Situated due to its inland location away from potential 19th century military invasions by the Americans, Ottawa occupies a position on a bluff above the scenic Ottawa River, befitting considering its prominence in Canadian affairs. The governmental business of a nation is run from this city, which ranks as one of the coldest federal capitals in the world (not the coldest, as some will claim … that title belongs to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia), which makes sense given Canada’s reputation as a winter nation.
Apart from the obvious hallmarks of Canadian governance (Supreme Court, Parliament Hill, etc), another big attraction for those exploring Ottawa is its abundance of museums, many of which rank highly on the world stage. As well, with outstanding nature located mere minutes outside the metro area (numerous lakes, whitewater rapids on the Ottawa River, the trails of Gatineau Park), those seeking to experience the outdoors of the Great White North won’t need venture far to sample it.
Some might say that Ottawa can be a boring place. If you venture beyond the offices of the core and the cookie-cutter suburbs as some locals can fail to do, you will almost certainly come away with a very different impression of this part of Ontario and Canada.
Out of all the things one can see in Ottawa, Parliament Hill sticks out like a sore thumb, so it makes sense to begin here first. Guided tours are available of all the important parts of the complex, including the Peace Tower, where you can get a sweeping view of the city below, and the House of Commons, where our politicians debate, argue and eventually pass laws that govern this nation. If the house is in session when you are here, you may not be able to walk out onto the floor, but you are more than welcome to watch Question Period, where one will be shocked and amazed at how much of a figurative bloodsport politics can be at times.
On a lighter note, try to schedule your travels so that you end up on Parliament Hill on Canada Day, as one of the biggest parties in the country goes down here, complete with all day concerts and fireworks at night.
Being the most important city in Canada politically has bequeathed Ottawa with a wealth of museums and galleries, and no attraction is as lauded as much as The Canadian Museum of Civilization. If you time for only one museum in Ottawa, make time for this one, as its mission is to chronicle the history and culture of Canada, possessing a wide variety of artifacts and exhibits that tell this short but compelling story with a life that you will feel the time you spend perusing the highlights within. 1.2 million visitors take in the same experience every year, making it Canada’s most popular museum.
While Canada hasn’t had the history of warfare that its next door neighbour to the south has had over the years, it hasn’t exactly shied away from the major fights of the past two centuries either. These stories are told at the Canadian War Museum, which recounts wars fought on Canadian soil (War of 1812, The Northwest Rebellion) and abroad (Boer War, World Wars I and II, and the Korean War), peacekeeping operations and present day operations (War in Afghanistan). It contains military hardware, as well as other artifacts like letters, diaries, photos and more that illustrate the true nature of armed conflict.
While Canada is presented on the world stage by a prime minister, officially Canada is ruled by the British Monarchy. As such, the Queen has a representative in Ottawa to represent her interests (if only as a formality these days) known as the Governor General. This government official lives and works at a posh residence known as Rideau Hall, which can only be viewed by reservation during the slow part of the year (i.e. winter), and by scheduled tours during peak season. Highlights include an inspired art collection produced by the best Canadian creatives, and some of the most exquisite furniture anywhere.
Finally, get the lowdown on the grungy early days of Ottawa at the Bytown Museum. Named after Ottawa’s first name before it was switched to its current iteration, this museum is as interesting in its architecture as its internal contents, as it stands as one of the oldest structures in the city.
The scary days of the Cold War led many governments around the world to prepare for the worst case scenario. Canada was no different, as a secret bunker designed to protect the integrity of the Canadian government in case of thermonuclear war was constructed in the 1950’s. Its existence was unveiled after the conclusion of hostilities in the 1980’s, and today, the affectionately dubbed Diefenbunker harkens back to an era much different than the largely open global society that exists in the present day.
If Cold War paranoia isn’t your bag, but getting fresh air in the great outdoors is, the Gatineau Park will prove to be an engaging afternoon spent communing with nature within easy striking distance of downtown. Sitting up on an elevated highland across the river from central Ottawa, multiple trails here provide badly needed release for stressed out bureaucrats, especially in the fall, when the trees come to life in a blaze of colour.
In winter, the active traveler simply can’t leave Ottawa without going skating on the Rideau Canal. Being the world’s longest skating rink, it often is part of many office worker’s commutes during the cold months, reinforcing the inherent Canadian character of the nation’s capital. Try to coincide your skating session with Ottawa’s winter celebration known as Winterlude, held during three weekends in February. Ice sculpture competitions, innumerable food stalls, hockey tournaments and more go down at this time, making it excellent time to be in Ottawa during this chilly season.