Explore Ottawa, Canada
Explore Ottawa the capital of Canada. The city is situated along the Ontario side of the Ottawa River, opposite Gatineau, Quebec. The metropolitan population of Ottawa is 1.4 million and is currently the sixth largest in Canada, and the second largest in Ontario after Toronto.
Unique as a North American capital, the city is bilingual. English is the first language of a majority of the population, but French is the first language of a significant number. Staff in most stores and restaurants speak both well and, in general, bilingualism is common.
Ottawa is home to many of the world’s cultures as thousands of immigrants from around the world now call Ottawa home. The city is probably best known as the nation’s capital but has become one of the fastest growing cities in North America owing to the booming high-tech business sector.
Ottawa started as a humble lumber town, then called Bytown, named after Colonel John By. Colonel By oversaw the construction of the Rideau Canal, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, much of which was done by hand, between 1826 and 1832. Lumber mills were built along the Ottawa River in the mid-nineteenth century and those brought employment and wealth to the growing population. The centre of action then, as now, was the ByWard Market. While it’s still the centre of the city’s nightlife, it has changed appreciably from the rough and tumble early days of brothels and taverns.
Today, the major economic sectors are the public service, travel and tourism and the high-tech industry. Ottawa has proudly remained a green city and is situated at the confluence of three rivers (Ottawa, Rideau and Gatineau) as well as the Rideau canal. Many residents make regular use of Ottawa’s parks and green spaces, bikeways and cross country ski trails. Many national attractions are located in Ottawa: Parliament Hill; the National Library and Archives; the National Gallery; as well as the Museums of Civilization, Contemporary Photography, Nature, War and Science & Technology.
The newly renovated and expanded Macdonald-Cartier International Airport is Ottawa’s main airport with regular arrivals and departures from most major Canadian and many American cities.
Parking at most attractions is convenient, though on-street parking in downtown areas is sometimes at a premium. If you are driving to downtown on the weekend, parking is free in the garage at the World Exchange Plaza. There are entrances to the garage on both Metcalfe Street and Queen Street. On street parking is also generally free during the weekends and is relatively easy to find. A map is useful if you are going to be driving around downtown as many of the streets are one-way and more than one visitor has complained about navigating the downtown core.
Most major car rental companies have several offices in Ottawa with all of them represented downtown and at the airport.
Ottawa is a great city to explore on foot. With pedestrian-friendly streets and the density of attractions, a car is expensive and unnecessary for the most part. An excellent place to start any tour of Ottawa is the Capital Information Kiosk, located at 111 Albert Street in the World Exchange Plaza. They have maps and brochures for most tourist attractions in Ottawa, many of which are within walking distance.
Popular pedestrian areas, especially during spring and summer months, are the various streets in the ByWard Market. Sparks Street, running through downtown parallel to the Parliament Buildings, is a popular pedestrian area during the day and night, particularly in the spring and summer months.
Guided walking tours are available with Ottawa Walking Tours and others such as Around About Ottawa. There is so much to see and do in the Nation’s Capital that a tour guide will maximize a visitor’s time and experience in this beautiful city. All tours include some history as well as other tidbits of trivia not commonly known.
Remember, Ottawa is a city with a truly continental climate. In winter, exposed skin can freeze in minutes or less, so layer up on the clothing and protect yourself by wearing a hat (toque or hunters cap), gloves and boots. Despite being closer to the North Pole than the equator, summer temperature and humidity can be oppressively high, so bring water if you’re doing any amount of walking or cycling. If you are on the public pathways near the canal or the river, there are drinking fountains to refill your bottles. Also, don’t forget the mosquito repellent.
There are usually a few options for renting bicycles downtown, and of course you can always bring your own. Ottawa is very accessible to cyclists. Again, you may want to start immediately opposite Parliament Hill to pick up a map of the area or find a bicycle rental. Cycling to the attractions around downtown Ottawa is a great way to get around, but don’t ignore the Gatineau side of the river. They have several attractions along the river including the Museum of Civilization and if you want to really stretch your legs, Gatineau Park has many great cycling paths.
The city is criss-crossed by over 170km of bicycle paths, some of which are shared with motorists, and some are shared with pedestrians. The city provides Interactive Pathways and Other Maps. In addition, the city closes 50 km of roadways to cars every Sunday during the summer from Victoria Day to Labor Day allowing for cycling, in-line skating and walking on these roadways. The participating roads in Ottawa are: Sir John A MacDonald Parkway (along the Ottawa River), Colonel By Drive (along the Rideau Canal), and Rockcliffe Parkway. The other participating roadways are in Gatineau Park: Gatineau Parkway, Champlain Parkway, and Fortune Lake Parkway.
OC Transpo has bicycle racks on the front of many buses. You can load your bike on the rack and then ride the bus for the normal passenger fare. The O-Train will take bikes as well.
There are many national museums and galleries in Ottawa and neighboring Gatineau. All museums in Ottawa have free admission on Canada Day, July 1, although they are generally very crowded then.
What to do in Ottawa, Canada
Explore the Nation’s Capital as it was meant to be seen-up close and on foot. There are a number of great walking tours to introduce you to the capital area. Ottawa Walking Tours offers historical guided walks of Ottawa’s downtown core with special stops at areas of historical significance. Tours acquaint guests with the history and charm of the city and allow visitors to learn more about Ottawa’s history, architecture, colorful political characters, as well as snap some outstanding photographs. Tours are offered year-round and reservations are required. The Haunted Walk of Ottawa offers tours focusing on Ottawa’s infamous haunts and darker history. Hear tales of hauntings at some of Ottawa’s most well-known locations, including the Fairmont Chateau Laurier, Bytown Museum and the Ottawa Jail Hostel. Cloaked guides lead guests through the city streets by lantern light-the perfect atmosphere for a good ghost story. Tours run year-round, rain or shine. Reservations are strongly recommended.
If you enjoy the outdoors, especially if you are a cyclist, you should definitely visit Gatineau Park just across the river from Ottawa. Bicycles can be rented during the summer months at the northeast corner of the Chateau Laurier. Ottawa and the surrounding area boasts over 170km of public paved trails on which you can run, bike, walk or rollerblade. If you are looking for a place to start, head to the nearest waterway: paved trails line both sides of the Ottawa River, the Rideau Canal, and the Rideau River. The Trans Canada Trail enters Ottawa through the outskirt communities of Carleton Place and Stittsville, then joins up with the Ottawa River at Brittania Bay (near Carling Avenue at Bayshore Drive). It follows the river 13 kilometers east to Parliament Hill, then crosses over to the Quebec side, extending into and beyond Gatineau Park.
In winter, go skating on the largest outdoor skating rink in the world, the Rideau canal. Skates can be rented, and refreshments purchased, from vendors right on the ice. This is also a great place to enjoy a “beaver tail” which is a local specialty – a bit like funnel cake, often enjoyed with lemon and sugar. It is very similar to, fried dough. The city’s trail system serves as an excellent cross-country ski trail system, as do the nearly 200km of groomed ski trails in Gatineau Park. Downhill skiing is available across the river in three near-by sites: Camp Fortune (180 m vertical), Edelweiss (200 m vertical) and Mont Cascades (165 m vertical).
In early spring (typically March), when the daytime temperatures are above freezing and night temperatures are below freezing, consider visiting a sugarbush for fresh maple syrup. There are many to choose from in the region if you have a car to drive out of the city.
Being located right on the provincial border, daytrips to neighboring Québec can be made easily.
Gatineau – Right across the Ottawa river. World-class Canadian Museum of Civilization is worth a visit. The nightlife in the Old Hull neighborhood is often considered superior to Ottawa’s; with a handful of loud clubs but also a decent offering of artistic cafés with good local live music.
Wakefield – Picturesque artist town on the side of the Gatineau river. Rich with cultural offerings and beautiful natural surroundings (especially in autumn).
Aventure Laflèche. A superb destination for those interested in outdoor activities in the Gatineau Hills year round. A community-owned non-profit company that offers beautiful nature trails, tours of the historical Laflèche caves, and the province’s largest aerial park for the adventurous (includes several ziplines). Calling ahead for reservations is highly recommended.
Eco-Odyssée. Another great option for nature lovers close to Wakefield. A water maze that’s great for learning about the local marsh environments.
Great Canadian Bungee is for the adventurous-inclined.
Jazz and Blues lovers can find what they are looking for in these Ottawa music calendars.
Ottawa is host to over 60 festivals and events per year, including:
Ottawa Jazz Festival in summer.
Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival in summer, one of the largest in the world
Bluesfest, also in summer: The largest blues festival in Canada, and featuring as well rock, pop and world music. Many visitors come to Ottawa from Atlantic Canada and New England specifically for Bluesfest.
The Fringe Festival, another summer offering.
Winterlude, winter fun featuring ice carving and snow sculptures
The Tulip Festival, a spring bonanza of flowering bulbs, given annually by the Dutch government, as well as a concert series featuring well-known Canadian rock and other popular music groups.
Ferrari Festival in June, on Preston Street.
Canada Day, celebrate Canada’s birthday in Ottawa on July 1st.
Ottawa has lots of live theatre entertainment. That includes at the National Arts Centre (English and French), the Great Canadian Theatre Company, the Ottawa Little Theatre, and Tara Players (Irish theatre).
The National Arts Centre also provides a major venue for Dance and Orchestral performance.
Pirate Adventurs, 588 hog’s back road. June-Oct. Join the swashbuckling crew of Pirate Adventures for an unforgettable interactive theatre and cruise along the Rideau Canal at Mooney’s Bay. Pirate costumes, face paint and new pirate names for all as the captain and his crew hunt for sunken treasure whilst fending of mischievous pirates! Fun for the whole family.
What to buy
The ByWard Market area of downtown Ottawa, located east of the Rideau Canal and the Chateau Laurier, is the area’s most popular shopping district. In summer, stalls selling fresh produce and flowers line the streets, but even in the middle of winter there are some hardy vendors braving the cold — and maple syrup bought here costs half the price of souvenir shops elsewhere in the city. In the evening, the market shuts down and the area’s restaurants, pubs and bars take over as the primary attraction, alongside many street performers.
Sparks Street is a pleasant pedestrian street one block off Parliament Hill and a common tourist thoroughfare for seeing the sights. Along this street you’ll find the majority of the tourist shops selling postcards, magnets, and maple syrup. The Astrolabe Gallery, located on this street, is a treasure trove of antique maps as well as vintage posters. There are several outdoor cafes and restaurants to choose from also.
Westboro Village. In recent years a stretch along Richmond Road in the “near west” of Ottawa from Golden Avenue east to Tweedsmuir Avenue has become a popular tourism and shopping zone, and includes several outdoor stores (clothing and equipment), restaurants and coffee shops.
The last Saturday in May, Ottawa’s Glebe neighborhood hosts the annual Great Glebe Garage Sale. Hundreds of resident’s set-up tables in their garages or on their lawns and sell used goods ranging from household knick-knacks to electronics to clothing. Businesses in the area also hold sidewalk sales, and vendors sell artwork, baking, and refreshments. Driving and parking during the sale is unnecessary and nearly impossible. Arrive on foot or park and walk into the neighborhood. For parking, and for the best deals (especially on larger items like furniture), arrive early. The event is bustling by 8 AM but continues well into the afternoon. Vendors are encouraged to donate a portion of their proceeds to the Ottawa Food Bank.
What to eat
Ethnic foods from around the world are available at a wide variety of restaurants and street vendors throughout the city. The ByWard Market area has a wide selection of different cuisines; the Chinatown area is along Somerset Ave. between Bronson Ave. and Preston St; Little Italy runs along the length of Preston Street, from Carling Avenue to Albert Street.
Also try the tasty BeaverTail, a doughy, deep-fried pastry associated with Ottawa, although a number of places claim to have created it. It’s available in sweet and savory versions, topped with cinnamon, sugar, icing sugar, etc. In the winter, many places will offer it on the canal. There are a variety of toppings and the taste of the beaver tail arguably stands out more with the classic sugar & cinnamon. However, the locals’ favorite is the Killaloe Sunrise, a topping of cinnamon sugar and lemon juice.
Coffee Shops are found throughout the city.
For the best non-Canadian eats, head down Somerset Street West near Bronson to the heart of Chinatown. Here you have a choice of places for Vietnamese, Thai, Cantonese, etc. Another good source for ethnic foods is the stretch on Rideau between King Edward and the bridge to Vanier. You can find Middle Eastern, African and Asian food there.
Ottawa probably has more shawarma and falafel restaurants than any other place on Earth (outside of the Arab World, of course) and most of them will serve up a great shawarma for around $5. Their busy times are typically weekdays at lunch-hour, and on weekends after the bars close. The Market and Elgin St. both have many restaurants and pubs to choose from. The usual range of diners, bagel shops and fast food restaurants can be found in shopping areas throughout the city.
You will also find “chip wagons” or “chip trucks” parked in various locations around the city at lunch time. They serve hamburgers, hot dogs, sausages, pogos (deep fried, breaded hot dogs on a stick), chips (french fries) and poutine (french fries covered with cheddar cheese curd and gravy – very popular in Quebec and eastern Ontario). In the summer month, upscale food trucks make an appearance as well, following the craze in other North American cities.
What to drink
The most popular bar areas are in the ByWard Market, along Wellington Avenue in Westboro and along both Elgin Street and Bank Street between Somerset and Gladstone in the Centretown area. There are pubs and bars scattered throughout the city as well.
You can also take a small trip over the Ottawa river to Gatineau. Bars on Ottawa side close at 2:00 AM, though the province of Québec has a last call of 3:00 AM, an exception is made in Gatineau where bars also close at 2:00 AM.
Note that smoking is not permitted in Ontario or Quebec restaurants and bars. A new bylaw, which came in force in 2012, also bans smoking on the patios of bars in Ottawa.
Since the mid-1990’s there has been an explosion in Irish-/British-style pubs across the city.
The area codes for Ottawa are 613 and the overlay code 343. Ten-digit dialing (area code+local number) is required for all local calls.
Ottawa is a very safe place to live and visit, so if you use common sense it is at least as safe as any other city. There are many tourists in the city, especially in summer months, and there are very few incidents of robbery or assault.
Use common sense, especially when riding at night, every transit station has multiple emergency call boxes. After dark, take extra care in areas near downtown such as Lowertown, and also Hintonburg, Vanier, Bayshore, Ledbury, Heatherington, Caldwell and South Keys. These neighborhoods are known to have gang presence, and drug problems. Ottawa is generally very safe, but like any other city it has bad apples.
Also, Ottawa has a notoriously bad homeless problem, especially around the Rideau Street area. Panhandlers are often quite polite and not at all aggressive.
Day trips from Ottawa
Just across the river from Ottawa is Gatineau, which has the stunning Canadian Museum of Civilization and some mighty good restaurants too. There is a scenic national park of the same name just to the north-west, with high cliffs and deep, clear lakes. In this area lies:
Wakefield, 30-45 min by car north of Ottawa, a picturesque village on the Gatineau River in the Gatineau Hills. It is on the Quebec side of the river but is predominantly English-speaking.
To the south-east of Ottawa is a large flat rural area consisting mostly of small commuter towns, agricultural villages, and the occasional woodland. This lowland is sprawled over eight counties and stretches all the way to
and the United States border, hundreds of kilometers away. In this agricultural hinterland lies:
Merrickville, 45 min by car south of Ottawa, claims to be Canada’s prettiest village.
Perth, 1 hour south, a very scenic town with mills, and heritage buildings.
Carp, a tiny village 10 km north of Ottawa, houses the surreal Cold War “Central Emergency Government Headquarters” (Diefenbunker), now a museum.
To the west of Ottawa lies more rugged terrain. The Madawaska Highlands, which start about 90km to the northwest, is a sparsely inhabited wilderness area composed of miles upon miles of lakes and forests. In this area lies:
Greater Madawaska, the Calabogie Ski resort about 1 1/2 hour west of Ottawa.
To the north of Ottawa lies Renfrew County, the heart of what is know colloquially as the Ottawa Valley. Though Ottawa lies geologically in the Ottawa Valley, as a colloquial term it is used to refer to the cultural region to the north of Ottawa.
Toronto, Canada’s largest city, is about 500km to the southwest.
Kingston, about 200km to the southwest, on the way to Toronto. An old city composed of limestone buildings and home to Queen’s University, one of Canada‘s most prestigious universities.