

Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

(And, if you're looking for even MORE great views of Parliament Hill, head across the Ottawa River, or watch the sun set behind the Hill from a nearby park.)

Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Have you visited Parliament Hill, or taken a tour of any other really cool national capitals?


"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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63 Comments on “Photo Essay: An Afternoon on Parliament Hill

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  1. Awesome, just got a chance to catch up on blog reading. This made me a bit homesick. I’m glad you got a chance to check out the cats, sometimes you can spot a raccoon eating the cat food 🙂

      I only wish it had been warmer, because all the cats were curled up in their houses and wouldn’t come out! Lol. I love cats, so I thought this was such a neat idea.

    The tour of parliament is one of my fav things in Ottawa! It is a really great tour, although the name of it does sound potentially boring! 😛

      Yeah, generally anything that involves government and “tour” doesn’t appeal much to me. But this tour was great, and the inside of Center Block was beautiful!

    Love photos! When I was there in the summer I didn’t get to see it at night, love the snow flakes! 🙂

      Thanks, Cailin! That night photo with the snowflakes is definitely one of my favorites.

    So Purdy!
    I love the snow… it makes it look that much more Canadian 😉

      Haha, I think I have to agree that the snow makes it look “more Canadian!”

    I love all of the snowy photos — it makes the building look so majestic.

      Thanks, Abby! I really had no idea people enjoyed snowy photos so much!

    Looks cold! However, it must have been pretty magical to see all of the Parliament buildings lit up for the holidays. Love the architecture!

      I was really glad I got there while they still had all the Christmas lights up!

    Man, that looks cold. I think maybe I’ll visit Canada when it’s having summer 🙂

      Haha, yes, it was quite cold! I’ve heard Ottawa in summer can get really hot though! So I guess it’s a matter of which extreme you’d prefer.

    Such beautiful architecture inside and out! And all that pretty snow

      Agreed! This was one building definitely worth seeing the inside of as well. And the snow certainly did make for a nice backdrop. I’d love to see how it compares in the summer when everything is green!

    I am freezing here and there is no snow on the ground. Heck, it isn’t even cold enough to snow, if precipitation was going to fall. And I am still shivering more looking at these photos. LOL. Great shots, but bring us some warm weather reminder photos! 😉

      Heh, perhaps another Hawaii photo essay will soon be in order. 😉

    Gorgeous photos! Ah, it actually made me miss snow and cold weather a bit! 🙂

      Thanks, Lauren! Funny how when you’re away from snow/cold you actually kind of miss it. … Until you see it in person again, and then you wonder what the hell you were ever doing missing it! 😉

    Are you SURE it has nothing to do with Harry Potter? Because it totally looks like it does. 😛

    It’s a very imposing building, and I just love those fires burning in the front. I could definitely see spending an afternoon here… well, by the fires or inside. 🙂

      It wasn’t actually very warm by the flame at all… lol. You couldn’t really get close enough to it to get any of the heat! (Or, if you did, you’d just be blasted by sulfur-y air, since the flame is fed by natural gas). But, regardless, I’d still recommend spending an afternoon here anyway! Maybe you could go in the spring, when it’s not so cold. 😉

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