Canada’s Forgotten Capital: Why Ottawa is Worth a Visit

Ziplining and beekeeping may not be your typical city break activities – but then again, Ottawa isn’t your typical city. Tucked between the more sought-after Toronto and Montreal, it’s not usually at the top of travelers’ wish lists. When I started planning my visit, I was constantly asked “why should you go there?” the question was asked. But when you come back, “why don’t more people go there?” I asked.

With its history, architecture, museums, river walks and bike trails, Ottawa offers the best of both a city break and a country getaway. Canada’s capital is best described as a rural metropolis – imagine taking the city of Westminster and placing it in the middle of the South Downs. At the heart of the city on the south bank of the Ottawa River is Parliament Hill, where government buildings are filled with public servants. The Ceremonial Guard is replete with red tunics and bearskin hats, its silhouette dominated by the Peace Tower, which bears a striking resemblance to Big Ben’s Elizabeth Tower.

At its base is the House of Commons, which offers free 40-minute guided tours when the Canadian Parliament is not in session. After going through airport-style security, you pass walls covered with portraits of former prime ministers. The House of Commons looks familiar with its large ornate Speaker’s Chair surrounded by rows of bright green seats. Someone asked, “Why is it green?” when asked, the guide replies: “We copied the English.”

A huge French chateau is visible to the right of the Parliament. Built in 1912, the Fairmont Château Laurier hotel – named after Wilfrid Laurier, Canada’s seventh prime minister – has hosted hundreds of dignitaries, including the Queen and Winston Churchill. It was here in 1941 that the photographer Yusuf Karsh suddenly removed Churchill’s cigar without permission, and as a result, the famous portrait of that scowler, “The Shining Lion”, was taken. The original hangs on the same wall in the lobby, where Churchill stood when it was taken. Shortly after my visit, local news reported that the photo had been stolen and replaced with a copy within the last six months.

Rideau Canal [iStock]

In the warmer months, the best way to get around a city with hundreds of miles of roads is by bike. In winter, the 202km Rideau Canal freezes over and you can skate 7.8km of it – stopping for a hot toddy along the way. I take a Rentabike and follow the canal route to Lansdowne. Ottawa has about 1,200 working farms within its city limits (many of which you can visit), and here, every Sunday, year-round, you’ll find buffalo, bison and elk on the menu.

Further on, as the canal joins the Rideau River, is Gees Bees Honey Farm – where town and country truly collide. I’m given a bee suit that covers my head, arms and body, but I’m still careful with the hives – I’m wearing shorts. Matt, the owner, walks out of the woods wearing jeans, a T-shirt, and sandals. He doesn’t need a bee suit – these are his bees. Matt covers the hives with smoke to confuse the bees so they don’t know there’s an intruder, opens the lid and pulls out signs showing the different stages of life in the hive. A drone stung Matt’s arm when we picked up some honey, but he just shrugged it off, sprayed some smoke, and dabbed on some honey. I pull my suit tighter.

I return the bike and go to the ByWard Market. Ottawa has undergone a food revival in recent years, and the market’s maze of restaurants and food stalls is at the heart of it. President Obama visited Le Moulin de Provence bakery in 2009 and left with a maple leaf-shaped cookie with “Canada” written in white frosting and saying, “I love this country.” Now you can buy the same Obama cookies for $4 and get one in a commemorative bowl for an additional $4.

ByWard Market [iStock]

C’est Bon offers neighborhood walking tours, which are a great way to discover the best the ByWard has to offer. I start with Lebanon – falafel and fresh-baked meat pies from Eddy’s, followed by an array of flavored popcorn (jalapeno and truffle), tacos from Mexican cantina Corazon de Maiz, and duck breast poutine from Clarendon Tavern. The food tours run without water, so my next stop is the Tea Shop, where floor-to-ceiling jars are filled with tea flavored with everything from chilli chocolate to licorice. The tour ends with maple leaf cupcakes from The Cupcake Lounge and a local favorite, the Beaver Tail – not the delicious tail of a real rodent that’s too chewy (I’m told), but covered in warm, sweet, stretched and rolled dough. cinnamon, sugar and lemon.

Across from the ByWard Market is the National Gallery of Canada, one of seven museums within walking distance of each other, easily spotted by Louise Bourgeois’ 30-foot spider that guards its entrance. The gallery is impressive, one of the largest in North America, and displays over 40,000 works. Everyone from Van Gogh to Money, Duchamp to Klimt has hung on these walls, but it’s Jack B. Yeats’ 1918 painting Drumcliffe Strand., with its huddled, clothed women and vivid, almost neon oranges, I find it hard to look away.

Walking through the corridors displaying old masters, local and contemporary artists, I found something unexpected: a church. In 1972, the Rideau Street cloister was demolished and the interior – brick by brick, stained glass with stained glass windows – rebuilt inside the National Gallery. Speakers line the outside of the chapel, each playing one voice of the 40-person choir.

A ride along the Ottawa River brings me to my next stop, Interzip Rogers, the world’s first interstate zipline. I pack my helmet, get into my harness, and after a quick check to make sure it’s secure in all the right places – climb the 120-foot tower. The operator’s thumb releases the safety brake and I fly 1,400 feet along the Ottawa River from Ottawa, Ontario to Gatineau, Quebec, the Victorian architecture of Parliament Hill behind me.

If flying over the Ottawa River isn’t your thing, there’s plenty to do, too, including paddle boarding, kayaking and white-water rafting. Ottawa has some of the best rapids in the world. Those who want to stay in the city can try Class 1 and Class 2 rapids at Ottawa City Rafting for the first time. But if you think you can handle class 3 and 4 rapids with names like Butcher’s Knife and Hell’s Half Mile, you’ll want to head to family-run Owl River Rafting, about 90 minutes from town.

Owl river rafting

If you want to combine the relaxed pace of the countryside with the hustle and bustle of the city in one trip, try Canada’s forgotten capital.

Visit for more information Ottawa Tourism and Discover Canada. Double rooms at the Lord Elgin Hotel (minutes from Parliament Hill) start at CAD 169 (£110) per night.

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