The tang of metal is heavy in the air as you walk down the iconic blast tunnel that leads into the underground museum of the Diefenbunker: Canada’s Cold War Museum. The smell reminds me of a machine shop and walking through is a little eerie, a little thrilling and there starts to be a chill in the air. But before you get as far as the blast tunnel, you have to back up a bit…
Tickets can be purchased at the guardhouse in the parking lot (You must drive to get there as it is not connected to any transit system, but parking is always free) and they offer group tours as well as iPod audio guides that you can borrow if you prefer to do a tour on your own. The last time I visited, I opted for the guided tour. The tour guide was new, we were her first tour group, but she was ready and armed with her cue cards. She did an excellent job, her thorough training showing despite her new-ness.
Our tour guide brought us to the side of a large hill, in which what looks like a large workshop or overly large garden shed is set - but it is not like anything you’d find in a back garden. Inside, you find the first of the artifacts on display, including atom bombs, a stark reminder of why this place exists.
Located in Carp, Ontario, just outside of Ottawa, this location was chosen for safety reasons: close enough to evacuate to from downtown Ottawa, in a valley and offering geological protection as well. Prime Minister John Diefenbaker commissioned the bunker to be built in 1959 as part of his government’s reaction to the escalating tensions in the Cold War. The purpose was to house key members of the government and military in the event of a nuclear attack on Canada. It began operation in 1961, always kept ready with food and supplies in case anything should happen, which luckily never did. In 1994, it was decommissioned and given National Historic Site status after which it was empty until the museum was founded in 1997.
Once you get through the blast tunnel and into the bunker proper, you can imagine what it was like to work, eat and sleep there. They have everything: radiation showers when you first come through from the blast tunnel; a fully stocked infirmary; a cafeteria complete with lovely “windows” (photos of scenery blown up and stuck to the walls to help you forget you were underground); rooms of bunk beds and lockers; a suite intended for Prime Minister Diefenbaker; a radio booth for emergency broadcasts to the nation; communication room and offices, and of course a giant table for all of the really important people to meet around and discuss really important things. Oh, and did I mention the bank vault?
Before or after the time of your tour I highly suggest exploring some of the side rooms on the first level. These rooms have been turned into exhibitions related to the Cold War and to the bunker, one of which includes an amazingly detailed scale model showing the internal structure and layout of the Diefenbunker.
The museum does a lot of other interesting things too. In 2014, they started an artist-in-residence program, choosing artists who live within a 100 km radius of Ottawa. Works produced during the residency must have a connection to the Diefenbunker, the Cold War or related themes. They also offer the world’s largest escape room, challenging you to stop the enemy spy in time. In October, partnering with Haunted Walks of Ottawa, zombies invade the bunker for a different kind of tour experience. If you live in Ottawa or the surrounding area, you can sign up to be a zombie and if you don’t live in the area… well, now you have a great reason to visit!
A new museum shop was opened in 2019 with a larger selection focused on vintage 60s themed items for those of us - like me - who just can’t resist poking in a museum shop before they leave.
Youth (6 to 18 years): $11.00
Family Rate (2 Adults, 5 Youth): $48.50
Children 5 and under: Free
For the best experience, give yourself at least one hour to explore the Diefenbunker.
Monday to Friday
10:30 am – 4:00 pm*
Saturday and Sunday
10:00 am – 4:30 pm*
*The Admissions desk closes 30 minutes before the museum closes, tickets cannot be purchased during this time.
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