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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.)
Have you visited Parliament Hill, or taken a tour of any other really cool national capitals?
Amanda Williams is the award-winning blogger behind A Dangerous Business Travel Blog. She has traveled to more than 60 countries on 6 continents from her home base in Ohio, specializing in experiential and thoughtful travel through the US, Europe, and rest of the world. Amanda only shares tips based on her personal experiences and places she's actually traveled!