Ottawa Travel Guide

Overview

From humble beginnings in 1800 as a lumber camp, Ottawa, Ontario, grew to become the vibrant, multicultural capital of Canada. Ottawa is a bilingual city, reflecting its French and English heritage. Home to the copper-roofed Parliament Buildings, the Supreme Court of Canada and foreign embassies, Ottawa has many walkable historic neighborhoods, bustling farmers markets, world-class museums, trendy restaurants and exciting nightlife.

Situated at the confluence of the Ottawa, Gatineau and Rideau rivers, the city is bisected by the Rideau Canal. The 5 mi/8 km section running from Dows Lake to the downtown core is flanked by bike and walking paths. From January to early March, the ice surface is flooded to create the Rideau Canal Skateway, the world's longest skating rink. In the summer, colorful masses of flowers, beginning with tulips in May, bloom along both sides of the canal. UNESCO has declared the entire canal, stretching 125 mi/202 km from Ottawa to Kingston, a World Heritage site. It is the oldest canal system in North America, built in 1832 and still operating today.

A greenbelt encircles central Ottawa, and its many parks filled with plants, well-kept lawns and canopies of mature trees add to the city's scenic appeal. Across the river in Quebec, Gatineau Park is a massive natural playground with some of the region's most pristine protected areas, wildlife, lakes and rivers.

Geography

Ottawa is located in southeastern Canada, situated at the far eastern tip of the province of Ontario right on the border with the province of Quebec. The city is divided by the Rideau Canal, which serves as a popular spot for outdoor activity year-round. On the west side is the core of the city, called Downtown. There you'll find Parliament Hill and the pedestrian mall on Sparks Street. Centretown, home to the Canadian Museum of Nature, is just south of Downtown. The popular ByWard Market area is across the canal to the east. The neighborhood known as Sandy Hill lies southeast of the market, bounded by Rideau Street and Laurier Avenue East. Close to the University of Ottawa, Sandy Hill attracts a young, hip student crowd.

Immediately north of the ByWard Market, the Ottawa River separates Ontario and Quebec. Just across the river is Gatineau. (Formerly known as Hull, the town changed its name to Gatineau in 2001. Many residents on both sides of the river still refer to it by its former name.) Gatineau can be reached by any one of five bridges. To the northwest, you'll find Gatineau Park, a large wilderness area containing the Kingsmere Estate, the former summer home of Canada's 10th prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King.

History

Centuries before Europeans arrived in North America, a tribe of Algonquin (Anishinaabe) people made their home on the banks of the Ottawa River. The first recorded visit by a European was in 1610, when the French explorer Etienne Brule passed through the area. He was followed three years later by Samuel de Champlain, the founder of the city of Quebec, who was in search of a route that would provide passage to the Far East.

In 1826, British Army engineers and troops, led by Lt. Col. John By, built barracks on what is now known as Parliament Hill. From this base of operations they constructed the Rideau Canal system, linking the Ottawa River to the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario many miles/kilometers to the south. The canal was built as an alternate shipping route between Toronto and Montreal, in case a U.S. invasion put the St. Lawrence in danger.

The new canal and surrounding forests led to the establishment of Bytown, across the canal from Parliament Hill. It became a center for Canada's new logging industry, supplying timber for British war ships. Colonel By also laid out the footprint for the ByTown Market as it still exists today, and for Upper Town and Lower Town.

Bytown was renamed Ottawa in 1855. Two years later, Queen Victoria spurned Montreal, Toronto and nearby Kingston to select Ottawa as the capital of Canada. Many early Canadian governors general were put off by the remote wilderness location, but the choice was sound. The new capital could be easily defended, and a booming timber industry had made it an economic success. Prime ministers Sir Wilfrid Laurier and William Lyon Mackenzie King worked to transform Ottawa into a city that might one day compete with other capitals and replaced the army barracks on the hill with the Parliament Buildings that stand there today.

After World War II, French planner Jacques Greber, the architect of the 1937 Paris World's Fair and town planner for Marseilles and Lyon, created Confederation Square in the center of Ottawa and initiated an overall beautification program, leading to the multitude of parks (now known as the National Capital Greenbelt) that make Ottawa a magnet for outdoor enthusiasts.

Until the 1980s, Ottawa was mainly a government town. The federal government remains a major employer, but the city is also home to scientific laboratories, numerous national associations, the University of Ottawa, Carleton University and Algonquin College.

Sightseeing

The best way to get to know Ottawa is by foot. A great place to get oriented is Parliament Hill, the seat of Canadian government. Try to get there by 10 am Monday-Friday in the summer to see the changing of the guard, and then take a free guided tour of accessible areas of the Parliament buildings. (Note that it's possible that not all of the buildings will be open because of renovations.) From fall through spring, you might even catch the live proceedings in the House of Commons or the Senate. From Parliament Hill, you'll be able to view the Rideau Canal, a fine place to take a boat ride or go skating, depending on the season. After a walking tour of Parliament Hill, you may wish to go next door to the Fairmont Chateau Laurier for a traditional afternoon tea.

The most stunning natural sight in Ottawa remains the world-famous Canadian Tulip Festival in May, when the entire city bursts with masses of red, yellow and white tulip blossoms. It's been held annually since 1953.

For those interested in Ottawa's cultural offerings, the National Gallery of Canada has the world's largest collection of Canadian art, as well as works by First Nations, American and European artists. Across the Ottawa River in Quebec, you'll find the city's francophone neighbor Gatineau (formerly known as Hull). The Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau has a wide range of cultural exhibits and is an architectural masterpiece worth a side trip. The imposing totem poles in its Grand Hall are a highlight.

Nightlife

The once-stuffy Canadian capital now has a lively nightlife. Options increase in summer, when sidewalk cafes and bistros in the trendy ByWard Market and Elgin Street districts fill up with locals and tourists alike. Outdoor summer concerts take place in Major's Hill Park, Confederation Park and Festival Plaza in front of City Hall. In addition to a variety of live-music venues, street performers often provide free shows for passers-by (tips are appreciated).

In winter, you may have to look a little harder for something to do, but a quick gander at the monthly Where magazine or the French Voir weekly will turn up options. Both can be found throughout Ottawa. Gamblers and gourmands can head for the Casino du Lac-Leamy across the river in Gatineau, Quebec. Closing time is 2 am in both Ottawa and the Hull sector of Gatineau (the area closest to downtown Ottawa). Elsewhere in Gatineau—such as the Aylmer sector—closing time is 3 am, as it is in the rest of the province of Quebec.

Dining

Ottawa is the rapidly growing capital of one of the leading multicultural countries in the world. A base for international diplomats, chefs from around the world cater to their cravings for a menu from home. This results in a multitude of dining options in town, ranging from Mediterranean dishes to Sri Lankan cuisine.

For a local treat, try a Beaver Tail—a flat, fried pastry served with sweet or savory condiments. They are sold—along with hot cider—to skaters along the Rideau Canal in winter and from a kiosk on William Street in the ByWard Market throughout the year.

Breakfast is usually eaten between 7 and 10 am, lunchtime runs 11 am-2:30 pm and dinner is 6-10 pm.

Note: Smoking is prohibited in all of Ottawa's restaurants, indoors and on patios, and the rule is strictly enforced.

Expect to pay within these guidelines for a meal for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than Can$10; $$ = Can$10-$25; $$$ = Can$26-$50; $$$$ = more than Can$50.

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