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In short, no, you really don't need a car to explore the main sights in Ottawa. If you're staying downtown, most major attractions (Parliament Hill, National Gallery, Byward Market, Supreme Court) are within walking distance. Additional attractions that are a little further afield (Rideau Hall, Museum of Civilization, War Museum, Dow's Lake) are a longer walk, or accessible via public transit or short taxi rides. Grey Line also operates a "hop-on-hop-off" bus tour service, allowing you to explore sites within and beyond the downtown core:
You'll only really need a car if you want to explore parks, countryside or towns nearby (e.g. Gatineau Park and Mackenzie King Estate, Manotick, Westport), or will be staying outside of the downtown core.
Whether you've driven to Ottawa in your own vehicle, or rented a car, navigating the city is fairly straight-forward. Traffic is what you would expect for a region of one million people, with signficant congestion from the suburbs into the downtown core weekday mornings 6:30 am - 9 am, and exiting downtown afternoons 3 pm - 6 pm. Outside of these specific periods, and even within these times if you're going "against the rush" (e.g. mornings from downtown to the airport), traffic is quite light. However, one challenge of driving in Ottawa to bear in mind, both in terms of directions and traffic, are that two rivers and a canal bisect the city, meaning a limited number of bridges to convey traffic.
Ottawa's main thoroughfare is the "Queensway" (Highway 417), running east-west across the city and passing just south of the downtown core. The downtown core can be accessed from Queensway exits at Bronson, Kent, Metcalfe and Nicholas.
A right turn on a red light is permitted after coming to a complete stop. Note that a number of streets in the downtown core are one way, and that there are significant lane and turning restrictions on Albert and Slater Streets to accomodate buses.
Across the Ottawa river to the north is the city of Gatineau in the province of Quebec. Five bridges connect Ottawa to Gatineau. While road signs in Quebec are principally in French, the rules of the road are the same, including that right turns on a red light are allowed after a complete stop. From downtown Gatineau, Highway 5 extends to the north and Highway 50 extends to the east to speed commuters home to their neighbourhoods. It is intended to be extended all the way to Montreal at some point.
A note about gas prices, it is not uncommon to see the price of gas increase or decrease by 5 to 10 cents a litre within one day. Gas prices frequently vary from one end of town to the other. It is also common to see gas prices increase on weekends and then fall on Monday or Tuesday, even when there is no fluctuation in oil prices. Remember that gas is taxed lower in Ontario than in Quebec, so if traveling to Gatineau or beyond it pays to fill up on the Ottawa side of the river.
Some notes about parking: The meters in Ottawa are expensive in order to encourage public transit use. However, unlike some larger cities, most do not need to be fed on weekends. In the downtown business area, many don't need to be fed after 3:30 PM either. Be careful to observe the rush hour parking restrictions as well as those for winter snowfalls. Parking in the Byward Market area can be difficult and relatively pricey. If you are going there on a weekend, consider parking in the business area to the east, which is usually fairly empty and has free parking then. It is also a good start for a tour of Parliament Hill.
The city of Ottawa has one of the best public transportation services for a major city in the world. The main transit system is the OC Transpo, which has a fleet of almost one thousand buses, most of which are handicapped-accessible. There is also a branch service called Para Transpo, which offers door-to-door pick-up and drop-off for people with disabilities that prevent them from using the regular service.
The rapid transit portion of the bus system, Transitway, is also handicapped-accessible. These buses are scheduled quite frequently and can transport passengers very quickly across town, even during rush hour, as there are various roads and bridges throughout the city built and used expressly by public transit buses.
The O-Train, Ottawa’s light rail, began operation in 2001. It runs about 8 km (5 miles) north-south from Bayview to Greenboro, isolated from road and train traffic, making it extremely efficient.
Walking and bicycling are also easy ways of getting around Ottawa, as there are many pedestrian and bike trails through the city, as well as an expanding number of on-street bike lanes. Many bike trails are routed largely through parks and Ottawa has no really large hills making this a particularly bike friendly city.An unusual method of transportation available in the winter is the city’s Rideau Canal . When the rivers become frozen, the canal locks are open for a distance of roughly 8 km (5 mi) from Carleton University to Rideau Center, and allow ice skaters to travel freely on the ice between these two points.