Ottawa is a beautiful city, a fact I’m in no doubt of even though I’m told I came in the ugly ‘in-between’ time: in-between because I missed the thick white snow and frozen canal come world’s largest ice-skating rink, but I was too early for the trees to regain their leaves and the city to come alive with outdoor activities.
But the real beauty of Ottawa lies in its stories. Tales of hardship, woe, hilarity and lumberjack gang violence (I kid you not) dating right back to its roots in the 1800s. Oh and definitely in its food. Always the food.
So how do you discover these stories (and let’s not forget the food) in just 24 hours? Here’s your essential guide:
STAY: Ottawa Backpackers Inn
This cute hostel on the very central York Street is converted from an original 19th century house, and honestly feels just like staying over at Grandma’s, for all the best reasons.
Shoes are taken off at the door, squishy lounges fill the common room, plus chess sets and books. Your dorm-room bunk bed blankets sport the random assortment of bright colours and cutesy patterns of a lifetime of kids coming and going. They occasionally have the subtle smell of your teenage brother too. The hotel staff are easy-going and approachable like your big cousins…but everyone is still aware they’re in charge.
Not that you’ll be spending much time there with most of Ottawa’s main attractions a short walk down the road away.
EAT: Shawarma and Beavertails
Poutine and maple syrup may be the delicacies of Canada as a whole, but Ottawa is all about the shawarma and Beavertails.
A high Lebanese population means that you can’t turn around without spotting a shawarma wrap, it also means they’re some of the best in the country…the Ottawaians even claim in the world. My Lebanese taxi trivet insists, after careful sampling of most of the city’s Lebanese restaurants, that THE best shawarma can be found at Shawarma Palace on Rideau Street. You can’t really argue with that, but you also can’t go wrong anywhere else.
If only we could live on pastry though, because Ottawa’s real crowning glory can be found in a warm, beavertail-shaped, cinnamon-covered pastry from a small food chain going by the name of Beavertails (get it?). Have it plain or with a range of delicious toppings, but always it will taste of happiness. Over winter you’ll find stores all along the canal, but as it thaws the little wooden hut on George Street takes centre stage.
DO: Walking tours
Sure you could easily walk around this accessible city on your own, but then you’ll miss all the great stories that make Ottawa what it is. But walk around with a passionate and knowledgable local guide, and you’ll find the city really comes to life.
Start with the Ottawa Free Walking Tour. With an enthusiasm that’s catching, owner and operator, Andre, took our small group around all the parts of the city you’ll find in your guide book, but with all the behind-the-scenes information you wouldn’t even know to look for. Learn about political assassinations, French-Canadian lumberjack boxers, Shawinigan Handshakes, local riots and so much more. Tours are free, but trust me they’ll earn your tips!
After a leisurely lunch break in the Byward Market area, head back to Parliament House and sign up for their free walking tour. If, like me, politics makes you yawn and universally-acknowledged good-looking Prime Minster Trudeau is rude enough to be out of the city, this short tour is still worth it, and not only because it’s the only way you can get inside. The accidentally green roofs (think copper exposed to oxygen) and Gothic architecture of these buildings looks impressive from the outside, but inside it’s damn-near Hogwarts! And the library, oh the beautiful library.
A quick snooze and couple of beers later, brace your nerves for Ottawa’s original Haunted Walk. They now have a few tour options, all around CAD$15-$20 for adults, but I would recommend the Ghostly Gallows tour. With 45 minutes walking around the city and another 45 minutes inside the old Carleton County Jail, it’s the perfect compliment to your morning walking tour.
Learn the stories that happen after dark, and decide for yourself what’s real. But beware: Carleton County Jail (turned hostel, for those of you with balls of steel) is commonly considered to be the most haunted building in Ottawa, with many guests having experienced their own supernatural encounters. But honestly, whether you believe or not, the site of Canada’s most infamous hanging has some fascinating (if bleak) stories to tell.
PARTY: The Rainbow Bistro
Known as Ottawa’s home of blues, walking into this unassuming bar is a lot like walking into cult-classic, Wayne’s World. Every night of the week, long-haired rockers of all ages flock to see live locals music in a super relaxed and friendly atmosphere. As long as you’re not looking for the fruity cocktails, you won’t be disappointed for drink choice, and they’ll let you bring in any food you want.