Canada’s national capital doesn’t get the travel attention that its flashier cousins, Toronto and Montreal, receive. But Ottawa, a mid-sized city on the border between Ontario and Quebec, has a lot more to offer visitors than just the chance to rub elbows with politicians and bureaucrats. In Ottawa you can see Canadian tax dollars at work–funding a brace of high-quality museums, galleries and festivals, public transit to reach them all, and possibly the best network of designated cycle paths and bike lanes on the continent. The capital is also, thanks to its small size and relatively isolated location, a lot closer to nature than most major cities. Ever loaded your snowshoes onto a city bus, hopped off outside a nature preserve, and headed off-trail for the afternoon? No? Welcome to Ottawa, the city where your urban-outdoor travel dreams can come true.
Ottawa’s international airport has direct flights to a few major US cities as well as to London – otherwise, expect to connect through Toronto or Montreal. Amtrak connects with the Canadian rail network (Via Rail) in Toronto and Montreal as well, so you can change to an Ottawa-bound train in either city. The nearest border crossings are at Brockville and Cornwall, roughly an hour west and east of town, respectively.
The outdoorsy type is faced with an embarrassment of riches in Ottawa, all year round. The main hubs of activity are Gatineau Park, The Greenbelt, the Ottawa River and the Rideau Canal.
Gatineau Park is a 361-square kilometer preservation area, managed by the NCC and hovering on the edges of Gatineau, Ottawa’s conjoined-twin city on the Quebec side of the river. In summer it’s home to hiking, mountain biking and camping (not to mention some major National Historic Sites, a handful of amazing lookouts, and some unique, fragile flora and geology as well), but it’s in winter that it really shows off, with 10km of maintained winter hiking trails, 20km of snowshoeing trails, and 200km of groomed cross-country skiing trails available for public use. There are also winter camping sites and a selection of winterized cabins and yurts for rent within the park. Equipment rentals are available at the visitors centre; the ski trails will cost you (about ten bucks for a day), but the snowshoeing and hiking trails are free. There’s also a private downhill skiing facility, Camp Fortune, located within the park.
The Greenbelt is a 20,000 hectare preserved green space located in what used to be the western edge of the city, though now the suburbs extend well beyond it. It’s either a stroke of eco-genius or an urban planning nightmare, depending on who you ask, but either way it offers hiking, cycling, snowshoeing, toboganning, and cross-country skiing, all free to the public and all within the boundaries of the city. There’s also camping within the park at the Ottawa Municipal Campground (May to October only).
The Ottawa River and the Rideau Canal are both lined on either bank by designated bike paths (rollerbladers, joggers, and pedestrians also welcome), connecting to a larger network of pathways and reserved bike lanes throughout the city. Most of the big sights – Parliament Buildings, the Supreme Court, the National Gallery, and so on – are visible from the river and the north end of the canal, and a ride along either is the perfect way to see the city. Bikes can be rented in summer at RentABike, at the intersection of Rideau Street and Colonel By (where the canal meets the river), and at the Dows Lake Pavilion, on the southern end of the canal.
As for getting out on the water, the Dows Lake Pavilion offers canoe and paddleboat rentals in summer for use on the canal. The Ottawa River is a trickier proposition since there’s been substantial hydro-electric development along almost its entire length, including a major dam within sight of the Parliament Buildings. But if you have the means to get right out of town (read: a car) there is some serious whitewater action to be had on the river about an hour west of the city. Wilderness Tours has been a major player in keeping this last stretch of “unharnessed” water preserved, and they offer rafting, kayaking, and other adventure fare like bungee jumping.
And of course, if you can make it to Ottawa in January or February, no visit is complete without a skate on the frozen Rideau Canal, the world’s longest skating rink and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Skate rentals are available at NCC shacks at regular intervals along the canal’s 7km length. Ottawa’s Winterlude festival takes place on the first three weekends in February, with ice sculpting, skating shows, concerts and more.
ARTS AND CULTURE
Art-lovers should start at the National Gallery of Canada, which features big-name traveling exhibitions as well as a permanent collection of Canadian and Aboriginal artwork. The gallery is located above the river, just behind Parliament hill; nearby, below the Chateau Laurier Hotel, is the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography (temporarily closed for construction at the time of writing). Just across the bridge in Gatineau is the Canadian Museum of Civilization, a must-see if you’re at all interested in Aboriginal culture and history. The museum also has an IMAX movie theater and features traveling exhibits, usually on major archaeological finds from other cultures. The National Arts Centre, at the intersection of Elgin and Wellington Streets, across from the Chateau Laurier, is home to an orchestra, a variety of theatre productions in English and French, concerts, dance, and more. Just west of downtown, overlooking the river, is the recently-opened Canadian War Museum, a wonderfully thoughtful look at just over one hundred years of Canadian military history. The museum manages to combine respect for Canada’s veterans with a serious consideration of war and its impact on servicemen and civilians alike; there is a lot more than dusty old medals to see here. A little further west again, on Wellington Street, you’ll find the Great Canadian Theatre Company (GCTC) which has just moved into a spankin’ new space in the bottom of a high-rise of “luxury eco-condos” – whatever that means.
Summer means outdoor festivals, and lots of them. July 1 is Canada Day, when the city loosens its collective necktie and throws a red-and-white maple leaf street party in the downtown core. The next three weeks of July belong to Bluesfest – believe it or not, the second-largest blues festival in North America, after Chicago. Headliners tend to come from a range of musical backgrounds (this past summer I saw Bob Dylan, The White Stripes, Van Morrison, George Clinton and Manu Chao within days of each other) while the smaller stages feature more authentic blues acts from around the world. In August the Ottawa Folk Festival and the Ottawa Jazz Festival hit town – the jazz fest has in recent years attracted names like Branford and Wynton Marsalis, Sonny Rollins, and Diana Krall.
Famed explorer Samuel de Champlain was one of the first Europeans to lay eyes on the stretch of river that now runs through the nation’s capital – he called it la grande riviere des algoumequins, after the Algonquin people who lived on its shores and traveled up and down its length. Today, Aboriginal Experiences offers a taste of that heritage, with a variety of packages aimed at showcasing native storytelling, crafts, food, song and dance. The events take place from June to September on Victoria Island, easily accessible from the Portage Bridge just west of downtown.
Local coffee chain Bridgehead is the place to go for fair-trade lattes, free wi-fi, fresh soups and sandwiches (try the spicy thai tofu!), and a good range of herbal and caffeinated loose-leaf teas. There are locations scattered around the city, including one at Bank and Albert near the Parliament buildings, one near the GCTC on Wellington (west of downtown) and one on Elgin Street, south of the National War Monument and not far from the canal.
For self-serve, pay-by-weight vegetarian buffets, try The Table (across from the GCTC on Wellington) or The Green Door (on Main Street, near the Pretoria Bridge over the canal). Both serve a mix of Asian fusion and veggie takes on old comfort food favorites like lasagna or ratatouille – think Moosewood Cookbook. They make an effort to use local and/or organic produce, and have at least some vegan options every day.
The Byward Market isn’t just for bar-hoppers and buskers – there really is a market here too, though it’s more touristy than your average farmer’s market. For less maple candy and more fresh produce, try the Parkdale Market, on Parkdale near Wellington (again, near the GCTC just west of downtown), open every day of the week from May to November. Herb and Spice is a local grocery chain emphasizing organic options and locally-produced foods – not just fresh produce but prepared meals from local caterers, baked goods from small-scale bakeries, and so on. There’s a location downtown on Bank near Somerset, and another – you guessed it – on Wellington near the GCTC.
Ottawa’s hotel scene is primarily geared towards the government conference/convention scene, but that does mean some serious deals are sometimes available on weekends. There are two hostels right in the heart of downtown, the Ottawa Backpackers Inn and the Ottawa Jail Hostel, eerily located in the old Carleton County Jail, and there are also a number of Couchsurfing hosts based in the city. (I know of at least one who’d be happy to have you!)
The city’s public transit – much as Ottawans love to complain about it – is really pretty good. There is one light rail link in addition to a large fleet of buses. Ottawa’s OCTranspo connects with Gatineau’s STO at the Rideau Centre, in the heart of downtown. There are regular, fast connections to the airport and the train station. Also, most Ottawa city buses are now outfitted for “rack and roll”, meaning that you can cycle around downtown and then load your bike onto the front of the bus and ride out to the Greenbelt for some more pedaling.