From the Canadian Tulip Festival to Winterlude to the Museum of Civilization, a city once considered the quintessential government town has recast itself, along with neighbouring, French-speaking Hull, Quebec, as a vibrant, multicultural community.
By the numbers
Population: 934,200 (city); 1,323,800 (metropolitan)
Elevation: 70 meters / 230 feet
Time Zone: GMT -5 (GMT -4 Daylight Saving Time); Eastern Standard Time (EST)
Average Annual Precipitation: 86 centimeters / 34 inches
Average Annual Snowfall: 224 centimeters / 88 inches
Average January Temperature: -10°C / 14°F
Average July Temperature: 22°C / 72°F
Did you know?
Queen Victoria designated Ottawa as Canada’s capital in 1857.
Once known as “Bytown” this lively city is now home to events such as the annual Tulip Festival.
Ottawa is one of Canada’s largest cities and lies between the Ottawa River, the Rideau River, and the Rideau Canal.
As capital cities go, Ottawa is arguably one of the most visitor-friendly in the world; small enough so that everything worth seeing is only a brisk walk or an inexpensive cab ride away, yet vast enough to encompass a little something of everything to cater to just about every interest.
As Ottawa has grown, so has its cultural diversity. There are many theatre companies including the Great Canadian Theatre Company and Ottawa Little Theatre. Ottawa is also home to the National Gallery of Canada and the National Arts Centre, not to mention the Canadian Museum of Nature, the Canada Science and Technology Museum, and the Canadian Museum of Civilization which is located across the Ottawa River in Hull.
Downtown and Centretown
While Ottawa’s downtown core is home to many of the city’s major attractions, including Parliament Hill and the National Gallery of Canada, it is a vibrant community unto itself with a large residential element and several shopping centres including the pedestrian Sparks Street Mall and the Rideau Shopping Centre.
One can also find several fine restaurants in the downtown core including C’est Japon à Suisha and Mamma Teresa Ristorante. The core itself extends from Wellington Street in the north to the Queensway in the south, and the Rideau Canal in the east to Bronson Avenue in the west.
For a taste of Ottawa’s nightlife, be sure to visit nightclubs and restaurants like MacLaren’s, Hooley’s Pub and the Yuk Yuk Comedy Club, Manx Pub, and the 24/7 Elgin Street Diner along this stretch of Elgin Street.
To the south lies Centretown, an extension of Downtown that is home to the Canadian Museum of Nature. This residential neighbourhood surrounds a commercial core that is centred around Elgin and Bank Streets, heartily embellished with restaurants, shops and Irish pubs. Centretown’s stretch of the Rideau Canal is transformed into an ice-skating rink in winter and is frequented for its waterfront trails in summer.
South of the Queensway, running along both sides of Bank Street, is the Glebe. As a trendy arts and shopping district, the Glebe attracts many suburban transplants looking for a little downtown living. The neighbourhood encompasses Lansdowne Park and the TD Place Stadium, home of the University of Ottawa Gee-Gees, the Ottawa 67’s, and the Ottawa Redblacks of the Canadian Football league. A popular annual event is the Great Glebe Garage Sale and a great option for bargain shopping. Some of the neighbourhoods most affluent homes can be found by the parks along Patterson Creek and Brown’s Inlet.
Situated to the west of the downtown area is Somerset Heights, which was previously known as Chinatown before the age of political correctness and an influx of Vietnamese immigrants in the late 1970s. If it’s Asian food you’re interested in, then the Heights is the place to come. Along Somerset Street, one can find some of the finest Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants in the city, including the Mekong Restaurant and Yangtze.
About a 10-minute walk west down Rue Somerset from the Heights is Preston Street, the cultural center of Ottawa’s Italian community, also known as Little Italy. Every year during the last weekend in June the street overflows with people returning to their roots on the occasion of Italian Week.
Sandy Hill and the Byward Market
Across from the downtown core on the eastern bank of the Rideau Canal is the University of Ottawa, which borders the stately Sandy Hill district where a majority of the city’s embassies are located. Across Rideau Street, to the north of Sandy Hill, is the Byward Market where every sense is satisfied.
The “Market” is a tourist Mecca attracting both vacationers and locals to its many specialty shops and restaurants during the day, while in the evenings the streets are filled with late night revellers touring the area’s many bars and nightclubs including the Heart and Crown and the Rainbow Bistro blues club.
Old Ottawa East and Old Ottawa South
Originally known as the community of Archville, the neighbourhood was incorporated as the Village of Ottawa East in 1888 and eventually absorbed into the city of Ottawa. Main Street runs through the core of this neighbourhood that stretches between the Rideau Canal and Rideau River, from Nicholas Street to the north and Avenue Road to the South. The main attractions here are Saint Paul University and the old Town Hall.
Nearby, the neighbourhood of Old Ottawa South also lies between the Rideau Canal and River, edged to the east by Avenue Road and to the West by Bronson Avenue. The section of Bank Street that runs through this neighbourhood is replete with pubs and is the site of the Mayfair Theatre. Here, the streetwalks are inlaid with maple leaves bearing the names of Canadian folk musicians. Old Ottawa South is an upper-middle class neighbourhood with a progressive outlook fuelled by the students and professors of the Carleton University.
Further east of Sandy Hill is Vanier. This small neighbourhood is the last bastion of the francophone community in Ottawa and they maintain their heritage with immense pride.
To the north of Vanier is Rockcliffe Park where one can find some of the most expensive real estate in Canada including the multi-million dollar home of Corel founder Michael Cowpland. Rockcliffe is also the home of 24 Sussex Drive and Rideau Hall, the homes of the Prime Minister and the Governor General respectively.
Further to the west of the downtown core are the suburban neighbourhoods of Bells Corners, Barrhaven and Kanata. While Barrhaven and Bells Corners are mostly bedroom communities with a smattering of restaurants and hotels, Kanata is the high-tech center of Ottawa and home to many tech giants such as Nortel, Mitel, Alcatel, Mosaid and Entrust. In Kanata, you can also find the Scotiabank Place, for some world-class hockey, or stop by the Kanata Centrum for some shopping and catch a movie at the adjoining Landmark Cinemas 24 Kanata.
South and East
To the South and East, beyond the Rideau River lie a series of residential and industrial neighbourhoods. The most prominent of these is Industrial Park, home of the Canada Science and Technology Museum. This vast expanse of Ottawa is rife with lovely parks and sprawling golf courses like the Ottawa Hunt & Golf Club and the Pine View Golf Course.
Across the river from Parliament Hill is Ottawa’s twin city of Hull. Located in the French-speaking province of Quebec, Hull has grown up struggling to find an identity in the shadow of the nation’s capital. Besides having many fine French restaurants, Hull is also the gateway to Gatineau Park, a wonderfully bucolic getaway run by the National Capital Commission. The Park itself has many fine bike paths, picturesque lakes and points of interest including the Mackenzie King Estate and Meech Lake.
Dining and drinking
As the capital city of Canada, Ottawa has been a magnet for immigrants looking for a better way of life and the hope of a brighter future. Besides enriching the city’s cultural heritage, the waves of Italian, East Indian, Lebanese, Vietnamese, and other new arrivals, have brought with them a culinary smorgasbord that is reflected in the many fine restaurants which can be enjoyed throughout the city.
Sample seasonal cuisine at the brightly-lit Fraser Cafe, an upscale eatery for Canadian fare. Or, go for the Bison Tartare alone to Soif, a beautiful wine bar tucked away in Hull. Enjoy New Canadian cuisine at Allium, or take your date out to Beckta Dining and Wine.
For Italian fare one should go no further than Mamma Teresa Ristorante on Somerset Street in the downtown core. Though slightly on the expensive side, a trip to Mamma Teresa’s is worth every penny. For years Ottawa’s political movers and shakers have met and dined on the restaurant’s succulent veal entrees in any one of a number of semi-private alcoves.
Other Italian eateries that can be depended on for excellent food and fine service in the downtown core include Fratelli on Bank Street in the Glebe.
Of course, if it’s Italian food you’re after, you can always take a short cab ride to Little Italy, located along Preston Street, and sample from the menus at Allegro Ristorante.
But perhaps the most romantic Italian eatery is the Canal Ritz, located along the side of the Rideau Canal where you can either dine indoors or al fresco on the restaurant’s expansive patio.
Further a field there is Capone’s in the west end of the city and the Mr. B’s March House located in Kanata.
Straddling the Ottawa River and the Ontario/Quebec border, as Ottawa does, the city is also home to many fine French restaurants.
Back in Ottawa, Le Cafe, located on the main level of the National Arts Centre, adjacent to the Rideau Canal, is another not to be missed dining experience, although a night out for two can cost between CAD80-100. Other dining options with delectable French fare include MeNa, Petit Bill’s Bistro, and the Metropolitan Brasserie.
For some reason Ottawa has a wealth of fine, reasonably priced Indian restaurants mostly located in the Glebe, just south of the downtown core along Bank Street, and in the Byward Market.
Most notably among these is the smallish, but always excellent Light of India on Bank Street. Also located on Bank Street is the New Delhi, while Cafe Shafali can be found in the Byward Market.
Chinese and Vietnamese
While there are many fine Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants in Ottawa, the best among them are located along Somerset Street in Somerset Heights, about a five-minute cab ride from many downtown hotels.
Whether you choose the Yangtze, the Mekong Restaurant or the Shanghai Restaurant you cannot go wrong. But for a real treat, that is both a culinary delight and light on the pocketbook, check out the unassuming Ben Ben Restaurant located across the street from the Yangtze. Ben Ben has been a popular mainstay of the local Asian community for over 15 years.
Lovers of Mexican food also have quite a few eateries to choose from to please the palate including, Corazon De Maiz and the Blue Cactus, both located in the Byward Market. Traditionalists will love the authentic Mexican fare served up at Feleena’s in the Glebe, while for the best of the bunch for the money is Pancho Villa located on Elgin Street.
Seafood aficiandos can have their appetites satisfied at any one of three recommended restaurants, each in a different part of downtown. In the Glebe, seafood lovers have made Flippers a mainstay, while The Fish Market Restaurant in the Byward Market is known for its fresh product and succulent lobsters. More centrally located is Pelican Grill on Bank Street.
Once a sleepy government town, urban renewal and concerted attempts to raise its touristic appeal have transformed Ottawa considerably over the past few decades. The city now boasts a vibrancy that makes it a world-class destination. No matter what your interests, Canada’s national capital is bound to offer something that appeals to everyone.
Museum and Galleries
Ottawa’s internationally renowned galleries and museums play host to Canada’s finest collections, as well as some of the world’s most impressive traveling exhibits. Second only to Parliament Hill as a daytime tourist attraction, the National Gallery of Canada offers free admission to its permanent collection, which includes the best of traditional and modern Canadian art and a respected selection of Renaissance and Impressionist pieces including works by Gustav Klimt, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Monet and Degas. Recent traveling exhibits that have made an appearance at the gallery include works by Van Gogh, Monet, and Gustav Klimt.
The importance of art in the capital can be seen everywhere, including a dozen contemporary art galleries like the Orange Art Gallery and Cube Gallery.
From the Canadian War Museum to the Bytown Museum, which chronicles the building of the Rideau Canal and the early history of the city itself, the Ottawa story has been preserved, studied and presented in great details at its museums. For history with a personal touch, take part in one of numerous walking tours, or grab a guidebook and go for a stroll on your own. The Canadian History Museum is another top-billed attraction.
Besides history and art, the city also boasts an intriguing array of specialty museums like the Canada Science and Technology Museum, the Canada Agriculture Museum, the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, and the Bank of Canada Museum.
Ottawa offers a host of attractions and activities for children, including the Canadian Children’s Museum , located within the stunning Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull. The Canadian Museum of Nature, located at the south end of Metcalfe Street, is also a sure hit with the young ones.
The National Arts Centre is the epicenter of the city’s performing arts repertoire, featuring world-class opera and dance performances, English and French theatre productions and several symphony concerts. Other fabulous venues for the performing arts include the Centrepointe Theatre, Arts Court and the Shenkman Arts Centre.
Quality theatre productions are presented on an ongoing basis by a number of smaller, local theatre companies as well such as Ottawa Little Theatre, the Odyssey Theatre, Orpheus Musical Theatre and the Great Canadian Theatre Company. The Ottawa Little Theatre and the Great Canadian Theatre Company also boast venues of their very own in Downtown. For lighter fare with the capital’s own brand of humour, head to the Yuk Yuk’s comedy club.
Ottawa’s nightlife is a whirlwind of delights centred around Elgin and Bank Streets in Downtown and Byward Market. From live music venues and wholesome Irish pubs to dazzling nightclubs and swanky bars, Ottawa has it all. The Mercury Lounge and Babylon top the list of Ottawa’s best nightclubs, while LIVE! on Elgin and the Rainbow Bistro are your best bet for live music. Pubs and taverns like MacLaren’s, the Standard, the Lieutenant’s Pump and the artsy Manx Pub are also quite popular. All of these can be found clustered along the downtown stretch of Elgin Street.
The live music possibilities in this cultural hot spot know no limits. The annual summer concert series on the lawn of the Governor General’s residence at Rideau Hall features some of Canada’s most talented musicians, while Barrymore’s Music Hall, the largest of the city’s many live music bars offers weekly live music acts of the rock and roll variety.
Fans of the blues normally head straight the Rainbow Bistro in the Byward Market where live acts are featured every night.
Festivals and Events
Annual festivals draw crowds from around the city and the world. The most famous of the lot are the Canadian Tulip Festival, with its thousands of bulbs colouring the city in spring, and Winterlude, which transforms the Rideau Canal into the world’s longest skating rink.
During the summer there is at least one major event every week, including the country’s largest Canada Day celebration, the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival, an ever-expanding Bluesfest and the lesbian and gay Pride Week Festival. The celebratory season is rounded out with August’s 112-year-old Central Canada Exhibition, which takes place smack dab in the middle of the city at Lansdowne Park.
Other festivals celebrating the region’s ethnic and musical diversity include Italian Week. festivities along Preston Street in late July and the magnificent Gatineau Hot Air Balloon Festival in September.
The film-going experience is particularly prized in Ottawa and fans of old-fashioned theatres and independent films will feel very at home here. In addition to the mainstream theatres sprinkled throughout Ottawa’s many neighbourhoods, the Bytowne Theatre features international films, while the Glebe’s old-fashioned Mayfair Theatre, plays classics as well as independent flicks. For those interested in the bigger picture, an IMAX theatre is located in the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull.
By boat, by car or by bus, Ottawa awaits discovery. However, the best way to explore the capital city is by foot.
Any walking tour of Ottawa should start at Parliament Hill. You shouldn’t have trouble finding the most recognizable sight in Canada! The impressive Gothic revival buildings house the Senate and House of Commons. Tours of the government buildings and grounds are available year-round; at the very least, climb up the Peace Tower for a stunning panoramic view of the city.
From Parliament Hill, walk west down Wellington Street. Immediately on your left is the Bank of Canada, where corridors of vaults store our nation’s gold reserves.
Supreme Court of Canada
On the right are three must-see attractions in quick succession: the Supreme Court of Canada, the National Library of Canada and the National Archives of Canada. The Supreme Court, as its name suggests, is the highest court in the land. The National Library has two copies of every written article ever produced in Canada, including sheet music and sound recordings. And if you can’t find what you are looking for there, the National Archives preserves unpublished documents like diaries, letters, photos, maps and computer discs.
Turn right and cross over the Portage Bridge to French-speaking Hull. Along the way, you’ll walk past Victoria Island where the original inhabitants of the area first set up camp in the summertime. As you cross into Hull, walk east along Laurier Street while taking time to admire the Ottawa River. Paths bordering each side of the river offer outdoor enthusiasts the chance to walk, jog, blade or cycle amid beautiful scenery.
Canadian Museum of Civilization
That bizarre-looking building up ahead on your right is the Canadian Museum of Civilization, home to archeology, ethnology, history and folk culture collections as well as the Canadian Children’s Museum and an IMAX theatre.
Before heading back to Ottawa, you might want to take a half-day Hull to Wakefield steam train excursion. The 1907 locomotive affords picturesque views of the glorious Gatineau Park.
National Gallery of Canada
You can now cross back to Ontario over the Alexandria Bridge. Once back in Ottawa you will find yourself on St. Patrick Street. Up a short hill to the left is the magnificent National Gallery of Canada. From Rembrandt to Canada’s famous Group of Seven and relatively unknown Canadian contemporary artists, this gallery has it all. It’s a peaceful place to take a break and admire world-class exhibits.
Across the street from the National Gallery is Notre Dame Basilica, Ottawa’s oldest Roman Catholic church. To the east of the gallery is the Canadian War Museum where you can check out the historical war. Beside the War Museum is the Royal Canadian Mint, where you can nip in to see loonies and twoonies being made.
Keep strolling down Sussex Drive. On the rig ht is the Lester B. Pearson building, home to the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. Next to the Lester B. Pearson Building is the old Ottawa City Hall, which was recently sold to the federal government after the 11 municipalities that formerly made up the National Capital region were merged into one.
As you proceed further down Sussex Drive you will eventually come to the Prime Minister’s residence at 24 Sussex Drive. Diagonally across from 24 Sussex is Rideau Hall, the residence of the Governor-General. Feel free to picnic on the grounds or enjoy a guided tour of the residence.
Backtrack your way along Sussex Drive to the Peacekeeping Monument. Turning left along any street will take you to the Byward Market. The oldest area in Ottawa, this market is bustling year round. Relax for a bite at a cafe or shop till you drop, depending on your inclination.
Zip back to Sussex Drive and turn right back onto Wellington Street. Admire the historical Chateau Laurier on the corner.
National War Memorial
Straight across from the Photography Museum is the National War Memorial honouring the sacrifices made by Canadians in war and home to the country’s annual Remembrance Day ceremonies. At the base of the memorial lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a nameless father, husband or son who died in the First World War.
Strolling down Elgin Street, the National Arts Centre is on your left. North America’s only bilingual, multi-disciplinary performing arts centre offers dance, music, variety shows and more.
Weary of walking yet? You can hop on a Rideau Canal boat cruise across from the NAC. In fact, it’s virtually impossible to walk by without someone trying to sell you a cruise ticket.
Across from the National Arts Centre, on the corner of Sparks Street, is D’Arcy McGee’s Irish Pub. For walks decidedly more creepy, join their haunted evening strolls.
Feeling overwhelmed? This walking tour should have just whetted your appetite for Ottawa sight seeing. At the corner of Metcalfe Street between Sparks and Wellington is the Capital Infocentre. Pop in for information about other tours of Canada’s Capital Region and start again.
Escape Bicycle Tours and Rentals (+1 888 667 2012 / http://www.escapebicycletours.ca/)
Ottawa Free Tours (http://www.ottawafreetour.com/)
Haunted Walk of Ottawa (https://hauntedwalk.com/ottawa-tours/)
Ottawa gets its identity from two major sources—its geographic location at the confluence of the Ottawa and Rideau Rivers, and the fact that it is the seat of power for the entire nation. For centuries the area that overlooks the two rivers was the meeting grounds for the First Nations tribe the Algonquin Indians, who were indigenous to this part of central Canada.
The first European to set eyes on the area was Samuel de Champlain in 1613. In fact, a statue commemorating his discovery sits atop Nepean Point overlooking the Ottawa River. For the next 200 years the area remained a meeting place where natives met with French fur traders, who took valuable beaver pelts further downstream to Montreal and Quebec City. In 1800, a United Empire Loyalist named Philemon Wright left Massachusetts after the Revolutionary War and settled across the Ottawa River from the heights, in what is now Hull. Originally named Wrightsville, the small community grew into a burgeoning lumber town that helped to fuel Britain’s desire for sturdy wood with which to build its navy.
In 1826 construction began on Ottawa’s second most identifiable landmark besides Parliament Hill. Lieutenant Colonel John By was commissioned to build a canal that ran from the Ottawa River in the north to Kingston in the south—a distance of 200 kilometres. Construction on the Rideau Canal was completed by 1832. During the building of the canal, development began to take place on the Ottawa side of the Ottawa River, in and around what is now known as Lowertown, which is the site of Byward Market. By the time the canal was completed, the new settlement was called Bytown after the canal’s chief builder.
The new waterway made the shipment of lumber to markets south of the border much easier. As a result, several American lumber barons came to the area bringing with them a wave of immigration from Poland, Scotland and Ireland, all looking for work in the forests around the fledgling city.
By the late 1850s Ottawa had finally come into its own, although it still possessed a reputation as a remote and rather uncivilized place. In 1860 something completely unexpected and remarkable happened. While looking at a map of the colonies of Upper and Lower Canada, Queen Victoria decided to pick Ottawa as the new capital over both York, which is now Toronto and Montreal. The decision was very controversial, but appeased Lower Canada (mainly French) and Upper Canada (mainly English. Also, because of its proximity to the American border, the choice would change Ottawa’s destiny forever.
Immediately after Queen Victoria had selected Ottawa as the colony’s new capital, construction began on the neo-gothic Parliament Hill. In 1867 the provinces of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec (Lower Canada) and Ontario (Upper Canada) decided to form a confederation and the Dominion of Canada was born, with Ottawa designated as the fledgling nation’s capital.
Completed that same year, the Parliament buildings were dubbed the “Westminster in the Wilderness.” A bizarre study in contrasts, the stately center block of Parliament Hill, with its Peace Tower, towered over the haphazardly planned bustle of industrial Ottawa.
Rideau Hall was also completed the same year and became the palatial residence of the Queen’s representative in Canada. All of Canada’s Governors General have lived there since its construction.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Canadian government concluded that if Ottawa were to be a worthy capital some planning was in order. A wholesale restructuring of the city ensued with the creation of several scenic boulevards, an extensive park system beginning with Major’s Hill Park.
In 1936, Prime Minister Mackenzie King commissioned French civil architect Jacques Gréber to provide a blueprint for a broad park and green space system that would encircle the city. Today Greber’s creation is called the Greenbelt, which contains several natural trails as well as a number of working farms.
For most of the 20th century, Ottawa grew up as a government town—and an extremely conservative one at that. Small influxes of immigrants after both World Wars helped spice things up as a large number of people from Italy, Lebanon and China decided to call Ottawa home. Each immigrant community established neighbourhoods with names like Little Italy, where the annual Italian Week is celebrated in June, and Chinatown, both of which still exist today.
It was not until the 1970s and the birth of the high-tech sector that Ottawa began to slowly transform from a government town into something much greater. Ironically, the transformation was lead by a small cabal of former government computer scientists who started companies such as Digital, Mitel and Northern Telecom. Soon Ottawa was being called by another name—”Silicon Valley North”—and highly skilled workers from all over the world began to flock to the area. Today, Ottawa is one of the leading computer telecommunications centres of the world, with most of the industry located in the city’s western suburb of Kanata.
Getting there and getting around
From the Airport
Bus: Ottawa’s safe and reliable OC Transpo (+1 613-741-4390 / http://www.octranspo.com) provides an effective route for getting to and from the airport. Bus route 97 departs outside the Arrivals area and run frequently to points throughout the city.
Light Rail: Ottawa’s light rail system, the O-train, also provides an effective means to travel the city.
Taxi: Taxis generally cost about 25 Canadian dollars to downtown. Taxis can be easily located outside each terminal. You can also call +1 613 523 1234. Taxi Companies include:
Blue Line Taxi (+1 613 746 8740 / http://www.bluelinetaxi.com )
Caddy Cab (+1 613 260 8585 )
Alamo (+1 800 327 9633 / http://www.alamo.com )
Avis (+1 800 831 2847 / http://www.avis.com )
Budget (+1 800 527 0700 / http://www.budget.com )
Hertz (+1 800 654 3131 / http://www.hertz.com
The Ottawa bus terminal (+1 613 238 5900) is located on the edge of downtown and offers convenient transportation to rural and urban areas throughout Canada.
Ottawa is serviced by VIA Rail Canada (+1 888 842 7245/ http://www.viarail.ca). Multiple destinations can be reached along the Toronto-Kingston-Ottawa line and the Ottawa-Alexandria-Montreal line.
Ottawa can be easily accessed by interstates 41, 5, and 50.
Ottawa is serviced by an extensive bus system, OC Transpo ( +1 614 714 4390 / http://www.octranspo.com) and the O-train (a light rail system) which seats up to 135 and has standing room for 150.