Across the Ottawa river is Gatineau, Quebec. As you can guess, while most Ottawans are English-speaking, about 15% speak French natively, making Ottawa Canada’s largest Francophone city outside of Quebec.
Visitors come to Ottawa primarily to see Parliament Hill and the many National Museums.
Inside the Parliament Building
Fun Fact: Today, the major economic sectors (besides tourism) are the public service and the high-tech industry, which has earned the city the name “Silicon Valley of North”.
A Brief History
Church dome architecture
Ottawa started as a humble lumber town called Bytown; it was named after Colonel John By of the Royal Engineers who oversaw the construction of the Rideau Canal, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, much of which was done by hand, between 1826 and 1832.
Lumber mills were built along the Ottawa River in the mid-nineteenth century and those brought employment and wealth to the growing population. The centre of action then, as now, was the Byward Market. While it is still the centre of the city’s nightlife, it has changed appreciably from the rough and tumble early days of brothels and taverns.
In 1857, Queen Victoria chose Ottawa as the capital of Canada. The choice was controversial, partly because it sidestepped the rivalry between Toronto and Montreal, and partly because the new capital was still a tiny outpost in the middle of nothing much — an American newspaper famously commented that “it was impregnable, as any invaders would get lost in the woods looking for it.”
Fun Fact: Unlike Canberra in Australia or Washington, D.C. in the United States, Ottawa is not part of a special federal district. There is an official National Capital Region containing Ottawa, Gatineau, Quebec across the Ottawa river, and surrounding areas in both provinces.
During the latter half of the 19th century, the telephone was demonstrated to the Canadian public for the first time here and the city was electrified. A menu from 1892 states that, “the first instance in the entire world of an entire meal being cooked by Electricity” was in Ottawa.
Things To Do In Ottawa
Ottawa has remained a green city and is situated at the confluence of three rivers (Ottawa, Rideau, and Gatineau) and of the Rideau Canal. Many residents make regular use of Ottawa’s parks and green spaces, bikeways and cross country ski trails.
Many national attractions are located in Ottawa: Parliament Hill, the National Library and Archives, the National Gallery, and the Museums of History, Contemporary Photography, Nature, War, and Science & Technology.
Rideau Canal, Ottawa
The locks separate Parliament Hill from the Chateau Laurier, a former railway hotel. (pictured below)
Chateau Laurier Hotel
Library of Parliament
One of the nicer, unexpected views, looking from the bottom up, can be accessed at the back of the Parliament Buildings—that vantage point also provides a river view of the Canadian Museum of History (pictured below), across the river in downtown Gatineau.
Native American Canadian History Museum
Mosaika Parliament Hill Sound & Light Show
The National War Memorial near Parliament Hill
Canadian Museum of Nature
- Canadian Museum of Nature – galleries of fossils, mammals, birds and geology among others. FREE admission Thursdays after 5 PM. (Pictured above.)
- Bank of Canada Currency Museum – Free.
- Carleton University Art Gallery – Free.
- Native American Canadian History Museum – great collection and history of Canada and its native inhabitants.
- Bytown Museum – a small museum located at the Rideau Canal locks between Parliament Hill and Chateau Laurier with a focus on Ottawa’s early history.
- Canada Agriculture Museum – a working animal farm in the city. You can visit animal barns, see various demonstrations and exhibitions, and ride on a horse-drawn wagon. The museum also has a playground and picnic area. It is very popular with young children.
- Canada Aviation Museum – a former RCAF base with civilian and military aircraft ranging from pre-World War I to modern, including 1920s-1940s bush planes, war planes from both World Wars and the Cold War, surviving components of the 1950s’ Avro Arrow interceptor and Space Shuttle Endeavor’s Canadarm, a Canadian-built robotic arm.
- Canadian War Museum – the museum presents Canada’s involvement in armed conflict beginning with battles between the French and British, through to the World Wars, Korea, and the country’s current involvement in NATO and UN operations.
- Science and Technology Museum – several displays are popular with children, including massive locomotives inside the building and electricity demonstrations.
- Diefen-bunker – it’s Canada’s Cold War Museum, built to protect the government from nuclear attack, this once-secret bunker is now a museum and National Historic Site of Canada. FREE for children 5 and under. Fun Fact: “Diefen-bunker” is a play on “Diefenbaker”, the Canadian prime minister in the 1950s who authorized the construction of the facility.
Laurier House National Historic Site
Nepean Point, Alexandra Bridge
Royal Canadian Mint
Supreme Court of Canada
24 Sussex Drive
Ottawa Walking Tours
Yoga on the Hill
Doors Open Ottawa
Great Canadian Bungee
Shows and Festivals
- The National Arts Centre -also provides a major venue for dance and orchestral performance
- The Great Canadian Theatre Company (GCTC)
- Ottawa Little Theatre
- Vineyards in the Byward Market
- GigSpace near Little Italy
- Options Jazz Lounge in the Brookstreet Hotel (in Kanata)
- Rainbow in the Byward Market
- Irene’s Pub in the Glebe
- Ottawa Jazz Festival – in late June
- Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival – in summer, one of the largest in the world
- Bluesfest – the largest blues festival in Canada. It also features rock, pop and world music, and attracts visitors from Atlantic Canada and New England (in Summer)
- The Fringe Festival – another summer offering
- Winterlude – winter fun featuring ice carving and snow sculptures
- The Tulip Festival – a spring bonanza of flowering bulbs, given annually by the Dutch government, and a concert series featuring well-known Canadian rock and other popular music groups
- Ferrari Festival – in June, on Preston Street
- Canada Day – celebrate Canada’s birthday in Ottawa on July 1. While the Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings is being renovated, the official spot to gather on Canada Day is Major’s Hill Park
- The Ottawa International Animation Festival – one of the largest animation festivals in the world, the OIAF is held in September
Quebec in winter
Day trips to Québec – since Ottawa is located on the provincial border, day-trips to neighboring Québec can be made easily.
Just across the river from Ottawa is the city of Gatineau, which has the stunning Canadian Museum of History and some mighty good restaurants too.
It is the centre of the Outaouais region which includes the lovely village of Wakefield, and Gatineau Park with its high cliffs and deep, clear lakes. A little further west is the Pontiac where you will find small rural towns and rafting expeditions.
You can cycle from Quyon to Pembroke on 72 km of railway bed turned into a bike trail. Stop by the Shawville Fair in late August/early September.
To the south and east of Ottawa is a large flat rural area consisting mostly of small commuter towns, agricultural villages, and the occasional woodland.
This lowland stretches all the way to Montreal (roughly 165 km to the east) and the United States border (just shy of a hundred kilometres to the south). The Rideau Canal runs through it. Among the many scenic towns are Merrickville, which has a good claim to the name “Canada’s prettiest village,” and Perth with its mills and heritage buildings.
Going west beyond Kanata, the village of Carp (about 40 minutes away, in West Carleton) houses the surreal Cold War “Central Emergency Government Headquarters” (the Diefenbunker Museum).
Beyond that is the Ottawa Valley region, towns and farms, then the Madawaska Highlands wilderness area starting about 90 km from Ottawa. In that area is Calabogie, a ski resort in winter and lake resort in summer.
A little further on is another wilderness recreation area, Algonquin Provincial Park.
Beyond the Ottawa region lie other Canadian cities, such as:
- Montreal – the largest city in Quebec and the largest French-speaking city outside of Europe, is 200 km east
- Toronto – Canada’s largest city, is about 500 km to the southwest
- Kingston – about 200 km to the southwest, on the way to Toronto. A university town with historic limestone buildings
- Iqaluit – the capital of Nunavut (Ottawa is one of the very few cities that has regular direct air service to Iqaluit)
Ethnic foods from around the world are available at a wide variety of restaurants and street vendors throughout the city.
The Byward Market area has a wide selection of different cuisines; the Chinatown area is along Somerset West between Bronson Ave. and Preston St.
The Little Italy runs along the length of Preston Street, from Carling Avenue to Albert Street (#2 to Somerset & Preston or #3 along Preston).
Try the tasty BeaverTail, a fried-dough pastry associated with Ottawa, although a number of places claim to have created it. It’s available in sweet and savory versions, topped with cinnamon, sugar, icing sugar, etc.
In the winter, many places will offer it on the canal. During the summer, the only places downtown to offer it are in the Byward Market on George St., and a small counter in a corner of the Canadian Museum of History.
There are a variety of toppings and the taste of the beaver tail stands out more with the classic sugar & cinnamon. However, the locals’ favorite is the Killaloe Sunrise, a topping of cinnamon sugar and lemon juice.
Try a poutine
Try a poutine from Smoke’s Poutinerie, or a shawarma from one of the many around the city. Local favorites include Shawarma Palace and 3 Brothers.
Coffee shops are found throughout the city, and include dozens of two specialty chains Second Cup and Starbucks, in addition to the mainstream Tim Horton’s (seemingly planted at every intersection).
Bridgehead is a fair trade coffee house and can be found at a half dozen or so locations. Try their small double shot lattes, which are significantly better than their competitors’.
There are several coffee houses in Little Italy, on Preston Street. One of the most popular, Pasticceria Gelateria Italiana, also houses an award-winning pastry shop.
Bar Robo on Somerset St under the Chinatown arch offers locally-roasted coffee during the day, along with fresh croissants and donuts.
WiFi & Internet
Most coffee shops, hotels, and public library branches have free wi-fi Internet access, although the speeds may be slower than you’re accustomed to. There are internet cafes throughout the city.
Ottawa is a very safe place to live and visit, so if you use common sense it is at least as safe as any other city. There are many tourists in the city, especially in summer months, and there are very few incidents of robbery or assault.
There have been incidents on buses and at transit stations of violence and swarming/robberies, even during daytime hours. OC Transpo has hired new constables and placed plainclothes security and cameras on select buses and trains to counter the problem.
Use common sense, especially when riding at night, every transit station has multiple emergency call boxes.
Ottawa is the fourth coldest capital city by annual average temperature, but it has the second coldest January, only topped by Ulan Bator, Mongolia. Add to that nearly 3 m (10′) of snow per average winter and throw in an ice storm from time to time, winter can be a challenge but locals do a great job of handling it particularly with recreation. Summers are (normally) short, warm and at times hot and humid.
Humidity in the summer can make the heat feel unbearable, while humidity in the winter, coupled with wind chills, can make the cold feel very brutal. Dress for the weather and don’t forget to cover your head and ears with a warm hat. Ottawa is not a very fashion-minded city, but in winter, everyone throws in the towel.
September 10, 2020 11:20 am
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