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Ottawa: An Essential Guide

As Canada’s capital city, Ottawa is often thought of as merely the home of the country’s politicians and pencil-pushers. The rest of the country has traditionally dismissed it as "the city that fun forgot," as one celebrated magazine columnist characterized it. But residents and frequent visitors know that Ottawa is more than that. Ottawa is grouped with some of the surrounding region to form the 1.2-million-strong National Capital Region, which which straddles two provinces, Ontario and Quebec. The bilingual region is home to top-tier national museums and galleries as well hip and happening neighbourhoods with big-city-worthy dining and entertainment.

Whether in town for work or pleasure, the following guide to Ottawa will help you figure out how to get around, what to see, and where to go should you want to wander Canada’s capital.


Downtown Ottawa is bordered by the Ottawa River to the north; the Rideau Canal to the east; Gloucester Street to the south; and Bronson Avenue to the west. The area is dominated mostly by government buildings such as Parliament Hill and the Supreme Court of Canada, as well as some other, more nondescript offices. Downtown Ottawa is home to several other tourist attractions and landmarks, including the Chateau Laurier, the National Gallery of Canada and the National Arts Centre. The waterway that becomes the “world’s largest skating rink” during the winter, the Rideau Canal, starts in the downtown core. The streets downtown resemble in a grid pattern, aligned either north-south or east-west, with many one-way streets. South of Wellington Street is Sparks Street, a pedestrian mall closed to motor vehicles.

Many trendy neighbourboods surround the core, including ByWard Market, Sandy Hill, Lowertown, and Centretown. Extending outwards, visitor will encounter Beechwood, the Glebe, Chinatown, Little Italy, Hintonburg, the West Wellington Village, and Westboro before reaching suburbia. The Glebe, Beechwood, Little Italy, Hintonburg, and Wellington West Village neighbourhoods host stretches of restaurant-dense streets. Many describe Hintonburg in particular as a having a fledgling Portland, Oregon kind of vibe thanks to its mostly independently owned and operated establishments.


Driving around Ottawa can be a little challenging with its zigging and zagging roadways outside of the downtown core. If you must drive, using GPS or Google Maps will be a help. Parking can be expensive and limited.

Public transit: OC Transpo’s light rail system, called the O-Train is limited; visitors will mostly be interested to know that it connects the Hintonburg and South Keys neighbourhoods. Otherwise, buses reign in Ottawa. The travel planner here allows you to figure out a route using landmarks or addresses. 

Adult fare is $3.55 on all regular and $5 on some express routes. Bring exact change, or purchase tickets at OC Transpo Sales and Information Centres or at certain pharmacies and corner stores. Children aged five and under ride free. For unlimited travel all day (O-Train, regular and express bus routes), consider an individual Daypass or Family Daypass at $8.30. If you are a Presto card holder from the Greater Toronto Area, you can also use your e-purse on OC Transpo. Load up your card before coming to Ottawa or visit any OC Transpo Sales and Information Centre to add money onto your card.

You can use any combination of bus and/or the O-Train. Depending on the time of day, you generally have 1½ or 2 hours per fare.

Taxi: If you plan to travel to the Quebec side of the Ottawa River, an Ottawa cab will take you to your destination. However, you must use a Gatineau cab to return to the Ottawa side. Uber is also available.

Bike: Cycling is one of the best ways to explore the nation's capital, with more than 600 kilometres of bike paths in the region. Known as the Capital Pathway network, the system of trails also serves in-line skaters, runners and walkers.

Other: For fun and unique forms of transportation, consider hiring a horse-drawn carriage from Ottawa’s last downtown stable, Cundell, on York Street. Alternatively, there is also a short trip pedi-cab service, Ottawa Rickshaws. It also offers tours of the city.


Radio: Tune into CBC Radio 1 (91.5FM) for local news, weather, and current affairs; and CBC Radio 2 (103.3 FM) for classical and a variety of adult contemporary music. For CBC in French, tune into ICI Radio-Canada Premiere (90.7 FM). Another popular news talk radio station is Bell Media Radio's CFRA (580AM). For sports, flip to Bell Media's TSN 1200 (1200AM). For Top 40, you can tune into JUMP! (106.9 FM) or Hot 89.9 FM. Find country music at Country Y 101.1 (101.1FM). Chez 106 (106.1 FM) play classic rock. The Jewel (98.5 FM) and Majic 100 (1000 FM) broadcast easy listening adult contemporary music.

Television: CBC News Network is the country’s principal news outlet with Bell Media's CTV News Channel a close second. Both CBC and CTV have local stations. For weather updates, refer to The Weather Channel.

Local events listings: OttawaStart.com provides local news and event details. Apartment 613 provides a more bohemian view of cultural happenings. It also hosts a directory of community information. For LGBT-focused arts and culture listings, visit Daily Xtra for Xtra Ottawa, which also publishes a monthly tourism guide "Out in Ottawa." 


Classic tourist attractions

Museums: The National Capital Region is home to more than a dozen of Canada’s federal museums — in fact, almost all of them. Some are a must-visit if you’re getting to know what Ottawa has to offer. Among the best are: the Canadian War Museum, the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, the Canadian Museum of History (formerly the Canadian Museum of Civilization), and the National Gallery of Canada. Find links to all of them here. It’s worth figuring out whether you may as well buy a Capital Museums Passport ($45 individual/$99 family), available from any of the participating institutions (half a dozen museums and galleries, plus the Royal Canadian Mint).

Parliament Hill: The lawns and gardens that make Parliament Hill lush and inviting are immaculately kept and completely open to the public. Children play soccer or ultimate frisbee on the grassy stretch just steps from the Centennial Flame. Students from the downtown campus of the University of Ottawa have been known to visit between classes to study in the warm sunshine. On Wednesdays from May until September, hundreds of yoga enthusiasts congregate on the Hill for complimentary lunchtime classes. The Centre Block, home to the House of Commons and the Senate, is open for tours year-round while the even older East Block, which is mostly made up of offices these days, is open from July to early September. Free tour tickets are available year-round at 90 Wellington St. (across from Parliament Hill). More information and group bookings available at www.parl.gc.ca/visitors

The Changing of the Guard began as a morning routine in 1959 and has evolved into a regular production running daily from late June until the end of August. With bagpipes. The pomp and circumstance begin at 10 a.m. with the Ceremonial Guard, which is comprised of Canadian Armed Forces regular and reserve members from regiments stationed across Canada, marching in full dress uniforms from the Cartier Square Drill Hall up Elgin Street to the Hill. To get a good vantage point, arrive at least 15 minutes early.

ByWard Market: The most visited tourist attraction in Ottawa is neither Parliament Hill nor any of the big museums and galleries, but ByWard Market. A covered market with the food stalls, souvenir shops and restaurants, it’s also surrounded by shops, bars and restaurants for blocks around. “ByWard Market” can refer to the area or just the main building. www.byward-market.com

The Haunted Walk:  Travel back in time with an evening walking tour of the city’s darker and often scandalous past. Guides thrill participants with stories of ghostly hauntings, murder and intrigue. www.hauntedwalk.com/ottawa-tours

Bytown Museum: This small museum, located on the lower locks of the Rideau Canal at the Ottawa River, chronicles the city's history since its founding to present day. www.bytownmuseum.com 

Calypso: Ottawa Waterpark: Canada's largest waterpark is located 35 kilometres east of downtown Ottawa in Limoges, Ont.  It features more than 35 waterslides, 100 water games,theme rivers and heated pools.  It is also home to the country's largest wave pool and the tallest waterslide tower in North America. A neato electronic fingerprinting system allows visitors to make purchases without the need to carry money or cards. www.calypsopark.com

Diefenbunker Museum: This four-storey, 100,000-square foot underground bunker was originally built to house hundreds of Canadian goverment officials and military officers in the event of a nuclear war. The bunker, named after the Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, was designed and built in secrecy at the height of the Cold War. Today, public and self-guided tours are available throughout the year. Browse through the archives of digitized records and a wide range of artefacts. www.diefenbunker.ca


Where to get just about anything in a hurry
Located in the heart of downtown, Rideau Centre is the leading shopping destination. It is a three-level shopping centre (more than 180 retailers and over 740,000 square feet), bordering on Rideau Street, the Rideau Canal, Mackenzie King Bridge, and Nicholas Street. The mall is also connected to the Shaw Centre (Ottawa Convention Centre) and The Westin Hotel.

For beer, wine and liquor
Ottawa is in an unusual position when it comes to alcohol retailing: The city itself is located in Ontario, which has relatively strict alcohol laws, while much of the National Capital Region is on the Quebec side of the border and takes advantage of the more relaxed regime there. Teenagers have noted which side has the lower drinking age and plan their evenings out accordingly.

In Ontario, generally speaking, alcoholic products for home consumption are purchased at government-owned Liquor Control Board of Ontario stores (known as "the LCBO"). Wine Rack, Wine Shop and Beer Store outlets are few and far between, and pretty much serve what it says on the sign. Grocery and convenience stores can’t sell beer in Ontario (yet), let alone spirits. However, breweries, brewpubs, microdistilleries and wineries can sell their own products, and Ontario wineries can sell wine from stalls at farmer’s markets.

Ontario’s drinking age is 19. Alcohol serving hours are 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.

On the Quebec side of the Ottawa River, local dépanneurs – the local parlance for a corner store; also known as a dep – is the place to go for beer, from opening time until 11 p.m. You can also find wine there, though it’s of a cheaper, only-in-an-emergency variety. Good wine and harder stuff is sold at the SAQ, or Société des alcools du Québec, a government-run liquor store.

Quebec’s drinking age is 18. Alcohol is sold in deps, supermarkets and SAQ outlets from the time they open (as early as 8 a.m.) to a maximum of 11 p.m. (though many close earlier). Serving hours is bars and pubs are from opening time to 3 a.m.

Published Saturday, August 1st 2015

Header image credit: Getty Images



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