Stemming from the Algonquin word, “adawe,” meaning “to trade,” Ottawa is a town steeped in history. The city’s rich heritage was shaped by the construction of the Rideau Canal and designation as Canada’s capital. You’ll encounter a vibrant arts community, a host of tourist attractions as well as off-the-beaten-path spots worth exploring in the downtown core.
Before Queen Victoria awarded it capital status, Ottawa was known as “Bytown,” and even today, the city holds the nickname. It sits at the edge of Ontario, hugging the Quebec border with the Ottawa River separating the two provinces. Its downtown district is entirely walkable, offering an array of museums, restaurants, pubs, boutiques, and parks to peruse. Areas within the core include ByWard Market, Centretown, the Golden Triangle and Ottawa University.
Probably the first stop on any sightseer’s list, Parliament is a gorgeous example of Gothic Revival architecture, the seat of Canada’s federal government, and also a gathering place for both locals and visitors. Parliament Hill draws a crowd, so go ahead and join the masses for summer events like the Changing of the Guard and Parliament Yoga during the daytime, and the Northern Lights sound and light show in the evenings. Its regal structure and vast front lawn are iconic in themselves, and one can feel the dignity of this stately building’s purpose without entering. If you want to peek inside, though, opt for a guided tour. Hours vary depending on when Parliament is sitting, but entrance is always free. Tickets are available on a first-come, first served basis.
On the way to and from Parliament, you’ll cross the Plaza Bridge spanning one of the city’s most impressive features: the Rideau Canal, which flows into the Ottawa River. Awarded UNESCO status in 2007, the waterway is the oldest continually operating canal in North America. Built from 1826 to 1832 by Lieutenant Colonel John By and his crew, it was originally constructed as a military canal to defend Canada from the United States, with boats traveling between Montreal and the Great Lakes while avoiding the St. Lawrence River. Today, most of the Rideau locks are still operated by hand as they were in 1832, and managed and maintained by Parks Canada. Beyond being rich in history and fun facts, the canal acts as an outdoor respite and feels much like an idyllic waterside park. In warm months, Ottawans jog, bike, and relax along the route, and in wintertime when the canal freezes, they don ice skates to commute to their offices on what is deemed the world’s largest skating rink – spanning nearly five miles.
Culture buffs won’t want to miss the spree of museums within the town center. The two-story Bytown Museum (1 Canal Ln) tells the history of Ottawa as well as the construction of the Rideau Canal. Pay a visit before or after you cruise, kayak, or walk along the water and visit the Rideau locks. If you only have time to see one art museum, make it the National Gallery of Canada (380 Sussex Dr), housing the world’s most comprehensive collection of Canadian Art along with enchanting interior gardens and courtyards. The museum’s facade is guarded by the Louise Bourgeois “Maman”, a huge spider sculpture inspired by the artist’s mother and crafted from marble, stainless steel and bronze.
Try to also fit in the jaw-dropping architecture of the National Arts Center (1 Elgin St) – a public event space with a magnificent glass atrium. Ottawa’s performing arts hub hosts music, dance and theatre, partnering with emerging and established artists. NAC also provides an excellent spot to work (there’s free Wi-Fi), charge your phone, relax, and grab a cup of java at Equator Coffee. In a similar vein but off the beaten path, the Ottawa Art Gallery (50 MacKenzie King Bridge) features a permanent collection with more than 1,000 works by Canadian artists connected in one way or another to the Ottawa-Gatineau region.
May is one of the prime months to visit because of Ottawa’s Tulip Festival (an annual event celebrating the blooming of more than one million tulips and Canada’s friendship with the Netherlands), but any time is a good time to meander through Major Hill’s Park. Located behind the acclaimed hotel, Fairmont Chateau Laurier, this park provides panoramic views of the Rideau Canal, Parliament Hill, the Gatineau Hills, and more. Wander on the winding paths, taking in this dose of nature in the thick of downtown. For a beverage and bite with a 360-degree view from the park, relax at Tavern on the Hill (1223 Alexandra Bridge). This seasonal outdoor canteen sells beer, wine and spirits along with gourmet hot dogs and ice cream.
“To market” out of the mouth of an Ottawan might mean heading to the seasonal farmer’s market (it’s open from May through October) at ByWard Market for fresh maple syrup, ripe, juicy tomatoes on the vine or first-of-the-season yellow corn. However, it could also mean taking a trip to the neighborhood, one of the most vibrant (and touristy) sections of Ottawa. Here, you’ll encounter myriad spots for grab-and-go as well as sit-down casual meals in ByWard Market Square. Go hungry and make it a point to graze a few of these favorites: Corazon de Maiz for tasty beef tacos, Shafali Bazaar for the freshest naan outside of India, and the buzzing Le Moulin de Provence (the cafe doesn’t need an introduction since President Barack Obama paid a visit in 2009) for famed Obama and Trudeau cookies. But beyond the low-key spots, there’s no shortage of more upscale restaurants or easygoing (and fun) Irish pubs (Ottawa’s Irish community dates back to the 19th Century) in the neighborhood.
Sidestep the bustle of ByWard Market but be less than 10 minutes away on foot and inside the quiet, chic and service-oriented Le Germain Ottawa (30 Daly Ave.). This mod boutique hotel features smart interior design, pieces by local artists, and a farm-to-table restaurant and bar. All rooms offer ultra-cozy beds (you’ll probably oversleep), Nespresso coffee makers, spacious baths with Molten Brown toiletries and other frills.
On the contrary, Andaz ByWard Market (325 Dalhousie St) stands in the heart of Ottawa’s nightlife epicenter. This Hyatt hotel affords stunning Ottawa and Gatineau views, especially from Copper Spirits & Sights, the rooftop lounge that soars 16 stories above the city. For luxury in the most classic sense, book a room at Fairmont Château Laurier (1 Rideau St), the city’s castle that dazzles both day and night. Expect Old-World elegance here – from the palace-like lobby to the refurbished guest rooms and suites, and “The Reading Room,” a sophisticated lounge pouring libations and afternoon tea.
Five years ago, Ottawa may have been behind in the food scene, but thanks to chefs like Walid El-Tawal at Fairouz (343 Somerset St W), the city is catching up. The Executive Chef is striving to redefine Middle Eastern cuisine, putting his own unique spin on traditional dishes like hummus, lamb kofte and stuffed fish. This vanguard among Canadian restaurants is creating tons of buzz, so be prepared to hear more about it – Fairouz claimed slot 46 on the top 100 restaurants in Canada list. Deep flavors run the gamut in shareable dishes, as El-Tawal plucks inspiration from a variety of countries in that region of the world including Morocco, Libya, Tunisia, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. Food aside, the restaurant is set in a lovely heritage mansion in the Somerset Village area of downtown, adding to the overall dining experience.
Slightly removed from the center and hullabaloo of ByWard Market, though still in the district, Sur-Lie (110 Murray St.) is a gem of a restaurant serving French fare. Expect artfully plated dishes but with fresh ingredients stealing the spotlight. How can seafood be decadent? The arctic char layered with a beautiful potato pavé and wild mushrooms is just that. Other craveable items to try are the duck confit with sweet potato puree and the tender beef filet with black garlic jus. Beyond serving brunch, lunch and dinner, Sur-Lie features a five-course tasting menu for $80, as well as a happy hour with oysters, charcuterie, cheese, veggie fritters and drink specials.
Oenophiles flock to Play Food & Wine (1 York St), a market-driven restaurant-cum-wine-bar that pairs delicious plates with unusual pours. Favorite dishes include the grilled octopus with black rice risotto (try sipping Barbera d’Alba with each bite), and beef tartare, apricot mostardo, egg yolk and taro chip (enjoyed best with a small batch Ontario Syrah from Medville Winery). Glasses come in 3oz or 5oz sizes, allowing guests to taste before, during and after their meal. Wines rotate every few weeks, with bottles from various regions around the globe including Portugal and France.
Situated in Le Germain Ottawa, NORCA (30 Daly Ave) – northern cuisine and Canadian ingredients – offers far more than the usual hotel restaurant. Quebecois Chef Dominique Dufour helms the kitchen, executing a unique menu of dishes celebrating Canada’s bounty. She highlights the most enticing pieces of an animal (carnivores must taste the dry-aged ribeye steak) but puts the less-than-desirable cuts to good use, with house-made sausage and charcuterie being the fruits of her labor. The spread changes regularly based on what’s in season and available. NORCA also offers a lovely breakfast, lunch, craft cocktails and an impressive wine list, with some choices hailing from the Niagara region.
If Canadian craft beer were king, then comfort food would be queen at Lowertown Brewery (73 York St), a soaring warehouse-like bar with a sidewalk cafe. Expect brews like Byward Gold, Shooting Rapids Pale Ale and Lowertown Lager, perfect to chug with smoked meats, poutine, fish and chips, and doughy soft pretzels. When it gets chilly, warm your bones with a finger or two of whiskey (the brewery stocks 20 combined choices of Canadian rye, Irish whiskey and American bourbon).
Bars are a dime a dozen in ByWard Market, but Heart & Crown Irish Pub (73 Clarence St) has been a favorite among the Irish community since it opened its doors in 1992. Five pubs fall under one roof, forging what locals know as Ottawa’s Irish village. Grab a stool and throw back a pint (or several), and if you’re hungry, choose from the usual pub grub such as burgers and sandwiches, with Guinness beef stew and fish and chips rounding out the selections. Live music plays every night of the week after 10 p.m.
The clubby Moscow Tearoom (527 Sussex Dr) is an ideal late-night drinking den for bibulous travelers in search of a fancy cocktail or Russian vodka flight poured by pretty (and friendly) bartenders. Booze it up on the ruby red Chesterfield sofas or quaff your libations on the back patio. The name may sound deceiving, but the bar does, in fact, serve coffee and a fine cup of tea for those with an alcohol aversion. After dark, though, the nightclub feel dominates.
For dozens of varieties of cheese and accouterments, shop at The House of Cheese Ltd. (34 ByWard Market Square). From mild to sharp and spicy, purchase cow’s, sheep’s or goat’s cheese from Canada as well as imports from France, Switzerland, Italy and Germany. Whether you prefer brie, gouda or blue, knowledgeable staff will make recommendations, offer tastings, and even suggest wine pairings. The House of Cheese Ltd. also stocks truffles and imported chocolates, which marry well with their coffee and tea selections.
Venture to Sparks Street, where the country’s first pedestrian mall sits between Elgin and Lyon Streets. Here you’ll discover an array of local businesses including Ottawa Leather Shop, Canadian Four Corners (an awesome souvenir store) and Howard Fine Jewellers, not to mention a string of cafés and coffee shops. Sparks Street has a vast concentration of historic buildings, and the 50-year-old mall is regarded as an optimum place for people watching.
Fashionable men and women browse and buy at Schad (521 Sussex Dr). Upscale and city chic, the store stocks everything from tees to trousers to dresses and suits, as well as shoes and accessories, some of which have Canadian origins. Expect well-known brands such as n:Philanthropy, Parker and Michael Stars for the ladies, and Patrick Assaraf, John Varvatos Star USA and Cole Haan for gents.
Set one foot in Tea Store (53 York St) and you’ll quickly see that tea culture is alive and well in Ottawa. Enter to a wall of more than 300 different teas (displayed to see and sniff) in the colorfully decorated and incredibly welcoming shop and tea parlor. Leaves are all natural with no artificial ingredients and hail from Asia, Africa and other destinations around the globe. Decide on black, green, white, herbal, decaf and custom blended, then take your drink to go or park yourself at a café table and sip away.