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 Algonquian, 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.
Since the 1840s, Byward Market (known simply as “The Market” to locals), just east of Sussex Drive and north of Rideau Street, has been a centre for the sale of farm produce, but it’s now also Ottawa’s busiest district, buzzing until the early hours. At its heart, the 1920s Byward Market building (mid-May to mid-Oct daily 6am–6pm; mid-Oct to mid-May daily 8am–5pm; w byward-market.com) is home to cafés and delis, specialist food and fresh fruit and vegetable stalls and these merge with the street stalls and kiosks outside. These stalls and kiosks are something of an Ottawa institution, mainly on account of their poutine (fries covered in gravy and cheese curds), but Beavertails, at the junction of George and William streets, weighs in with its eponymous offering, a flat, deep-fried dough sprinkled with all sorts of sweet toppings.
Along the Rockcliffe Parkway, 5km from downtown, is the huge hangar of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum (aviation.technomuses.ca). Highlights include a replica of the Silver Dart, which made the first powered flight in Canada in 1909; it flew for a full nine minutes, a major achievement for a contraption that seems to be made out of spare parts and old sheets. There are also bombers and fighters from both world wars and later, including a Harrier jet.
A national historic site, the Laurier House (pc.gc.ca), 1km east of the Laurier Bridge, is the former home of prime ministers Sir Wilfred Laurier and William Lyon Mackenzie King. Laurier, Canada’s first French-speaking prime minister, served from 1896 to 1911, while Mackenzie King, his self-proclaimed “spiritual son”, was Canada’s longest serving – from 1921 to 1930 and 1935 to 1948. Notoriously pragmatic, King enveloped his listeners in a fog of words through which his political intentions were barely discernible. The perfect illustration – and his most famous line – was “not necessarily conscription, but conscription if necessary”, supposedly a clarification of his plans at the onset of World War II. Even more famous than his obfuscating rhetoric was his personal eccentricity. His fear that future generations would view him simply as the heir of his grandfather William Lyon Mackenzie – who led the Upper Canada rebellions of the 1830s – eventually led him into spiritualism. He held regular séances to tap the advice of great dead Canadians, including Laurier, who allegedly communicated to him through his pet dog.
King’s possessions dominate the house; look for his crystal ball and a portrait of his obsessively adored mother, in front of which he placed a red rose every day. The house also contains a reconstruction of a study belonging to prime minister Lester B. Pearson, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in resolving the Suez Crisis. Pearson also had a stab at devising a new flag for his country and, although it was rejected, the mock-up he commissioned, with blue stripes at either end to symbolize the oceans, is on display here.
The National Gallery of Canada (gallery.ca) occupies a cleverly conceived building whose acres of glass reflect the turrets and pinnacles of Parliament Hill. The collection was founded in 1880 by the then-governor general, the Marquis of Lorne, who persuaded each member of the Royal Canadian Academy to donate a painting or two. Over the next century artworks were gathered from all over the world, resulting in a permanent collection now numbering more than 25,000 pieces. There’s not enough space for all the paintings to be exhibited at any one time, so although the general layout of the museum stays pretty constant, the individual works mentioned below may not be on display; the gallery also holds world-class temporary exhibitions. The collection spreads over two main levels and free plans are issued at the reception desk; the gallery shop sells guides to both the permanent collection and the exhibitions.
Though firmly incorporated within the Capital Region, GATINEAU (formerly Hull), lying just across the river from Ottawa in the province of Québec, remains quite distinct and predominantly francophone. For years it served mainly as Ottawa’s nightspot as its bars were open two hours longer than those in the capital, but with this alcoholic advantage now gone – and its paper mills relegated to minor importance – Gatineau struggles to compete with its neighbour. It does, however, have one major museum, the Musée Canadien des Civilisations, and it also edges the handsome scenery of Gatineau Park, whose assorted lakes and forested hills cover no less than 360 square kilometres; the park is a prime spot for hiking, mountain biking and cross-country skiing.
Federal funding ensures national holidays – especially Canada Day on July 1 (w canadascapital.gc.ca) – are celebrated in style, while seasonal festivals are as lavish as any in the country. The tourist office has the full calendar of events or check out w ottawafestivals.ca. The selection below is arranged chronologically.
Jan and Feb w canadascapital.gc.ca. A snow-and-ice extravaganza spread over three weekends from late January to mid-February. Concentrated around the frozen Rideau Canal, it includes ice sculptures at Confederation Park – renamed the Crystal Garden for the duration – and snow sculptures around Dows Lake. Other events include speed-skating, bed- and dog-sled races.
Eleven days beginning in early May w tulipfestival.ca. This is the oldest of Ottawa’s festivals. It began in 1945 when the Dutch sent 100,000 tulip bulbs to the city both to honour Canadian soldiers who had liberated the Netherlands and as a thank-you for sheltering Queen Juliana, who had taken refuge in Ottawa during the war. The bulbs are planted around Parliament, along the canal and around Dows Lake, a gigantic splash of colour accompanied by concerts, parades, fireworks and a huge craft show.
Two weeks in late June/early July w ottawajazzfestival.com. One of Ottawa’s most popular festivals, showcasing more than four hundred musicians. The main stage is in Confederation Park with concerts several times daily. In addition, local bands play around Byward Market and at city clubs.
Twelve days in July w ottawabluesfest.ca. This is Canada’s largest festival of blues and gospel with concerts held in various venues, and free shows in Confederation Park.
The exemplary Canadian War Museum (armuseum.ca) is housed in a striking modern building on Lebreton Flats, a somewhat desolate parcel of land beside the Ottawa River about 2km west of Confederation Square. The museum is divided into four main display areas, which work their way through Canada’s military history with accompanying text and quotations. The first gallery, the “Battleground: Wars on Our Soil, earliest times to 1885”, features a good selection of Native Canadian weaponry – tomahawks, muskets and so forth – plus a particularly well-researched section on the War of 1812. However, the museum really gets into its stride when it reaches World War I in the second gallery. There are lots of fascinating photographs, but it’s the incidental detail that impresses most: Canada was keen for its soldiers to use a Canadian rifle, but the end product – the Ross Rifle – often jammed, while the rum ration came in barrels labelled “SRD” (Service Regimental Depot), which the troops re-branded as “Seldom Reaches Destination”. The section on World War II is similarly intriguing and there’s good stuff on the Cold War too – including details of the strange case of the Russian defector Igor Gouzenko, who was so scared of retribution that he was often interviewed with a bag over his head. Finally, the Lebreton Gallery is a large hangar packed with all sorts of military hardware, such as tanks, armoured cars and artillery pieces.
Perched high above the Ottawa River, on the limestone bluff that is Parliament Hill, Canada’s postcard-pretty Parliament Buildings have a distinctly ecclesiastical air, their spires, pointed windows and soaring clock tower amounting to “a stupendous splodge of Victoriana” as travel writer Jan Morris expressed it. Begun in 1859 and seventy years in the making, the complex comprises a trio of sturdy neo-Gothic structures, whose architectural certainties were both a statement of intent for the emergent country and a demonstration of the long reach of the British Empire. The Parliament Buildings were designed to be both imperial and imperious, but they certainly didn’t overawe the original workmen, who urinated on the copper roof to speed up its oxidization.
Two popular events are staged on Parliament Hill: the Changing of the Guard, when the Governor General’s Foot Guards march onto the Hill dressed in full ceremonial uniform of bright-red tunics and bearskin helmets (late June to late Aug daily 10–10.30am); and a free summer-evening sound and light show (early July to mid-Sept), illustrating Canada’s history with alternate French and English performances nightly.
Dominating architectural proceedings on Parliament Hill is Centre Block, home of the Senate and the House of Commons and in fact a replacement for the original building, which was destroyed by fire in 1916. The Peace Tower, rising from the middle of the facade, was added in 1927 as a tribute to Canadians who served in World War I. The tower, which offers fine views over the Ottawa River, holds some superb fan vaulting and a Memorial Chamber complete with a Book of Remembrance. The tower is not part of the guided tour, whose (changeable)itinerary includes a quick gambol round the House of Commons, where the Speaker’s chair is partly made of English oak from Nelson’s flagship Victory, and the red-carpeted Senate, which, with its murals of scenes from World War I, is surmounted by a beautiful gilded ceiling. The debates in both the House of Commons and the Senate are open to the public, who can observe proceedings from the public galleries.
A narrow sliver of water that becomes the world’s longest skating rink in winter, the Rideau Canal runs past the National Arts Centre before it slides down into the Ottawa River via a pretty flight of locks, with Parliament Hill rising on one side, the Fairmont Château Laurier hotel on the other. Beside the foot of the locks is the Bytown Museum (bytownmuseum.com), Ottawa’s oldest building, where military supplies were stored during the construction of the canal. Here, a short film explores the history of the waterway and the difficulties involved in its construction; afterwards you can take a peek at a scattering of bygones from the city’s earliest days. From mid-May to early October, canal boat trips leave from the top of the locks, river trips from the bottom.