Art, history, shopping, and even green space – on a human scale.
- Transit: Planes, trains, automobiles – you name it, it goes to Ottawa. (Maybe not monorails or hyperloops. Yet.)
- Cost: Depends on what you want to do. A walking tour is free, and eats at the ByWard Market range the gamut.
- Crowds: Evenings and weekends are busy.
- Attractions: History, architecture, scenery, art, food, shopping…
- Accessibility: You’ll want some comfy shoes on if you want to walk all the way across Parliament Hill to the National Gallery of Canada, but it’s entirely doable. Many attractions are wheelchair accessible, but the age of many of the buildings reduces the accessibility of some.
- Click here for map.
Ottawa’s downtown comes as a surprise, given its reputation in Ontario for being boring. Hugging the Ottawa river, the parliament buildings, as well as many other major government institutions, are perched along the steep banks in a naturally picturesque array. It is packed with tourist sites – shopping, museums, historic buildings, music, food, green space; only highlights are presented here – and almost all are within walking distance. Despite all the pomp on display, there is a welcome ease to Ottawa’s downtown, and at a human scale afforded by its stroll-ability.
The main tourist thoroughfare, Wellington Street, offers a fine architectural tour. It goes first past the Supreme Court of Canada in the west, a handsome art deco building with statues of Veritas (Truth) and Iustitia (Justice) at either end of the building. I’m a sucker for public sculpture, and Iustitia is particularly dramatic – and photogenic.
Past that is Parliament Hill’s iconic draw, the Gothic revival parliament buildings and Peace Tower. Travellers are forever milling about the central lawn, as are protesters, reporters, and security. Tours are offered of the interior of the buildings through the day, and tickets are free and available across the road at 90 Wellington Street.
Not to be missed, around the back of the central bloc of parliament buildings, is the Library of Parliament. Photography was forbidden inside, last time I was there, which is a shame as it’s a stunning space. Luckily, the outside is just as gorgeous.
Were I ever to rule Canada with an iron fist, it would be from these windows. Haha.
Across the canal that runs through the middle of downtown into the Ottawa River is the Château Laurier, one of the prettiest and most well-appointed hotels in the country.
It’s a quick walk from there to the ByWard Market, with its many stores, stalls, and eats. A little bit further is the National Gallery of Canada, housing a commanding collection of Canadian art. Art, culture, and history lovers should really head across the river to Gatineau, Ottawa’s Québec sister city, to check out the Canadian Museum of History/Musée canadien de l’histoire, with its lavish, flowing, Douglas Cardinal design. (The last time I was there the exhibits were fantastic, but in the interim there have been fears of politically-motivated changes to the institution’s mandate which many worried would result in the erasure of critical thought about Canada’s history, particularly regarding the tragedies of European colonization and the “cultural” genocide leveled against Canada’s Indigenous Peoples. I hope to visit again soon to see how this has settled out in the Museum.)
Completing the loop on the Ottawa side is a stroll between Parliament Hill and the Ottawa River on a section of the Trans Canada Trail, the longest recreational trail in the world. Here is a rather romantic setting from which one can see the many lovely pieces of architecture along this stretch of the river.
It is hard not to reflect on Canada here. And, as the wonders of this nation stand juxtaposed with the damage done by European colonization in the Canadian Museum of History, so too does the beauty of the buildings that surround this surprisingly green space set it in relief, rendering it a startling reminder of the ancient hemlock-beech forest that was razed to build this city.
Now, quietly regenerating, it is protected by the those human symbols of the nation that destroyed it – and protects them in turn by keeping Parliament Hill itself from eroding away down the Ottawa River.
Set back from the main thoroughfare, it feels like an apt symbol for Canada itself.