Ottawa is Canada’s capital, which we also give a capital ‘O’ for Outstanding. This bustling city is full of hidden spaces, like bunkers and speakeasies! With enough culture to make you think you travelled the world, and enough shopping centers to make everyone believe you, Ottawa is definitely more than just the Canadian experience. But, if you’re looking for that certain Canadian experience, they have that too. A blend of history, a sprinkle of upcoming restaurants, and a dash of the weird, you’ll have plenty to explore whether you’re there for a few days or a lifetime.
Ottawa might just turn into one giant brewery someday, but we won’t complain about that. This Canadian city is overflowing with beer, so if you’re a craft beer lover, take a little dip in the local froth. First, start at Bicycle Craft Brewery, because "bikes and brews"... name a more iconic duo. I'll wait. Then, head to Waller St. Brewery, which was inspired by prohibition. Located in the cozy basement of a heritage building, you’ll get major speakeasy vibes (and, unlike the real Prohibition, no one can stop you from drinking!) By now, you may need a little something to eat with your flights, so try Clocktower Brewhouse. With a fresh approach to typical bar food, this brewery not only brews local beer but uses fresh ingredients on their menu. There are countless other breweries in Ottawa, so you’ll have plenty more to explore.
If you wish school never ended, then this cafe has your first day of school schedule ready to go! At Lunchbox, step back in time to more youthful days and enjoy a spin on the classic school lunch. The food is all grown up though, as every option is gourmet and fresh. With a menu that features item names such as “The Fire Drill” and “The Nutty Professor”, you might find yourself wishing that you had a detention slip to stay a little longer. And they didn’t forget dessert - take your lunch game to the next level and order their Edible Cookie Dough (no tradesies!)
Drinking and shopping, how did we survive before this combo? At Ward 14, you can do just that all in one place. Part bar, part consignment shop, this is the perfect stop pick up a few new pieces and enjoy a drink. Almost every piece of bar furniture is for sale - which also means that the decor changes from time to time. Just be wary of drunk shopping, you may take home more than you bargained for, BUT these new to you pieces may be the best deal you’ll find in the city.
With over 50,000 visitors a weekend in the summer, the Byward Market is definitely your one-stop shopping center, unless you hate large crowds. Those that brave the masses, however, will be rewarded with shops, restaurants, art, the market, and nightlife. There are more than 600 unique businesses in this market, including more than 260 artisan stands, and even a local farmers market. It doesn’t stop there though; you’ll often find events at this hopping shopping mecca - like Brewery Bingo at Lowertown Brewery. Clearly more than just shopping, the ByWard Market also has an “Author’s Market” where regional authors promote their books and discuss their work. While the brick and mortars of this market may be open later, outdoor vendors typically set up around 9 am and close down by 5 pm. But who wouldn’t want to spend their entire day strolling the countless offerings this unique shopping center has to offer?
In Ottawa, Chinatown is more than just Asian heritage. Here you’ll find merchants from all over the world, including Chinese, Korean, Thai, Spanish, French, Middle Eastern, and more. There is a variety of fine food and eclectic shopping to expand your horizons. Just like this neighbourhood, try So Good Restaurant, which offers a mix of Chinese, Vietnamese, and Thai food. Menu items are also completely authentic, so while you may have never left Canada, at least you can say your taste buds did.
After your visit to Chinatown, you should also travel around the world right in Ottawa by making a stop in Little Italy. Located on Preston Street, Italian heritage is ready to welcome you in this inviting neighbourhood. There are plenty of Italian restaurants and shops to check out, or bike through part of town with two cycling paths located in this district. If you happen to travel here in the winter months, you have to play hockey in Little Italy. This Canadian tradition should never be passed up, especially when there’s a lovely seasonal rink tended to by volunteers so you can live out your favourite Wayne Gretzky moments.
And if you need to warm up after the competition, pop into Il Primo. They serve pasta and pizza made to order, so you can customize your dish exactly to your liking. Or just enjoy a craft beer and antipasto... just don't leave without grabbing dessert. If the Frangelico-Hazelnut Tiramisu is on the menu, do yourself a favour and order it.
Fit for Queen (or King, or Prince, or Princess, or courtly jester) and open to public tours, Parliament Hill will be a royal experience. Originally built in the 18th century, this site served as a military base until Queen Victoria chose Ottawa as the capital of the Province of Canada in 1859. This Gothic Revival style architecture is definitely impressive, and massive. But with important government decisions to be made, Parliament Hill serves as an epic workplace for the Senate and House of Commons. Make the climb up the Peace Tower to take in breathtaking views of the city and the Ottawa River.
I don’t know what makes canals so interesting. Is it their history? Or perhaps it's because travelling through a city via water is just more fun than getting stuck in traffic in a taxi. Whatever it is, it’s something not to miss. The Rideau Canal is the perfect way to view the city - from something other than a car. Enjoy a relaxing boating or paddling experience along the canal in the summertime, or enjoy ice skating the canal during the winter months when the waterway freezes over. You can even camp along the shoreline, with 22 lockstations that service hikers, boaters, and cyclists.
As Canada’s premier art gallery, the National Gallery of Canada will entice your inner art critic. Not only is this museum a work of art on the outside (it’s housed in glass and granite), but it holds some of Canada’s most precious pieces of art, along with artwork from American and European artists. You can find a large contemporary collection here, including some works from Andy Warhol. If old-school art is more your speed, check out their collections of Renaissance pieces, or works from other periods including the Baroque, Romanticism, and more. Don't plan to be in and out too quickly though, as this gallery also has a wine bar, Cafe 7, specializing in wine pairings with small plates.
If you’ve never seen the movie Blast From the Past I recommend watching it before visiting this bunker. While this may not seem like your average vacation sightseeing adventure, this is a huge tourist attraction for many people visiting Ottawa. The bunker was built to protect Canadian government officials during the Cold War against nuclear attack. Thankfully, it never needed to be used and is now open to the public as a museum. Diefenbunker is more than just a historic site though, it also hosts an Escape Event and a Zombie Event (because it isn’t creepy enough on its own). While the Escape Diefenbunker takes place all year round, the Zombies Invade the Bunker only occurs in October and November, so horror fans should plan accordingly.
Hunger Games haters need not apply, but for all your aspiring Katniss Everdeens, book some play time at Archery Games. Combat archery is essentially dodgeball with arrows... but don’t worry it’s 100% safe. Battle it out with bows that shoot arrows with padded (and flat) tips. This is also a family-friendly spot so feel free to bring out the inner warrior in your kids, or just tire them out. For only $24 per 75-minute session, you’ll get all the equipment you need, training, target practice, and a fully-refereed game. May the odds be ever in the favour … of the one with the most arrows left.
Do not pass go and go directly to your jail-hostel. Yes, only in Ottawa can you stay in what once was a very active jail. The HI Ottawa Jail Hostel is the perfect place to feel extremely secure while you sleep. And, at 150 years old, the walls probably have more secrets than they can keep; some say the place is totally haunted. I'm sure you’ll sleep soundly among the stone walls and iron doors, though. For those that want to prove they’re tough, try booking the solitary confinement cell. While most of the rooms have non-traditional prison beds, you can go for the authentic experience and book the “Authentic Jail Cell”, with a single bed in a small cell (3’ x 9’) that recreates the prisoner experience.
If you go to Canada and don’t eat maple syrup, did you really even go to Canada? At Flapjack’s Canadian Diner, enjoy as much maple syrup as your body can handle. This diner aims to bring Canadian comfort food and culture straight to the table, with classics like pancakes, poutine, and panwiches (pancake sandwiches, AKA the love affair you didn't realize you’d be having.) This diner also offers a unique take on cereal and milkshakes, as you can get a cereal milkshake (AKA the other love affair you didn't realize you'd be having.) Your mother may be appalled by this concoction, but who could say no to a Froot Loops or Cinnamon Toast Crunch milkshake?
You may be in the great North, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find some good ol' Southern comfort. Union Local 613 serves up Southern soul food like grits and fried chicken. But this isn’t just about eating, this restaurant hides a speakeasy, which is a great spot for a drink. If you head downstairs you’ll find the secret door behind a bookcase! Dimly lit with dark wooden beams and enough booze to make you forget your own dang name, this hidden drinking hole might just be Ottawa’s best-kept secret.
Ottawa is another (relatively) warm Canadian city that gets popular in the summer. The city holds a popular Tulip festival in the spring, which is probably when Ottawa is at its prettiest, although we can't discount the fall foliage, either. And if you want to take advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime chance to skate all up and down the frozen Rideau Canal, pack up your heavy coat and plan a visit for the mid- to late winter.
Banner Photo Credit: via Pixabay