Ottawa is often overlooked by both Canadians and visitors for its small size. This becomes especially true when compared to the nearby cities of Montreal and Toronto. But the Canadian capital has much more to offer than the Parliament Buildings and Mountie rides. Recent development and young entrepreneurs bringing in local breweries, unique shops, and trendy coffee shops have put Ottawa back on the map as a destination.
I have lived in Ottawa on and off for the past ten years and there is just something about the city that keeps drawing me back. It is a safe city perfect for a solo adventure, couple travel, or a girls weekend getaway.
When to Visit
The only time of year I would not recommend would be in the early spring (March, April) because quite often this time is rainy, slushy and still cold.
The rest of the year offers different benefits depending on your preferences.
It can be quite warm, usually between 20C-30C in the height of summer, so it is perfect for the many of the outdoor activities Ottawa has to offer.
This is also a great time for events and festivals. I never miss a Rib Fest for one, but there are many others as well. Think Poutine Fest, Dessert Fest and Busker Fest. Canada day ( July 1) is a huge event in the nation’s capital and a great time to plan your visit. There are also many special activities such as yoga at parliament hill and Sunday bike days to take advantage of.
Fall in the Capital is beautiful. The changing leaves in the nearby Gatineau Park make for a beautiful backdrop for a hike, canoe trip, or brunch in the quaint village of Chelsea. The market and Little Italy usually decorate their storefronts with hay bales, pumpkins, and stalks of grain to add to the atmosphere. It is usually still warm enough to enjoy the outdoor activities but without the humidity that some of the summer months can bring. It is usually less busy at the major attractions as well. If you are lucky enough to visit near Halloween, there are many special activities such as haunting season at Saunders Farm to make your visit extra special.
I’m not going to lie, it’s cold. I mean bone shaking, frostbite inducing cold. But if you bundle and find a cozy fireplace lit pub to warm up in, it can be beautiful. The biggest draw to Ottawa in the winter is the outdoors. Whether it’s skating the canal with a hot chocolate, exploring the ice sculptures at the February Winterlude Festival or snowshoeing Gatineau Park, outdoor options are endless with the proper gear (Read: Mitts, jackets and hats, no one says they can’t be cute! Winter fashion is a must in Ottawa)
Where to Stay
There is a never ending list of places to stay in Ottawa, but these are a few of my favourites. All are centrally located and in easy walking distance to the major downtown attractions. If mobility is an issue, the OC Transpo bus system and soon to be launched O-Train allow for easy access to the city.
Fairmont Chateau Laurier: A historic hotel in the heart of downtown just steps from the Byward Market, Parliament and the Rideau Shopping Center. This is my personal favourite in the city because of it’s vintage elegance. I love to take in their weekend high tea if I am feeling fancy.
Andaz by Marriott: Ottawa’s newest and arguably most popular place to stay at the moment. With an uber modern feel, combined with millennial appealing trendy touches, boasting a rooftop bar in the heart of the market, the Andaz’s popularity is understandable. I have yet to stay the night here (it’s on my list to try very soon!), but I have indulged at the rooftop bar. Their Sunday brunch is a fun morning activity as well. Just be sure to book in advance.
The Swiss Hotel: Located just outside of the market and closer to the University of Ottawa Campus. The location of this small boutique hotel is a popular one. It is located close to a shelter but don’t let this drive you a way. Just be aware that there may be the occasional person asking for money down the street. It is not an unsafe area by any means and is usually very populated by students. I have just found that some people are put off by this if they are not prepared.
Alt Hotel: A very modern feel and a break from the usual chain hotels. An ideal Centertown location, a bit further walk from the market (10-15 min walk), but is more centrally located between the market and other popular areas such as Elgin street and the Glebe.
Hi Ottawa Jail Hostel: This is exactly how it sounds, you stay in an actual jail cell! While this may not appeal to everyone, I found it to be a really neat and spooky experience (it is rumoured to be haunted). Aside from the fun creepy atmosphere, it is located next to the Rideau Center and steps away from the Byward Market and University of Ottawa Campus.
Neighbourhoods to Explore
The Byward Market
One of Ottawa’s most well known area’s for dining, shopping and nightlife. In the heart of downtown the “market” is the perfect jumping off point for exploring the city.
Where to Grab a Great Coffee:
Planet Coffee: Best in the summer for its outdoor courtyard and tasty seasonal lemonades, ice teas, and coffees.
Orgin Coffee: A steampunk style café offering great coffee, wine, and local beer. A popular after work hang out for 20 and 30 somethings.
Mad Hatters Tea Party: An Alice in wonderland themed tea shop popular with the local university crowd. Mismatched cups and saucers make their tea, sandwiches and baked good extra special. Try the lavender lemonade, it’s amazing!
La Bottega: An Italian grocery and deli well known to locals. Stop in the back café for a cappuccino to go or stand at the bar and knock back your espresso before exploring the market. They offer italian cooking classes if you are looking for a delicious evening activity ( must be booked in advanced) . I took an olive oil class and loved every minute.
Where to Eat:
Vittoria Trattoria $$$: Stone walls and dim lighting make this more of a romantic atmosphere, but I have seen many solo travelers enjoying the ambiance as well. It is a bit pricey, but the food is good and the ambiance is nice.
Mama Grazzi $$$: Italian. This is one of my favourite places to eat in the market. It’s a little pricier, but worth the indulgence.You cannot go wrong with the homemade pasta or wood-oven pizza. A small cozy place in the winter and a beautiful outdoor courtyard patio in the summer.
The Grand $$: Italian. Known for their wood-oven pizza’s, but offer other italian dishes as well. Offers weeknight ” happy hour” deals with half-priced pizzas. Nice outdoor patio in the summer.
The Pour House $$: Irish Pub. In the summer offers outdoor views of the market from an upstairs patio and in the winter gives a cozier feel with a small fireplace.
Ahora $: Authentic Mexican. Located in the basement below a thai place, the cheap authentic food and festive decor make this a local favourite (myself included!).
Where to Drink:
Moscow Tea Room $$$: An upscale lounge feel with large Victorian portraits, chandeliers and deep red walls. Popular mostly with 30 something’s and the after work crowd. Specialty cocktails.
Social: $$$ Upscale lounge-feel perfect for dinner or a drink. Dim lighting, high-backed chairs and elegant feeling. Popular with 30 something’s and business types.
Play $$: a fun modern atmosphere makes for the perfect place to combine tapas and wine. Popular with a mid 20’s and 30’s crowd but no age would feel out of place.
Heart and Crown:$ Irish pub with many different bar areas, often featuring more than one live music performer on weekends. There are several areas to sit and talk while another room provides a dance floor. Very popular on weekends with a 20 something crowd. If you want to hear live music and don’t want the “party” scene aim to leave by 10PM.
Ace:$$ A contemporary, more upscale Mexican restaurant and bar. Excellent authentic margaritas. Popular with a mid 20 to 30 something crowd.
Andaz Rooftop Bar $$$ : One of the only rooftop bars in Ottawa. An upscale lounge-feel with comfortable patio seating, signature cocktails and views of the city.
What to Do:
The National Gallery: Probably my favourite museum in Ottawa primarily for the beautiful glass building. Canada’s national art gallery features works of art from Canadian and international artists. Check what visiting exhibit is on when visiting, these are usually extra special. There is also a cute café at the back of the building that offers views of parliament and is usually relatively quiet.
Parliament Buildings: I admit that as a local I have only done the tour once or twice and frankly the political aspect of the buildings don’t really interest me. What I did find impressive was the massive library and the climb to the top of the peace tower. Tours are free, but lines can get big in the summer months. Even if you don’t want to spend the time touring the buildings, they are worth a walk by just for the architecture. Behind the buildings there is a beautiful view of the river.
Shopping: There are many trendy local shops in the market. My favourites are Milk and Roadtrip for cute clothing and accessory finds that you won’t find anywhere else in the city. The Rideau center has more brand name shops for a serious shopping day.
The Loft: A bar and café that have a serious collection of board games and old school video games (bottom floor). This place is very popular with local 20 something’s, but you wouldn’t feel out of place at any age. As a huge board game nerd, I absolutely love this place!
High Tea at the Chateau Laurier: This can run pricy (35$ per person), but if its a special occasion or you feel like treating yourself this is definitely a special experience. They serve a traditional high tea in the Chandelier clad Zoe’s Lounge, but can add a Canadian twist with maple tea.
Museum of History: If you have any interest in Canadian History, this place is worth a stop. The Indigenous section features real totem poles! The architecture of the building is also impressive in itself and a café with an outdoor seating area looks across the river with views of parliament.
River Cruise: If you want to see the city from a different perspective different themed river cruises such as ” rock the river” with live music provide a different experience. For a cheaper option, water taxis can provide a similar view for 5$ and run back and forth from the Ottawa side beside the Bytown museum and the Museum of History.
Major’s Hill Park: Across from the market and overlooking the river towards both Gatineau and parliament, in the summer months you’ll find many locals reading or grabbing a picnic lunch with friends in the park.
Popular with local college and university crowds, the Glebe is a trendy, “Hipster” neighbourhood known for its fair trade coffee, yoga and restaurants featuring local ingredients.
Where to Grab a Great Coffee:
Arlington 5: Local coffee shop offering a delicious selection of coffee, sandwiches and baked goods. Cozy ” old country kitchen” feel.
Where to Eat:
The Rowan: Amazing food with variety of seasonal offerings, handcrafted mock tails and cocktails with the feel of eating in the canopy of a forest.
The WhalesBone: A go to place for seafood. The décor gives the feel of a New England fishing village.
Rosie’s: A southern kitchen combining seafood and grill foods. Wide selection of food in a Cajun meets contemporary atmosphere.
What to do:
Try a drop in yoga class at pure yoga Friday nights for 5$
Museum of Nature: a small museum known to locals as the “castle.” Once a month they host a party in the museum complete with DJ and dance floors.
Primarily consisting of Preston St. And ending at Dow’s lake, this charming street is a great place to grab a bite and explore the changing seasonal decorations.
Where to Grab a Great Coffee:
Simply biscotti: Italian bakery with amazing Italian coffee and baked goods. Try the cappuccino or espresso with a piece of homemade biscotti.
Where to Eat:
Raw: Music blasting, inspirational quotes and bright coloured walls with a side of smoothie bowls and fresh juice.
Pub Italia: Complete with a beer bible, this pub is popular for a weekend drink and a uniquely topped pizza.
Evoo: Greek food with a trendy vibe. Weekend brunch is a must with avo toast and flavoured mimosas.
Where to Drink:
Moon Room: Small, intimate lounge for sipping cocktails.
Heart and Crown: Similar description as the market only with a slightly older crowd ( late 20’s and 30’s) and smaller venue.
What to do:
rent a kayak at dows lake
bike the canal trail
tulip festival (spring)
This newly developed area is home to a large stadium, an impressive pavilion, movie theatre and many places to eat and drink. Most places are chain restaurants, but there are many popular places to grab a bite or a drink such as Milestones, Jack Astors and Joey’s.
What to Do:
VIP movies with in seat wait service and cocktails
Catch a Red Blacks game and cheer for Ottawa’s home football team
Attend a music festival: Both Folk fest and Escapade (dance/trance) took over Lansdowne this year.
Walk the track or check out the park
Sunday farmers market: A large selection of local fruits, vegetables, artisan food and goods in a lively outdoor atmosphere.
Short Drives Away ( 45 minutes or less)
A beautiful wild get away with hiking trails for all ability levels ranging from short 30 minute level walks to full day hikes. The park is littered with lakes and streams where a canoe or kayak rented at the visitor center are free to roam. Camp sites and cabins are available to rent if you wanted to escape the city lights for some stargazing and campfires.
A quaint village located just out of the heart of Gatineau park with small colourful houses transformed into pubs, cafes and the best home made ice cream I have ever tasted. This is best planned as an eating stop or combined with Gatineau Park.
Another cute village reminisent of sleepy hallow in the fall perched lakeside with church steeples peeking out of leaf coloured hills. The small street has many great options for food and coffee shops. This is best planned as an eating stop or combined with Gatineau park.
A family owned farm that rules the Halloween season in the area. Maybe a little cheesy for some, but I love Halloween so this is always a must for me. It is transformed into a Halloween village completed with haunted houses, haunted wagon rides, hedge mazes, pumpkin picking, and all the fall flavoured treats you can imagine. It does get busier as Halloween approaches, so expect a crowd.
Personally I think this is one popular spot that is overrated, but I know a lot of other people who really enjoy it. Known for its selection of outdoor pools in the beauty of Gatineau’s natural landscape, people flock to this spa. Although I did enjoy the setting, I found it way too busy and the calming atmosphere suffered as a result. I found it quite pricey for what it was and you needed to bring your own robes as well. This was just my own personal opinion but I preferred the spa at the Montebello Fairmont. I include the spa here simply due to its popularity and not based upon experiences.