May’s annual Tulip Festival is the largest of its kind in the world with over three million blooms across the city, attracting 600,000 visitors. Ottawa Tourism
By Alison Gardner, Editor, Travel with a Challenge
It is a rather serious responsibility to be the capital of the second largest country on Earth, but this well-designed, safe and tidy city on the border between the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec also knows how to enjoy itself immensely. With a population of 861,000 and a regional population of 1.2 million, Ottawa is large enough to offer everything a visitor could wish to sample and small enough to access it with ease. Named after the native Algonquin phrase, “to trade”, Ottawa’s trade today is people in a multi-cultural, bilingual atmosphere (English and French) offering plenty of joie de vivre in any language.
National capitals are expected to have the largest and most impressive museums in a country. Ottawa’s museums are no exception with some of the most innovative architectural designs and displays anywhere in the world. During my week there in March, I absorbed the contents of just a few – the National Gallery of Canada, the Canadian Museum of Civilization, the Canadian War Museum and the Museum of Nature, each worthy of half a day, before moving from monumental to miniature with an informative walking tour through the streets of the city core to visit studios and galleries of individual artists with a great deal of talent and loads of personality. I also made time to take in a Japanese musical extravaganza at the National Arts Centre and a compelling two-person play at a miniature neighborhood theatre, both equally rewarding in a city known for its arts and culture.
Ottawa is an active, outdoor city with parks galore, biking and walking trails groomed for use year round. An iconic landmark, the Rideau Canal, slices gracefully through the heart of the city. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007, it is an early 19th-century construction built primarily for military purposes when Great Britain and the United States vied for control of the region. It is the only canal dating from this great North American canal-building era to remain operational along its original line. In winter its ice is well maintained as a skater’s outdoor paradise; in warmer seasons, the canal is the focus of day cruises into the picturesque countryside. In every season, manicured walkways on either side of the canal are always to be enjoyed along the cityscape skyline.
Overlooked by Canada’s Parliament Buildings, the Rideau Canal Skateway encourages locals and visitors to skate through the heart of the capital both day and evening. Ottawa Tourism
ZenKitchen’s owner, Chef Caroline Ishii, proves that vegan dishes can be beautiful, environmentally-friendly, delicious and healthy. Book ahead … this small eatery is extremely popular with the locals! ZenKitchen
Foodies will find taste bud satisfaction in the city’s wide range of signature eateries where cuisine is an art form, organic and fresh are a matter of pride, and the word “ordinary” rarely passes a patron’s lips. There are ample award-winning regional wines to try as well as micro-brewery beers, all competing handsomely against international choices. Whether savoring an artfully-presented lunch in the Great Hall of the National Gallery or the inventive vegan dishes of the always-packed ZenKitchen , gourmet fare is a natural expectation among residents who love to eat out and vacationers who reap the benefit of this local demand for culinary creativity.
Taking the cuisine theme one step further, why not add skills to the holiday by signing up for a class at the only Cordon Bleu International School in North America? Ottawa and Paris are also the only Cordon Bleu Schools with 100% French chefs. For leisure kitchen divas and divos on holiday, full-day theme classes average $245, and 4-day short courses ($695) are offered year round. A mother and daughter Patisserie Delights 6.5 hour class is $260 for two, and there is even a Summer Cooking for Teens class ($190, for teen + parent). Classes in a beautifully-restored antique building are designed to be fun, and are not intimidating.
Ottawa’s Cordon Bleu Cooking School offers a wide variety of one- to four-day classes for vacationers, focused on different cuisine themes. Alison Gardner
There are many large and small accommodation choices in this city where visiting bureaucrats with laptops and travelers with cameras stay with equal satisfaction. In the imposing and historic category, there is nothing to beat two city-core gems both of which have been mattress-tested by the author: the Fairmont Château Laurier and the Lord Elgin Hotel. Each one is within easy walking distance of many of the city’s finest national museums and galleries, unique eateries, exceptional shopping and must-see highlights including Parliament Hill where activities, parades and tours delight visitors especially during the Summer months.
In the heart of the city, Lord Elgin Hotel is in walking distance of many visitor highlights. Lord Elgin Hotel.
Constructed in just three years by a railway entrepreneur and opened nearly a hundred years ago in 1912, the landmark Château Laurier is the size and interior design of a respectable-sized royal palace in Europe. Sadly, the entrepreneur did not get a chance to enjoy his grand vision because he went down with the iceberg-fated Titanic just before the hotel’s opening. However, its history and the elegance of a bygone era live on proudly to this day.
Though few prime ministers of a country get to commission a hotel, that is exactly what Canada’s wartime PM did with the Lord Elgin, declaring that the national capital needed accommodation on a less grand scale for government bureaucrats and middle class visitors. It opened to great fanfare in 1941, named for one of Canada’s governors general who administered what was then a British colony nearly a century before. This hotel is a welcome discovery, lavishly decorated with its own 70 years of colorful tales.
From May through October, an Art Gallery Walking Tour through the ByWard Market area introduces visitors to an intriguing cross-section of local galleries and artists, including Galerie 240 (above) and the Gordon Harrison Canadian Landscapes Gallery (below). Alison Gardner
Being a person who loves color (the brighter the better!), I am particularly inclined to visit Ottawa in the month of May when the Tulip Festival dazzles the eye, thanks to a gift of hundreds of thousands of bulbs every year from The Netherlands. During World War II, Canada provided safe haven for the exiled Dutch royal family, and one of the royal princesses was born in Ottawa at that time. What a great way to say “thank you” for more than 65 years! Also with color in mind, I am in love with Ottawa and its surrounding countryside in the Autumn when the yellows, reds and oranges of deciduous trees and entire forests create a tableau beyond description.
The comprehensive Ottawa Tourism website, www.ottawatourism.ca, provides essentials about travel to the city and region. For complete information about festivals and numerous special events, see www.ottawafestivals.ca. Here are ten major attractions around which to build a memorable holiday:
Rideau Canal: In Winter, it becomes the largest skating rink in the world, stretching 7.8 km (4.8 miles) through downtown. Bureaucrats even commute to work with skates and a brief case! In Summer, boat cruises, biking, running or inline skating along the recreational pathways are popular. Check out a delightful Rideau Canal feature article in our Travel Article Library about an Autumn exploration by boat and car.
Parliament Hill: Canada’s seat of government sits on a majestic bluff overlooking the Ottawa River. During the Summer, catch the impressive Changing the Guard ceremony and the free Sound & Light Show projected onto the Parliament Buildings.
ByWard Market: This is one of the oldest and largest farmers’ markets in Canada, as well as an entertainment district filled with great restaurants, clubs, coffee shops and boutiques. Christmas is a wonderfully decorative time to visit.
Canadian Museum of Civilization: The name says it all. This most-visited museum in Canada covers a lot of ground!
Ottawa Festivals: On a diverse list of possibilities, Winterlude (February), the Tulip Festival (May), and the world’s largest Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival (July) are each two week events. Visit www.ottawafestivals.ca for annual updates and additions.
Gatineau Park: Only minutes north of Ottawa, this wilderness conservation area provides outstanding recreational opportunities any time of year.
Canadian War Museum: With a stunning architectural design, innovative exhibitions and public programs, this is a military history museum of international stature.
National Gallery of Canada: The soaring glass structure houses the most important collection of Canadian art as well as American and European masterpieces. It is also a great place to eat, overlooking the river and Parliament Buildings.
RCMP Musical Ride: The Royal Canadian Mounted Police offer their world renowned cavalry drill choreographed to music, and tours of their stables and training facilities.
World Class Entertainment: Enjoy premier English and French theater, dance and orchestral performances at the National Arts Centre as well as more intimate venues throughout the city.
Top: Oblivious to the weather outside the National Arts Centre, the life-size bronze statue of Oscar Peterson, Canadian jazz piano virtuoso, celebrates his 65-year career as a musician, recording artist and composer.
Bottom: The National Gallery of Canada café has a surprisingly gourmet menu, including some very tasty desserts. Alison Gardner