I moved to Canada without having ever visited Ottawa. Clearly I needed to visit Ottawa as soon as possible.
If you’ve heard Ottawa is boring, you’re in for a pleasant surprise. Friends in Toronto suggested Ottawa didn’t have a lot to offer, but there was more than enough to keep me busy for a long weekend. I’m ready to go back and see the rest of the city.
This year is Canada’s 150th anniversary, so Ottawa is going to have a ton going on to celebrate. If you haven’t been (or even if you have!) this is the year to go.
Where to explore
You’ll have to see Ottawa City Hall, the Supreme Court of Canada, and Parliament. They all offer free tours, although tickets for Parliament demand early morning lineups to get. I was lucky enough to have a private tour of Parliament.
It goes without saying that you need to explore downtown and Centretown. It’s not as vibrant as Montreal or Toronto, but there’s still a lot going on.
As you walk from Wellington Village to Westboro, things keep getting younger and hipper. There are a lot of great boutiques, cafes, and coffee shops along the walk.
The walk through the Dominion Arboretum from the Dow’s Lake Pavilion to Hartwell’s Lockstation and back north through the Canadian Agriculture Museum’s Experimental Farms is a nice one. There’s a wealth of different types of gardens. It doesn’t feel like you’re in the city at all.
When you reach Hartwell’s Lockstation, the other option is to cross the lock to see Carleton University, Old Ottawa South, and The Glebe. If you’re hungry or are more interested in cities than trees, this is the option to take.
ByWard Market is a thriving urban mall, including the actual mall of Rideau Centre. The Bytown Museum is small, but gives a great history of the area and is easy to stop into as you walk along the canal and over to Major’s Hill Park for the view. Getting your photo taken as you cross the locks at Ottawa Lockstation is mandatory. If you’re ready for a break, check out the ByTowne Cinema. This neighborhood has it’s fair share of museums, including the National Gallery and the Royal Canadian Mint. The shops on Rideau Street continue to the river.
I dipped into New Edinburgh to see Rideau Falls, the Rockcliffe Park Pavilion, Rideau Hall, and Stanley Park. It’s a nice neighborhood for a stroll.
While lots of people live across the river in Gatineau, their downtown section of Hull doesn’t have a lot to offer beyond Brutalist architecture and the Canadian Museum of History. Unless philately is your great love, their little Canadian Postal Museum isn’t going to be terribly exciting. And that’s coming from someone who wrote their thesis on the history of the postal system.
What to see
The National Gallery of Canada is huge, so make sure you give yourself enough time. It has an extensive collection of works by Canadian artists, European art, and contemporary pieces. Fittingly, this is the largest art museum in Canada. The Moshe Safdie building is meant to mimic the contours of Parliament Hill. Admission is free on Thursdays.
The Canadian War Museum is much smaller than it looks from the outside. That’s a good thing, though, since there’s more than enough to keep you busy for an afternoon. The museum is very well done, walking you through all of Canada’s history in a way that’s accessible even to those of us without a solid background in the subject. The displays are both interactive and immersive. Build in a time for quiet reflection after your visit, since it’s quite moving.
Don’t miss their collection of tanks, bikes, and other vehicles on your way out. If you’re a history buff, you could easily spend the entire day here.
The Canadian Museum of History was oddly disorienting to navigate. Their collection was amazing, but it was a little weak on context. While it wasn’t one of my favorite museums, it’s still a must-see. The architecture is worth the trip alone. Be warned that there is not much to eat on this side of the river, especially on weekends.
If you’re biking the canal, head a bit outside of the downtown to see Hogs Back Falls and the Hogs Back Lockstation.
If you can get out of the city, Gatineau Park is absolutely worth the trouble of getting out there, even if you don’t run into Trudeau on your hike. The MacKenzie King Estate is a fascinating peek into Canadian history — and follies.
Where to work
The Ministry of Coffee and Social Affairs is basically all my dreams come true: a coffee shop with beer and real food. When I end up working in the evenings, I want to be able to do it with a beer and some entertainment. It’s the last coffee shop in town to close at the end of the night.
Bridgehead Roastery is Ottawa’s local chain. They’re well distributed throughout the city and are a solid choice every time. I was partial to their Little Italy location on Preston Street, where they actually roast the beans, despite the lack of outlets. I often skip over baked goods at coffee shops, but they take their breads and pastries seriously here.
I Deal Coffee is just beyond the bustle of Byward Market. This roastery has the ambiance of a diner, somehow. The staff and the locals are friendly. It’s an excellent quiet spot to work or just read the paper. This is perhaps the least pretentious serious coffee shop I’ve ever encountered. This feels more like a labour of love than a business.
Bar Robo is just on the edge of Chinatown and Downtown. It’s more of a coffee shop than a bar and you won’t be the only one on your laptop during the day. It’s small, so you’ll end up chatting with your neighbor a bit while you get work done. They’re on point with all the food trends, although I couldn’t walk through Chinatown without eating on the way. They have DJs after a certain hour and doughnuts if you get there early enough.
If you’re looking for a spot of quiet contemplation (there’s no wifi), Café Qui Pense is an oasis in quiet Old Ottawa East.
What to eat
The Elgin Street Diner is one of those good diners that feels like it could be anywhere, although their menu is full of classic Canadian items. During off-peak hours they’re more than happy to let you plug in your laptop, use their wifi, and drink endless coffee refills. Their portions are large enough that it might take you that long to finish your food.
Out in Castle Heights you’ll find Coconut Lagoon. I hear this is the best spot in town for vegetarian and vegan options. Everything I ordered was great. It’s clear why this is such a popular spot.
Ottawa has far more than you can see in a few days. Here’s what’s on my must-see list for next time:
- Canadian Aviation and Space Museum
- Biking the Rideau Canal (I walked parts of it, but it’s not the same)
- SuzyQ Doughnuts
- Canadian Museum of Nature (they’re an ASTC member, but wouldn’t recognize my pass)
I've taken the train to & from this station plenty of times and I had never seen this beautiful spiral ramp before. Everyone else was rushing off the train to catch rides, taxis and buses while I stood there just taking photos. ▪️▪️▪️▪️▪️▪️▪️▪️▪️▪️▪️▪️▪️▪️▪️▪️▪️▪️▪️▪️▪️▪️▪️▪️▪️▪️▪️▪️▪️▪️▪️▪️ #Ottawa #MyOttawa #IgersOttawa #NarcityOttawa #TheCanadianCollective #ImagesOfCanada #EnjoyCanada #GetOutside #TheCreatorClass #LiveAuthentic #LiveFolk #VisualsOfLife #VisualsGang #ArtOfVisuals #TheVisualCollective #CreateExplore #NeverStopExploring #ExploreToCreate #ExploreCanada #ExploreMore #DiscoverON #JustGoShoot #VSCO #VSCODaily #VSCOCam #Architecture #Archilovers #MoodyGrams #StreetDreamsMag
Ottawa’s VIA Rail station is a fantastic piece of architecture. It’a also quite a bit outside of the city. Soon it will be connected by local rail, but for now you’ll have to rely on the bus. If you’re traveling with a bike, there’s a great bike path to downtown. If you’ve got time it’s also walkable.
The easiest way to get into the city is by bus, which will drop you off in a much more convenient location.
Thank you to Tal-Or Ben-Choreen, Liat Freedman, and Charlie Le for showing me around Ottawa and being generally amazing.