I’m continuing with my blog series where I recap past travels, particularly places within Canada, since I’m trying to focus more on domestic travel for the foreseeable future. Today’s edition is about the city of Ottawa, Ontario, where I lived for two years between moving away from Vancouver, British Columbia and then eventually returning to my home in Toronto.
Ottawa is best known as being a sleepy government town, the capital of Canada. It stands on the south bank of the Ottawa River on the eastern portion of southern Ontario, bordering the city of Gatineau in the province of Quebec. It is a smaller city, with a population of 934,243 in the city centre and just over 1.3 million in the metropolitan area. Obviously, it is primarily known as the quiet political centre of Canada, but if you ever find yourself there for a brief visit, there are a few avenues for you to keep entertained.
Visit Parliament Hill
You can’t visit Ottawa and miss a stop at Parliament Hill, the area of Crown lands where you can find the Gothic revival buildings that serve as home to the Parliament of Canada. Unlike what I’ve heard about visiting the White House and Washington DC, you can walk freely onto the hill’s greens and literally right up to the door of the Canadian Parliament building. Guided tours inside are free of charge, a popular activity for tourists and school groups.
In the summer months from late June to end of August, you can watch the Changing of the Guard ceremony. I inadvertently happened upon this several times as I lived just a 15 minutes walk away. On Canada Day (July 1), there is a huge celebration set up right on the hill, with arguably the best fireworks display nationwide. There is also the Northern Lights sound and light show that is projected onto the building every night in the summer. Of course, this is all cancelled this year because of you know what.
Chill out at Winterlude
If you decide to brave the brutal winter weather and come up in February, you can experience one of Ottawa’s biggest city sponsored events, Winterlude. For just over two weeks every year, the Rideau Canal is transformed into a skateway, the world’s largest naturally frozen skating rink. There are various winter themed activities, ice sculpture carving competitions, and more. I’m getting cold just thinking about it.
Speaking of cold, it gets mind-numbingly chilly out here. I’m sure my Canadian compatriots from places like Manitoba and Saskatchewan would label me as a spoiled sissy, but -30 degrees Celsius for even a couple days in the year is enough to make me straight up miserable. In a strike of extra bad luck, I moved back to Ontario from mild weathered Vancouver precisely on the year when we had a massive ice storm that shut down the power for a good several days. Not fun! 🥶
Check out the arts scene
Although nowhere near as lively as neighbouring megacities Toronto or Montreal, Ottawa does have a bit of an arts scene. It is home of the National Gallery of Canada and the National Arts Centre, both federally sponsored initiatives. The National Gallery has a pretty decent collection, including the controversial Voice of Fire that cost Canadian taxpayers $1.8 million for the gallery to procure. The surrounding area is a nice stroll too; I recommend checking out the nearby ByWard Market for restaurants and shopping. As for the National Arts Centre, I saw a surprisingly funny and entertaining production of Alice Through the Looking-Glass here, via their Pay-What-You-Can performance.
Experience nature nearby
Ottawa is one of those places where you need to head out of the city every so often to truly appreciate the area. The Ottawa River is actually a top destination for white water rafting, which I did not know about until the end of my two years living around there. As a celebratory excursion to cap off our time in Ottawa, a group of friends and I went on a rafting trip with HorizonX, a company based out of Ile du Grand-Calumet in our nearby neighbouring province of Quebec. We opted for the one day package including a full day of rafting along with a BBQ lunch, and had a really fun time. Would recommend.
Cross the bridge and head to Quebec
As mentioned above, Ottawa borders the western edge of Quebec and is connected to the city of Gatineau via the Alexandra Bridge. I don’t think there’s much to see in Gatineau, but a further two hour drive will get you to Montreal, which is definitely worth a visit. We also liked going up north to Chelsea, specifically for the Nordik Spa – a large facility set in the Outaouais on the outskirts of Gatineau Park, offering Scandanavian inspired thermotherapy and relaxation techniques. I suggest doing the spa thing on a fall or winter evening, as sitting in the outdoor thermal pools at night is very atmospheric.
Let’s talk about food
Ottawa is not much of a foodie destination, but there are a few gems if you know where to look. There were a number of spots that I frequented on a regular basis.
El Camino. The best Mexican place in town, with its original location in the lower level of a building on Elgin Street downtown. There is a takeout window open during select hours of the day, where I would get my fix of crispy fish tacos and the most delicious churros ever. They’ve since expanded to a second location in ByWard Market.
The Scone Witch. Also on Elgin Street with a couple other locations around the city, this place makes fresh scones in a range of savoury and sweet flavours. Really, really good jams too. I liked coming here for both dine-in brunch and to pick up a half dozen scones to enjoy at home for the rest of the week.
Kettleman’s Bagel Co. With Montreal so close by, it’s not surprising that their famous bagels would infiltrate Ottawa. Kettleman’s is an Ottawa based company and an institution of sorts, producing their own Montreal-style bagels at three locations in The Glebe, College Square, and Trainyards neighbourhoods. I liked this place even better than the Montreal bagels I had in Montreal, at St-Viateur.
PiliPili Grilled Chicken. I almost forgot to include this place in my original version of this post. That would be sacrilege! This little hole in the wall joint just north of ByWard Market serves the best wood charcoal grilled chicken I’ve ever had. My go-to meal from here was the $7 lunch special which included 1/4 chicken leg on a side of fried plantains. 🤤
Ottawa travel tips
If I had not been accepted into a postgraduate program in Toronto, I may have stayed another couple years to work in Ottawa, but I’m glad I came back to the big city. Ottawa is a tough place to make friends in outside of a structured social network like school, and given that most of the friends I’d made also moved away shortly after we graduated from our program, it would have been hella depressing if I had stayed behind.
I suppose I’m not doing a stellar job of selling this place and Ottawa Tourism won’t be hiring me anytime soon, but Ottawa can indeed be a nice place to visit for a few short days. Although the city has the reputation of being insanely boring most of the time, there are pockets of vibrancy and things to see, especially if you do a bit of searching.
Personally, I think the best time of year to visit is in the late spring and summer months, between May and September. In May there is a beautiful tulip festival and in the warm summer months there are a handful of music festivals and such that draw some crowds. If you’re cold blooded, February is worthwhile for Winterlude as noted above.
The main tourist sites are all clustered together in a small area, so it’s perfectly walkable. The public transit system is okay. The city has actually opened a rapid transit light rail system since I moved away, so venturing further afield may be more accessible now. You can also take the Via Rail train to get to Montreal or Toronto if you’re heading off in those directions.