Proud of its capital status, OTTAWA is a lively cosmopolitan city of around one million inhabitants, whose attractions include a clutch of outstanding national museums, a pleasant riverside setting and superb cultural facilities like the National Arts Centre. Throw in acres of parks and gardens, miles of bicycle and jogging paths – many of them along the Ottawa River – lots of good hotels and B&Bs and a busy café-bar and restaurant scene and you have enough to keep the most diligent sightseer going for a day or three, maybe more. It’s also here that Canada’s bilingual laws really make sense: French-speaking Gatineau, just across the river in Québec, is commonly lumped together with Ontario’s Ottawa as the “Capital Region”, and on the streets of Ottawa you’ll hear as much French as English.
Almost all of Ottawa’s major sights are clustered on or near the south bank of the Ottawa River to either side of the Rideau Canal. It’s here you’ll find the monumental Victorian architecture of Parliament Hill, the outstanding art collection of the National Gallery and the Byward Market, the hub of the restaurant and bar scene. Many visitors only cover these, but there are a clutch of other attractions, most memorably the fascinating Canadian War Museum, housed in a striking building a couple of kilometres to the west of the centre, and Laurier House, packed with the possessions of the former prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and located 1.5km southeast of downtown. There are also some minor attractions to the east of the centre, on the far side of the Rideau River, principally the governor-general’s mansion, Rideau Hall, and the Canada Aviation Museum.
The one-time hunting ground of the Algonkian-speaking Outaouais, Ottawa received its first recorded European visitor in 1613 in the shape of Samuel de Champlain. The French explorer pitched up, paused to watch his aboriginal guides make offerings of tobacco to the misty falls (which now lie submerged beneath the river), and then took off in search of more appealing pastures. Later, the Ottawa River became a major transportation route, but the Ottawa area remained no more than a camping spot until 1800, when Philemon Wright snowshoed up here along the frozen Ottawa River from Massachusetts. Wright founded a small settlement, which he called Wrightstown and subsequently Hull (now Gatineau) after his parents’ birthplace in England. Hull flourished but nothing much happened on the other (Ottawa) side of the river until 1826, when the completion of the Rideau Canal linked the site of present-day Ottawa to Kingston and the St Lawrence River. The canal builders were under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel John By and it was he who gave his name to the new settlement, Bytown, which soon became a hard-edged lumber town characterized by drunken brawls and broken bones.
In 1855 Bytown re-christened itself Ottawa in a bid to become the capital of the Province of Canada, hoping a change of name would relieve the town of its tawdry reputation. As part of their pitch, the community stressed the town’s location on the border of Upper and Lower Canada and its industrial prosperity. Queen Victoria granted their request in 1857, though this had little to do with their efforts and much more to do with her artistic tastes: the Queen had been looking at some romantic landscape paintings of the Ottawa area and decided this was the perfect spot for a new capital. Few approved: Montréal and Toronto smarted at their rebuff and Canada’s politicians fumed at the inconvenience – former prime minister Sir Wilfred Laurier found it “hard to say anything good” about the place.
Give or take some federal buildings – including the splendid trio of neo-Gothic buildings that make up today’s Parliament – Ottawa remained a workaday town until the late 1940s, when the Paris city planner Jacques Greber was commissioned to beautify the city with a profusion of parks, wide avenues and tree-lined pathways. The scheme transformed the city, defining much of its current appearance, and today Greber’s green and open spaces confine a city centre that is, at least for the most part, a fetching mix of Victorian architecture and modern concrete-and-glass office blocks.