When I visit Ottawa in Spring, Summer and Fall, I am reminded why I associate this vibrant mid-sized city with red. For a start, Canada’s red and white flag flies everywhere, and souvenir displays predictably celebrate the color with hats and t-shirts. Then there are the colorful military guards of Parliament Hill dressed in red and black uniforms marching crisply through downtown streets daily from June to August, accompanied by a first-class marching band. They are on serious business to protect the lawmaking institutions of the land, but also they generate huge visitor interest.
During the two-week Tulip Festival (tulipfestival.ca) each May, a predominant color is traditional red among the dazzling tulip garden designs of more than a million blooms in public spaces and another two million in private gardens. In the Fall, the flaming red leaves of maple trees throughout the city and surrounding countryside usher in Winter when red gives way to snowy white. Not by coincidence, white just happens to cover the remaining one quarter of the Canadian flag!
With a city population of 934,000 and a regional population of 1.3 million, Ottawa (ottawatourism.ca) on the Ontario-Québec border is large enough to offer everything a visitor could wish to sample and small enough to access it with ease. Named after the native Algonquin phrase, “to trade”, Ottawa remains a bustling, multicultural, bilingual city (English and French) offering plenty of joie de vivre in both languages.
The core area of Ottawa, where visitors spend most of their time, is incredibly walkable, whether they are there for two days or a week. My visit in July 2017 was four days, during which time I only needed a taxi to get to and from the international airport. With a Visitor Centre map and comfortable shoes, I walked everywhere day and evening or took a river ferry or canal cruise to enjoy the always different water-based perspective. Ottawa has perfected the hosting of festivals, hosting year round an extraordinary number of these events that touch on nearly every interest.
I visited the city during the two-week Ottawa Chamberfest (chamberfest.com), the world’s largest chamber music festival featuring a wide variety of chamber, classical and modern music. Most of the festival’s events are held in large historic churches with fantastic acoustics and beautiful ornate surroundings. Such was the concert I attended, which featured six guitarists who roused the audience to its feet repeatedly with classical and modern renditions alike.
On another warm summer evening, I walked through an old residential neighborhood to attend a performance of the appropriately-named comedy “Pardon Me, Prime Minister” at the Ottawa Little Theatre (ottawalittletheatre.com). It had my ribs aching with laughter. Of course, the granddaddy of performance venues is the National Arts Centre (nac-can.ca) where most major and many more intimate arts and music events take place.
Parliament Hill is the visitor’s starting point, presenting the Changing of the Guard ceremony, offering free guided tours of the Canada’s House of Commons and Senate, as well as Sound & Light shows nightly during the summer. The massive forever-green lawn in front of the gray-stone Parliament buildings even hosts free yoga sessions each Wednesday at lunchtime between May and August. Up to 1,000 locals and visitors roll out their workout mats under the imposing watch of the ten-story clock tower.
If Parliament Hill is the heart of the nation’s capital, the Ottawa River and the early 19th century Rideau Canal are its chief arteries. Visitors have plenty of opportunities to enjoy these waterways, taking an electric aqua taxi across the river just below the Hill to visit the vast Canadian Museum of History, or sampling the canal on an informative electric boat cruise (rideaucanalcruises. ca) in summer. In winter, the canal becomes the largest skating rink in the world, stretching 4.8 miles or 7.8 kilometers through downtown, with skate rentals for visitors and hot chocolate served. The Rideau Canal is North America’s oldest continuously operating waterway and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Ottawa has been deliciously successful in developing the city as a premier, year round culinary destination. Its vast downtown ByWard Market, a short walk from Parliament Hill, houses numerous cafés and some of the city’s best pubs and restaurants. Though the market area is one of the oldest and largest farmers’ markets in Canada, it remains a vigorous example of both its past and present success with dazzling arrangements of fresh produce in from the countryside vying for attention with local maple syrup and handicrafts. I took a two-hour walking tour with C’est Bon Cooking (cestboncooking.ca) to meet some of the chefs, farm producers and food artisans there and to taste their specialties including a BeaverTails pastry, an Ottawa delicacy not to be missed.
I also enjoyed sampling the seafood at The Whalebone on Elgin Street with a casual neighborhood backdrop and, by contrast, savoring the hushed fine dining atmosphere and tasting menu with wine pairings at Beckta Dining on Elgin Street. The food at Fraser Café proved to be anything but café-like, it was beautifully presented and layered with illusive flavors from appetizer to entrée. And I couldn’t leave Ottawa without decompressing between attractions at the boisterous Métropolitain Brasserie beside the Rideau Canal. Modeled on the grand Parisian brasseries of the 1920s, this is THE place where politicians mingle with the business crowd and vacationers for drinks and “Hill Hour” appetizers.
On my last day in Ottawa, I bought a ticket on a guided Gray Line “hop on, hop off” bus to explore farther afield. I visited some of the country’s largest national museums (Canadian War Museum, Canadian Aviation and Space Museum, and Canadian Museum of History) and several significant attractions. I only had the time to fully absorb five of a possible 12 stops as the buses traced a wide loop around the city all day.
I was particularly excited to “hop off” at Rideau Hall, the elegant but modest-sized residence of Canada’s official head of state (titled Governor General and commanderin- chief of the Armed Forces). Set in 79 manicured acres of trees and flower beds, with only a handful of soldiers in black and red guarding the front gate, visitors may wander the grounds from early morning to one hour before dusk. There are also guided tours of the Hall’s public rooms. Astronaut and engineer Julie Payette is beginning a five-year term as Governor General bringing a few unusual credentials to her appointment to the post. These include fluency in six languages and two stints in outer space as well as being a scuba diver, commercial pilot, accomplished classical pianist and singer. Pay a call at Rideau Hall!
My last hop-off was at the extensive stables and training facilities of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police iconic Musical Ride. Of course, there’s one more flash of red as the Mounties ride by on horseback in their red and brown dress uniforms!