From humble beginnings—first as a military post and then as a lumber camp—Ottawa, Ontario, has emerged as a vibrant, multicultural capital city. Ottawa is a bilingual city, reflecting its French and English heritage. Home to the copper-roofed Parliament Buildings, the Supreme Court of Canada and foreign embassies, Bytown, as it was originally named, is also a vigorous community housing farmers markets, world-class museums and historic buildings.
Situated at the confluence of the Ottawa, Gatineau and Rideau rivers, the city is bisected by the Rideau Canal. The section running from Dows Lake to the majestic Ottawa River, a distance of 5 mi/8 km, is flanked by bike and walking paths. In the winter, the ice surface is flooded to create the world's longest skating rink. In the summer, colorful masses of flowers, beginning with tulips in May, bloom along both sides of the canal. UNESCO has declared the entire canal, stretching 125 mi/202 km from Ottawa to Kingston, a World Heritage site.
The greenbelt encircling central Ottawa and the many parks filled with plants, well-kept lawns and trees add to the city's scenic appeal. Across the river in Quebec, Gatineau Park is a massive natural playground with some of the region's most pristine protected areas, wildlife, lakes and rivers.
Ottawa is located in southeastern Canada, situated at the far eastern tip of Ontario province right on the border with Quebec province. The city is divided by the Rideau Canal, which serves as a popular spot for outdoor activity year-round. On the west side is the core of the city, known as Centretown. There you'll find Parliament Hill, the seat of Canadian government, and the pedestrian mall on Sparks Street. The city half that is east of the canal includes the popular ByWard Market, just across the canal from Centretown, and the neighborhood known as Sandy Hill, southeast of the market and bounded by Rideau Street and Laurier Avenue East.
Immediately north of the ByWard Market and Centretown, the Ottawa River separates Ontario and Quebec. Just across the river is Gatineau. (Formerly known as Hull, the town changed its name to Gatineau in 2001. Many residents on both sides of the river still refer to it by its former name.) Gatineau can be reached by any one of five bridges. To the northwest, you'll find Gatineau Park, a large wilderness area containing the Kingsmere Estate, the former summer home of Canada's 10th prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King.
Centuries before Europeans arrived in North America, a tribe of Algonquians known as Outaouak made its home on the banks of the Ottawa River. The first recorded visit by a European was in 1613, when the French explorer Samuel de Champlain passed through the area in search of a route that would provide passage to the Far East.
In 1826, British Army engineers and troops, led by Lt. Col. John By, built barracks on what is now known as Parliament Hill. From this base of operations they constructed the Rideau Canal system, linking the Ottawa River to the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario many miles/kilometers to the south. The canal was built as an alternate shipping route between Toronto and Montreal, in case a U.S. invasion put the St. Lawrence in danger.
The new canal and surrounding forests led to the establishment of Bytown, which became a center of Canada's logging industry. Along with the business of timber and pelts, rough-hewn characters soon found their way to the future Canadian capital.
Bytown was renamed Ottawa in 1855. Two years later, Queen Victoria spurned Montreal, Toronto and nearby Kingston to select Ottawa as the capital of Canada. Many early Canadian governors general were put off by the remote wilderness location, but the choice was sound. The new capital could be easily defended, and a booming timber industry had made it an economic success. Prime ministers Sir Wilfrid Laurier and William Lyon Mackenzie King worked to transform Ottawa into a city that might one day compete with other capitals and replaced the army barracks on the hill with the Parliament Buildings that stand there today.
After World War II, French planner Jacques Greber, the architect of the 1937 Paris World's Fair and town plans for Marseilles and Lyon, created Confederation Square in the center of Ottawa and initiated an overall beautification program, leading to the multitude of parks (known as the National Capital Greenbelt) that help make Ottawa a magnet for recreational enthusiasts.
Until the 1980s, Ottawa was mainly a government town. The federal government remains a major employer, but the city is also home to scientific laboratories, numerous national associations, the University of Ottawa, Carleton University and Algonquin College.
The best way to get to know Ottawa is by foot. A great place to get oriented is Parliament Hill, the seat of the national government. Try to get there by 10 am Monday-Friday in the summer to see the changing of the guard, and then take a tour of the Parliament Buildings. From fall through spring, you might even catch the proceedings in the House of Commons or the Senate. From Parliament Hill, you'll be able to view the Rideau Canal, a fine place to take a boat ride or go skating, depending on the season. After a walking tour of Parliament Hill, you may wish to go next door to the Fairmont Chateau Laurier for traditional afternoon tea.
The most stunning natural sight in Ottawa remains the world-famous Canadian Tulip Festival in May, when the entire city bursts with masses of red, yellow and white tulip blossoms.
For those interested in Ottawa's cultural offerings, the National Gallery of Canada has the world's largest collection of Canadian art. Across the Ottawa River in Quebec, you'll find the city's francophone neighbor Gatineau (formerly known as Hull), as well as Gatineau Park, a local mecca for recreation. The Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau has a wide range of cultural exhibits and is an architectural masterpiece worth a side trip. The imposing totem poles in its Grand Hall are a highlight.
The once-stuffy Canadian capital now has a lively nightlife. Options increase in summer, when sidewalk cafes and bistros in the trendy ByWard Market and Elgin Street districts fill up with locals and tourists alike. Outdoor summer concerts take place in Major's Hill Park, Confederation Park and Festival Plaza in front of City Hall. In addition to a variety of live-music venues, street performers often provide free shows for passers-by (tips are appreciated).
In winter, you may have to look a little harder for something to do, but a quick gander at the weekly XPress, the local free alternative paper, will turn up options. So, too, will the French Voir weekly newspaper or the monthly Where magazine. All three can be found throughout Ottawa. Gamblers can head for the Casino du Lac-Leamy across the river in Gatineau, Quebec. Closing time is 2 am in both Ottawa and the Hull sector of Gatineau (the area closest to downtown Ottawa). Elsewhere in Gatineau—such as the Aylmer sector—closing time is 3 am, as it is in the rest of the province of Quebec.
Ottawa is the rapidly growing capital of one of the leading multicultural countries in the world. This diversity is visible in a variety of ways, but perhaps most acutely in the multitude of dining options in town, ranging from Aboriginal dishes to Sri Lankan cuisine. Many restaurants post their menus near the door.
For a local treat, try a Beaver Tail—a flat, fried pastry served with sweet or savory condiments. They are sold—along with hot cider—to skaters along the Rideau Canal in winter and from a kiosk on William Street in the ByWard Market throughout the year.
Breakfast is usually eaten between 7 and 10 am, lunchtime runs 11 am-2:30 pm and dinner is 6-10 pm.
Note: Smoking is prohibited in all of Ottawa's restaurants, and the rule is strictly enforced. Smoking is allowed in most outdoor seating areas in summer.
Expect to pay within these guidelines for a meal for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than Can$10; $$ = Can$10-$25; $$$ = Can$26-$50; $$$$ = more than Can$50.
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