Ottawa is the capital of Canada, selected by Queen Victoria herself because of its distance from the American border. And in almost every sense, this charming city with miles of parks along the Rideau Canal and waterways flowing through its downtown was the most perfect choice she could have made. Ottawa is certainly imposing: its neo-Gothic government buildings perched dramatically atop a high cliff peering over the Ottawa River. It’s beautiful, too: stately government buildings and pleasant residential neighborhoods share the same stage with green parks, glistening lakes, timely open spaces, and a four-kilometer-wide greenbelt that helps keep the city’s air crisp and clean. It’s also cultured: the centerpiece National Arts Centre along with six other national museums only represent the mainstream of an impressive and varied array of cultural offerings. It’s cosmopolitan: it is the most perfectly bilingual city in Canada, boasting the very best restaurants and hotels. Finally, it’s fun: the Rideau Canal cuts through the heart of the city, providing a boating and canoeing recreational paradise in the summer and the world’s longest skating rink in the winter.
With all these admirable qualities and attractions, it’s hard to imagine this “paragon of the world’s capitals” was once a brawling, rough-necked, backwoods village of French lumberjacks and Irish construction workers. Men getting drunk and into fist fights was the typical scene of this village 150 years ago. In those days, Ottawa was known as By town, named after the name who built the canal. In 1855, however, By town was renamed Ottawa by Queen Victoria and designated as the capital of the short-lived United Province of Canada. When confederation came in 1867, it became a natural choice to make it the capital of the new country. It was an unpopular choice at the time. Canadians regularly mocked Ottawa, calling it the “Westminster-in-the-Wilderness”. But they seemed to get over it. The people of Ottawa immediately began developing the city into a real national capital, erecting buildings and changing the city’s rough image. They were so successful in transforming Ottawa that, for a century, it became known as a boring city of dignity, sobriety, decorum, and propriety. Things changed, however, in the 1960s when Ottawa new life was breathed into the city: buildings were erected, recreational facilities were added, cultural life received a jolt, and the entertainment scene spiced itself up. The city suddenly started to enjoy itself. Today, five million tourists can attest to this resurrection. Ottawa is definitely a city visitors will find easy to enjoy.
The best way to explore Ottawa is by foot. All the major attractions are close enough to one another. However, it may be worth your while to take one of those fun rides aboard the double-decker sightseeing buses. They depart frequently from Confederation Square in the summer.
The main attraction of Ottawa is Parliament Hill, which stands high above the Ottawa River at the heart of the city. Parliament Hill is a great starting point for tours. The government buildings there are extravagant. The sandstone structures all feature neo-Gothic towers and pinnacles, topped by green copper roofs. Most of the original buildings were destroyed in a 1916 fire. They were rebuilt shortly afterward WWI. The Peace Tower, a 92 meter (302 feet) monument, was thus added to the mix in honor of the Canadians who died in the war. The tower has an elevator that takes visitors to the top, where stunning views of the city can be enjoyed.
The Senate and House of Commons are housed in the Parliament Buildings or Centre Block House. Free guided tours are provided every day in 30-minute intervals. Visitors can also sit in the public galleries and watch Parliament when it is in session.
Unfortunately, the East and West Block offices are not open to the public. The Parliamentary Library, however, the one building that was not destroyed in the 1916 fire, can be visited. It is a polygonal domed building, the interior of which features impressive paneling.
In the summer, the Changing of the Guard takes place every day at 10AM on the lawns. Canadian Forces in colorful uniforms perform military drills ceremoniously and to the tune of military music. This is all done in the backdrop of the magnificent Parliament Buildings, providing quite a spectacle. Also, there is the son et lumière show on Parliament Hill in the evenings.
The Rideau Canal runs 125 miles or 200 kilometers between Ottawa and Kingston, east of Parliament Hill. This UNESCO World Heritage canal system is used today only for recreational purposes. It was commissioned after the War of 1812 to provide an alternate supply route from Ottawa to Kingston and Montreal in case the Americans ever attacked and threatened the St. Lawrence route. Since another war never came about, the Rideau Canal never ended up being used for its intended purpose.
The construction of the canal resulted in the deaths of thousands of workers, many of them dying as a result of blast explosions, malaria, cholera, and other diseases.
In the summer, the Rideau Canal is a lovely place for pleasure boating. Many of the locks and stations are still operated manually. In the winter, the Rideau waterway freezes, creating the world’s longest skating rink. Many residents put on their winter skates and glide on the rink for leisure as well as for practical transport’s sake. In early February, the Rideau Canal also holds a winter festival called Winterlude, which attracts more than 1.5 million tourists each year. The event involves snow and ice sculpture competitions, skating and other winter outdoor activities, and lots of music and food. Particularly popular is the “Beaver Tail”, a fried pastry dough that is sold in all the food stands.
National Gallery of Canada
The National Gallery of Canada is located at Sussex Drive, east of the Parliament Buildings. This stunning glass structure was designed by Moshe Safdie and allows natural light into the gallery. The building overlooks the Ottawa River. The gallery itself has one of the best collections of Canadian art in the world and is supplemented by works from many of the great artists around the world. Its international photographic collection is also among the largest and most impressive in the country. The gallery is open everyday in the summer.
Canadian War Museum
The Canadian War Museum is located at 330 Sussex Drive near the National Gallery of Canada. The museum’s exhibits are devoted to Canada’s military history and features displays with sound effects simulating what life was like in the trenches.
Canadian Museum of Civilization
The Canadian Museum of Civilization at 100 Laurier Street in Hull faces Parliament Hill and sits across from the National Gallery, separated by the Alexandria Bridge. The museum is housed in an enormous building and emphasizes Canadian culture. Exhibits include a rainforest, an igloo, and a west-coast Indian village. Visitor participation is encouraged. There is an IMAX and OMNIMAX theatre that shows films on the subject of Canadian Civilization.
National Museum of Natural Sciences
The National Museum of Natural Sciences is housed in an old Victorian building at the junction of McLeod and Metcalfe Streets. As its name suggests, the museum is devoted to life forms and the formation of earth. There is section dedicated to dinosaurs, extremely popular with children. The museum is open everyday in the summer.
National Museum of Science and Technology
The National Museum of Science and Technology is located at 1867 boulevard St. Laurent and features popular hands-on displays educating both children and adults about science and technology. Exhibits and displays include old steam engines and machinery, vintage cars, models of all kinds of technology, and the Apollo 7 space capsule. Many of the exhibits can be touched and tested.
National Aviation Museum
The National Aviation Museum is located at Rockcliffe Airport off boulevard St. Laurent, north of the National Museum of Science and Technology. Its collection is extensive, totaling more than 100 aircrafts that date from the period of the turn of the 20th century to the present. The history of aviation is well-represented by the museum.
Central Experimental Park
Central Experimental Park is a 12,000 acre park at Carling Avenue and The Driveway. This lovely green oasis is relaxing place for residents. It boasts acres of fields, an Arboretum, beautiful gardens, and an Agricultural Museum. Visitors can see different animals at the park and also go on horse-drawn wagon tours.
Gatineau Park is a few miles northwest of Ottawa’s city center. This parkland of 88,000 acres is a little more on the wild side than Central Experimental Park. Gatineau and its hills, woodlands, and lakes are roamed by all sorts of wildlife, including black bears, white-tailed deer, moose, and raccoons. It is a popular place for swimming, boating, fishing, hiking, camping, and picnicking. Gatineau has a historic house on the parkway called Moorside, which is a great place for lunch or dinner.
Hockey fans can watch the 2007 Stanley Cup finalists, Ottawa Senators, play from October to April (and possibly into June for the playoffs) at the Scotiabank Place at 1000 Palladium Avenue. Baseball fans can watch the Ottawa Lynx AAA team, the minor league affiliate of Major League Baseball’s Baltimore Orioles, play at Lynx Stadium, located at 300 Coventry Road. From July to November, there's harness racing at the Rideau-Carleton Raceway.
Ottawa has two municipal golf courses: Capital Golf Course on Route 31 and the Champlain on Aylmer Road. Both are 18-hole. Private clubs are more numerous. There are over 30 of them. Tennis courts are found throughout the city. Several companies in Ottawa also operate one- or two-day whitewater rafting trips in the area. For fun along Rideau Canal, the Dow’s Lake Pavilion at 1001 Queen Elizabeth Drive and Hog’s Back Marina between Route 16 and Riverside Drive both rent canoes, boats, and paddleboats.
In the winter, Gatineau Hills nearby offers skiing. Camp Fortune is the nearest ski center and you’ll see it while driving along Route 5. It has 20 ski trails and offers night skiing as well. Facilities include day lodges, a ski shop, and a ski school. Mont Cascades is another ski center nearby. It is located on Route 307 outside Cantley. Mont Cascades has 10 ski trails supported by two lodges. Edelweiss Valley is further out from Ottawa near Wakefield, about 18 miles or 29 kilometers away on Route 366. It has 18 trails and offers night skiing, sleigh riding, and ice skating. It also has a ski school.
The Rideau Centre at 50 Rideau Street is one Ottawa’s main shopping complexes. Built on three levels over 14 acres, the complex includes a 475-room luxury hotel, 18 restaurants, a convention centre, three cinemas, and a shopping complex with more than 220 stores. The crown jewel of the complex is a 5-acre park.
The Sparks Street Mall is another major shopping centre in Ottawa. Located on Sparks Street between Lyon and Elgin Street, this outdoor mall was Canada’s first pedestrianized street. Its five-block area is lined with department stores, boutiques, sidewalk cafes, and historic buildings. All that concrete is lightened up by fountains, sculptures, rock gardens, open-air displays, and street entertainers.
The Byward Market is a farmers’ market near the Sparks Street Mall. This market has been held every year since 1830. Farmers, local artists, and craftspeople come to display and sell their wares in this old Market Building. There are also restaurants and specialty food stores. The market is located between George and Clarence Street and is open everyday from May to October.
Ottawa is not known for its nightlife. For more than a hundred years, the city had a reputation for being boring and dull. Things have improved in recent years, but only by a little.
At night, the best show in town remains the son et lumière on Parliament Hill. A variety of cultural programs, meanwhile, can be enjoyed at the National Arts Centre. This complex includes a 2,300-seat opera auditorium, a 950-seat theatre, and a small 150-seat theatre called Atelier. There is also a studio designated for experimental productions. Operas, orchestras, ballets, variety shows, and dance productions are performed throughout the year.
The Barrymore’s Music Hall at 323 Bank Street is the place to go for rock music. Rainbow Bistro at 76 Murray Street hosts jazz performances once every week, usually on Sunday afternoons. Patty’s Pub at 1186 Bank Street is a popular Irish pub among locals and hosts folk music plays at least once every week.
Except for a few Outaouaic Indians, nobody lived in Ottawa prior to the arrival of New Englander Philemon Wright in 1800. Wright named the place after the Indians and founded a small settlement at the confluence of the Gatineau, Rideau, and Ottawa Rivers. He considered the site an ideal location for shipping timber to Quebec. In 1826, he was joined by Colonel John By and his company of Royal Engineers, who were accompanied by an army of Irish laborers sent by the Duke of Welling to construct a canal. After the War of 1812, Wellington decided to build an alternative water route from the Ottawa River to Lake Ontario, concerned that the St. Lawrence was within reach of an American attack. By 1832, he had completed the Rideau Canal, a system of canals, locks, and dams over rivers and lakes, stretching 125 miles or 200 kilometers from Bytown to Kingston, Ontario.
Bytown in the 1830s was a thriving settlement, producing and shipping timber to the east. Philemon Wright’s assessment of the site was right. In the 1850s, discussions were in place for the creation of the United Province of Canada, a merger of the existing provinces. A bitter rivalry between the larger cities of Upper and Lower Canada immediately festered. Distressed by the feuding, Queen Victoria selected Bytown for its location on the border of both provinces. The forests also provided a natural barrier against any threat of an American attack. Honored by this selection, the people of Bytown renamed their settlement to Ottawa and began using the timber to raise up buildings for its new industry: government.
Today, 875,000 people now live in this city that was once dubbed “Westminster-in-the-Wilderness”. They are quite proud of their association with the wilderness. Unlike the residents of most world capitals, the people of Ottawa not only live near the seat of political power but are also just a moment’s drive from beautiful Mother Nature. They are aware of this and take advantage of it.
How to Get There
Ottawa has an international airport about 20 minutes south of the city’s downtown area. VIA Rail offers train service everyday to Toronto, Kingston, and Montreal. Within the city, transportation is supported by buses and taxis. Greyhound operates bus services from Ottawa to many Canadians cities.
Trans-Canada Highway (Route 417) is the main highway traveling into and out of Ottawa from both the east and the west. From the south, the closest border is at Ogdensburg, New York. Route 16 from Ogdensburg can be used to reach Ottawa. This route also connects with Route401, the main highway used to reach Toronto and Montreal.
Carroll, Donald. Insider’s Guide Canada. Edison: Hunter Publishing, Inc, 1996. ISBN: 1556507100.
“Ottawa.” < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ottawa>
“Rideau Canal.” < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rideau_Canal>
“Scotiabank Place.” < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scotiabank_Place>
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