Every time I visit Canada, I have the feeling that I’m visiting an old friend.
Though I’ve been fortunate enough to see a lot of the country, I’d never been to Ottawa. But after hearing so many people tell me what a gem of a city it was, I decided it was long past due to remedy that situation.
Just under a million people live in Ottawa, about 20 percent of them French-speaking. The city was named for the Odawa, the natives first encountered by exploring Europeans in the early 1600s. An hour’s drive north of the Canada/US border, or a one-hour flight from Toronto, New York, and Boston, Ottawa is the site of the country’s Parliament and federal government.
From our home base, the Fairmont Chateau Laurier, just about everything we wanted to see and do in Canada’s capital city was at our doorstep. And though we were visiting in May—just in time for the annual Canadian Tulip Festival—Ottawa puts out the “bienvenue” mat for visitors all year long.
No matter when you plan to visit, here’s a round-up of my favorite sights and experiences. What will be yours?
- Canadian Tulip Festival You’ve missed last year’s festival (sorry!), but you’ve got plenty of time to make plans to attend the 61st edition this spring, May 3-20, 2013. The tulip is Ottawa’s official flower, and this annual festival is the largest celebration of tulips in the world. Ottawa’s love affair with the tulip stems from World War II, when the Dutch Royal Family was granted refuge in Ottawa. Princess Margriet, the younger sister of the current Queen Beatrix, was born during their stay. Canadian troops played a significant part in liberating the Netherlands. When the war ended, the Royal Family returned home, and they sent their host country a gift of 100,000 tulip bulbs as an expression of gratitude to the people of Canada; this gift of tulips continues to this day. In this year’s edition, more than 3 million tulips were on display throughout the region. Accompanying the festival is a variety of events from lectures arts competitions to the Great Canadian Tulip Treasure Hunt. For more information on the 2013 festival, visit www.tulipfestival.ca.
- Other festivals held in Ottawa include: the Festival Franco-Ontarien, in June, for lovers of all things French; the RBC Royal Bank Bluesfest, the second largest blues festival in the world, which takes place for 11 days in July; the Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival, the world’s largest, held every year from late July through early August; and Nuit Blanche, the annual nocturnal arts party in September which celebrates visual arts.
- Parliament Hill The seat of Canada’s government, Parliament Hill overlooks the Ottawa River. Construction on the Parliament Buildings began in 1859, and today the buildings are well-regarded as among the finest examples of Gothic Revival architecture in North America. Free guided tours are available, in both French and English (Canada’s official languages). For a stunning view of the city, climb to the top of the Peace Tower. And for a touch of British Empire pageantry, arrive by 10 a.m. for the daily Changing the Guard Ceremony (weather permitting). For more information, visit the Parliament of Canada website at www.parl.gc.ca/vis.
- ByWard Market What’s a vacation without shopping and eating? At ByWard Market you get to do both! The market, established by Lt.-Col. John By in 1826, is one of Canada’s oldest and largest public markets. There are outdoor vendors selling fruits and vegetables, flowers, and arts and crafts, as well as indoor restaurants and more boutiques. Get a lay of the land before you go by visiting www.byward-market.com.
- Culinary Tours It seems that more and more cities are offering food tours and Ottawa has joined in. C’est Bon Cooking offers several epicurean tours, including the neighborhoods of ByWard Market, Preston Street, Westboro, and Eddy Street in Old Gatineau. We took the ByWard Market tour, and for three hours nibbled our way from restaurant to cheese shop to bakery and more. Wear comfortable shoes and skip breakfast! For more information, visit www.cestboncooking.ca.
- Ottawa offers other guided tours as well, including: walking tours, haunted walks, and even biplane or helicopter rides.
- Canadian Museum of Civilization Absolutely loved this stunner of a museum, which includes the world’s largest collection of totem poles. Even if you’re not an avid museum-goer, this is one you shouldn’t miss. Check it out first at www.civilization.ca.
- Cruise the Rideau Canal From early May (we were fortunate enough to be there on opening weekend) to October, Paul’s Boat Lines offers tours along the Rideau Canal and Ottawa River. An entertaining guide offers commentary on the historic sites along the way, including the National Arts Centre (check out what’s on during your visit; it’s a great venue for concerts and plays), the National Gallery of Canada, Rideau Falls, and more. When the weather is nice, you can also cycle alongside the canal. In the winter, the canal turns into the world’s largest naturally frozen skating rink. Visit www.paulsboatcruises.com for a schedule.
- Winterlude I confess, I haven’t actually been to Winterlude, but knowing how well Canada does winters (as opposed to my hometown of Baltimore that becomes paralyzed at the mere sight of a snowflake!), I think I can pretty safely say this would be one of my favorites. This annual winter celebration takes place weekends from February 1-18, 2013. Bundle up and enjoy the international ice carving competitions, the largest snow playground in North America, and skating on the Rideau Canal. Check out the details at http://www.canadascapital.gc.ca/celebrate/winterlude.
- Fairmont Chateau Laurier Sometimes a hotel is just, well, a place to rest your head. Not so much at this legendary hotel, which has just celebrated its 100th anniversary. Reminiscent of a French country chateau–complete with turrets–the Chateau is a bona fide Ottawa landmark, so it’s well worth including in my “best of” list. Visit www.fairmont.com.
To learn more about Ottawa and plan your visit (don’t wait as long as I did!), visit www.ottawatourism.ca.