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 – 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. On any given week the lawns in front of the Gothic-style buildings might be filled with locals in yoga pants or the traditional red jackets of the ceremonial Changing of the Guard (a tradition that dates back more than 50 years). Tour the halls (free guided tours available), stare up at the gargoyles carved into the buildings, take in a concert on the lawn, or catch fireworks overhead.
Note in 2019, the Centre Block is closing to the public while the building undergoes a decade-long rehabilitation. During the closure, 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.
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 special. 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 local life year-round. In the warmer months you’ll spot paddlers and cruisers on the water that includes the Parks Canada Voyageur Canoe Experience, 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 & Prince of Wales Falls
Standing in the downtown core, the idea that a waterfall might be nearby seems 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, but this one—with the giant inflatable jellyfish installed in the Queens' Lantern glass enclosure—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.
This 19th century walled garden is perfect for those who either want to look at history through a floral lens or just want a quiet place to spend an afternoon. Designated a National Historic Site in 1989, Maplelawn Garden preserves the European architecture and landscaping that was popular in Canada centuries ago. Open from April to October, you’re welcome to wander the pathways at your leisure.
EAT, PLAY, 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 boutique hotel’s 16th floor for incredible open-air views of the bustling ByWard Market neighbourhood below and fireside sunsets over the Gatineau Hills in the distance. In the warmer months, the rooftop terrace is a fantastic place to recline with 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 own 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 for 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.
Tavern on the Hill
From its location across the water from Parliament Hill, you’ll have 360-degree views of some of the city’s most notable landmarks. The Parliament Buildings, Supreme Court of Canada Courthouse, Ottawa River and National Gallery of Canada among them. While you can visit Major's Hill Park year-round, Tavern on the Hill - an outdoor canteen and snack stand - is seasonal.
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 neighbouring 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.
Stella Luna Gelato and The 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 flavours 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.
Ottawa’s once-secret summer spot is now a tourist favorite. The popular local swimming hole, beach and picnic area is about 30-minutes from Ottawa in Wakefield, Quebec. You pay only $5 and enjoy a refreshing dip or opt for a considerably more adrenaline-fueled option. The Great Canadian Bungee company offers bungee jumps from “The Rock” (which claims to be the only spot in North America where you can do a 200-foot “dip”) and a “Ripride” zipline adventure that transforms your experience of the limestone amphitheater.
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. Set inside 9,000 acres of protected parkland, the estate was gifted to Canadians, opening up the wooded paths, ruins and restored cottages to locals and tourists alike. Visitors can take tours, explore enjoy 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.
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