150 things to do in Ottawa for Canada’s 150th birthday.
Ottawa in Bloom
Canadian Tulip Festival (Photo courtesy of Neil Robertson)
It started with a gift of 100,000 tulip bulbs to thank Canada for harbouring the Dutch Royal Family during the Second World War. Fast-forward 65 years and the Canadian Tulip Festival (May 12–22) is the largest of its kind in the world, with thousands of delicate blooms bursting with colour every spring. To mark Canada’s 150th birthday, the Ottawa Guild of Potters is creating Populace, a public art garden of ceramic sculptures to represent the three prominent cultures at the time of Confederation: British (roses), French (fleurs-de-lys) and indigenous peoples (feathers). Located on the east side of the Canadian Museum of Nature, the installation will be open June 17–September 4.
Sunday Bikedays (Photo courtesy of Ottawa Tourism)
Tour the city by bike and help raise money for children with cancer during the CN Cycle for CHEO (May 7), an annual charity event for the Children’s Hospital for Eastern Ontario. There are races for all levels, ranging from 2K to 70K, along some of the city’s most scenic routes. From 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Sunday from May 21 to September 3, the National Capital Commission closes 50 kilometres of Ottawa’s parkways to motorists. The popular Sunday Bikedays give cyclists, in-line skaters, joggers and walkers full access to the roadways without worries about traffic. For out-of-town visitors, several companies offer bike rentals, including RentABike and Right Bike, which are both on Rideau Street.
With a series of bold, signature events planned throughout the year, Ottawa is keen to wipe clean its label as the city that fun forgot. Kicking things off are the Juno Awards (March 27–April 2); other key events include the Grey Cup (November) and the Canadian Videogame Awards (mid-November). The Sky Lounge, a culinary and cocktail experience (July 7–22), offers foodies the chance to dine 45 metres in the air above City Hall, while the Underground Multimedia Experience inside a future Light Rail Transit station promises a sensory overload of light, video and sound. La Machine (July 26–30), a North American first featuring a large-scale dragon and spider, will roam the downtown core captivating audiences over four days. Ground central for Ottawa 2017 is Inspiration Village on York Street in the ByWard Market. The village, a performing-arts hub set to open in May, will consist of a series of converted shipping containers with multiple stages to showcase musicians and fashion events.
On Your Mark
You don’t have to be a runner to get caught up in the excitement of Tamarack’s Ottawa Race Weekend (May 25–28). Canada’s largest running weekend, the six-event fundraiser for the Ottawa Hospital attracts thousands of athletes – from novice to elite – to the capital every year. For those who like to push the limits, two new events have been added for 2017: the Lumberjack Challenge and the Voyageur Challenge.
Navigate the National Gallery of Canada
Whether or not you’re intent on viewing the National Gallery of Canada’s many collections, this breathtaking granite-and-glass building on Sussex Drive is a destination in its own right. Current exhibits include masterful works by Dene artist Alex Janvier (until April 17) and the haunting images of Czech photographer Josef Sudek. Enjoy a quiet moment at the indoor sunken garden featuring 12 crabapple trees, then have a coffee and treat in the Great Hall. Don’t forget to snap a photo outside on the plaza with Maman, the gallery’s most fascinating sculpture, by artist Louise Bourgeois. The giant nine-metre, brass-and-steel spider contains 26 white marble eggs in the sac on her underbelly. Take a short walk behind the gallery up to Nepean Point for spectacular views. Sit at the base of the statue of explorer Samuel de Champlain and watch the rowers and fishing boats go by below on the Ottawa River. Across the street from the gallery is the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica, the oldest standing church in Ottawa. Guided tours are offered mid-May to mid-October.
Exploring the Canal
No matter the season, the Rideau Canal, one of Ottawa’s crown jewels, bustles with activity. Dubbed the longest skating rink in the world, the 7.8-kilometre skateway links downtown to Dow’s Lake. Sink your teeth into a BeaverTail, a deep-fried delicacy invented in 1978, or sip on hot chocolate. In warmer weather, cycle, jog or walk pathways that flank the canal, or rent paddleboats, canoes, kayaks or stand-up paddleboards at Dow’s Lake.
Music to Your Ears
Chamberfest (Photo courtesy of Ottawa Tourism)
Ottawa loves music, and it hosts festivals for every genre. Among the popular lineup is the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival (June 22–July 2), featuring more than 300 Canadian performers; the RBC Bluesfest (July 6–16), with world-class entertainers belting out tunes on four different stages on the grounds of the Canadian War Museum; and Chamberfest (July 22–August 4), the world’s largest chamber-music concert series, held in some of Ottawa’s most beautiful churches.
Stroll Along Sparks Street
The open-air Sparks Street pedestrian mall, located a short walk from the National War Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Confederation Square, features a mix of modern glass office buildings, beaux arts heritage architecture, Canadiana gift shops, men’s and women’s fashion boutiques, jewellers, pubs and restaurants. The mall is home to numerous festivals, including the popular PoutineFest (April 27-30), Ribfest (June 14–18) and Ottawa Busker Festival (August 3–7).
When the Fairmont Château Laurier first opened in 1912, private rooms cost $2 a night. Reminiscent of a French château, the limestone landmark boasts a copper roof, conical turrets, dormer windows and several opulent ballrooms. Sink into the comfy chairs at Zoe’s Lounge and enjoy Afternoon High Tea, or a light bite with a glass of champagne or a vintage cocktail. Named for former prime minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the hotel has played host to royalty, politicians, diplomats and celebrities. Perched above the Rideau Canal Locks and next to Major’s Hill Park, the hotel features several stunning black and white photographs by world-renowned photographer Yousuf Karsh, who lived at the hotel for 18 years with his wife, Estrellita.
Home to Canada’s governor general and the official Ottawa residence of the Queen, Rideau Hall, or “Canada’s House,” is located a few minutes from downtown and consists of 175 rooms on a lush 88-acre property. It is here, within one of Ottawa’s poshest neighbourhoods, Rockcliffe Park, that the GG welcomes foreign dignitaries and Canadian-government award presentations take place. The house, its opulent rooms and gardens are open to the public for guided tours throughout the year. Make sure to drive through the neighbourhood to discover stunning architecture and gardens, stately brick homes and diplomatic residences. The Pond, a small public swimming hole, one of Ottawa’s hidden gems, is located adjacent to McKay Lake off Pond Street in Rockcliffe.
Artful Outing: Canada Scene
More than 1,000 artists will take part in a multidisciplinary festival (June 15–July 23) throughout Ottawa–Gatineau. Produced by the National Arts Centre, this summer’s Canada Scene will feature new work by choreographer Marie Chouinard, concerts by Buffy Sainte-Marie and Rufus Wainwright, several theatre performances and a collaboration by 26 writers and poets led by playwright Olivier Choinière. The new $110-million mega-renovation to the NAC, one of Ottawa’s most famous landmarks, will be officially unveiled on Canada Day.
Plan for Parliament Hill
Changing of the Guard (Photo courtesy of Ottawa Tourism)
Start your visit at the Centennial Flame, a perpetual fire in recognition of the year of Confederation, and view commemorative monuments and statues of former prime ministers and royal figures. Tens of thousands are expected to ring in Canada Day on July 1, the official start to Canada’s 150th birthday, with a massive party of music, dance and fireworks. During the summer months, don’t miss the daily Changing of the Guard ceremony. There are also free guided tours of the grounds and the chance to go up the Peace Tower to view the Books of Remembrance housed in the Memorial Chamber. The manuscripts record the names of Canadian Forces personnel killed in wars and other conflicts.
Considered Ottawa’s top tourist destination, the charming ByWard Market features fresh produce and flowers, hip barbershops, art galleries, pubs, restaurants, entertainment venues, fashion, family-run cheese shops, jewellery and shoe boutiques and more than 200 artisans selling their wares. With over 600 businesses in the historic district, there’s something for everyone. Enjoy a pint at the Château Lafayette tavern, or munch on the “Obama cookie” at Le Moulin de Provence, in honour of former U.S. president Barack Obama’s impromptu visit to the bakery in 2009. CF Rideau Centre, a newly renovated four-level shopping centre, is home to Nordstrom, Harry Rosen, Simons, Hudson’s Bay, Kate Spade New York, Ted Baker, Anthropologie, H&M, Rudsak and more.
Down on the Farm
One of Ottawa’s priceless gems is the expansive Central Experimental Farm, located in the heart of the city. A popular destination for families, joggers and wedding photographers, the 427-hectare farm brings the country to the city with open fields, ornamental gardens of roses, lilacs and irises and a barnyard of cows, horses and baby chicks. Open year-round, the national historic site also features a tropical greenhouse, hands-on farming demonstrations and one of the best tobogganing hills in the city, located in the Arboretum between Prince of Wales Drive and the Rideau Canal.
Restaurants with Buzz
Ottawa’s culinary scene offers dozens of vibrant, top-notch eateries located in several neighbourhoods. Riviera, the latest restaurant by chefs Matthew Carmichael and Jordan Holley (Datsun, El Camino), is housed in a gorgeous art deco building and is a must for cocktails, lobster ravioli and steak-frites. In Wellington West, try the kale salad and sea scallop crudo at Supply and Demand, named one of the best restaurants in 2013 by Air Canada enRoute magazine. Gatineau’s Soif bar à vin, a cozy establishment serving flavour-filled small plates and wine pairings, is the brainchild of Véronique Rivest, one of the world’s top sommeliers, who was recently named Air Canada’s sommelier. Restaurateur Jon Svazas (Fauna) is earning rave reviews for Bar Laurel, a Spanish wine bar in Hintonburg. Other hot spots include the Whalesbone on Elgin, Pomeroy House in the Glebe and Little Italy’s Atelier Restaurant, by chef/owner Marc Lepine, a two-time Canadian Culinary Champion. Ottawa’s latest champ, Joe Thottungal, chef/owner of Coconut Lagoon, an established Indian restaurant, recently won silver at the Canadian Culinary Championships.
There are plenty of prime outdoor spots to spread out a picnic blanket. Topping the list is the grassy lawn of the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau. Skirting the Ottawa River, this dreamy locale offers panoramic views of the Parliament Buildings and the bridges connecting Ontario and Quebec. For a more pastoral setting, take a short drive to Pinhey’s Point in Dunrobin, where rolling green hills and a 200-year-old stone manor provide a timeless backdrop for tossing a football or catching some rays. Many of Ottawa’s parks, including Andrew Haydon, Hog’s Back and Britannia, also offer barbecue pits, picnic tables and public washrooms, ideal for organizing family get-togethers. And let’s not forget Ottawa’s sandy beaches, Westboro, Petrie Island, Britannia and Mooney’s Bay, where a sprawling new playground with a Canadian theme was recently built, complete with a miniature log cabin and a teeter-totter shaped like a canoe.
Craving something sweet? Stella Luna Gelato Café serves up more than 20 decadent flavours of the handmade frozen treat. It’s no surprise that owner Tammy Giuliana won bronze at the Gelato World Tour, Americas, in Chicago in 2016. If cannoli, chocolate truffles and cheesecake are more pleasing to your palate, Pasticceria Gelateria Italiana in Little Italy is a must-visit. Everything served in the cozy café is made on site, but plan ahead: On summer nights, the covered patio fronting the building is packed with dessert-eating and cappuccino-drinking fans. One final word on sweets: You can’t visit our nation’s capital without making a pit stop at Suzy Q Doughnuts for a fluffy ring of deliciousness. The Maple Bacon, a true Canadian classic, is to die for.
Don’t Miss the Boat
Tim Hortons Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival (Photo courtesy of Ottawa Tourism)
Ottawa is home to the largest dragon boat regatta in North America, and the four-day Tim Hortons Ottawa Dragon Boat Festival (June 22–25), held at the picturesque Mooney’s Bay Park on the Rideau River, features more than 5,000 competitors and 200 teams racing over three days, a children’s activity area, artisans, culinary treats and free music and entertainment.
The newly expanded Lansdowne Park is a bustling tourist destination where sport, food and entertainment are rolled into one. The focal point of the urban development is TD Place, a 24,000-seat outdoor stadium that is home to the Ottawa Redblacks, winners of the CFL’s 2016 Grey Cup, and the Ottawa Fury soccer club. It also houses an indoor arena for the Ottawa 67s junior hockey team and doubles as a concert venue. This year’s headliners include Guns N’ Roses (August 21) and Chris de Burgh (October 3). You can also shop for locally grown vegetables at the Farmers’ Market in the lovingly restored Aberdeen Pavilion, watch the latest Hollywood flick in a comfy recliner with a glass of wine in the Cineplex Cinemas’ VIP lounge or grab a burger and craft beer at Joey Lansdowne, oven-baked pizza at Crust & Crate or share small plates at Local Public Eatery. Great shopping is also available at Whole Foods and Sporting Life, and for kids who need to burn off energy, there’s a skateboard park, playground, water plaza and outdoor skating rink.
Rambling in Kanata
Kanata, to the west of downtown Ottawa, has grown leaps and bounds in recent years, with the addition of the Tanger Outlets Mall (the first for Ottawa, with more than 70 designer stores, including Michael Kors, Coach and Ralph Lauren) and Cabela’s, a mega outdoor-store chain specializing in all things for hunting, fishing and camping. Other high spots include the Canadian Tire Centre, home to the Ottawa Senators hockey team, the city’s largest concert venue (upcoming shows include the Weeknd on May 28; country stars Faith Hill and Tim McGraw on June 22; and the Red Hot Chili Peppers on June 23) and the Kanata Leisure Centre, featuring one of the four indoor wave pools in the city.
Gateway to China
You can’t miss the entrance to Ottawa’s Chinatown, an eclectic neighbourhood spanning nine city blocks along Somerset Street West. It’s marked by an ornate archway at Cambridge Street North. Known as the Ottawa Chinatown Royal Arch, the colourful landmark features nine glazed-tile roofs, elaborate scrollwork accented with gold leaf and five embedded coins symbolizing good luck. Two stone lions stand guard at the base of the structure. Enjoy dim sum at Yangtze, steaming bowls of pho at Ginza Ramen Sushi and Sake Bar and Hunan-style pork dumplings at Mekong. Or dip into one of many specialty food stores along the street for exotic spices, barbecued duck and herbal teas to take home. For a night of laughter and song, pop into the Shanghai Restaurant, home to China Doll, Ottawa’s famous karaoke-singing drag queen.
That’s Amore in Little Italy
Now in its 43rd year, Ottawa Italian Week (June 8–18) is one of the city’s oldest cultural festivals. Held in Little Italy, a vibrant community in Centretown West, the 10-day event is a celebration of Italian culture, food and music highlighted by a Ferrari car show, a formal gala and a parade along Preston Street (also known as Corso Italia). From pub fare, pizza and homemade pasta to frothy cappuccino and biscotti, restaurants and coffee shops are aplenty; there’s live entertainment at the Heart & Crown, stand-up comedy at Absolute Comedy, and the Prescott holds Murder Mystery nights. On Sunday afternoons in the summer, catch the excitement of bike polo matches on a hardcourt at Ev Tremblay Park, just across from Di Rienzo’s, one of Ottawa’s best sandwich shops. Or pop by the Elmdale Lawn Bowls Club in the nearby Civic Hospital area, where outdoor lawn bowling tournaments are held from June to September.
Dining: Hip and Happening
Moscow Tea Room
There are plenty of places in Ottawa to sip, snack and people-watch. Metropolitain Brasserie, a steakhouse and oyster bar, oozes atmosphere and is a favourite haunt for Parliament Hill staffers, politicians, journalists and government workers. The award-winning Beckta Dining & Wine by Stephen Beckta (Play Food + Wine, Gezellig) is set in the beautifully restored Grant House and is ideal for lunch, dinner and drinks in the wine bar. Dripping in ambience, the upscale Moscow Tea Room, Social and the Westin Hotel’s Shore Club are all worth a visit. Joey’s and Industria Pizzeria + Bar at Lansdowne serve modern cuisine, while the Andaz ByWard Market Hotel’s Feast + Revel restaurant and sophisticated rooftop lounge and outdoor patio feature signature fare and cocktails with unparalleled views of downtown.
Shopping the Globe
Handmade textiles, tribal masks, beaded jewellery and tree-trunk furniture are a few of the fab finds at the Third World Bazaar. Run by Peggy and Dick Bakker inside a converted barn in Manotick Station, the exotic marketplace just south of the city sells fair-trade products from developing countries, including Cuba, Indonesia, Mexico and Guatemala. A great place to kick-start your Christmas shopping, it’s only open for seven weekends until mid-November. If all that globetrotting makes you hungry, head to the Black Dog Bistro in picturesque Manotick for lunch before taking a guided tour of Watson’s Mill, a working 1860s grist and flour mill on the shores of the Rideau River. From May to October, the five-storey limestone building hosts a variety of educational programs, exhibitions, demonstrations and even a haunted house for Halloween revellers.
In need of a trim or a shave? Ottawa has jumped on the bandwagon of the growing male-grooming phenomenon with plenty of neighbourhood barbers and men’s spas (House of Barons, Hair Fellas Barbershop, Bode Spa). Warren Chase Urban Retreat for Men is a grooming emporium offering everything from body scrubs to facials, massages, manicures, pedicures, haircuts and even style coaching. Co-owners Paul Cretes and Trevor White also serve beverages and sandwiches to busy clientele. Try the Cadillac Shave ($50 for 45 minutes), a 12-step program that begins with a shot of bourbon.
Pampering at Nordik Spa-Nature
Start peeling away a layer of stress the minute you turn into the forested driveway of Nordik Spa-Nature. Located at the entrance of Gatineau Park in Chelsea, Quebec, a 20-minute drive from downtown Ottawa, Nordik, the largest outdoor spa in North America, is all about relaxation, soothing sore muscles and taking a time out from the hectic world. With several outdoor pools, hot baths, eight saunas, an exfoliation room, numerous sitting areas, two steam baths, an underground saltwater floating pool and restaurant options, you can plan on staying the day. The surrounding countryside is a mecca for hikers, skiers (Camp Fortune) and snowshoers. Take a refreshing swim at Meech Lake (a five-minute drive from the spa) or tour the lush country estate of William Lyon Mackenzie King. Visitors will discover a tea room, restored cottage and ruins.
Day Trip to Saunders Farm
Children and adults alike are sure to enjoy an outing to Saunders Farm, a 100-acre property southeast of Ottawa run by the Saunders family for the past 40 years. With the largest collection of hedge mazes in the world and famed Halloween attractions featuring a haunted house, spooky hayrides and entertaining shows, there is much to enjoy. The farm has a splash pad, play structures, puppet shows, wedding facilities and on-site catering.
Almonte’s Small-town Hospitality
Just 35 minutes southwest of Ottawa, Almonte is a historic mill town steeped in charm and scenic views of the mighty Mississippi River. Known for its thriving arts community, stunning limestone buildings, quaint restaurants and antique shops, Almonte is also the birthplace of Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of basketball (the Naismith Museum is located at the Mill of Kintail Conservation Area) and home to the award-winning Hummingbird Chocolate Maker and Equator Coffee Roasters. Families with young children will love the Puppets Up! International Puppets Festival (August 11–13), when street entertainers and life-size puppets take over the town.
Cold War Capers
The Diefenbunker in Carp, a 100,000-square-foot underground bunker, was built between 1959 and 1961 to house top government officials in the event of a nuclear attack. Many of the original rooms are still intact, including the Prime Minister’s Suite, CBC Radio studio and the Situation Room. For espionage thrill-seekers, the national historic site also features an Escape Room where up to 12 people have 60 minutes to save the world from nuclear annihilation. The village is also home to the popular Carp Fair (September 21–24), which includes horse shows, live country music, a petting zoo and lively midway.
Viva Las Vegas
Canadian Museum of History (Photo courtesy of Steven Darby)
Built in 1996, the Casino du Lac-Leamy in Gatineau offers all the entertainment, pampering and luxe accommodations of Sin City, but only a 10-minute drive from downtown Ottawa. Test your luck at the slots or blackjack tables, book a table at the award-winning Le Baccara restaurant or take in a live show at the 1,110-seat theatre. Whether you’re planning a family getaway or romantic weekend, the adjoining Hilton Lac-Leamy has 349 hotel suites to suit, as well as a spa and year-round indoor/outdoor swimming pool. The star summer attraction is Sound of Light, a spectacular fireworks show (August 5–19) set to music, in the backyard of the nearby Canadian Museum of History. To celebrate Canada 150, five pyrotechnical designers from five different provinces will light up the sky over the Ottawa River with distinctly Canadian themes.