Ottawa: it’s a city of history, nature and art; a place of welcoming people, great food, and long stories. Here are several ways to enjoy exploring Ottawa.
Ottawa is the capitol of Canada. The Parliament buildings are impressive, the grounds extensive, and there’s lots of art and history, as well as governance, to explore inside.
The House of Commons building, as with the Centre Block and the iconic Peace Tower (that’s the part with the clock), are in Victorian High Gothic style. The Centre Block is under refurbishment at this writing, which means the Senate meets in an an equally historic building, which was the Ottawa train station just after the turn of the twentieth century.
They each are well worth visiting, whether Parliament is in session or not, as there is much art to see and history to explore.
If you choose not to go inside (admission to each building is by tour only, book ahead; there’s no cost), looking out for the gargoyles and and bosses outside and checking out the many statues on the grounds is worthwhile and fun. In summer, you may see changing of the guard ceremonies, and at night, light shows focused on the history of Canada. At any season, you will hear the bells of of the carillon from the Peace Tower, chiming the hours and for concerts. Also at any season, but especially in winter, find a few moments for the Centennial Flame.
Art, history, and gold
Ottawa is a city of museums, on subjects ranging from military stories to space exploration to agriculture. Three of my favourites are
The National Gallery of Canada, which has a deep focus on the art of Canada, whether that is nineteenth century landscape paintings, Inuit art from the far north, or the work of contemporary photographers, along with works that illustrate European and other influences on Canadian artists.
You’ll not miss the Gallery because of the sculpture (its name is Maman) which sits outside. While inside, make time for the work of the Group of Seven painters, who really deserve a story all their own, perhaps in a future post.
Royal Canadian Mint: time was when all of Canada’s coins were minted in Ottawa. That’s done in Winnipeg now. The historic mint in Ottawa handles the making of handcrafted commemorative coins, medals, and special issues, as well as making the dies for all of Canada’s coins. It also handles Canada’s gold. You can see all this through a tour (there’s a small charge; check the website for the best times to see all the processes) and you can see many historic and artful designs in the mint’s shop also.
The National Gallery and the Mint are both in walking distance to Parliament Hill. So is the Canadian Museum of History, but you will be crossing the bridge across the Ottawa River to visit, and you will be in the town of Gatineau in the province of Quebec (Ottawa is in Ontario). This museum is a massive place, one where you will really want to focus on one or two areas of interest and then make a plan for return visits. There’s a children’s museum, a movie theatre, and other places to explore. I especially like the Canadian History Hall, but every area is well worth your time, as are the regularly changing special exhibitions. The unique design of the museum’s exterior is meant to recall the landscape before humans arrived. From the front of the buildings there are great views of Ottawa back across the river, too.
Two ways to get close to nature
While you are still in Gatineau, take time to visit Gatineau Park. It’s a fine place to explore at any season, but especially lovely in autumn as the leaves change. The park is rich in many aspects of nature and has several historic sites. It has nature trails to challenge the experienced hiker as well as ones accessible to those whose mobility is limited.
Back across the river, you will want to explore the Rideau Canal. A UNESCO World Heritage site, the canal first opened in 1832 and runs from Ottawa to the Saint Lawrence River and Lake Ontario at Kingston, for a distance of 126 miles. The banks of portion you will find in central Ottawa are fine for biking, walking, running, and watching boats navigate the locks, but when it really comes into its own is in winter, when a section of the canal freezes over and becomes a well loved place for ice skating.
A beavertail, a witch, a market, a brewpub
After you’ve been to the ice skating is a great time to try a classic Ottawa pastry, the beavertail.
You can enjoy these flat pieces of fried dough, crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, in other places and at other times of year. The story goes though that the treat was invented as a fair food one year at nearby Killaloe, and really came into its own as stands were set up in winter right by the frozen part of Rideau Canal. The original topping is sugar, which you can cut with a squeeze of lemon for added taste. You will also find beavertails offered with all sorts of icings, fruit (think apple pie filling), and other toppings.
Another thing you will want to eat in Ottawa is a scone. Though certainly not unique to the city, they know how to do them. Scones can be sweet or savory. A place I like for this is The Scone Witch, where you’ll find scones with jam and butter, as bread for sandwiches, and open faced covered with mushroom ragout, chicken in wine sauce, and other preparations.
The Byward Market is a place to explore to have a meal, for food to take away, for souvenirs, for crafts, and for lively ambiance. One of Canada’s oldest farmers’ markets, it came into being to serve workers building the Rideau Canal, and dates back to 1826. The streets near the market, which is near Parliament Hill, are filled with food experiences to explore too, from high end to casual.
If craft beer is your interest you’ll find much to enjoy in Ottawa.
One good place is Mill Street Brewery, which has has beer drinkers and non-drinkers, carnivores and vegans too, covered in its menu, and produces organic beers as well. Mill Street is located in a 177 year old former grist mill on the banks of the Ottawa River and offers tours of its brewery.
Two places to get quiet
If you’ve experienced even a small part of all these ideas, you may want a place to reflect. In the Parliament Hill area I can suggest two: Notre Dame Cathedral, which dates back to the 1840s, and Major’s Hill Park, which was first established as a park in 1826. Notre Dame is an active parish and Major’s Hill is a site for events, especially in summer. Nonetheless, they both often offer space and time for a spot of quiet in the midst of Ottawa.
As you reflect, you will perhaps find several of these places and experiences calling for return visits, and suggesting thoughts of many other things you may wish to discover in Ottawa.
Photograph of Rideau Canal Skateway at night courtesy of Ottawa Tourism. Photograph of scones and jam courtesy of The Scone Witch. Photograph of the exterior of Parliament buildings courtesy of Luis Valiente.
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