A few weeks ago, I waxed poetic about the wonders of Ottawa after my very first visit to Canada’s capital city.
Today, the sheen still hasn’t worn off. I dream of returning and revisiting some of the places that I discovered on my trip.
Thankfully, Ottawa’s just a brief plan ride from many North American cities, and the fact that you can walk everywhere you want to go makes it an ideal weekend getaway! Even more enticing is that it’s very much a “year round” city, with a personality that evolves as the months scroll by…
In Spring, once the winter thaws, hundreds of thousands of tulips bloom all over Ottawa during the Tulip Festival, making an already beautiful city even more picturesque.
In Summer, Ottawa becomes lively, with many events like the International Jazz Festival and the Royal Bank Bluesfest.
In the Fall, the Rideau Canal provides the perfect viewing spot for the changing leaves.
And in the Winter, a whole new Ottawa in unveiled during Winterlude when the serene Rideau Canal freezes and turns in the world’s largest skating rink.
No matter the time of year you choose to visit, there are a few stops that shouldn’t be missed. Here are my top picks for 2 days in Ottawa!
Where to Stay
The Fairmont Château Laurier is, quite simply, the best place to stay in Ottawa. Built in 1912 and designed to look like a French castle, it’s stately and beautiful. The rooms are luxuriously decorated and very comfortable, and the location is very central, right in the heart of downtown and next to Parliament. (Which ensures a abundant political clientele.) But, most importantly, the service is top of the line. Guests are truly made to feel like royalty, and the staff is eager to help with any request.
The Fairmont’s regal, but not overly set in its ways. A 40-minute iPad Walking tour of the hotel’s common spaces shows how modern technology can enhance an older property, and gives lots of interesting historical tidbits along the way. Just one of the things I learned from the tour: The hotel’s original owner, Charles Melville Hayes, went down on the Titanic just days before the Fairmont was scheduled to open. (Yikes!)
What to Do
The bustling ByWard Market is right smack the heart of Ottawa’s downtown district and should be the first stop on any visitor’s radar. One of the oldest markets in Canada, ByWard has 4 square blocks of pure foodie heaven and is a lively destination from morning til night. As day breaks, the food and produce market comes alive, with farmers selling their wares to local chefs and passersby. As the day progresses, the focus shifts to the market’s many bars and restaurants (there are over 120!) that stays busy through the wee hours of the morning.
The ByWard neighborhood has so many vendors that it can be hard to figure out where to start. C’est Bon Gourmet Food Tours offers a “Tastes of the ByWard Market” walking tour that does all of the heavy lifting, delivering a “gastronomic adventure.” The 2-3 hour tour takes a small group through the market with many stops along the way. I was able to sample everything from Charlevoix cheese at the House of Cheese, fresh mixed greens from Rochon Garden, an almond fig cake topped with Devil’s Rock blue cheese at La Bottega Nicastro, truffle butter popcorn at Play Food & Wine, Neopolitan Pizza from The Grand, freshly baked cupcakes from the Cupcake Lounge and more!
As I mentioned, Ottawa is a beautiful city, and there’s no better way to see it than by renting a bike. Smooth, paved pathways wind throughout the city, and allow bikers to travel along miles and miles of serene canals, past scenic panoramas and notable stops. I selected RentABike, which offered a lot of flexibility with hourly rates beginning at $9/ hour, day rates ($38 for 24 hours) and multiple plans in between– perfect for the weekend traveler with a time crunch.
I rented my bike for 2 hours, and biked to the Canadian Museum of Civilization. This museum is a special place for many Canadians because it tells the history of Canada’s Aboriginal people in the First Peoples Hall. The museum is full of beautiful art and well-done exhibits, and the building itself tells a unique story. Its prominent placement directly across the Ottawa River from the Parliament buildings is symbolic of the Aboriginal importance to modern-day Canadians.
If you don’t have a lot of time, I recommend that you take advantage of the museum’s Audio Guide, which takes you through the First Peoples exhibit in about 40 minutes, weaving the museum’s narrative together through legends and history while relating everything back to modern day. (Museum cost: $14.95, Audio Guide cost: $3)
And, if you happen to be in town on a Wednesday in summer… Yoga on Parliament Hill is a must-do. Whether you’re a beginner or yogi-in-training, it’s worth stopping by to see the formal and pristine Parliament Hill covered with over 1,000 neon-clad fitness buffs downward-facing-dogging in perfect harmony.
Where to Eat and Drink
Whether you’re eating on a budget, or looking for a high-end foodie experience, Ottawa’s food and drink scene is vibrant and delicious. Here are some of my favorites.
$ – Shawarma Palace is cheap, fast and incredibly good. For just $13, you can have their signature chicken shawarma dish that, in my own words is “holy s*** good!” Crispy bits of spit-roasted chicken is lovingly shaved and piled high atop rice, tabbouleh, cabbage, fried potatoes, pita and a generous dallop of hummus served with the best extra virgin olive oil I’ve ever tasted. (Seriously.) Be sure to request extra garlic sauce– you might scare off strangers but it’s so tasty it will be well worth it!
$$ – Sidedoor Contemporary Kitchen and Bar is a popular Asian-fustion restaurant run by Top Chef Canada finalist Jonathan Korecki. I headed there for lunch and while I hear that Sidedoor’s known for its tacos, I was blown away by the flavors of the Drunken Soba with Grilled Beef. ($17). A cold dish, it was filled with fresh ingredients like fried shallots, thai basil, cucumbers, napa cabbage, yellow peppers, marinated red onions and more. A dressing and chili oil was served on the side, and I felt encouraged to play with my food and customize it to my liking. The dish had bright flavors and textures and was one of the best things I ate in Ottawa.
$$- The Black Tomato is a pub with the absolute best craft beer list in Ottawa. The vibe indoors is cozy and comfortable– it’s very much a neighborhood bar. For those nice summer days, opt to head outside to one of their courtyard tables. As I mentioned, the beer list is extensive, so get your bearings by ordering a beer flight with 4 generous samples of the draft beers of your choice. Lots of local breweries are featured, like Broadhead to Kichesippi to Hogsback. My unexpected favorite was the Hogsback Bacon and Oatmeal Stout. (Yes, bacon beer!)
$$$ – Murray Street embodies Ottawa’s foodie culture. With an emphasis on featuring local produce, cheeses and a whole bunch of different animals from Ottawa’s farmers, Murray’s menu shows a deep respect and reverence for Canada. A “nose to tail” philosophy ensures that no part of the animal is wasted, and while I opted to play it safe with braised short ribs with bone marrow mashed potatoes, more adventurous eaters can try expertly prepared items like head cheese, beef heart and offal. And, their house-made charcuterie platters should not be missed!