Photograph by Brownstock/Alamy, All Canada Photos
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The Winterlude festival brings Ottawans out on the ice.
Photograph by Brownstock/Alamy, All Canada Photos

Canadians aren’t known for being especially brash and outspoken, and their capital, Ottawa, Ontario, reflects that politely understated character. It’s green, friendly, accessible, and, contrary to its reputation as a buttoned-down government burg, a city that loves to play. Ottowans’ fondness for fun is pushing west of downtown, with stylish new pubs and eateries opening all the time. Hockey is still king, of course, with either an Ottawa 67’s junior or Senators pro game on tap most nights from September to May. Even the city’s Canadian Museum of Nature, housed in a castle-like building that’s rumored to be haunted, is more of a natural history playground. And all summer "the Hill," seat of Canada’s federal government, welcomes each day with a song (and pomp and pageantry) when the regimental marching band performs at the colorful Changing of the Guard ceremony.

When to Go: On Canada Day, July 1, the nation’s birthday bash begins with a morning Peace Tower carillon concert and ends with evening fireworks. In between are free concerts, patriotic ceremonies, and other performances on Parliament Hill and across the city. The 11-day TD Ottawa Jazz Festival runs from late June to early July and features an indoor-outdoor lineup of jazz, rock, and country performances. Next is RBC Bluesfest, an outdoor music festival at LeBreton Flats that has attracted headliners such as Billy Idol, Lady Gaga, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. In mid-September, CityFolk at Lansdowne mixes day and evening performances with hands-on music workshops. February’s Winterlude is a three-week celebration of all things icy, including an annual bed race on Ottawa’s 4.8-mile canal/skating rink (the world’s largest).

How to Get Around: The downtown core is walkable and the rest of the city is well served by a network of buses and light rail. If you prefer a rental car, traffic and parking are rarely the nightmares you sometimes find in bigger cities.

Where to Stay: The Fairmont Château Laurier is a grand old hotel that rubs shoulders with Parliament Hill; nearby, the Lord Elgin is another elegant classic. For something completely different, the 150-year-old county jail has been transformed into a hostel for travelers; sleep in a one-time jail cell and take a tour of death row.

Where to Eat or Drink: The ByWard Market and Elgin Street are the traditional hotspots for food and drink in Ottawa, but there are growing scenes elsewhere too, particularly in Little Italy, Hintonburg, Wellington West, and Westboro, all west of downtown. Craft cocktails and late-night menus have taken off in Ottawa. Ryan Saxby Hill, writer at popular local blog Apartment613, has some favorites: "Union Local 613, with their bourbon-based drinks and southern-inspired menu; the new Whalesbone Oyster Bar in the former Elmdale Tavern, with craft beer and sustainable oysters; and the Hintonburg Public House, with a quality wine list and cute plates of house-made bar snacks."

What to Read or Watch Before You Go: Several of Ottawa’s fantasy author Charles de Lint’s books, including Moonheart, Spiritwalk, and Greenmantle, are set in and around the capital. For a bit of history, Will Ferguson’s Bastards and Boneheads: Canada’s Glorious Leaders Past and Present (Douglas & McIntyre, 1999) is a light-hearted introduction to the men who have governed from Ottawa for the past 150 years.

Fun Fact: The main Centre Block building that stands on Parliament Hill is a replacement. The original building that dated back to 1859 burned down in a dramatic fire in 1916.

Eva Holland is a freelance writer and editor based in Canada's Yukon Territory. She is a frequent contributor to Canadian magazines Up Here and Up Here Business.