Ottawa: What to See in a Weekend
Stopping in Ottawa on our road trip through Ontario and Quebec, we discovered a vibrant city preparing to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary next year. In a couple of days we were able to discover something of the rich cultural scene, the bustling markets, and cycle the green corridor of the Ottawa River.
The shuttle bus from our campground transported us into the city leaving us in front of Parliament Hill. We’d arrived just in time for the changing of the guards at 10am and bagged a prime spot, facing the gothic buildings and clock-tower. It was no surprise that they reminded us of the Houses of Parliament in London, being built after Queen Victoria decided to transform the remote settlement of Bytown into Canada’s new capital.
Soon we heard the band marching up the street and the soldiers wearing red coats and bearskins paraded past us onto the grass. A commentary explained what was going on, as the troops were inspected and the new guard marched in to replace the old.
After the ceremony, we hoped to get a view over the Ottawa River, but renovation works had closed the path. Instead we enjoyed taking photos with the oversized statues of notable women having a tea party. They were celebrating the landmark victory in 1929 that recognized women to be ‘persons’ who had the legal right to serve in the Canadian Senate.
The Rideau Canal
From Parliament Hill we crossed the bridge above the Rideau Canal, pausing to watch the pleasure boats sitting on the staircase of locks. The canal was a feat of engineering that completed the route of navigable lakes, rivers, and waterways, and opened up Ottawa to trade from the sea. Now it’s mainly pleasure crafts that use the canal, with boat trips available to see the city from the water.
A Walk Through Major’s Hill Park
Our path continued beside the Fairmont Chateau Laurier, taking us into the pretty Major’s Hill Park. Manicured lawns and colourful flowerbeds opened up on one side to views over the Ottawa River. An imposing statue commemorated Lieutenant Colonel John By, the military engineer who oversaw the building of the Rideau Canal.
Lunch in Byward Market
We walked through the park to reach Byward Market, a popular neighborhood with many pubs and restaurants. Our first stop was the covered market, an airy brick building with a variety of craft and food stalls with seating on the street.
The restaurants reflected the multicultural diversity of Canada, with a choice of Indian, Lebanese, and Chinese food, as well as the more familiar French-inspired patisserie and maple syrup goodies.
In the farmers’ market, the neat mounds of fruit and vegetables, were a feast for the eyes, with colourful punnets of luscious soft fruit. On a local recommendation we enjoyed brunch at Murray Street who specialize in Canadian charcuterie plates and cheeses. For dessert we joined the appreciative queue at the Beavertail kiosk, selling Ottawa’s signature pastry, topped with anything from classic cinnamon and sugar to maple butter.
The National Gallery of Canada
A short walk took us to the National Gallery of Canada, a cathedral of glass with steeply sloping roofs and pointed spires. The giant spider sculpture, Maman by Louise Bourgeois was standing guard, making us feel the size of a fly about to be caught in her web.
A sloping colonnade took us up into the Great Hall, with windows framing views of the Parliament building. We wandered around the galleries with colourful contemporary artworks and beautifully carved Inuit sculptures. A highlight was the Rideau Street Convent Chapel, saved from a convent that was due for demolition with a delicate fanned roof in pastel shades of blue and gold.
Across the road we popped into the striking Notre-Dame Cathedral with green and gold marble columns reaching to the midnight blue roof spangled with golden stars like the night sky.
The Canadian Museum of History
The following day, we explored Ottawa from the Gatineau side of the river and started the morning at the Canadian Museum of History. The fluid curving walls, terraces, and stairways of the museum overlooked the Ottawa River and we relaxed for a while in the outdoor table café, watching the small ferries crossing back and forth.
Inside the museum, a huge hall housed totem poles, the faces and eyes of stylized creatures peering out at us. The Museum was full of First Nation cultural objects and some interesting special exhibitions about the gold rush and horse-drawn carriages. We were disappointed to find little about the history of settlers in Canada but a new gallery is due to reopen in summer 2017 to tell the story of Canada.
An Afternoon Cycling by the River
Our final afternoon in Ottawa was spent getting closer to nature as we rented bikes to explore the riverside paths around the capital. Picking up bikes at Maison du Velo, we cycled through Jacques-Cartier Park and along a boardwalk, where a motionless heron was fishing within sight of the Parliament building.
We followed the river path beside the National Museum of History and before crossing a bridge to the opposite riverbank. Around the corner, the Parliament building came in view, but rather than having to pedal back over the bridge, we wheeled our bikes onto a small solar powered ferry. From the ferry we took in the river views and in 10 minutes were back by the National Museum of History.
In just a couple of days we’d felt a taste of Ottawa’s history and easy-going contemporary culture, but there’s plenty more surface to scratch for next time.