We sat in the shade of the East Block on a warm August morning in Ottawa. The capital’s Carillon played America the Beautiful as a part of an “Unofficial Anthems” song selection, after Jamaica Farewell and before the AfricAcadian anthem, Oh, Freedom. The daily carillon program is just one of many aspects of visiting the Canadian Parliament Buildings in Ottawa. We were waiting to meet up with our Centre Block tour group, and had just visited the Peace Tower.
Visiting the Canadian Parliament Buildings in Ottawa
All visits to Parliament are offered free of charge but I highly encourage you to grab your tickets as early as possible in the day as they are handed out on a first-come, first-served basis. To get tickets for guided tours (in French or English) of Centre Block and East Block, visit 90 Wellington Street which is just across the road from Parliament Hill.
We stopped in at around 10:00am, in the middle of the summer, so the options were scarce by the time we got to the front of the line. There was a wall of tour cards (tickets) in small, vertical folders sorted by time, location, and language. Once someone made their selection, their ticket was pulled and handed to them, so you could see how many or how few tour spots were left.
“Peace Tower, 11:30am!” I announced at the counter, the staff member pivoted, pulled our tour cards from their time slot envelope, and rotated once more to hand me the stack. Then all of the Centre Block tickets were taken for the day… in English. I quickly turned to my group, we were traveling with John’s brother and sister-in-law from Chicago, and we all agreed that we could do the French tour at 2:30pm. Our tickets were pulled from their time slot and we were ready for our Parliamentary adventures that day.
The self-guided Peace Tower or visit the Memorial Chamber tour is fascinating on its own. There are guides who lead you up the tower in the elevator, and staff in the observation room at the top so if you have any questions they can be answered.
Later in the day we returned for the Centre Block tour. “I know most of you are here not because you speak French, but because the English tours were all sold out for the day,” our guide remarked as we walked over from our shade at the East Block to join the gathering. “Legally, we must offer tours in both official languages, alors cette visite guidée sera en Français.”
At the start of the tour our guide gave all important instructions and directions in French and English but once we officially began, everything was in French. I tried my best to interpret for the family at the start of the tour but after the first chamber, they were content to explore and simply ask questions if they had any.
It was a fairly thorough tour for just 50 minutes, and we got to see the House of Commons and the Senate. You’ll learn about the architecture, the function of the rooms and chambers, history of Canadian legislature, and about some governmental functions and procedures.
Tips to Know Before You Go
- Show up early to 90 Wellington to get your tickets for the day. It opens at 9:00am daily.
- Have a backup plan in case your time slot is sold out already.
- Pick up a couple if you like, for various buildings (Peace Tower, Centre Block, East Tower).
- Enjoy the city or do a walk around the outside of Parliament while you wait for your tour time.
- When entering Parliament, treat it like going through airport security, with metal detectors.
- Only one bag smaller than 35.5 cm x 30.5 cm x 19 cm (14” x 12” x 7.5”) is permitted per visitor. All other personal belongings may be stored at the bag check at 90 Wellington St.
- Feel free to bring a camera, ask questions.
On a first-come, first-served basis, visitors are also welcome to watch proceedings in the Senate and the House of Commons whenever they are in session. Check Senate and House of Commons calendars in advance.
Talk to Ottawa Tourism if you have any other questions while you’re in the area! They’re on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.