A world of things happening in Ottawa
OTTAWA — Colorful and dynamic with a hip youthful vibe, Ottawa is finding its way onto the agendas of the world’s travelers. Among them this summer here in Ontario will be the planet’s most famous newlyweds — yes, Kate and Wills — on a post-honeymoon trek. Canada’s beautiful capital city, an hour’s flight from Boston, makes a great weekend getaway.
STAY: Ottawa is compact, with most of its attractions clustered within walking distance of Parliament Hill, making the downtown the best spot to stay. Taxis and buses can take you farther afield.
Beside the Parliament Buildings in the center of town is the Fairmont Château Laurier, the city’s turreted grande dame. Its luxurious rooms include some that overlook the Ottawa River and Quebec’s green Gatineau Hills beyond. Reasonably priced apartment hotels like the Albert at Bay Suites Hotel abound in central Ottawa. Some even include full kitchens and are a great choice for families and for longer stays. Ottawa’s small inns offer character and charm. Try McGee’s Inn, one of Canada’s top bed-and-breakfasts, near the Byward Market district, or Ambiance B&B closer to Parliament. Characters of another sort inhabited the old city prison, now the Ottawa Jail Hostel where guests enjoy shared and private cells, the warden’s quarters, or traditional hostel rooms. And for post-touring R&R there is the appropriately dubbed Mugshots bar. Be forewarned, though, that wisps of disgruntled previous residents have been sensed hanging about late at night.
EAT: Ottawans love to eat out and, with embassies from every corner of the world, they have long had a choice of ethnic cuisines. In the past several years, the dining scene has exploded with another phenomenon, young chefs who have opened restaurants. This new generation of foodies can be spotted at the market sniffing basil and pinching tomatoes, or at Savour Ottawa networking events tête-à-tête with equally passionate local farmers poring over designer vegetables in the latest seed catalog. These chefs are an inventive, fun-loving lot who view their competitors as comrades and diners as part of the action. Their food is superb but less fussy (read: less expensive) than the fine dining of old and no one cares how much you have dressed up.
Among the standouts are Play Food & Wine, Wellington Gastropub, Murray Street, Atelier, and, for a touch of Paris, Bistro St. Jacques across the river in Quebec. Another favorite is DiVino Wine Studio in Preston Street’s Little Italy and its Chef’s Table where patrons sip on lesser-known Italian vintages while they chat with its owner, sommelier, and Rome native Antonio Mauriello, and with his staff in the open kitchen as they prepare sharing plates the likes of olives all’ascolana and spinach gnocchi as light as a down pillow.
DO: No Ottawa day begins properly without a stop at the Byward Market bakery, Moulin de Provence, for a café au lait and one of its endless baguettes and brioches, croissants, and quiches. It was here that President Obama breezed in unannounced on his first Ottawa visit for a pair of maple-leaf-shaped treats — now “Obama cookies’’ — for daughters Sasha and Malia.
The Byward Market district is Ottawa’s liveliest and hums with energy all day and long into the night. At its heart is a farmers’ market whose overstuffed flower stalls and colorful arrays of fruits and veggies spill onto surrounding streets in warmer months. It’s four blocks square and filled with independent shops and cafes, galleries, pubs, and restaurant patios one after the other. Check out Lafreniere & Pai Gallery for fine jewelry, ceramics, and glass by Canadian artists, Workshop Studio & Boutique for funky handmade gifts, or for artisanal cheeses from Quebec and beyond, The House of Cheese.
Shopping finds farther afield include the White Monkey on Gladstone for retro furniture and accessories, Mags & Fags on Elgin with 4,000 magazine titles and Cuban cigars, and The Candy Store on Richmond, a candy lover’s fairyland with shelves upon shelves of glass jars filled with a rainbow of sweets.
Near the market is the magnificent National Gallery of Canada, where art lovers flock to its extensive collections of Inuit art, photography, Group of Seven paintings, and blockbuster exhibitions. This year features “Caravaggio and His Followers in Rome,’’ the first Canadian showing of works by the influential Italian Baroque painter (June 17-Sept. 11). Next year van Gogh comes to the gallery.
Though Ottawa dresses in its finest flowers and greenery for summer, this is an outdoors city in all seasons. The Rideau Canal, which bisects the city, is prime strolling territory, a popular pleasure boat route and, when winter descends, the world’s longest skating rink. Here you can take cruises, rent bikes, skates, and sleighs. Along the canal, the newly-opened Ottawa Convention Centre with its sinuous glass exterior adds a note of bling to the skyline.
Museum hounds revel in the capital’s wealth of national museums. The Aviation & Space Museum. The Mint. The RCMP Musical Ride stables. The Canadian War Museum. The Museum of Nature. The Museum of Civilization. The Science & Technology Museum. Several host children’s weekend sleepovers so parents can indulge in more adult pursuits.
Night life in Ottawa revolves around live music in its pubs, a casual scene that attracts all ages. Some of the best are The Irish Village in the Byward, The Rainbow where Blues Brother and Ottawa native Dan Aykroyd sometimes drops by, the candlelit cellar Vineyards Wine Bar Bistro with cover-free jazz on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Sundays, and Zaphod Beeblebrox where the Rolling Stones filmed their “Streets of Love’’ video.
The Gothic-style Parliament Buildings, Canada’s seat of government, dominate Ottawa’s downtown, their slender Peace Tower a firm exclamation mark on the city. There are free guided tours daily and outside on the Hill — the country’s front lawn. Summer brings the 10 a.m. Changing of the Guards and a free sound-and-light show every evening at dusk.
Summer, too, is festival season with at least one every weekend. This month Ottawa becomes a Netherlands on the Rideau as the glorious Tulip Festival bursts forth in parks, on lawns, and beside roadways all over the city. There’s the Dragonboat festival, Bluesfest, the Ottawa Jazz Festival, the International Children’s Festival, writers’ festivals, dance festivals, art festivals, a chicken and rib cookoff — the list is endless.
This year, Westfest features a special day of Inuit performances that range from throat singers to pop (June 11).
The hottest party date is always July 1, when Canadians and visitors from all over don the colors of the Maple Leaf flag and flock to Parliament Hill for concerts, frivolity, and fireworks to celebrate Canada Day, the country’s birthday. Sometimes royals come, too. Last year it was Queen Elizabeth. This year her grandson and his new bride, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, will attend. Just one bit of wardrobe advice for them — and for you. Wear red on that day and you, too, will be hailed as family.
Sharon Blomfield can be reached at email@example.com.