Ottawa is the new Montreal. Well, maybe not quite, but it’s pretty bumpin’ with 2017, Canada’s 150th birthday, ramping up! Our nation’s capital has more to offer than just the Parliament buildings and Justin Trudeau. Catch the tail end of Winterlude before it wraps up on February 20 as you embark on a five-night stay in the ‘Twa.
How to get there
Ottawa is a bit of a trek—about five hours—but it is worth every minute. There are two simple ways to get to the nation’s capital from Toronto: drive it yourself, or take a bus or train. If you’re driving we suggest the scenic route, so avoid the 401 at all costs. If you’re opting to not drive yourself there is the Greyhound, which takes a very important stop at a convenience store in the middle of the highway (anyone who has ever taken the Greyhound between Toronto and Ottawa will know what we mean here) and it normally hangs out on the lower end of the pricing scale. There’s also Via Rail—you can glide along the lake for hours, but it sits at the top end of the price scale. All of these options have their own perks and quirks, so do what is best for you!
Where to stay
It’s not particularly difficult to find an Airbnb in Ottawa, and depending on how Instagrammable it is, a private room for two costs anywhere from $50 to $400. However, unique to this city is the Ottawa Jail Hostel, an authentic 150-year-old county gaol located in the heart of downtown. With free breakfast and tours of the jail every thirty minutes, this $66 daily rate truly cannot be found elsewhere.
Kick-start your trip by heading to the famous Byward Market. Not only is the Market a foodie’s dream with an assortment of chain, independent and local restaurants and pubs, it is also a great shopping spot with dozens of boutiques—the perfect place to nab one-of-a-kind pieces. Try to go early as you can, as it’s easy to get lost and spend hours here.
A noteworthy restaurant in Byward is Tomo, known for its amazing Japanese food. It also turns into a funky club on the weekends. If Japanese isn’t your thing, try Zak’s Diner, an Ottawa classic with top notch milkshakes.
It is well worth it to plan your trip before February 20 to catch the end of Winterlude. If you’ve managed it, this snowy festival offers ice sculptures in Crystal Garden (Confederation Park) and a giant winter playground of slides, mazes, and more at Snowflake Kingdom (Jacques-Cartier Park).
If you’re in the mood for a more low-key evening, catch a flick at ByTowne Cinema. A cozy little theatre with French and international films is the perfect way to end a fun-filled day.
You can’t visit the nation’s capital without visiting Parliament Hill. Free tours of the Parliament buildings are offered daily. Sidenote: if you’re ever in Ottawa during the summer or fall, be sure to check out the breathtaking sound and light show there called “Northern Lights.”
Stop for lunch at Kettleman’s, an iconic Montreal-style bagel place. From chocolate bagels to chopped liver, they’ll be able to satisfy whatever craving you’ve got. Maybe even grab a dozen to bring home with you!
In the evening, for something a little more lighthearted and a little less political, you can hit up Shanghai Restaurant. This Chinatown restaurant also turns into a funky club, where its famous drag queen, China Doll, hosts karaoke night—and really, who doesn’t love karaoke?
Escape the tourist traps and visit the “secret” Rockcliffe swimming hole, aka the “Pond.” It’s actually called Hemlock Lake, and it is a cute spot just off McKay Lake, hidden away in an environmental area. It’s a little too cold for a swim right now, but it’s beautiful nonetheless.
Afterwards, get back into the city and head to Babylon, a popular nightclub that’s reminiscent of Toronto’s Sneaky Dee’s. They’re always hosting theme nights, so you’re bound to have a good time no matter what day it is.
Ottawa is renowned for its museums. The National Gallery of Canada is a must-see and they currently have an exhibit featuring acclaimed Indigenous artist, Alex Janvier. Also consider a visit to the Canadian Museum of Nature to see their special reptile exhibition, or pop over the bridge to Gatineau for the Canadian Museum of History (worth it for the childhood-dream-fulfilling Children’s Museum inside). If you’re looking to save a little cash, consider visiting on a Thursday evening—most museums and art galleries are free.
You’ll probably be hungry after standing all morning, so lunch at The King Eddy is your best bet. The diner serves expected classics in the $9-15 price range and won’t disappoint with its eclectic decor. If you’re feeling a little fancier, try Blue Cactus Bar and Grill. Their special winter menu boasts paella, gnocchi, chicken chimichanga, and an assortment of other entrées to warm you up from nose to toes.
The Rideau Canal Skateway is an Ottawa classic, so go burn off your lunch by going for a scenic skate down the frozen canal. If you’re not too skilled on the ice, you can take a walk along the river by the locks, or choose a more enclosed skating experience on the rainbow-lit SENS Rink of Dreams. There is a nice lookout spot right across the Ottawa River from where you can see Quebec! Grab a beavertail before you head over and have a snack alongside the scenic views.
Head over to Major’s Hill Park for a breathtaking view to cap off your trip. This scenic lookout overlooks the Rideau Canal and is in the perfect location to take in all of Ottawa’s beauty.
Grab a quick bite at El Camino for cheap but tasty tacos and then pop over to the farmer’s market at Landsdowne Park. It’s a sweet spot to grab some fresh produce for a nice lunch back at your hostel or Airbnb, as well as support local farmers!
Finish the night by visiting The Whiskey Bar, a popular bar which will surely provide a proper send-off.
Even though we’ve provided some suggestions about how to organize your days, the best thing about them is that they’re all super flexible. Mix and match to plan the best trip for you! Over reading week, there are a couple of specific dates you might want to mark: on February 21, Ottawa City Hall hosts the 2017 Heritage Showcase with 45 exhibitors especially for Canada 150. The Canadian Museum of Nature also opens its grand castle doors for “Nature Nocturne” (similar to the ROM’s Friday Night Live events) which falls on February 24.
Ottawa is a great place to embrace your inner Canadian and is a city that’s perfect for celebrating the beautiful winter season. With 2017 being such an exciting year for Canada, this is the time to check out the nation’s capital!
This piece was co-written by Olivia Bednar and Rachel Boere.