When I told people I was going to visit Ottawa, Canada’s capital, 20 years ago, most of them looked confused. Not about the where so much as the why.
As I was to discover, back then it was easy to appreciate the ‘city that never wakes’ jokes, but I still had a soft spot for the place and wondered what it would be like to visit again.
The first time I went it was Christmas, a time for eating ‘beaver tails’ as you ice skate on the frozen Rideau Canal, doing a little dog sledding, lots of thermal layering and things that involved staying out of the below freezing temperatures.
When I returned again almost two decades later the weather was warmer, the canal was in liquid form rather than solid and I could easily walk around in a t-shirt as I got to know the city by foot.
But it wasn’t just the weather that had changed since my last visit.
This time, Ottawa was cool.
Exploring Downtown and Beyond
I do love a city that is easy to walk around and Ottawa’s downtown is friendly to those who like to explore on foot.
I was staying at Arc The Hotel, one of the city’s first boutique hotels with a wickedly good breakfast to prepare you for a big day of walking.
After waking up in the downtown area, it was an easy walk to Parliament Hill to do some sightseeing and across to ByWard Market. The name for both the farmer’s market and the area around it, ByWard Market has lots of great food and fashion finds.
Dalhousie Street was one of my favourites to potter along, looking at interesting designers. It was also where I felt myself drawn into The Crystal Dawn to have my cards read by Kelly and came out of there with a spring in my step after she helped clear some confused cobwebs.
A taxi or bus ride away the neighbourhoods of The Glebe, Hintonburg, Westboro and Wellington West are fun to explore too with lots of independent stores and cafes.
Those who love to do some museum and hopping and get a feel for the layout of the city can take advantage of the Ottawa hop on hop buses. Or you can take to the water
Cruising Rideau Canal
Ottawa’s historic Rideau Canal is the oldest continuously operating waterway in North America and a UNESCO World Heritage site. In winter it becomes a 7.8km skate way, while in summer it’s a rather relaxing way to see the city on one of the new electric canal cruises.
The electric boats only started last summer and I’m told are quieter and less smelly than the previous tour boats and so are an even nicer thing to do in Ottawa than they were before.
Cruising along the canal that I’d once skated (and fell over a lot) on was so pretty and peaceful, and our guide shared some good tales about the history of the city and its people as we went along.
The new Rideau Canal Cruise boats are open air with a roof for sun and rain protection. There’s also a small bar on board so you can enjoy a beer as you glide past the more active kayakers and ducks in the water, though the bar is only open before you start moving or after turning around at the half way point as the guide is also the bar tender.
The Most Popular (and Free) Thing To Do in Ottawa
As the country’s capital, Ottawa is home to the Parliament of Canada.
That may not seem that exciting to some, but it turns out of all the things to do in Ottawa, Parliament Hill is the most visited tourist attraction. And not just because Justin Trudeau can often be found there.
As I discovered on my visit, the neo-Gothic centre block is not just beautiful to look at from the outside, it’s also beautiful within, and as we were taken around it felt like being in a gorgeous cathedral at times.
Most of the Centre Block was lost in a great fire in 1916 but the one room to survive is exquisite. The library is often described as the ‘most beautiful room in Canada’ and features thousands of carvings of flowers and mythical creatures.
The Peace Tower with its large clock is one of the most recognisable symbols of Ottawa and Centre Block tours include a chance to go up the tower for 360 degree views over the city.
In the Memorial Chamber below, I felt tears start to well when I looked at one of the Books of Remembrance, which holds the names of more than 118,000 Canadians who died in wartime. Every morning at 11am one page is turned, and families and friends can do an online search of the Books of Remembrance or contact the Memorial Chamber to find out when their loved one’s name will be shown.
Tours of Centre Block, including the Peace Tower are free, and are on a first come first served basis, although groups of ten or more do need to book their Parliament Hill tours in advance.
In summer, Parliament Hill also has a daily Changing of the Guard ceremony. Based on its London counterpart, the ceremony involves dozens of new and old guards changing shift to the sounds of the regimental band and pipers.
They also have a Sound and Light show projected onto the side of the building at night.
As a tea lover and someone who is partial to a little luxury in life, I couldn’t visit Ottawa without having afternoon tea in the Fairmont Chateau Laurier.
The most famous hotel in Ottawa, the Fairmont Chateau Laurier looks like a castle out of a Disney film, and you don’t have to be staying there to get a taste of its five star style
The Fairmont Chateau Laurier’s afternoon tea in Zoe’s Lounge is a great treat with fluffy buttermilk scones, delicate sandwiches and decadent cakes. There’s also a man I could have spent hours chatting to – Alex the tea sommelier.
Alex brings around a trolley filled with little tea drawers and lets you smell their aromas as he helps you choose your tea and then makes it for you at the table.
I should also clear up a little something about the eating of beaver tails that I mentioned earlier. No beavers are harmed in the making of these beaver tails, as they are actually fried dough pastries stretched into the shape of a beaver tail.!
The original Beaver Tail stand is at ByWard Market, and it’s where fans including former US President Barack Obama have gotten their fix. Seriously, the President’s motorcade stopped near the BeaverTail kiosk on the way to Ottawa airport at the end of an official visit.
2017 Birthday Celebrations in Ottawa
While I would say any year would be a good year to visit Ottawa, this is a particularly good one thanks to Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations.
Ottawa is putting on a great list of one off things to do and see, including a 45-tonne fire breathing dragon and mechanical spider moving through the city, and an incredible interactive sound and light experience in an unfinished underground light rail station.
Published under license from Well Travelled.