The city that Canada forgot

FOR THE SEASONS: Ice-skaters on Rideau Canal.
FOR THE SEASONS: Ice-skaters on Rideau Canal.

It is a national capital, famous for manicured lawns, national buildings with unusual architecture, and a landmark body of water running through the centre of town.

It is a city adored by its well-educated, arts-loving residents, but scorned by the rest of the nation for being dull and quiet.

But there is actually plenty of life in Ottawa. A few hours from Toronto and Montreal, it is well worth spending a day there.

Totems at the Canadian Museum of Civilisation.
Totems at the Canadian Museum of Civilisation.


Wake up at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier, a century-old hotel in the style of a 300-year-old French chateau. The sandstone building, one of the city's landmarks, is perfectly located. On one side is the ByWard Market and the main shopping area. On the other are the famous Rideau Canal and Canada's Parliament House.

This elegant hotel has tremendous decor, ever helpful staff and excellent breakfasts. The award-winning Wilfrid's restaurant, on the ground floor, does a splendid morning buffet.



Next to Parliament Hill, the Rideau Canal is one of the 19th century's great engineering feats, built as a barrier against the United States military. It flows out of the Ottawa River, which is worth crossing for the pathways that link with parks, museums and historical buildings.

If you are so inclined, join the trim Ottawans who walk or run around the river, crossing any of the four nearby bridges. Otherwise, you can cycle.

You can take a bike from the council-owned Bixi bike depots for half an hour at a time only, which is plenty of time to cross the water, but for a more relaxed trip, choose your wheels from the 300 new bikes at RentABike, on the canal.

More passive visitors can take the Aqua-Taxi across the river.



Ottawa is a bilingual city, where the natives effortlessly slip between English and French. The street signs are also bilingual.

Over the Pont Alexandra Bridge, however, you enter the province of Quebec and the town of Gatineau, where English is banned from signs. They are all in French, reflecting Quebec's pride.

Once you cross into Gatineau, one of the few English-language signs is for the Canadian Museum of Civilisation (which, as a national institution, still has bilingual signs), designed by Native Canadian architect Douglas Cardinal.



Crossing the bridge, you should waste no time visiting one of the new food trucks that line the streets, as the lunchtime queues can soon turn into crowds.

Steamed buns from Gongfu Bao or sustainable seafood from Ad Mare are worth a try.

If it is Wednesday, you should first relax on the lawns at the front of Parliament Hill. At weekends, it is often covered with loud protesters, but on Wednesdays, thousands of people with mats gather for guerilla yoga.


Visit one of Ottawa's neighbourhoods outside the centre, such as Hintonburg, Wellington Village, or The Glebe. They are worth a quick taxi ride, but be sure to note the taxi's number, for taxis are not so common outside the city centre.

The Glebe is one of Ottawa's oldest communities, with tree-lined streets and wonderfully novel shops like Candy Bouquet, a florist in which the bouquets are made from chocolates. If you have not had lunch, visit the locavore haunt Urban Pear for the bison rib-eye or whatever else is on the constantly changing menu.



Ottawa is known for its dramatic climate, making it almost unrecognisable from season to season.

In the snow-capped northern winter, the Rideau Canal becomes the world's largest ice-skating rink, stretching 7.8 kilometres. Locals skate to work en masse with their suits and briefcases. Winterlude takes over in February, covering the city with ice sculptures and snowy festivities.

In May, the Canadian Tulip Festival spreads a million tulips across Ottawa's parks.

In the northern autumn, when the leaves change at Gatineau Park, it is a popular spot for hikers and trail cyclists.



The ByWard Market, Canada's oldest and largest public market, is open all day, with dozens of indoor and outdoor vendors selling fresh fruit, handicrafts and several varieties of maple syrup, straight from the farm.

While there, try a beaver tail - deep-fried pastry coated with sweet toppings, ranging from cinnamon to maple butter. Moulin de Provence offers maple-leaf-shaped Obama cookies, so named because the US President bought one during a visit in 2009.

To escape the ByWard crowds, call in to the Peace Garden cafe, a 20-year-old institution, for a fresh vegetarian snack in a peaceful, meditative setting.



Head to 700 Sussex Drive, next to the Chateau Laurier, for a seafood or pasta dinner at the Metropolitan Brasserie.

It is modelled on the brasseries of 1920s Paris, but that fact is disguised by the modern background music and the sophisticated clientele, more reflecting 21st-century Ottawa.



Ottawa is not the only city with ghost tours, but the Haunted Walk through the streets by lantern light stands out. It finishes in the old Carleton county jail, now the Ottawa Jail Hostel. The scene of several executions in its former life, of course, it is haunted.

But for accommodation from $30 a night, what are a few ghosts?



Ottawa's night life is more polite than Toronto's, but it is busy nonetheless.

At Zaphod Beeblebrox, a band might be playing folk-rock or blues.

Fat Tuesdays lures its patrons with Cajun food and, on Thursdays and Saturdays, duelling pianos.

Numerous brewpubs cater for Canada's love affair with beer, including local brews. Otherwise, chill out at one of the cocktail bars, such as Zoe's Lounge at the Chateau Laurier, or try a bourbon at the basement speakeasy of Union Local 613.


For more information, visit, the official website of the Canadian Tourist Commission. Fly to Los Angeles, then to Chicago (4hr) and then to Ottawa (1hr 53min). See

The writer travelled with the assistance of the Canadian Tourism Commission and United Airlines.