NOTE: At the beginning of 2019, the Senate moved to its new temporary home in the Senate of Canada Building at 2 Rideau Street. Renovations to its permanent home, Centre Block, are projected to last at least 10 years.
The dominant site in downtown Ottawa, Parliament Hill is the focal point for most of Canada's national celebrations, including day-long events and spectacular fireworks on July 1, Canada Day. The Parliament Buildings, with their grand sandstone-block construction, steeply pitched copper roofs, and multiple towers are an impressive sight. In 1860, Prince Edward (later King Edward VII) laid the cornerstone for the original buildings, which were finished in time to host the inaugural session of the first Parliament of the new Dominion of Canada in 1867. As you enter through the main gates on Wellington Street and approach the Centre Block with its stately central Peace Tower, you'll pass the Centennial Flame, lit by then-prime minister Lester B. Pearson on New Year's Eve 1966 to mark the start of Canada's centennial year. In June, July, and August, you can meet the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (affectionately called Mounties) on Parliament Hill. They're friendly -- and love to have their photo taken.
If you're visiting the capital between mid-May and early September, your first stop on Parliament Hill should be the Info-Tent, where you can pick up free information on the Hill and free same-day tickets for tours of the Parliament Buildings. Between September and May, get same-day tickets from the Visitor Welcome Centre, at the foot of the Peace Tower. Tickets are limited, though, and there is no guarantee in the busy summer months or on weekends in spring and fall that you will get tickets for your first choice of time, or even day. If you're visiting in summer and are adverse to lines, try to book your tour for one of the evening sessions. During the busy summer months, drop by the information tent on the lawn in front of the Parliament Buildings between 9 and 10am. You can reserve a spot on the free tour of the Centre Block for later in the day, including some evening bookings, and avoid the long lines.
Tours of the Parliament Buildings last from 20 minutes to an hour, depending on whether Parliament is in session. Allow at least 2 hours for a full tour of Parliament Hill. The Parliament Buildings consist of 3 blocks of buildings -- the Centre Block, with its central Peace Tower, and the flanking West Block and East Block. This is the heart of Canadian political life -- the workplace of the House of Commons and the Senate. When the House of Commons is sitting, you can visit the public gallery and observe the 308 elected members debating in their grand green chamber with its tall stained-glass windows. Parliament is in recess usually from late June until early September and occasionally between September and June, including the Easter and Christmas holidays. Otherwise, the House usually sits on weekdays. The 105 appointed members of the Senate sit in a stately red chamber. The West Block, containing parliamentary offices, is closed to the public. You can tour the East Block, which has four historic rooms restored for public viewing: the original governor-general's office, restored to the period of Lord Dufferin (1872-1878); the offices of Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir Georges-Étienne Cartier (the principal fathers of Confederation); and the Privy Council Chamber with anteroom.
The Centre Block is considered to be one of the world's best examples of Gothic revival architecture, complete with the pointed arches, prominent buttresses, and contrasting stonework that characterize the style. Free guided tours of the Centre Block, which may include the House of Commons, the Senate, the richly ornamented Hall of Honour, and the Library of Parliament, are available in English and French all year. Guides tell animated stories and interesting anecdotes about the buildings and the people who have worked there. When Parliament is in session, the tours do not visit the House of Commons or the Senate, but visitors are invited to take a seat in the public galleries and watch the proceedings. Centre Block tour times vary throughout the year and can change without prior notice; call the Capital Infocentre at tel. 800/465-1867 or 613/239-5000 for information.
The imposing 92m (302-ft.) campanile of the Peace Tower is one of the most easily recognizable Canadian landmarks and dominates the Centre Block's facade. It houses a 53-bell carillon, a huge clock, an observation deck, and the Memorial Chamber, commemorating Canada's war dead. A 11m (36-ft.) bronze mast flying a Canadian flag tops the tower. When Parliament is in session, the tower is lit. One-hour concerts of the 53-bell carillon of the Peace Tower are presented weekdays in July and August at 2pm. From September to June, there is a 15-minute noon concert most weekdays.
Also in the Centre Block, the Library of Parliament is a glorious 16-sided dome hewn from Nepean sandstone, supported outside by flying buttresses and paneled inside with Canadian white pine. Designed in Gothic revival style, the library was opened in 1876. The center of the room is dominated by a white marble statue of a young Queen Victoria, created in 1871.
Between late June and early September, you can get free same-day tickets at the Info-Tent for a guided tour of the Parliament Hill grounds. Visitors will enjoy an introduction to some of the historical figures who have shaped Canada's past and present. Otherwise, you can wander around Parliament Hill and explore the monuments, grounds, and exterior of the buildings on your own with the help of a 24-page outdoor self-guiding booklet called Discover the Hill, available from the Capital Infocentre across the street from the Parliament Buildings. Stroll the grounds clockwise around the Centre Block -- they're dotted with statues honoring such prominent historical figures as Queen Victoria, Sir George-Étienne Cartier, William Lyon Mackenzie King, and Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Behind the building is a promenade with sweeping views of the Ottawa River.
One last attraction for summer visitors to the Parliament Buildings is Sound and Light on the Hill. Every evening between early July and early September, Canada's history unfolds and the country's spirit is revealed through music, lights, and giant images projected on the Parliament Buildings. This half-hour display of sound and light is free of charge, and limited bleacher seating is available.