Mix & Match: 10 must-sees in Ottawa
When I arrived in Ottawa (by train this time), Zeus or someone in Heaven must have been really angry, because the rain was pouring like there’s no tomorrow. Too stubborn to make an exception to my rule of avoiding transit at all costs, I walked a good 4-5 km to downtown Ottawa through unpaved and muddy shortcuts. My adventure didn’t exactly start with the right foot, but it turned for the better soon enough.
Ottawa may not be a flashy city, but it has all the charm of an old(ish) capital. I would recommend at least three days in the city to have enough time to enjoy it without rushing too much.
Start your visit with a bang going for a walk along the famous Rideau Canal.
The locks you see in town, beside Parliament Hill, mark the beginning of a 202-kilometre route linking the Ottawa River to Lake Ontario through a system of connected lakes and rivers. Engineered and built for military purposes, today is used for recreational activities, such as boating in summer and ice-skating in winter, when it becomes the largest naturally frozen skating rink in the world.
Stand in the middle of the lock for some great pictures.
Parliament Hill and Parliament Buildings
Parliament Hill is probably the attraction that better identifies the city. It’s a bit like going to Rome and seeing the Colosseum for the first time. Enter the gates and take a look around, say hi to the statues surrounding the buildings and admire the view of the canal from above. In summer, you can even take a weekly free yoga lesson!
Other free thing worth doing: a tour of the Parliament Buildings. Head to the Tourism Office on the other side of the road and book your spot for your preferred time slot (but don’t get there too late, they usually sell out pretty quickly). The guided tour takes about 30 minutes and gives you a glimpse of all the main rooms, including the one with the throne reserved to Queen Elizabeth and a library that looks like Belle’s in the Beauty and the Beast. At the end of the tour, you can even take the elevator all the way up the Peace Tower, to admire an incredible view of the city.
The Byward Market is a colorful area of the city full of shops, restaurants, coffee shops and traditional crafts sellers. I liked it more for its lively atmosphere than for the shops themselves, but if you are around for lunch stop here and you won’t be disappointed.
I stopped for a snack at the Moulin de Provence, one of the best French bakeries in town (even Obama stopped by for a cookie, so it’s President-approved).
Alexandra Interprovincial Bridge
You probably won’t find it mentioned in many guides, but I loved crossing the interprovincial bridge on foot. As the name says, it’s the bridge that connects two provinces: Ontario and Quebec. It has a very wide boardwalk for pedestrians and offers beautiful views both of Parliament Hill on the Ottawa side and of Gatineau on the Quebec side.
Canadian Museum of History
One of the best museums dedicated to the First Nations ever. The way it narrates the history of Canada is stimulating and captivating: from the imposing totem poles and Bill Reid’s masterpiece “The Spirit of Haida Gwaii” to the artifacts/clothes and all sorts of items of the different tribes. From the narration of traditional legends recorded by the Elders and available for listening in a comfy dark circular room, to the detailed explanations of the residence schools system and how the white people managed to endanger the aboriginal cultures.
I spent in there way more hours than I had planned to, but it was time well spent.
The museum is free on Thursday nights.
Ottawa has lots of good museums, so choose based on your preferences and you can’t go wrong. The National Gallery is quite impressive as it is the War Museum, whereas for nature and animal lovers there is the Museum of Nature. All of them are free on the same day, on Thursdays after 5 pm. If you want to visit two or three of them, however, you can purchase a combined ticket and save a few dollars.
Rideau Hall and Justin Trudeau’s House
If you’re up for a nice walk along the river and would like to take a peek at the Prime Minister’s house, head down Sussex Drive. The residence is obviously under surveillance, so you have zero chances of sneaking in, but nothing forbids you to take a look from the outside. Who knows? You may be lucky and run into Justin mowing the lawn or playing squash with his kids.
Rideau Hall is the residence of the Governor General of Canada. It was heavily under construction when I was there so I couldn’t see anything, but the park is big, quiet and free to access.
Canada 150 celebratory flags
One of the Ottawa achievements I’m most proud of is being able to photograph all the Canadian banners along Sussex Drive despite the wind. To celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday, the lamp posts on each side of the road are decorated with colorful banners representing each Canadian province and territory. I hope they decide to keep them, because they’re great!
Nepean point and Fairmont hotel wifi
For a really scenic view of the Parliament, Nepean Point is undoubtedly the best option (unless you have a drone, which is kind of cheating). Find a bench facing the Hill and camp there for a few hours of relax, play or even work! The Fairmont Chateau Laurier hotel, in fact, grants free limited access to its WiFi even to non-guests. Take advantage of this opportunity to work with a view!
Lastly, pick your hostel. If spending a night in jail is on your bucket list, book a room or a bed at the HI Ottawa Hostel, an ex-prison which still keeps its original layout with cells and bars. More than the hostel itself, it’s always the people who really make the difference. For an incredibly friendly and fun environment, choose the Ottawa Backpackers Inn, I had a lovely time there.
What activities will you choose? Let me know in the comments! And if you see Justin, give him a hug on my behalf 🙂
For more Canadian destinations, take a look here.