Visiting the nation’s capital: Ottawa
by Jenny Schweyer
This past spring break I had the opportunity to travel to our nation’s capital city. At the time, tourist season had yet to kick into full gear, because, as I discovered, it wasn’t quite spring yet in Ontario, which is why they call it “March break” there! Winter was still trying fiercely to get in its last word, and so Ottawa’s streets were relatively quiet. Shopkeepers around Parliament were enjoying what would be the last several weeks of casual time before the onslaught of visitors truly began.
Rest they should, for this year’s tourist season is shaping up to be monumental in an unprecedented way. Everywhere one looks in the heart of the city’s downtown, it’s clear that the “Ottawa 2017” celebration is well under way. This event (which is really a series of different events) celebrates Canada’s 150th birthday, the highlight of which will be Canada Day.
July 1 is always a big deal in Ottawa, but this year’s party is highly anticipated and extra-special and has been in the works for quite some time. There were hints of what’s to come all over Ottawa as I strolled through downtown and around Parliament Hill: colourful banners strung across streets and draped over walls, painted windows on shops and stores, even a giant decal several stories high covering the entire Central Post Office building on the corner of Elgin and Sparks Streets.
If you happen to make it for July 1, 2017, you can catch the biggest birthday party in Canada’s history. Events are scheduled from dawn till well past dusk, and include concerts, cultural performances and displays, exhibits and food vendors. Of course, the highlight of the day will be the Canada Day fireworks that take place over the Parliament Buildings and the Ottawa River. Even if you’re not there on July 1, there’s still lots to do, including numerous Ottawa 2017 events that will be running at various times throughout the year, like Sky Lounge, a culinary dining experience served open-air style from 150 feet high (July 7-22), or Kontinuum, “an ultimate underground experience with a futuristic and immersive multimedia production” projected from inside one of Ottawa’s future Light Rail Transit Stations (end of June to September).
Canada’s 150th aside, Ottawa is a culture and history-rich place to visit any time. Here are a few of the enduring “Must-Do’s” for every tourist in this fabulous city:
Take a tour of Parliament. You simply cannot call a visit to Ottawa complete without taking a tour of the Parliament buildings. The architecture is spectacular, and every piece from the floorboards to the spire that caps off the Peace Tower has a corresponding story. Tours are between 20 and 50 minutes long (depending on whether Parliament is in session) and available in both French and English. Tour tickets are free.
Walk down Sparks Street. Only pedestrians are allowed on this brick and cement street, just steps from Parliament Hill. Here you’ll find boutique shopping and funky independent restaurants. Sparks Street is also home to a number of events and festivals throughout the year.
Stroll through Byward Market. Located just a few blocks east of Parliament Hill on the opposite side of the Rideau Canal, Byward Market was the heart of trade during Ottawa’s early years, and one of Canada’s oldest public markets. Today it features more than 600 boutique-style shops, hip restaurants, local breweries and trendy nightclubs. It still hosts an old-fashioned Farmer’s Market with more than 200 vendors in the high season.
Take in a game. There’s always a game on in Ottawa! Football lovers can catch a Redblacks game between June and November. Ottawa’s pro soccer team, the Fury, plays from July to October each year. For the baseball fanatic, Ottawa’s newest team, the Champions, play from May to September. Of course, hockey fans can watch the Senators play between October and April.
Walk the Rideau Canal. This famous waterway and UNESCO National World Heritage Site is 202 kilometres long, connects Ottawa and Kingston, and links Lake Ontario to the Ottawa River. As it meanders through town it is paralleled by beautiful pathways on both sides that take pedestrians and cyclists through some of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods. You can also travel the canal by Voyageur canoe in the summer, or on ice skates in the winter.
Visit galleries and museums. Ottawa is home to an astounding number of museums and galleries. They include the National Gallery of Canada, the Canadian Museum of History, the Canadian War Museum, the Canadian Museum of Nature, the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum, the Currency Museum and several others, and they offer visitors a look at various aspects of Canadian life over the decades.