Move over Toronto and Montréal: there's a quiet revolution happening in Ottawa. Not so long ago, the city was lambasted as the dullest place in Canada, dubbed the "town that fun forgot" by a sniping journalist half a century ago. The label stuck like glue, but nowadays the perception of the capital of Canada has changed and it's brimming with things to do. Green, youthful and increasingly dynamic, with a burgeoning culinary scene and vibrant roster of festivals, the Canadian capital has outgrown its reputation as a stodgy government town. Here's our guide to the top things to do in Ottawa.
Why should I go now?
After a massive party in 2017 for Canada's 150th anniversary celebrations, with giant dragons roaming the streets and three-course dinners 150 feet off the ground, you'd forgive Ottawa for taking a breather in 2018. Truth is there's never been a better time to go.
Legacy projects from Canada 150 are now coming to fruition, with the opening of the new Ottawa Art Gallery in April, a series of magnificent redevelopments to the city's showcase museums, from the National Gallery to the Canada Science and Technology Museum, and the transformation of the outstanding National Arts Centre into a gorgeous, light-filled space far from the Brutalist slab of yesteryear.
Meanwhile, November sees the launch of the first phase of Ottawa's long-awaited light rail system, set to open up some of the city's cooler neighbourhoods to tourists and locals alike.
What sights shouldn't I miss?
One of Ottawa's joys is its friendly, human scale, with many of its major sights easily walkable from each other strung out along the majestic Ottawa River.
Across the water in Gatineau, Ottawa's French-speaking sister city, the inspirational Canadian Museum of History is the ideal place to start. Packed with treasures, the museum relates Canada's story giving voice to all of its cultures, including those historically ignored. This is evident in its design: check out the arresting entranceway to its public wing, reminiscent of an indigenous mask, and the monumental Grand Hall, with the canoe-shaped ceiling and paddle-like columns. Unveiled in 2017, the state-of-the-art Canadian History Hall energetically trots through 15,000 years of history right up to contemporary issues such as the Québec question and the fight for LGBT rights.
Gatineau's riverfront is also a peerless vantage point from which to look back across the lofty Gothic pinnacles of Canada's parliament buildings, perched majestically atop forested Parliament Hill.
Imaginatively revamped in 2017, integrating indigenous artefacts with Western art to tell a chronological story, the National Gallery is a blissful space for art lovers, with galleries interspersed with light-filled atria and water features inviting calm contemplation. Look out for the bold, intense works by the pioneering Group of Seven, who gave Canadian painting a distinctive style, and don't miss the exquisite Gothic Revival Rideau Chapel, saved from the bulldozers in the 1970s and re-created here.
Although the city's world-class museums could keep you occupied for days, with acres of green space, water everywhere and over 800km of bike paths across the region, Ottawa life is at least as much about the great outdoors. In winter, when temperatures plummet well below freezing and snow blankets the ground for up to four months, hardy Ottawans don their skates to glide across the frozen surface of the Rideau Canal, the world's largest ice rink and focal point of the annual Winterlude festival. Summertime can be equally ferocious: search out an icy cool, secluded swimming spot on the Gatineau River or hike to one of the idyllic lakes in Gatineau Park, and chances are you'll share it only with the wildlife.
Where should I eat?
Smack in the heart of downtown, the buzzing ByWard Market area is the hub of Ottawa's rejuvenated food scene, choc-a-block with market stalls selling local farm produce, from cheese to veg and top-notch maple syrup. Book in for a gourmet food tour with C'est Bon for a ten-stop epicurean odyssey through its highlights, and bring an appetite – samples are generous.
The renovated 19th-century market building is an excellent hunting ground for lunch on the hop – Corazon De Maiz's authentic Mexican street food and Shafali Bazaar's naan wraps are local favourites – while Play Food & Wine garners rave reviews for its innovative, chef-driven small plates menu, paired with wines from Canada and beyond, and caters well to veggies and vegans, too.
For Ottawa's hottest dining destinations, though, you'll need to venture beyond the downtown core. The chilled, villagey enclave of Hintonburg is one of the city's most enchanting neighbourhoods, where indy retro stores rub shoulders with hipster coffee joints, vegan delis, artisanal bakeries and the obligatory cat café along the commercial strip of Wellington Street West.
Hub of the community is the snug Wellington Gastropub, a smart but laidback pub-bistro, while top choices for a splurge include Supply and Demand, combining a raw oyster bar with handmade pasta and farm-to-table, veggie-oriented small plates; and upscale Stofa, which has fast shot to local fame for its eclectic and sophisticated flavours, drawing influences from across the globe.
Where can I find the best nightlife?
Ottawa's oldest dive bar, Château Lafayette, lives up to its nickname – The Laff – packing in a lively, unpretentious crowd for its music sessions and legendary poutine. Don't miss Lucky Ron's rip-roaring Saturday afternoon slot, which will banish any lingering doubts about Ottawans' capacity to let go.
Tucked away behind net curtains – look for the unobtrusive "bar" sign – Chez Lucien is a ByWard gem: a laidback Montréal-style bar with a weathered wooden counter, beers from half a dozen Ottawa and Québec breweries on tap and a kitchen dishing out the city's tastiest burgers. Nearby, it's always worth catching a set at the bohemian Rainbow Bistro, a long-established blues club largely bypassed by tourists.
For a sunset cocktail, the rooftop Copper Spirits & Sights bar at the swish new Andaz Hyatt hotel has fast become one of the city's favourite vantage points, with epic views across the market towards Gatineau and Parliament Hill. Ottawa's craft bar and natural wine scenes, meanwhile, are blossoming: tap into both with a tasting session at Wellington West's superb Bar Lupulus, whose genial owners are a fount of knowledge on the strip's latest hotspots.
Where should I stay?
Though Ottawa has seen a rash of hotel construction in recent years, the glorious Fairmont Château Laurier – its original grande-dame – still outclasses all its upstart rivals. A grand Gothic fantasy of fairytale turrets and steepling spires, it feels like it could have been transplanted from a verdant Loire Valley hillside – and with public areas graced by gleaming marble floors, stained-glass windows and extravagant chandeliers, the interior doesn't disappoint either (they're supposedly off-limits but have a snoop through its endless ornate salons and ballrooms to fulfill your Gentleman in Moscow fantasies). For all its luxury, though, the ambience is typically relaxed and welcoming – this is Canada, after all – and rooms can be a comparative bargain.
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For a more intimate atmosphere, book in at The Century House, an elegant red-brick mansion tucked down a quiet, leafy side street just a few minutes' walk from the ByWard Market. There's plenty of style here, too, with immaculately polished hardwood floors and a convivial drawing room scattered with antiques, and owner Vittorio's lavish breakfast spreads, served at the communal dining table, are fabulous.
Ever wondered what it's like to spend a night in solitary at Her Majesty's pleasure? Ottawa's imposing HI Jail Hostel, converted from the former Carleton County Gaol, is the place to find out. Minimally modernised, the cramped, windowless cells are not for the claustrophobic or easily spooked, and you can even walk Death Row to the still-working gallows. Luckily, they'll let you out when they hear your screams…
Ed flew to Ottawa with Air Canada, who offer a direct, nonstop service between London Heathrow and Ottawa Airport from around £560 return inclusive of taxes, and stayed at the Fairmont Château Laurier (rooms from £149 per night). For more information see keepexploring.ca and ottawatourism.ca.
Top image: © Facto Photo / Shutterstock