Ottawa is a vibrant and charming small city — so pleasant that it’s hard to believe it’s home to soooo many politicians. Of the national capitals I've visited, Ottawa seems the most livable to me (ie. if I had to live in political city, I’d probably choose Ottawa). I like Ottawa as a travel destination — big enough, but not sprawling, with a compact central area that’s easy to visit and walk around in. Besides Parliament Hill, it has lots of museums and parks, a great Farmer's Market, plenty of things to see and do and a good selection of pubs and restaurants. It’s very near nature and has a youthful energy.
(Houses of Parliament, Ottawa)
Ottawa does have two serious drawbacks: 1) It’s filled with politicians and those who “work” for the government. 2) It gets very cold in the winter (though late spring and early fall are nice). One Ottawa native told me with pride that his hometown was the coldest national capital in the world. While most Canadians are polite and honest to a fault, this claim is false. What's the coldest Capital city in the world (great Trivial Pursuit question)? That honor belongs to Ulan-Bator in Mongolia. Moscow (Russia), Helsinki (Finland) , and Reykjavik (Iceland) also have lower mean temperatures than Ottawa — if anyone really cares.
(Houses of Parliament at Dusk, Ottawa)
(Eastern Block, Houses of Parliament, Ottawa)
Ottawa is centered on Parliament Hill, an iconic cluster of Gothic buildings located in the heart of the city on a bluff overlooking the Ottawa River and, on its opposite bank, the twin city of Gatineau in Quebec. Parliament Hill is where you want to begin your exploration of Ottawa. Start at the Visitor Center and obtain information about the tours available to you that day. Make reservations for those tours you’re interested in and if there’s free time begin your exploration of the grounds of Parliament Hill. The best place to do this is to the west of the large Center block, around the statue of Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson. Work your way in clockwise fashion along the back of the of the Center block and enjoy the assortment of statues and ever changing views of the tall Peace Tower, on which the well-known red on white Maple Leaf flag flutters. Pay your respects at the Police and Peace Officer’s Memorial, where the names of fallen (mostly RCMP) officers is recorded. Of interest is the cat sanctuary, home to an assorted rag-tag band of animals including feral cats, squirrels and birds that are lovingly cared for by volunteers. Immediately behind the Center block is the beautiful rounded Library of Parliament. Continue your clock-wise walk around Parliament Hill and finish at the Centennial Flame, before making your way to whatever tours you've arranged inside the Center block. I would highly recommend that everyone at a minimum go up the Peace Tower and enjoy its splendid views of the city. While within the Peace Tower pay respect at the Memorial Chamber, wherein the name of every Canadian who has fallen in the service of his country is recorded. If you’re there in the summer months, be sure to catch the changing of the guard held each morning on the grounds of Parliament Hill. In the evening a Sound and Light show is held against the backdrop of Parliament.
(Grand Hall, Canadian Museum of Civilization, Gatineau)
As might be expected of a national capital, there’s no shortage of museums in Ottawa. Of these there are two especially worthy of your attention. My favorite of these, and the most popular museum in the country, is the Canadian Museum of Civilization, a beautiful building sitting in Gatineau across from Parliament Hill on the banks of the Ottawa River. The architecture of the building is wonderful and a large portion of its exhibits explore Canada’s First Nation's (native Indian) heritage. By far the most impressive exhibit is Grand Hall, containing large numbers of historic totem poles and buildings. Canada Hall is another cool exhibit which provides you literally with a quick walk across the country and thru its past. Besides rotating exhibitions, you’ll also find Canada’s Children’s Museum and the Canadian Postal Museum within the same structure. You can easily spend a day exploring this museum.
(Spider-like "art", National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa)
The National Gallery of Canada is another museum worth a visit. You’ll recognize it by the huge hideous arachnid-like statue sitting by its main entrance. It features mostly Canadian artists, with interesting exhibits, supplemented with rotating displays. Its easy to spend a half day here. Ottawa has lots of other museums you can visit on a rainy day.
(Byward Market, Ottawa)
Be sure your walk takes you thru Byward Market, a fun place to walk and shop. It features fresh fruit, vegetable, flower and food vendors, many small cafes, a phenomenal cheese store and dozens of small specialty shops. Like Granville Island in Vancouver, The Forks in Winnipeg or the Farmers’ Market in Los Angeles, its a popular place to stroll and shop.
(Rideau Canal, Ottawa -- a UNESCO World Heritage Site)
Also worth at least a brief stop is the historic Rideau Canal, which stretches 125 miles from the Ottawa River to Kingston on Lake Ontario via a series of locks. The canal was built almost 200 years ago as a Canadian precaution — to provide an alternate route of access to Ottawa in case of war with the United States; it has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site and is popular with kayakers, boaters, and in the winter with ice skaters. Cruises of the canal are available and its easy to spend time having a pleasant stroll along its bank.
(Chateau Laurier, viewed from Peace Tower)
There’s no shortage of good accommodations in Ottawa. We’re members of the Marriott Rewards program and used some points for a free stay at the centrally located Ottawa Marriott. The best place to stay in Ottawa is the Chateau Laurier, one of Canada’s historic Fairmont hotels.. At a minimum stroll thru its lobby and enjoy the beautiful photography portraits by “Karsh of Ottawa“, a renowned photographer (probably the world’s best portrait photographer) who worked from a studio in the hotel’s lobby (among my prized possessions are Karsh portraits of Sir Edmund Hillary & Ray Bradbury, both signed for me by these men when I had the pleasure of meeting them, but that’s a story for anther day). Lots of inexpensive accommodations are available. Our meals were good — not quite at the level of what we had in Montreal or Quebec on this trip but fine, the best being breakfasts we had at small cafes in Byward Market.
For an extended high resolution slide show of Ottawa, please go to this link. The slide show is at the bottom of the post. Click on the right sided icon of the slideshow's toolbar for full screen enlargements.