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The inside guide to Ottawa, Canada's buzzing capital

Active adventures, buzzy breweries and neighbourhoods thriving with bars and boutiques — Canada's bijou capital has plenty to discover beyond the halls of parliament.

By Alicia Miller
Published 16 May 2022, 06:04 BST
A band performs at ByWard Market, Ottowa.

Los Paisanos performs as Marchés d’Ottawa Markets hosts the Day of the Dead Festival in the ByWard Market (2021).

Photograph by Zackery Liberty, Ottawa Markets

It may be Canada’s political powerhouse, but under the surface Ottawa is simmering with vibrancy and adventure. Strike beyond the typical tourist route surrounding Parliament Hill and you’ll find verdant scenery, quirky museums, Indigenous experiences and a burgeoning food and drink scene. Come clock-off time, this is a city that knows how to have fun.

No trip to Ottawa is complete without a visit to the National Gallery Of Canada, with its roll call of great paintings by the likes of Matisse, Van Gogh, Mondrian and Klimt. Don’t miss ornate Rideau Street Chapel: originally part of the Convent of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, it was painstakingly relocated, piece by piece to the National Gallery, where it can be explored to the accompaniment of haunting music. Also worth checking out is the nearby Ottawa Art Gallery — free to enter, it’s chock-full of contemporary Canadian art. 

ByWard Market, the historic area east of the Parliament Buildings, is packed with bars and restaurants, including the legendary BeaverTails kiosk (the ‘beaver tails’ in question aren’t the real thing, thankfully, but fried pastries dusted in sugar). For real local flavour, however, you need to strike out to Ottawa’s neighbourhoods. Start south, in upmarket The Glebe, where Victorian-era townhouses meet the sports fields of Lansdowne Park and the curve of the Rideau Canal. Dive into a maple and bacon oatmeal bowl at Oat Couture Oatmeal Cafe, then thumb through old tomes over a coffee at Black Squirrel Books & Espresso Bar. Alternatively, join the queue at Kettlemans Bagel, which has been keeping the locals well-fed with freshly baked bagels for nearly three decades.  

Locals relax alongside Ottawa Locks on the Rideau Canal.

Photograph by Bytown Museum / David Baker

Head west of Downtown, and you’ll find the lively neighbourhoods of Westboro and Hintonburg. Don’t miss popular SuzyQ Donuts for flavours including Black Forest or cinnamon toast crunch before hitting the shops. Browse relaxed, ‘luxe-boheme’ women’s clothing at boutiques such as Tallow, or take home a Canadian-made gift from Maker House. The area is home to a thriving brewery scene, too: start at Tooth And Nail Brewing Company with an icy, unfiltered pilsner, then wander further east to Spark Beer for a Pinot Noir-infused sour. If that piques your interest, there are well over a dozen other breweries to check out around the city, and Brew Donkey runs tasting tours of the best. 

Looking for somewhere memorable for dinner? Seek out Riviera Ottawa, set in a former bank on historic, cobbled Sparks Street for negronis and first-rate seafood from chef Jordan Holley, from tuna crudo with puffed quinoa to lobster spaghetti.

Summer here revolves around exploring the great outdoors — whether that’s kayaking on the Rideau Canal or hiking through forest in Gatineau Park. But if you fancy thrills without too much thigh-burn, then try Interzip, the city zip-line, which soars over the Ottawa River at speeds of up to 25mph. 

Alternatively, get back to the area’s roots. Opened in 2021, Madahòkì Farm is an Indigenous-owned space where First Nations communities share their connection to the land with visitors. Here, you can learn about Canada’s reconciliation movement, shop at a craft marketplace and attend seasonal festivals involving dancing and storytelling. You can also admire the resident Ojibwe spirit horses, a breed developed by the Indigenous Ojibwe people. The horses are considered spirit animals within Ojibwe culture; there are only 200 of the equines globally, and six live right here.

A pastry from the legendary BeaverTails kiosk at ByWard Market, e historic area east of the Parliament Buildings packed with bars and restaurants.

Photograph by Duotan

Stefanie Siska's top five food spots

Stefanie is co-owner of C’est Bon Cooking, which offers food tours and cookery classes based around Canadian produce.

1. Corazón de Maíz: This husband-and-wife team from Mexico City make Ottawa’s best tacos in a corner of ByWard Market. Marianna is a trained chef and the incredible garlic jalapeño salsa is her grandmother’s recipe. 55 ByWard Market Square

2. Copper Spirits and Sights: This is where locals go for drinks with a view: the tallest rooftop bar in the city (atop the Andaz Ottawa ByWard Market), offering 360-degree views spanning Downtown, the river and neighbouring Gatineau. 

3. Tavern at the Gallery: This new al fresco restaurant can be found at the National Gallery of Canada but it’s hidden away. It’s a great spot for lunches, with salads and pizza. There’s another location, Tavern on the Hill, by the Rideau Falls. 

4. Beyond the Pale: Of all of Ottawa’s amazing breweries, I really love this one, just five minutes from Downtown Ottawa by Little Italy. It has amazing — and huge — murals, and artists design their cool labels, too. I’m a fan of the stout but they’re well known for their IPAs. 

5. Commissioners Park: This is a great picnic spot by Dow’s Lake, which connects to the Rideau Canal. People come for the Canadian Tulip Festival in spring but there are also beautiful flowers in summer. The tip of the green sits in Little Italy, so get your food at one of the lovely delis on nearby Preston Street.

Where to stay

Check into the newly launched reStays, a sleek clutch of self-catering apartments overlooking the rooftops of the Parliament Buildings — not a bad view to accompany your morning coffee. From CA$198 (£120) 

Published in the June 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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