Ottawa is a vibrant and charming small city — so pleasant that it’s hard to believe it’s home to soooo many politicians. Of the national capitols I’ve visited, Ottawa seems the most livable to me (ie. if I had to live in political city, I’d probably choose Ottawa). I like Ottawa as a travel destination — big enough, but not sprawling, with a compact central area that’s easy to visit and walk around in. Besides Parliament Hill, it has lots of museums and parks, plenty of things to see and do and a good selection of pubs and restaurants. It’s very near nature and has a youthful energy.
Ottawa does have two serious drawbacks 1) It’s filled with politicians and those who “work” for the government 2) It gets very cold in the winter (though late spring and early fall are nice). One Ottawa native told me with pride that his hometown was the coldest national capitol in the world. While most Canadians are polite and honest to a fault, this claim is false. What is the coldest Capitol city in the world (great Trivial Pursuit question)? That honor belongs to Ulan-Bator in Mongolia. Moscow (Russia), Helsinki (Finland) , and Reykjavik (Iceland) also have lower mean temperatures than Ottawa — if anyone really cares.
After spending several days in Montreal we drove to Ottawa, about a 2 hour drive west and north. This is an easy and pleasant trip up the Ottawa River Valley on the Ontario (east) side. If you get road fatigue, stop by one of the many Tim Horton’s restaurants along the way — a great travel find for those visiting Canada. Excellent quality and inexpensive bagels, muffins, soups and sandwiches for lunch and, of course, no shortage of coffee and donuts (you can always expect to find at least one police car parked in front of each Tim’s).
Ottawa is centered on Parliament Hill, an iconic cluster of gothic buildings located in the heart of the city on a bluff overlooking the Ottawa River and on its opposite bank, the twin city of Gatineau in Quebec. Parliament Hill is where you want to begin your exploration of Ottawa. Start at the Visitor Center and obtain information about the tours available to you that day. Make reservations for those tours you’re interested in and if there’s free time begin your exploration of the grounds of Parliament hill. The best place to do this is to the west of the large Center block, around the statue of Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson. Work your way in clockwise fashion along the back of the of the Center block and enjoy the assortment of statues and ever changing views of the tall Peace Tower, on which the well-known Maple Leaf flag flutters. Pay respect at the Police and Peace Officer’s Memorial, where the names of fallen (mostly RCMP) officers is recorded. Of interest is the cat sanctuary, home to an assorted rag-tag band of animals including feral cats, squirrels and birds that are lovingly cared for by volunteers. Immediately behind the Center block is the beautiful rounded Library of Parliament. Continue your clock-wise walk around Parliament Hill and finish at the Centennial Flame, before making your way to whatever tours you’ve arranged inside the Center Block. I would highly recommend that everyone at a minimum go up the Peace Tower and enjoy its splendid views of the city. While within the Peace Tower pay respect at the Memorial Chamber, wherein the name of every Canadian who has fallen in the service of his country is recorded. If you’re there in the summer months, be sure to catch the changing of the guard held each morning on the grounds of Parliament Hill. In the evening a Sound and Light show is held against the backdrop of Parliament.
As might be expected of a national capitol, there’s no shortage of museums in Ottawa. Of these there are two especially worthy of your attention. My favorite of these, and the most popular museum in the country, is the Canadian Museum of Civilization, a beautiful building sitting in Gatineau across from Parliament Hill on the banks of the Ottawa River. The architecture of the building is wonderful and a large portion of its exhibits explore Canada’s native Indian heritage. By far the most impressive exhibit is Grand Hall, containing large numbers of historic totem poles and buildings. Canada Hall is another cool exhibit which provides you literally with a quick walk across the country and thru its past. Besides rotating exhibitions, you’ll also find Canada’s Children’s Museum and the Canadian Postal Museum within the same structure. You can easily spend a day exploring this museum.
The National Gallery of Canada is another museum worth a visit. You’ll recognize it by the huge hideous arachnid-like statue sitting by its main entrance. It features mostly Canadian artists, with interesting exhibits, supplemented with rotating displays. Its easy to spend a half day here. Other museums can be found for those who are interested.
Be sure your walk takes you thru Byward Market, a fun place to walk and shop. It features fresh fruit, vegetable, flower and food vendors, many small cafes, a phenomenal cheese store and dozens of small specialty shops. Like Granville Island in Vancouver, The Forksin Winnipeg or the Farmers’ Market in Los Angeles, its a popular place to stroll and shop.
Also worth at least a brief stop is the historic Rideau Canal, which stretches 125 miles from the Ottawa River to Kingston on Lake Ontario via a series of locks. The canal was built almost 200 years ago as a Canadian precaution — to provide an alternate route of access to Ottawa in case of war with the United States; it has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site and is popular with kayakers, boaters, and in the winter with ice skaters. Cruises of the canal are available and its easy to spend time having a pleasant stroll along its bank.
There’s no shortage of good accommodations in Ottawa. We’re members of the Marriott Rewards program and used some points for a free stay at the centrally located Ottawa Marriott. The best place to stay in Ottawa is the Chateau Laurier, one of Canada’s historic Fairmont hotels.. At a minimum stroll thru its lobby and enjoy the beautiful photography portraits by “Karsh of Ottawa“, a renowned photographer (probably the world’s best portrait photographer) who worked from a studio in the hotel’s lobby (among my prized possessions are Karsh portraits of Sir Edmund Hillary & Ray Bradbury, both signed for me by these men when I had the pleasure of meeting them, but that’s a story for anther day). Lots of inexpensive accommodations are available. Our meals were good — not quite at the level of what we had in Montreal or Quebec on this trip but fine, the best being breakfasts we had at small cafes in Byward Market.
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