Ottawa: The Surprising Tourist Destination and 8 Things You Have To Do in the Canadian Capital

Ottawa: The Surprising Tourist Destination and 8 Things You Have To Do in the Canadian Capital

After visiting Vancouver over a sunny weekend a few years ago, I’ve always imagined Canada to be a really beautiful country – and it is (it wasn’t named 2017 Destination of the Year by Travel + Leisure for no reason!) – but Ottawa has never come up as a city I need to see or experience as a tourist. So when I finally had the opportunity to go there last month, my expectations weren’t very high. I googled museums in the city, and figured I’d just spend my time indoors learning about new artists (one of the pros of being a museum-enthusiast is that there is always a museum, always something to do, no matter where in the world you go) or catch up on reading-for-pleasure after handing in my thesis a few weeks earlier.

Well, let me tell you, I was so pleasantly surprised by Ottawa! It’s a great place to explore and experience, with tons of beautiful views, great museums, gorgeous parks, the Ottawa river rushing right through just to make it extra scenic, and, of course, super friendly and helpful Canadians. So if you find yourself in Ottawa, here is a list, in no particular order, of eight things you should definitely check out (if you are short on time, skip to the end and definitely just do this one thing):

  1. GAWK AT PARLIAMENT HILL AND THE VIEWS (AND POSSIBLY EVEN JUSTIN TRUDEAU)

If you didn’t know it yet, Ottawa is the capital of Canada and it’s where the beautifully inspiring parliament buildings are (housing the equally beautiful PM Justin Trudeau, of course). The buildings were constructed in different Gothic styles and opened in 1866, but a 1916 fire burnt down everything except for the library (PTL), so make sure to walk around the back and see the only original 19th-century part of the parliament left standing.

Parliament hill

Another reason to walk around the back (if old Gothic libraries don’t inspire you) is for the sweeping views across the canal towards the cathedral, and over the river towards Quebec. And keep your eyes out for a fat and furry groundhog that has claimed the Parliament’s lawn as its territory!

Groundhog on Parliament hill

View from Parliament Hill

Views from Parliament Hill

2. GO FOR A RIVER CRUISE

Ottawa River runs through the city, adding that classic city-river scenics to the cityscape. And what better way to enjoy a river than to cruise upon at sunset? None, is what.

We were lucky and got invited to go for a lazy after-work cruise in a friend’s boat, but there are tons of companies offering tourist cruises, like the classic Capital Cruises. Or you can get your boating fix by taking a river taxi from one side to the other.

Just don’t expect a cruise in winter, when the river actually freezes over until the end of the season when the city blows it up with dynamite before it thaws to prevent flooding…because Ottawa is so extra.

Cruising on the Ottawa River

3. HIT UP SOME MUSEUMS

Ottawa has a ton of them – from the classics like the Natural History museum to some more odd picks like the Insectarium. I would highly recommend the National Gallery of Canada, which you may find inside an enormous glass castle, basically.

Brian Jungen's 'Shapeshifter' (2000)

Brian Jungen’s ‘Shapeshifter’ (2000) – massive whale skeletons made from plastic chairs

The reconstructed Rideau Chapel with Janet Cardiff's 'Fort-Piece Motet' (2001)

The reconstructed Rideau Chapel with Janet Cardiff’s ‘Fort-Piece Motet’ (2001)

DO CHECK OUT: The salvaged interior of the 19th-century Rideau chapel which was reconstructed in the National Gallery after the rest of it was demolished in the 1970s. Not only does it make for a stunning contrast from the modern building it’s now built in, it also features a sound installation from my favourite Canadian artist, Janet Cardiff. Forty-Piece Motet is an immersive sound-experience in which 40 separately recorded voices singing a 16th-century choral piece are played within the chapel space.

If you have trouble finding the gallery, just look out for the iconic spider sculpture outside by  Louise Bourgeois, or the cathedral across the street.

National Gallery of Canada spider sculpture

4. DAYLIGHT STAR-GAZING IN THE NOTRE DAME CATHEDRAL

You should definitely pop into Ottawa’s Notre Dame cathedral, especially if you are in the area anyways. It will only take you a minute, or you might love it and then it’ll take you ten, but this cathedral does not look like all the other cathedrals everywhere. Honestly, I only popped in because I was around, but I was really taken aback by how stunning the interior is. The entire cathedral is painted in bright colours and shining gold, but the best part is the gorgeous midnight-blue vaulted ceiling, covered with hundreds of golden stars. Just magical.

Notre Dame Cathedral

5. GO INTER-PROVINCIAL

Stretching just over half a kilometre, the ‘Alexandra’ or ‘Interprovincial’ bridge will take you from Ottawa, Ontario, right into the province of Quebec. Technically the city border is ‘drawn’ right in the middle of the river, but it feels more like the city spans the two provinces. I love me a bridge walk and the views it usually comes with, and this one offered beautiful vistas of the parliament rising up over the water.

Interprovincial bridge

6. GO FOR A STROLL IN THE PARK

Ottawa is blessed with lots of beautiful green spaces, like Major’s Hill Park or Gatineau Park in Quebec, which is just 14 minutes’ drive from the city centre and a stroll in any one of them is a peaceful pastime. I would especially recommend this during autumn, when the colours of the leaves are just spellbinding.

This year, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Confederation of Canada, the city put up a massive floral exhibition called MOSAICANADA in the Jacques-Cartier Park with 33 gigantic plant-based sculptures representing Canadian life. There was music, water-features, international collaborations and everything – it was quite a sight to see and, wait for it, FREE. Unfortunately it has closed for winter, but hold thumbs and mark your diaries, because I read that they are setting funds aside to do it again next year!

Mosaicanada Mosaicanada

7. TRY A BEAVER TAIL IN BYWARD MARKET

Any Canadian will tell you this is the absolute number one must-do in Canada. Beaver tails, I mean. And no, they are not actual beavers’ tails, but rather long flat lightly fried dough that comes with all kinds of sinful toppings and will warm you right up during those chilly Canadian evenings. Lots of fillings to choose from, but I took some local recommendations and went for the classic cinnamon-sugar and lemon, and I suggest you do the same because it’s DELICIOUS.

I suppose these will be good anywhere, but we were taken to a stand in Byword Market – a favourite market area lined with food stalls day and night.

Try a beaver tail

8. FORGET ALL YOUR TROUBLES AT NORDIK SPA

FULL DISCLAIMER:

I am not a spa-person. Getting massages or manicures or facials or most beauty/wellness-related treatment is just not the type of thing I want to spend time or money on. Last time I got a manicure was before a high school dance.

BUT…after EVERYONE told us we have to have to have to go to Nordik spa, we decided to spend the last few hours there before our evening flight back home. And…let me tell you – it’s true. YOU HAVE TO HAVE TO HAVE TO GO TO NORDIK SPA!

Nordik spa

Nordik Spa. Image Credit: Nordik / Photolux

A basic ticket will get you the ‘Thermal Experience.’ By following the ‘Hot, Cold, Rest’ mantra, you get to enjoy the hot and cold spa for the entire day – utilising their 9 different saunas, 4 cold water pools and tons of other beautifully designed rest areas where you can just wind down, relax and forget about all your worries. Basically, the perfect pre-flight mindset.

Depending on your preferences, you can pay extra for massage treatments, gourmet meals, or their famous Källa treatment, in which you get to float around in salt water, a la the Dead Sea, in an ambient atmosphere.

Whether you want to sip on wine in the infinity hot tub overlooking the forests of Quebec, sweat it out in super chic saunas, take a quiet nap in a hammock, or all of the above, Nordik Spa is just the magical and beautiful place to do that. We highly recommend doing this to unwind after a long journey in to Ottawa, or to relax before a long journey out. Or whenever. Just go. We went in autumn, and it was beautiful underneath the green-orange-red-and-yellow forest foliage, but I would love to go back in winter to see the steam rising all around me while a blanket of white snow lines the hot tubs. I mean…does this look like a fairytale, or what:

Nordik spa in winter

Nordik Spa. Image Credit: Nordik / Photolux

Nordik spa

Image Credit: Nordik / Photolux

HOT TIP: Nordik spa is 20 minutes’ drive from Ottawa city centre. You can take an uber there from Ontario, but beware, Uber does not work in Quebec. The uber driver kindly let us know as he dropped us off and gave us his number so that we can call him to pick us up again, which worked out perfectly.

SPA DRESS & ETIQUETTE: Towels and bathrobes are available to rent, but remember to bring your own flip flops! We totally forgot (read: completely unaware of spa dress codes/essentials), and we would rather have had some.

Photography is strictly prohibited, so that everyone can just really relax without having to worry about being caught half-naked in other peoples’ potential Facebook profile photos. All photos of the spa in this post have been generously supplied by Nordik.

My trip to Ottawa actually ended up being one of my best travel surprises yet – turns out Ottawa is a super cool city with a ton of beautiful sights and cool things to do in every season, which I plan to go back for! Heck, I might go back just for that dreamy infinity hot tub.

Infinity hot tub at Nordik spa

Image Credit: Nordik / Photolux

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