Canada’s capital is the country’s fourth-largest city. Originally a lumber town, today Ottawa is more about the public service, tourism and technology. Located at the convergence of three rivers – the Ottawa, Rideau and Gatineau – it’s a very green city, and residents make the most of the parks and ski trails. The Rideau Canal, built largely by hand in the early 1800s, is a World Heritage-listed site.
Ottawa is a bilingual city, with most locals fluent in both English and French. With densely located attractions, this is a city best explored by foot or bicycle. The cooler months are typified by average daily highs of below zero. But the cold doesn’t stop the locals from getting outdoors: many of them skate to school or work on the world’s largest ice-skating rink, the frozen Rideau Canal.
In February every year visitors flock to town from far afield for the Winterlude Festival, which features a village made entirely out of ice. If you prefer to stay snug indoors, Ottawa offers access to a respectable selection of museums, including the Canadian Museum of Civilization (just across the river in Hull, Quebec), which documents Canada’s history with engaging, high-tech exhibits.
The Canadian War Museum houses the nation’s most comprehensive collection of artefacts from war, including a replica of a World War I trench. For art lovers, the National Gallery of Canada houses mostly Canadian art, with a large collection of Inuit works. Admission is free every Thursday from 5 until 8pm.
Take a self-guided tour of the striking neo-Gothic buildings of Parliament Hill, or join a guided tour. On summer evenings, Parliament Hill puts on a bilingual sound-and-light show. Ottawa has plenty of outdoorsy attractions too, from white water rafting trips to biking, hiking, skating and cross-country skiing.
Eat and Drink
There are a variety of restaurants and street vendors serving local and international food in Ottawa. You won’t have to go far to find a shawarma restaurant or truck known as a “chip wagon”. For a selection of cuisines in the one spot, you can’t go past the Byward Market, which is a market by day, eat street and entertainment area by night.
Along Somerset Street you’ll find Chinatown (also featuring other Asian foods such as Thai, Vietnamese and Cantonese), and Little Italy is on Preston Street. Be sure to try a beaver tail while you’re here. No animals harmed – it’s a deep-fried pasty served sweet or savoury, often topped with cinnamon sugar.
If you feel like a fancy meal out, there are lots of fine dining options downtown. Tipping is customary in Ottawa so remember to add 15 to 20 per cent to your bill.
Where to Stay
Most hotels are in the city centre and downtown areas, and there is a big selection ranging from top-of-the-line hotels down to mid-priced accommodation, self-catering apartments, guesthouses and B&Bs. Be sure to book ahead if you plan on visiting during Winterlude or in the warmer months.
The Byward Market, held in a building erected in 1840, is the place to go for a range of fresh produce, flowers, foods and souvenirs, and sells well-priced maple syrup. At the back of the market, check out Dalhousie Street for some groovy boutiques and clothing stores.
Sparks Street pedestrian mall has a big selection of shops in which to browse as well as some touristy outlets. The massive Rideau Centre mall, downtown, boasts more than 200 stores.
If you find yourself enraptured by the Ottawan outdoorsy spirit, hit the Westboro Village, west of downtown, to shop for kayaks and other adventure supplies.
Ottawa Like a Local
If you visit in winter, make sure you strap your skates on and go for a spin on the massive rink otherwise known as the Rideau Canal. Because vendors provide refreshments right there on the ice, you can make a day of it. They even serve the Ottawan specialty, the beaver tail.