Where: Ottawa, Ontario, (capital of) Canada.
When: I’ve visited Ottawa many times over the last nine years, as this is where my husband is from.
Why: We try to visit Ottawa once a year to see family. As I love exploring, I’ve tried to do as many touristy things as possible in Ottawa, so though this isn’t a normal one-trip page – hopefully it can provide lots of inspiration on things to do in the capital and the area.
What’s the capital of Canada? Many people guess it’s big Toronto or Montreal, but actually it’s unassuming Ottawa, located between its two much more famous neighbours. As the capital of Canada, this smaller city has lots of nationally important sites to visit, along with a great dining scene and gorgeous countryside near-by. There’s loads to see and do here and Ottawa is a great place to visit for a weekend, or for longer if you’re going to head out into the countryside.
I have to be careful what I say about Ottawa as obviously I have family and friends living here, but the truth is I now really like this city. It has grown on me and every time we go back I discover something new and the city seems to get better and better. I don’t know if it’s the city improving or if it’s just that I’ve been discovering its hidden secrets, but I now think that Ottawa is a great little capital with cool, interesting districts for pottering around in, a brilliant food scene and loads to see and do.
When I first visited Ottawa, I thought it was a little provincial and boring (sorry Ottawa), but now I think it’s a vibrant, fun, festival filled city that is coming into its own. Now I get excited to go back (mostly just to eat! – and see family of course) and I can’t wait to find out what other hidden gems there are here.
Ottawa has a lovely little airport that has good facilities and is pleasant to navigate. It’s bright, spacious and quiet. There’s also a great pub (Darcy McGee’s) which serves nice beers.
Most flights from Ottawa are domestic or to the States. There is a direct flight to London with Air Canada.
We used to fly to Ottawa via Montreal or Toronto, getting a little hopper Air Canada flight to Ottawa. However, recently we’ve started to just fly into Montreal and meet our family there, as we and our friends have had problems with the departing flight from Ottawa to Montreal. Once the flight was cancelled, so we missed our connecting flight to Europe, then the next time it was very delayed and we had to wait ages on the tarmac at Montreal – again, nearly missing our connecting flight to Europe. Our friends, because of this flight being cancelled, missed their flight to Spain to see us and so lost one day of their holiday. I’d love to fly out of Ottawa because when it works, it’s a great place to fly out of – but it’s not worth the risk of missed flights.
Bus 97 runs from the airport to the city centre. You can see the schedule and a route map on the OC Transpo website.
Incidentally, if you fly to Montreal with Air France or KLM, they offer a bus service which runs from Montreal’s Trudeau International Airport to Ottawa Train Station. We took this bus and it was a very comfy, relaxed service. Montreal is about a two-hour drive from Ottawa.
I love travelling by train in Canada. Because intercity train travel in Canada is not a regular thing, it still seems slightly special: they weight your bags and sometimes take them away to the luggage car for you; there’s a steward in each carriage who gives you safety information; the food options are pretty healthy and not too expensive. Although the countryside is not that dramatic between Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto, it’s still a nice relaxed way to travel between the cities.
The train from Montreal to Ottawa takes about two hours (it travels via Montreal Trudeau International Airport); the train from Toronto to Ottawa takes about four and a half hours. Sometimes the service can be a little unreliable because freight trains have priority on the tracks – and there have been times when we have had to wait ages for one to pass – but if you’re not in a hurry and don’t have tight deadlines, then this shouldn’t be a problem.
You can buy tickets online at the VIA Rail website. I just had a look and a single ticket from Montreal to Ottawa starts at $33, including tax (£20/€22), and a single from Toronto starts at $46 (£27/€31).
Ottawa station is a nice, airy building. It has basic facilities, such as a cafe and toilets, and it is a nice place to wait for a train. You can find out more about the facilities at the VIA Rail website.
Ottawa station is connected to downtown by the newly opened O-Train (the local Metro service). Bus 61 and 62 also run to the city centre. You can look up times and maps etc on the OC Transpo route planner.
*Incidentally, this area of Canada would be perfect for a bullet train: four of their major cities (Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal-Quebec) are in a line – making a pretty perfect train corridor; there’s loads of space to build such a route; there’s a young, environmentally conscious market, who I think would be keen to use such transport. I would love to see this happening in my life-time – but then I am very pro-train.*
My parents caught the bus from Toronto to Ottawa and we went to collect them from the bus station. To be honest, Canada hasn’t yet had the bus revolution that Europe seems to have had: services are still run down and a bit shabby. The bus station was a bit of a dump. I felt like a second-class citizen being here.
Mum and dad caught the Greyhound bus from Toronto to Ottawa. The journey took five and a half hours. Their bus didn’t have a toilet on it but I think they had a rest stop half way. However, it was a cheap, last minute booking and mum said the bus was pretty comfortable. I just looked and a ticket for next week would cost $38 (about £25).
Ottawa bus station is located by the Queensway (the main highway), close to the Natural History Museum. It has a few cafes and a shop. ottawacentralstation.com.
To get from the bus station to the city centre you could walk – it’d take you about 20 minutes – or get the bus. To get the bus turn left out of the bus station (you should be looking at the Queensway) and then walk up to Bank Street. Here you can get bus six or bus seven up to the city centre.
To drive from Montreal to Ottawa is about two hours. To drive to Toronto is about four to five hours.
Ottawa’s Metro service (the O-Train) opened in 2019. At the time of writing they are still ironing out some kinks in the system, but hopefully they will get these sorted out soon.
The Metro is currently one line, which runs from Blair, in the east of the city, to Tunny’s Pasture, in the west of the city, going via the train station and the city centre.
The trains run from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m.
You can buy tickets from the machines at the station. They cost €3.60 per journey. Ottawa also has a pre-paid card system called the Presto Card. These cost $6. A journey with a Presto card is $3.55. You can find out more and get up to date prices at www.octranspo.com/en/fares.
Ottawa has an extensive bus network and you can view a map of the whole network and plan your routes on the OC Transport website. You can buy tickets at ticket machines or on the bus, though here you have to have exact change. You can also buy tickets at certain Shoppers Drug Marts and Loblaws supermarkets. Or you can use a Presto Card.
Transfers on the network are free, though you have to have a valid ticket.
My in-laws tend to drive into central Ottawa if they are heading downtown, as the city is quite spread out and this is a much easier way to travel between districts. Traffic isn’t usually too bad and there is lots of on-street and private parking.
What to do in Ottawa
Parliament and the Peace Tower
If I was visiting Ottawa the first thing I would do is go for a visit to Parliament. Parliament Hill is open to the public and you can just wander in and out, using the capital grounds: you can go and have a picnic on the lawns in front of the building, they do public yoga here and you can go visit the buildings to see where the Canadian government operates.
Parliament Hill is a focal point of the city and a central place for key Canadian events. We were lucky enough to see the 150th Canadian-anniversary celebrations here (we saw Trudeau, Prince Charles, U2, Shania Twain, Sandra Oh and, most excitingly for my mum, we met a real mounty).
In front of parliament is the eternal flame, situated in the middle of a fountain. Last time we were by the fountain, there were some people here with large poster messages for their friends back home, as this fountain is filmed by a live web-cam (it’s currently showing lots of building work).
The Canadian Parliament complex is lovely. The buildings look like a mix between a Scottish castle and the Houses of Parliament in the UK. The key parts of the complex are the Peace Tower (the tower at the front of the building), the library and the House of Commons and the Senate Chambers.
On my first visit to Ottawa, Jeff and I went up the Peace Tower. We saw the Memorial Chamber at the top, where Canada’s war dead are commemorated, and we saw great views over a frozen Ottawa.
On a later trip both our families went on a guided tour of the Central Building. On our tour we again climbed the Peace Tower, we visited the circular library and we saw the House of Commons. Incidentally, the terrorist attack that took place in 2014, where there was a shoot-out just outside the library, was a week after we went on the tour!
Unfortunately, the Central Building, which includes the Peace Tower, is currently closed for renovation (you can watch the renovation work on the Hill Cam). You can however still visit Parliament Hill and the senate buildings. More info about this can be found at the Parliament of Canada website.
If you’re in Ottawa in the summer then I highly recommend that you check out the Northern Lights Sound and Light show, which is where images are projected onto the Central Building of parliament, telling stories from Canadian history. It’s a bit propagandary and patriotic, but also a lot of fun and a pleasant way to spend a summer evening. Sometimes it’s called off because of bad weather, but you can check if it is running and get start times at the Government of Canada website. It’s completely free, you just have to bring your own lawn chair or rug to sit on.
Running parallel to parliament is pedestrianised Sparks Street. On Sparks Streets there are some restaurants, tourist shops and jewelers. I don’t think Sparks Street is currently as well used as it could be, and it could and should be a great meeting place in the central business district.
I mention Sparks Street as one of my favourite pubs in the city is here: D’Arcy McGee’s. D’Arcy McGee’s is a pretty genuine Irish pub, with booths, stained glass partitions, hooks on the bar for your bags and coats, a relaxed atmosphere and good food and drink. I get the feeling it’s not an ‘in’ place – but I love it. It’s friendly, fun and relaxed – what a pub should be.
Rideau Canal (UNESCO), including the Ottawa Locks
Between parliament and Chateau Laurier is a bridge over the Rideau Canal and the Ottawa Locks. This is where the canal descends a series of locks down to the Ottawa River.
The Rideau Canal is 200km long. It runs from Ottawa to Kingston, connecting the Ottawa River to Lake Ontario and the St Lawrence River. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In summer you can take a boat trip or canoe along the canal. A tour of the Rideau Canal on an electric boat costs from $28 and tours last an hour and a half. Find out more at the Ottawa Boat Cruise website. You can also take a pirate tour of the canal, with an interactive pirate theatre cruise. (I am so doing this as soon as I can).
In winter they drop the water level so that it freezes and the canal becomes a giant skating rink, known as the Rideau Canal Skateway. This is usually in place from January to March. There are rest areas on the frozen canal, with toilets and changing rooms, and places to hire skates and sleighs. Up to date information about opening hours, getting there, prices for hires etc, can be found on the National Capital Commission website.
We went onto the frozen canal without skates and it was freezing(!) but also very exciting.
The Skateway is the focus for the Winterlude Festival, which takes place in February. The festival includes a big snow park with snow slides, ice sculpture competitions, concerts, discos etc. Information on the festival, including a timetable of events etc, can be found on the Government of Canada’s website.
One of the most famous buildings in the city, the Chateau Laurier hotel sits in the heart of Ottawa, between Parliament Hill and the Rideau Centre. The hotel was built in connection with the city’s railway station and as a result it has a grand-location, classic, art-deco grandeur to it that makes it so distinctive. The train station closed and the building was converted into the Senate of Canada, and the train station was moved to the edge of the city – but the connected, destination hotel remains at the heart of the city.
We’ve popped in to the hotel to use their toilets and have an explore (we naughtily sneaked into meeting rooms to have a look – sorry Chateau Laurier). The interior is very opulent and ornate: according to Wikipedia it has Tiffany stained glass windows and a 1930s art-deco swimming pool. Royalty, heads of state and celebrities used to stay here (though now I hear they stay at The Westin, across the street).
I’ve heard great things about the weekend brunch at Wilfrid’s Restaurant in the hotel ($49, excluding tax) and this is on my Ottawa bucket-list.
The hotel’s proper name is The Fairmont Chateau Laurier. www.fairmont.com/laurier-ottawa
Rideau Centre and Byward Market
The centre of Ottawa is probably the Rideau Centre and the Byward Market area.
The Rideau Centre is a shopping centre/mall that has a great food court. It has recently been updated and expanded and it’s a nice place to go for a potter about – especially when it is minus-30 outside. Many of the shops are quite high-end, but there are a few high-street chains too, such as Old Navy, Forever 21 and H and M.
The Byward Market area is an area of independent shops and restaurants, centered around the Byward Market building. The Byward Market building contains a few markety type stalls, but mostly it is full of food stands and cafes now. (The bakery at the end of the building sells the famous Obama cookie – a cookie which Barak Obama ate and apparently liked).
Most of the market stalls are actually on the roads outside the market building. Here you can find wonderful, local fruits and vegetables and local Canadian products. There’s two fabulous cheese-shops here, a wine shop and the famous beaver tail stand. If you’re in Ottawa, especially if you’re there in winter, I highly recommend that you try this wonderful sugary snack. A beaver tail is a cinnamon and sugar covered fried dough, a bit like a doughnut, and it is delicious and warming.
In the streets around the market building are independent artisan shops and lots of cool cafes, bars and restaurants. Details about these are in the Where We Eat section below.
National Gallery of Canada
I really love the National Gallery building: it’s full of light and has amazing views over Parliament Hill. The art work is pretty cool too, with classics from the Group of Seven, to modern pop-art (they had work by Escher when I was there too).
The National Gallery is located next to the Ottawa River, behind Chateau Laurier and the Canadian Parliament, next to the cathedral. The gallery is light and airy and some of the rooms have fabulous views over the river and parliament.
Quite randomly, an English friend of mine is related to one of the Group of Seven painters (I forget which one). The Group of Seven were a group of famous, Canadian landscape painters from the 1920s to 1930s. They were one of the first artist groups to try to create a natural, Canadian style of art. Many of their paintings are now in the National Gallery of Canada, so I felt like I had to go see these for my friend.
At the front of the gallery is the giant spider statue, Maman, by Louise Bourgeois. Another one of these spiders lives at the Guggenheim in Bilbao.
All in all, the gallery is a lovely space to spend an afternoon (especially in winter, when there’s three feet of snow outside) and it’s one place that I’d like to go back to to appreciate further.
An adult ticket to the gallery is $16 (£9.50/ €11). Children can go in for free.
Incidentally, there are fabulous views from the Art Gallery cafe, overlooking Parliament Hill. Another good place for views is Nepean Point, which is in the park outside the gallery.
Notra Dame Cathedral-Basilica
Next to the National Gallery is Notra Dame Cathedral. This distinctive church with silver spires is beautiful inside – with blue and gold decorations, wonderful carvings and gorgeous stained glass. This Roman Catholic basilica is the oldest and largest church in Ottawa. We were lucky enough to go to a wedding in this beautiful building and it was such a beautiful place for the ceremony. notredameottawa.com
Canadian Museum of History / Canadian Children’s Museum
On the other side of the Ottawa River to the National Gallery is the Canadian Museum of History, formerly known as the Canadian Museum of Civilisation.
The Grand Hall is a beautiful exhibition space with a huge window overlooking the river and Parliament Hill (see photo at the top of the page). At the end of the hall is a dome, which contains a gorgeous, colourful painting called Morning Star, which was painted by First Nation artist Alex Janvier (see photo below left).
This national museum tells the story of Canadian history. It contains lots of information about and objects from Canada’s indigenous people, including totem poles and a full-scale model village. The museum also contains the world’s oldest hockey stick and the Queen’s Beasts.
To be honest, what I remember about the building is the building itself, rather than the exhibits. I do remember that we had a very nice afternoon pottering around here though, when it was freezing outside.
The Children’s Museum had toys you could play with – I remember that. It’s not huge but it is fun. There’s sets to play on, costumes to wear. It’s very interactive and I can’t wait to take Santi there.
Finally, there is also an IMAX cinema at the Canadian History Museum too.
Entry for an adult to all parts of the museum, including IMAX and Children’s Museum is $20. Entry is free on a Thursday from 5 to 8 p.m. and on Canada Day (1 July) and Remembrance Day (11 November).
The Canadian Museum of History is located in Gatineau, which is on the Quebec side of the river.
Boat Cruise on the Ottawa River
Have you ever had a time in your life when you have been in exactly the right place at exactly the right time?
When we visited Ottawa for the 150th birthday celebrations, we took a boat cruise on the river the day after the main celebrations. Thanks to a Viator gift card from my brother, I was able to book tickets for both families to take a cruise on the river.
It was a gorgeous sunny day and we were all excited and relaxed as we set off. As we were floating under Alexandra Bridge towards Parliament Hill I looked up and noticed that there were a number of old planes coming towards us – and we quickly realised that this was a celebratory fly-past. Both my parents are pilots so they were really fascinated by the old planes.
And then — the Snowbirds appeared. The Snowbirds are the Canadian stunt flying team, the equivalent of the British Red Arrows – and they did a display right above our heads. As we were on the river, we had a really wide view and could see everything they were doing, including all of their maneuvers, tricks and turn arounds.
The people who were watching from Parliament Hill would have had buildings in the way for much of the display, so we really did have the best view in the city. It was wonderful! and I was so glad that my mum and dad were able to see this. In my memory, they did turns right above our heads. I swear one pilot even waved – though I’ve probably got that wrong.
After that, the rest of the cruise was interesting but not nearly as exciting. We cruised downstream, got close to the Rideau Falls and saw a lot of Gatineau and the Prime Minister’s House. All in all the tour took about 1 1/2 hours. Without the Snowbirds display this would be a pretty sedate tour, perhaps even mildly boring, but for us, with the best view in the city of the stunt flying, it was amazing.
The Ottawa River Tour with Paul’s Boat Line costs $28 + tax. The boat departs from Hull Wharf on the Gatineau side of the river (next to Jacques-Cartier Park, just to the north of the Canadian Museum of History) and Ottawa Docks, just below Parliament Hill, on the Ontario side. There were toilets and a place to buy drinks on board. Find out more on the Ottawa Boat Cruise website.
Canadian War Museum
I’ve not been to the Canadian War Museum yet as war is not really my cup of tea. However, if I find myself in Ottawa on a snowy afternoon with nothing to do I might pop in here. Apparently the museum contains exhibits about all of the wars that Canada has been involved in, plus military equipment – from guns to fighter jets. The museum is located in a pretty cool building, on the banks of the Ottawa River, to the west of Parliament Hill.
Canadian Museum of Nature
I’d been wanting to go to the Canadian Museum of Nature for years and we finally made it here on our most recent trip.
The Canadian Museum of Nature is in a great stocky building that looks like the epitome of a museum. It’s got carvings over the doors, lots of floors, a big wide lobby and a new glass tower at the front. It even has slanting, wonky staircases inside. The museum is located down by the Queensway highway, so is not in the city centre – but it’s worth the trek.
Inside, the museum contains exhibits about Canadian flora and fauna, relics and reconstructions of dinosaurs and taxidermy of big Canadian wildlife. There’s also live fish, information about the environment and amazing space photography. The museum is so interesting because Canada is a natural wonderland, with so many diverse and cool species of plants and animals in its territory. We spent about an hour and a half here and for me that wasn’t enough time. Again, if I find myself with nothing to do on a snowy afternoon I think I’ll head back here for a few hours.
A general admission ticket is $15. Entry to the museum is free on Thursdays from 5 to 8 p.m. and on Canada Day (1 July).
Canada Aviation and Space Museum
Both my parents are small plane pilots, so they love to go to aviation museums to see planes from different countries. In a country so vast, small planes have been essential to the development of Canada and play an important role in connecting isolated communities, so it was fascinating going to see Canadian planes – especially the float planes, which are designed to land on water.
In addition to this, Canada has had quite a strong presence in the space programme. Chris Hadfield, one of the most famous recent astronauts, is Canadian. The Canadarms were integral parts of the space shuttles. Quite randomly, again, another friend of mine is the cousin of Robert Thirsk, a Canadian astronaut – so I quite enjoyed finding out more about him at the museum.
The museum is located in a huge hangar and you can walk around the various aircraft. The space section has fun, interactive displays and information about Canadian astronauts and the Canadarm.
One of the nice things about the museum is that it is located next to a working airport and if you want to you can pay to have a tour over Ottawa in a small, open bi-plane (prices from $68, minimum of 2 people) or in a helicopter (prices from $59, minimum of 2 people).
An adult ticket to the museum is $15, excluding tax (£9/€11)) and a child’s ticket is $10 (about £6/€8), excluding tax.
We spent about two hours here and though it wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, I still enjoyed the visit.
Ottawa Science and Technology Museum
My husband used to volunteer here. Sadly I haven’t been to visit here yet as for my last few visits the museum has been under reconstruction. That is finished now though and the museum has reopened – so hopefully we can go visit soon.
One of the other reasons I haven’t been to visit the science museum yet as it’s not in the centre of the city, but in the east – and not so easy to get to without a car.
Apparently it’s a pretty cool, interactive museum. It has a fully-working locomotive, telescopes, a nuclear power station, which you can control, and a crazy kitchen.
An adult ticket is $17, though the museum is free between 4 and 5 p.m. every day. To find out how to get there by public transport use the OC Transport Journey Planner.
We really wouldn’t have gone to the experimental farm had we not had a child, but this was a lovely place to spend an afternoon. It’s not a number 1 tourist attraction in the city, but if you have kids or are here for a while then a visit to the farm is lovely.
The Central Experimental Farm is a 400 hectare farm, surrounded by the city. It is located in the south of the city. The farm has an arboretum, tropical greenhouses and an ornamental garden. It also contains the Agriculture and Food Museum, which was the focus of our visit – as this is where the animals are.
The Agriculture and Food Museum is a real working farm which you can walk around and learn about farming. You can interact with the animals too, which is lovely. We were supposed to be there for our little boy, but I think I enjoyed it more. I got to stroke baby cows and rabbits, and we saw horses, sheep, pigs and small animals. We visited quite late in the day so we missed a lot of the live demonstrations, but we still had a nice walk about for an hour or so.
Entry to the museum (farm) is $12.25 per adult, but is free between 4 and 5 p.m. every day (this is when we visited).
You can get all the visiting information you might need, including ticket prices and opening hours, from ingeniumcanada.org/cafm/visit.
On the other side of the city, up north, is Gatineau Park – a large, protected natural area on the Quebec side. There are lots of hiking trails and a visitor centre with information about the local flora and fauna. It’s a beautiful place to go to see the autumn colours. You need a car to get there though.
Another place which is on my list of future places to go is the Nordik Spa which is in Gatineau. This thermo spa has lots of indoor and outdoor hot pools to relax in – just what I love. It’s a little pricey (a basic experience is $83/ £50 / €55), but it would really be a special treat. chelsea.lenordik.com
Government House (Rideau Hall)
Rideau Hall is the official residence of the monarch of Canada (a.k.a The Queen) and his or her representative. It is located on the Ontario side of the river, to the east of the city centre. You can visit the grounds, take a tour of the Hall and go see the soldiers in their traditional red coats and beaver hats stand sentry in front of the gates.
On my first visit to Ottawa we drove past here and I slept through the whole thing I was so tired with jet lag.
There’s also a really nice riverside park (Rockcliffe Park) nearby, with lovely views over the Quebec side of the river and a gorgeous, open pavilion that you can lounge on/in.
Go Sens Go!
If you’re in Ottawa in winter then I highly, highly, highly recommend a trip to see the Sens (the Ottawa Senators Ice-Hockey Team) play at Tire Centre Arena.
Watching an ice-hockey match is a unique and fun experience and I can’t wait to go again and again. The game is only part of the show: there’s kiss cams, racing prime ministers with big fake heads, music, loads of audience participation, fantastic food and zambonis. As a Brit, I found a lot of the goings on to be really different and funny, but also very, very Canadian.
I, someone who hates team sports, also surprised myself by loving watching the games. This might have partly been because both matches I’ve been to see live, Erik Karlsson, an amazing (cute) player was playing. Sadly he has now left the team.
The Tire Center Arena is located about half an hour to the west of the city centre, but you can get there on public transport. The Ottawa Senator’s website has information on how to get there, upcoming games etc. and this is where you can buy tickets.
Personally, this would be my number 1 thing to do in Ottawa.
Petrie Island for beach and fire-flies
Fire flies are something really exotic to me, so when I found out they live in Canada I was so excited to go see them. Many fireflies live in marshy areas, so to see them we went to Petrie Island, a marshy ‘island’ in the Ottawa River, to the east of Ottawa, close to Orleans.
Fireflies come out at dusk, so we went to watch the sunset then went looking for the little lights. Watching fireflies is so strange as their light is so ephemeral: did I really see a streak of light or was it my eyes playing tricks on me? Watching these insects is so magical.
Petrie Island is a lovely place to visit in the day time too as it has a sandy beach and lots of shady picnic spots. I’m not sure that I’d want to bathe in the water as from what J says it isn’t that clean – but it’s a nice place to relax in the sun. It’s also a great spot for bird watching and there are turtles here too.
Ottawa is a fantastic place to eat and drink. They have quite a hot/cool local brewery scene and you can do a tour of some of the breweries with Brew Donkey. They do a walking tour in the city or bus tours to places further afield. This is so on my to-do list. www.brewdonkey.ca
You can also find a list of all the local breweries here.
Almonte is a small town about 45 minutes drive from downtown Ottawa. It’s a lovely little place, based around the Mississippi River (not the main Mississippi River but a different one) and the Almonte Rapids. Almonte is famous as the birthplace of James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, and you can see his statue in the centre of town.
Almonte is the perfect place for a potter. There are loads of kooky shops, nice cafes, good food places and a pretty river walk.
1,000 Islands National Park
Where the St Lawrence River widens to go into Lake Ontario there are loads of small islands and islets. Some of the them are just rocks, some have just one house on, some are reserved for nature. This is the 1,000 Islands National Park – though the 1,000 is a bit of an exaggeration as there’s technically only 21 islands and then lots of islets.
The best way to see the islands is to drive along the 1,000 Island Parkway in the area of Mallorytown, which is where the Visitor Centre is.
Gananoque Boat Line offer a variety of 1,000 island boat tours, departing from Gananoque on the Canadian side. Their 1 hour Heart of the 1,000 Islands cruise is $27, excluding tax. ganboatline.com.
One of the loveliest buildings to go see in the 1,000 Islands NP, and I think one of the most romantic buildings in America, is Boldt Castle. Boldt Castle was built by George Boldt, founder of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, for his wife Louise. He built for her a beautiful French chateaux, island playground – with playhouses, grottoes, a lagoon and a huge boat-house to keep all their sailing ships in. He even made the island heart-shaped. Sadly, she died just before the castle was finished and so he abandoned it – and it lay in ruins for years. But happily, bit by bit, it has slowly been reconstructed and is now a lovely place to visit.
You can visit Heart Island and explore the castle, the playhouse and the boat house. Sadly for us, the river had recently flooded when we visited and so the Yacht House was shut. The Yacht House is on a separate island, so when it is open you have to get a second ferry from Heart Island over to this.
They are still slowly reconstructing the rooms in the playhouse and the chateaux – but what they have restored is magnificent: it is very ornate and yet welcoming; I could imagine living here quite happily.
You can catch ferries to Boldt Castle from the Canadian or the USA sides of the St Lawrence. If you go from the Canadian side then you have to clear customs on the island.
We caught the Boldt Castle Shuttle from the gorgeous river-side town of Alexandria Bay, on the USA side. Alexandria Bay was full of interesting trinket shops and nice cafes and diners.
The shuttle departs every half an hour from 10 a.m.. The ferry cost us US$9 each and entrance to the castle was US$10. We spent about an hour and a half there in total. There was parking just by the ferry port.
Shopping in the States
If you fancy popping to the States for some Americana and some bargains then you could take a trip to Watertown, a city two hours from Ottawa in upstate New York. There’s a couple of malls here and some good places to eat.
To get there you have to cross the Canadian-US border (obvs) and the St Lawrence River. Crossing the bridge over the St Lawrence River is really exciting as it goes really high and you can see some of the 1,000 Island National Park down below. Crossing the border is pretty quick if you’re Canadian, however it took me about half an hour to get across as I’m a Brit and my ESTA wasn’t valid for land entry so I had to pay and be processed again.
If you’d like to head somewhere a bit bigger than Watertown then the next big city is Syracuse – 3 to 4 hours drive from Ottawa.
White Water Rafting
Owl Rafting offer lots of white-water, fun, boating-type trips on the Ottawa River, including rafting and canoeing. They have a range of excursions from family-friendly trips to something a little more dangerous and exciting.
They have their own ‘resort’ at the river-side, with cabins and camping space. Getting here is a bit tricky by public transport. By car this is a 1 hour 20 minute drive from Ottawa.
I’ve not been here but about an hour out of town, up the Ottawa Valley, is the Diefenbunker – a huge underground bunker with a military museum inside. It’s a four story bunker that was built in the cold war as the place where Canadian officials would hide if there was a nuclear attack. diefenbunker.ca
Beautiful curvy cave system with striped rock walls. Up the Ottawa Valley. www.bonnecherecaves.com.
Where we stayed
Even though we usually stay at my in-laws, we have stayed downtown a couple of times.
The Novotel is located behind the Rideau Centre, right next to Byward Market. It’s a good, mid-level hotel which has a pool. That is all. We paid $160 (£95/€105) for a mid-week stay in October. www.novotelottawa.com
Lord Elgin Hotel
The Lord Elgin Hotel is an old-school, classic hotel located on Elgin Street, right in the heart of the city, opposite the National Arts Centre, next to Parliament Hill.
I felt very posh staying here. The hotel has a certain je ne sais quoi. I felt like I should be in a fur coat, with tons of luggage and a 1940s hat.
Our room was very long and thin (I think we were by the lifts) but it was warm and cosy. To be honest, although the room was nice it wasn’t special. It was a good quality business hotel room.
However, I loved our relaxing stay here and I had a great time using the hotel pool.
The Metcalfe Hotel
Run by the same company as The Lord Elgin Hotel, and sitting back to back with it, is the Metcalfe Hotel – which is located just south of Parliament Hill. We booked the hotel as it had a swimming pool, though we never got round to using it.
The room here was fabulous: it was a cosy, opulent den where we shut the curtains and hid away from the grey winter outside. We went to LCBO for wine, Gabriel’s for pizza and we holed up watching tele and relaxing for a night on the super-comfy bed. I seem to remember there were a bazillion pillows.
Our room at Brook Street was one of the nicest hotel rooms I have ever stayed in. It was so luxurious and it had the biggest, most comfiest bed I have ever slept in. I can’t exactly say what made it so wonderful – it was just so comfy and cosy, with great fabrics, lovely views and well-designed furniture.
I wouldn’t normally be able to afford to stay somewhere so lovely, but as my husband was a groomsman at a wedding reception here we were lucky enough to get a special rate to stay.
As we were busy with the wedding we didn’t get a chance to use any of the facilities but I hear they have a gym, spa, golf course and swimming pool.
I would love to stay here again – so if any of our Ottawa friends are thinking of getting married, may I suggest Brook Street.
Brook Street is located to the west of the city, about half an hours drive from the centre. I’ve just had a look at prices (July 2020) and rooms start from $160, excluding tax.
Incidentally, the best hotel room we have ever had was at the Golden Banana in Siem Reap, which had an outdoor bath tub, pool just outside the front door, two stories, hammocks, palm trees. Yum. Brook Street is the best business hotel we’ve stayed in though.
Ottawa Jail Hostel
We haven’t stayed here but I want to mention it as it’s cool. You can stay in Ottawa’s former jail. The jail is now a hostel. Most of the rooms are actually pretty luxurious now, but if you like you can stay in your own jail cell (solitary, bunk beds or double). You can do a jail tour too, and even visit death row (you might want to do that after you’ve stayed the night though).
An authentic jail cell for one is $60 (39€/£35), including tax. A bed in a normal dorm is $50 (32€/ £29), including tax. All bookings include free breakfast and a free jail tour.
Where we eat and drink
Ottawans talk about food in the way Brits talk about the weather. It’s the main topic of conversation – probably because Canada has so many amazing food options. Having a huge immigrant population, there’s many, many international food options in Canada and they’ve been embraced: Lebanese pies, perogies, Korean food, shawarma, sushi, New York cheesecake – all are easily available.
Ottawa has a large, constantly developing restaurant and bar culture, so I’m sure I won’t be recommending the latest hot-place. What I can do though is recommend key foodie areas and give you further sources of information.
To be honest, if you want to know where is good to eat just ask an Ottawan and they will reel off a million places you could try – and then will discuss it with the person next to them. Seriously, my husband and his family will often have planned where we’re going to eat months in advance and which restaurants we’re going to try – because there’s just so many great places to eat! If you can’t ask an Ottawan where’s hot, then you can have a look at the Food and Drink guides in the Ottawa Citizen, Open Table, Ottawa Magazine or Ottawa Life.
Key areas for food include Byward Market, Elgin Street, The Glebe, Little Italy and China Town.
I’ve listed some of my favourites below. Just to note, I’m coming at this from a Brit’s perspective, so some of the places that I might recommend, Ottawan’s might not rate that highly – but these places to me are part of the culture.
Also, don’t forget that in Canada the price on the menu that you’ll see is usually the price excluding tax and tip – so you need to add on about another 25% – unless the menu states that tax is included. It’s something that drives me potty and I have no idea why they don’t just include the tax in the prices.
Gabriel’s Pizza – A trip to Ottawa would not be complete without at least one Gabriel’s Pizza. Gabriel’s makes some of the best pizza in the world. It’s the obscenely thick but light, doughy base which makes them so amazing. Normally, I could eat half a pizza – but with a Gabriel’s I can only manage a slice or two as their pizza is just so filling. gabrielpizza.com
Lone Star Tex Mex – We used to go to Lone Star for their jugs of Margarita and the free nachos. Lone Star don’t serve the best food, but they’re unpretentious and not too expensive. There is a Lone Star on the edge of Byward Market, just next to the Swedish embassy. lonestartexasgrill.com
Menchie’s – Menchies is a fro-yo franchise where you can buy fro-yo with millions of toppings. You pay by weight. I once went a little crazy in here and I am still working off the delicious calories. www.menchies.com
Shawarma Palace – If you asked me what Ottawa’s traditional food was, I’d say shawarma. Shawarma is such an integral food here and it is so, so good – that a trip to Ottawa would not be complete without trying one. You may be burping garlic sauce for the rest of your trip but believe me it’ll be worth it. There are lots of shawarma shops in the city and I have heard many discussions about which one is the best, but my first Shawarma experience was at Palace (I seem to remember going here was the first thing we did in the city), and so Palace will always be the epitome of a shawarma shop to me – including wet-cardboard covered floor, glaring overhead lights and the big queue of late-night drinkers.
A shawarma is a little like a Turkish kebab. We usually get the shawarma platter which will last me two or three meals. This usually includes meat, humus, roast potatoes, salad, a pack of pitta breads, pickles and lashings and lashings of garlic sauce. The vegetarian option is with the same but with falafel.
There’s a Shawarma Palace to the east of the city centre, on Rideau Street, and one close to the airport – for your last-minute garlicy needs.
Tim Hortons – The ubiquitous coffee chain that is pure Canadian. If you’re a tourist you’ve got to try it at least once. A classic drink to have here is a double double (double cream, double sugar) but my personal favourites are the French Vanilla and English Toffee coffees – which are sweet and soothing. They also serve good bagels and tim-bits – mini glazed doughnuts. To be honest, the coffee isn’t the best but you can’t say you’ve been to Canada until you’ve been to Timmies.
Byward Market Area
Beaver Tails – Beaver Tails are a delicious Canadian sweet snack, perfect to give you a sugar-rush in winter. Beaver Tails are fried dough with a sprinkling of sugar and cinnamon on top. The open air store is next to Byward Market. beavertails.com.
Obama Cookie – Le Moulin de Provence is a French style bakery which sells cookies, which President Obama tried on a visit here. That’s why we call this the Obama cookie shop. I tried a cookie here and it was very nice – they do also sell other pastries and posh breads. lemoulindeprovence.com
International Cheese / House of Cheese – Not restaurants but two Byward shops that have to be mentioned, International Cheese Inc and The House of Cheese are cheese shops which sell cheeses from all over the world. If you like cheese (and I love cheese) then a visit here is essential. internationalcheeseinc.com / www.thehouseofcheese.ca.
Zak’s Diner – Zak’s is one of those places that I think most Ottawans would stay away from as it is so cheesy, but it’s a type of restaurant that we don’t get a lot in the UK, so I wanted to go here. Zak’s is a pretty cool diner with good diner food, including burgers, breakfasts and milkshakes etc. Zak’s are open till 2 a.m., so you can head here after the bars close. www.zaksdiner.com
Chez Lucien – Lovely bar-restaurant that serves fabulous, fresh food. I had the salmon salad and it was amazing. They do brunch. Nice place for a date. chezlucien.ca
Heart and Crown – Typical British-style pub (they say Irish but it seemed more British to me) with lots of interconnecting rooms, darkness, tangles of chairs and tables and loud music – sometimes live. The sort of place I loved in my early twenties. heartandcrown.pub
Rideau Centre Area
There’s a good food court in the Rideau Centre with a wide-variety of food options, including Asian, Greek, healthy salads and sarnies, burgers etc. You can find a list of the food places at the CF Rideau Centre website.
Metropolitan Brasserie – Located down below Chatau Laurier is Metropolitan Brasserie. This French style brasserie is the sort of place you go to for a special meal. Some of the meals are a little pricey but their brunch and lunch prices seem pretty normal to me (a Canadian breakfast is $16 and a mimosa $7.50). Thank you to my in-laws who took us all here for a lovely Easter Sunday brunch. www.metropolitainbrasserie.com
The Lieutenant’s Pump – Good, friendly beer bar with good service and a relaxed atmosphere. They serve food and have a large patio at the front. www.lieutenantspump.ca
Elgin Street Diner – Jeff says I have to mention this late night diner, which is like Zac’s. Apparently it’s a good place to go to for late night munchies. www.elginstreetdiner.com.
House of Targ – Another one Jeff says I have to mention is The House of Targ – for pinball and perogies. Perogies are Polish dumplings – very filling and very yum, usually full of meat or cheese. I know whenever I have perogies I always want to play a game of pinball afterwards – and luckily you can do that here (I wonder if they ever use the perogies as a pin-ball? Wow that would be messy). They have other classic arcade games too.
The House of Targ is on Bank Street, south of the Glebe area. www.houseoftarg.com
Please note, some, if not much of this information may not be correct, or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to site which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is our own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.
All photos copyright of J Clemo-Halpenny, unless otherwise stated. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission