If ever there was a city that exemplified the “work hard, play hard” motto, it has to be Ottawa. On weekdays, Canada’s capital – and fourth largest – the city is the center of political power and the keeper of the country’s historical legacies. On evenings and weekends, creative artisans in culinary, fashion, and design take over as locals look to unwind. These Ottawa experiences prove that the city’s ties to its past still offer plenty of ways to have fun in the present.
TRAVEL THROUGH HISTORY
It all starts here. Canada’s national government building is more than a political institution. While the Centre Block of the parliament undergoes a decade-long rehabilitation, visitors have the unique opportunity to take free guided tours at two new sites: The House of commons in Parliament Hill’s West Block and the Senate in the Senate of Canada Building, which is Ottawa’s original train station.
From mid-May to late August, join the locals for free yoga on the lawns in front of the Gothic-style buildings. From late June to late August, you might also catch the traditional red jackets of the ceremonial Changing of the Guard (a tradition that dates back more than 50 years).
The Governor General of Canada is the official representative of the Queen in Canada, and the official residence is fit for royalty. Rideau Hall offers free tours (reservations are encouraged and mandatory at certain times of year) through the state rooms where international dignitaries are welcomed and through art-laden hallways showcasing some of the country’s most prominent creators.
Four-stories beneath the city, the Diefenbunker is a fascinating time capsule of what life was like at the height of the Cold War. Built as a safe space for Canada’s government in the event of a nuclear attack, the bunker has now become the fascinating Cold War Museum. On a tour of the non-profit museum don’t miss the Prime Minister’s Suite, the War Cabinet and the Bank of Canada Vault. After hours the capsule transforms into the world’s largest Escape Room.
National Gallery of Canada
The giant spider outside is your first clue that the National Gallery of Canada isn’t afraid to go big. Big-name exhibitions come through, but it is the celebration of homegrown talent that makes it unique. Case in point: The recent 44,000 square foot Canadian and Indigenous galleries addition. There may be no more beautiful way to explore the country’s complicated history than through a visit to this iconic museum.
ESCAPE INTO NATURE
The snake-like waterway that winds its way through the city lies at the center of much of Ottawa's local life year-round. In the warmer months, you’ll spot paddlers and cruisers on the water (canoes, paddleboats, kayaks, rowboats, and more can be rented at Dows Lake Pavilion), as well as cyclists and pedestrians on the shores. Each winter, the urban oasis is transformed into the world’s largest skating rink boasting 4.8 miles of maintained ice. But there is more to this stone-walled canal, built in the early 1800s. The UNESCO World Heritage Site boasts museums, lockstations, and pathways that offer insight into the area’s history.
Hogs’s Back Park and Prince of Wales Falls
Standing in the downtown core, the idea that a waterfall nearby might seem far-fetched. But Ottawa’s seamless mash-up of urban and rural makes it possible. Scenic Hog’s Back Park offers more than 50 acres of parkland to stroll through from May to December. You’ll peruse the historical boards along the route, but the draw is Prince of Wales Falls. The 60-foot rushing cascade provides a clear marker of where the Rideau River and the Rideau Canal part ways.
Canadian Museum of Nature
There is no shortage of museums in Ottawa. Still, this one—with the colossal sculpture of the moon erected in the Queen’s Lantern enclosure to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing—always captures the attention of visitors. The Canadian Museum of Nature transforms the way you think about nature, with exhibits diving deep into everything from dinosaur fossils to mammal dioramas.
The Canadian Tulip Festival
When Nazi forces invaded the Netherlands in 1940, the Dutch Royal Family fled to Canada. Dutch Princess Margriet was born during the visit. Years later, the bond between the countries was cemented when Canadian troops were instrumental in the Netherlands’ liberation. As a symbol of their gratitude, the Dutch Royals sent 100,000 tulip bulbs. Every year since 20,000 bulbs are sent from the country, and in the spring of 1953, the Canadian Tulip Festival was born. Each spring, the city is transformed into a sea of color, offering locals and tourists plenty of opportunities to enjoy the beauty. This year’s festival (May 8-18, 2020) commemorates the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, the Liberation of the Netherlands, and that first gift of friendship.
EAT, PLAY, STAY, AND SHOP
On all but two days of the year (Christmas and New Year’s), you’ll find everyone from farmers to jewelry designers selling their wares at ByWard Market. The roughly four-block area was created in 1826 by the same Lt-Col. John By, who built the Rideau Canal. An indoor-outdoor market connects the city’s urban and agricultural hearts. Free guided walking tours can offer up a bit of history while also pointing out the longstanding shops that sell everything from vintage clothing to fresh flowers.
Andaz Ottawa ByWard Market
Head for the Andaz Ottawa ByWard Market hotel's 16th floor for incredible open-air views of the bustling ByWard Market neighborhood below, where you can enjoy fireside sunsets over the Gatineau Hills in the distance. In the warmer months, the rooftop terrace is a fantastic place to recline with a drink in hand. The Copper Sights and Spirits restaurant claims the spot of the city’s highest rooftop bar and offers classic libations alongside their cocktail creations. One to try: The Last Man Standing, which, if consumed too quickly, may have the completely opposite effect.
Signatures, Le Cordon Bleu Ottawa
Foodies can have their cake and bake it too at this culinary outpost, thanks to short courses that take as little as an afternoon. But those who’d rather focus on eating, can leave the cooking to the skilled at the on-site Signatures Restaurant. Both lunch and dinner are available for purchase without getting your apron dirty.
Black Squirrel Books & Espresso Bar
This café in the Glebe Neighbourhood is a chameleon, serving locally roasted coffee and baked goods by day and switching to Ontario craft beers and live music as the workday ends. Locals pop in for both, and the book store on-site offers plenty of options while you sip.
Take a classically trained pastry chef with a penchant for trying new things, add a quirky café where desserts are as pretty as they are tasty, and you have all the makings of a match made in carb heaven. You’ll find the classics at Arts-is-in-Bakery (breads, baguettes, and buns) alongside trays of delicate pastries. If you need something heartier, breakfast and lunch offerings are plentiful, though the animal art staring back at you from the walls may sway you to a vegan or vegetarian option.
Stella Luna Gelato and Beachconers Microcreamery
Under the helm of Master Gelato Chef Tammy Giuliani and her family, the award-winning Stella Luna Gelato has a legion of fans. Too early for dessert? You’ll find phenomenal coffee and some great meal options here as well. Time your gelato binge for Sunday nights when they offer 40% between 9 and 10 p.m. Prefer your cones on the beach? Head out to The Beachconers Microcreamery for made-from-scratch ice cream in flavors that range from simple vanilla to unique local flavors like Lemon Basil.
House of Targ
Pinball and perogies are the cornerstones of this old school arcade in the Old Ottawa South neighborhood. Owned by local musicians, House of Targ delivers a steady stream of live music and plenty of locals. Families are welcome until the concerts start, at which point the arcade switches over to an age 19+ venue. Time your visit for a Sunday night after 8 p.m., and you won’t need a pocket full of quarters: Your $6 cover gets you unlimited free play on all the games until close.
Sometimes what you want is the ability to shop for quirky things while balancing a good cocktail. That’s the premise behind Ward 14 – a unique “consignment shop and bar” where everything – including the glass you’re sipping from and the chess game you’re playing—is for sale. Antiques, velvet art, vintage maps, and porcelain figurines are among the hundreds of baubles waiting to be purchased.
Fairmont Château Laurier
What’s a capital without its castle? The iconic Château Laurier is the city’s fairy tale hotel in an unmatched location. Unwind on La Terrasse – the patio restaurant overlooking the Rideau Canal, Ottawa, River and neighboring Parliament buildings. Or tip your pinky to the Royals (including Princess Diana), who’ve stopped here with Afternoon Tea at Zoe’s restaurant on the main floor.
Mackenzie King Estate
The 15-minute scenic drive from Parliament Hill is likely one of the reasons William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada’s 10th and longest-serving Prime Minister, opted for an estate in Outaouais, Quebec. The estate is set inside 9,000 acres of protected parkland and was gifted to Canadians, which opened the wooded paths, ruins and restored cottages to locals and tourists alike. Visitors can take tours, explore the gardens, or enjoy refreshments in the Tearoom.
Mer Bleue Bog
The northern boreal landscape of Mer Bleue is part of almost 5,000 acres that boasts farms, forests, and wetlands. The original intention was to protect the rural area around the Capital. It worked. Today, it is the largest publicly owned greenbelt in the world, and Mer Bleue is the largest bog and natural area in the Capital region. Visitors can take to the 1.2 km interpretive boardwalks, hike the area or explore the cross-country ski trails. The space is popular with bird watchers, photographers, and climate researchers (who’ve set up a permanent research station) due to its UNESCO designation as an internationally significant wetland.
Jacques Cartier Park, Gatineau, Canada
You’ll find plenty of locals and their families exploring this 55-acre park year-round. In the summer, they hit the paths on foot and bicycle and take to the shores of Lake Leamy for stunning views of Rideau Falls and water play on the Ottawa River. In the winter, the park transforms into a wonderland.
Heather Greenwood Davis is a travel writer and lives in Toronto. She has spent a lot of time in Ottawa and considers it one of her favorite cities. You can follow her journeys on Twitter.