by Aaron Feigenbaum.
Ottawa is the political and cultural nexus of Canada. Not only does it house the seat of government, but it’s also a highly diverse and vibrant city. Located right next to Gatineau, Quebec, Ottawa ties together Canada’s two main cultures: English and French. Ottawa, Canada’s capital, is a thriving metropolis that boasts world-class museums, stunning architectural landmarks, numerous parks and hiking trails, and outdoor activities for every season.
The city’s low crime, cleanliness, high standard of living, and strong tech sector have attracted tourists, residents, and businesses alike. Surrounded by a green belt of forests, farms, and recreational sites, Ottawa is a city that values ecology like few other cities do. Colonial-era buildings sit side by side with their modern counterparts in a harmonious coexistence. From touring the majestic Gothic architecture of Parliament Hill to a relaxing cruise on the Rideau Canal which cuts right through the middle of the city, Ottawa has plenty of unforgettable adventures for the whole family. Once you experience Ottawa firsthand, you’ll soon see why this city, at the intersection of three rivers, deserves its place as the heart of Canada.
Before European settlement, the area now known as Ottawa was inhabited by the Algonquin people. The name Ottawa is said to derive from an Algonquin word meaning “to trade.” The French explorer Samuel de Champlain, also the founder of Quebec, first described the future site of Ottawa in 1613. The French colonial government build a trading post around the rivers that run through the valley. After New France was surrendered to the British in 1763, the area became a hub for the timber industry in large part due to Britain’s increased need for shipbuilding in the Napoleonic Wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
The War of 1812 convinced British authorities that the St. Lawrence River between Montreal and Kingston was no longer a secure shipping and transportation route. Lt. Col. John By of the Royal Engineers was charged with creating an alternate route on the Rideau River, thus giving rise to the Rideau Canal that bisects Ottawa today. John By also laid out a village for the project’s laborers. The village came to be known as Bytown and was officially incorporated in 1850. It then became the city of Ottawa in 1855. Britain’s unification of Upper and Lower Canada in 1841 begged the question of which city was to be the colony’s capital. As each city claimed it should receive the honor, the matter was brought to Queen Victoria who decided on Ottawa in 1857. After Canadian independence, Ottawa became known as a gritty industrial town with smokestacks, railways, and the smell of paper mills. In 1937 Prime Minister Mackenzie King embarked on a beautification plan for the nation’s capital. Industry and railways were moved out of the city center, greenery filled both the inside and outside of the city, and federal buildings were relocated to both sides of the river.
Today Ottawa is one of Canada’s largest cities, attracting over 7 million visitors a year and serving as one of the country’s major historical, transportation, educational, and political centers.
Things to See and Do:
Parliament Hill: Standing majestically on a bank of the Ottawa River, Parliament Hill is home to Canada’s national legislature. It is Ottawa’s most popular and most recognizable attraction. A free guided tour takes you through the British-style House of Commons, the Senate, and the lavishly appointed Library of Parliament. The tour’s final destination is the Peace Tower in the center of Parliament Hill. You can see the beautiful clock tower (likely inspired by Big Ben) and get a great view of the city from the observation deck. From July through September you can witness MosAika, a free nightly presentation that tells the story of Canada through a dazzling light show projected right onto the Parliament building. Summer is also the only time you can catch the daily changing of the Ceremonial Guard whose members are decked out exactly like their British counterparts at Buckingham Palace. Just a few steps away from Parliament is the National War Memorial which commemorates Canadian lives lost in war.
Canadian War Museum: One of the country’s top rated museums, the War Museum tells the history of Canada’s wars and the brave men and women who fought in them. The museum boasts over 2,500 displays ranging from tanks, airplanes, artillery, and guns to war art and uniforms. The archives though are the real treasure trove with around 500,000 military artifacts. You’ll learn about Canada’s military past starting with the Seven Years War that pitted the British against the French, right up to Canada’s current involvement in the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan. Special exhibits include “Fighting in Flanders,” telling the story of Canadian soldiers in Belgium during WWI, and “Behind the Battles” which gives a firsthand look at WWI soldiers’ clothing and equipment. Adults are C$13, children C$8, and students C$11.
Canadian Museum of History: Formerly the Museum of Civilization, this is Canada’s most popular museum and one of its oldest. It’s located directly across the river from Parliament Hill in the Hull quarter of Gatineau. The museum’s purpose is to tell the story of Canada from its prehistoric beginnings to the present. You can see everything from recreations of aboriginal homes to magnificent totem poles to a hall that displays every stamp Canada has ever issued. Special exhibits include the tragic story of the S.S. Empress of Ireland (aka “Canada’s Titanic”) and a journey through the 150 year history of the Canadian one-cent piece. If you’re bringing kids, be sure to take them to the Children’s Museum which features fun exhibits about different cultures of the world. There are toys, props, costumes, and the unusual exhibit; a replica of a Pakistani bus that kids can climb on. Admission fees are the same as those for the War Museum, but you can bundle the two together for the cost of C$20 per adult, C$12 per child, and C$15 per student.
Canada Aviation and Space Museum: This impressive museum located at the Ottawa/Rockcliffe Airport shows off the best of Canada’s 105 year-old aviation history. Boasting over 130 aircraft and aircraft parts, this museum’s collection is considered by many to be one of the finest in the world. You can view WWI and WWII-era prop planes, fighter jets, and helicopters. A special exhibit explores how astronauts adapt to the demanding conditions aboard the International Space Station. There’s also a flight simulator which costs from C$20 to C$80 depending on how long you want to spend in it. Admission is C$13 for adults, C$8 for children ages 3-12, and C$10 for students. If you have some extra cash to spend and are feeling adventurous, you can take a museum-sponsored ride on either a vintage biplane or helicopter and take in sweeping views of Parliament Hill, downtown Ottawa, and the beautiful lakes and forests surrounding the city. Aerial tour prices range from C$65 to C$300.
Canadian Supreme Court Building: It may not have the grandeur or popularity of Parliament Hill, but the Supreme Court Building offers a fascinating look at Canada’s judicial system and shouldn’t be missed. Tours are free and only take about 20 minutes.
Canada Agriculture and Food Museum/Arboretum: You may be surprised to learn that the modern metropolis of Ottawa has a working farm within its limits. On it you can get a firsthand view of farm life, learn about Canada’s agricultural past through interactive exhibits, and your kids can have fun petting the animals. There are great exhibits about food safety, beekeeping, tractors, and more. Afterwards, take a stroll through the Dominion Arboretum, one of Ottawa’s finest parks and gardens. Admission to the museum is C$10 for adults, C$ for students, and C$ for children 3-12.
Laurier House: Before the official residence of the Prime Minister of Canada was switched to 24 Sussex Drive, the Laurier House was the residence of two Canadian prime ministers, Sir Wilfrid Laurier and Mackenzie King. The house was designated as a National Historical Site in 1956 after King’s death in 1950. Laurier House is notable for the guests it has had over the years including F.D.R., Churchill, and King George VI. Free tours educate visitors about the history of the house and the prime ministers who lived in it.
Royal Canadian Mint: The Mint’s Ottawa facility is one of two (the other’s in Winnipeg) that has been making Canadian circulation coins since 1908. The Mint also produces silver and gold bullion, special collector’s coins, and regularly contracts with other countries to produce their currency for them. Tours take visitors through the coin-making process and let them hold a real 24 carat, 25 pound gold bar worth around C$3 million. Admission is cheap at C$6 per adult and C$3 for kids 5-17.
Canadian Nature Museum: Set in a beautiful Victorian building, this museum is Canada’s national natural history museum. It features displays on dinosaurs, grizzly bears, rocks and minerals, insects and arachnids, and a real blue whale skeleton. The bird collection alone has over 500 specimens representing 450 different species. Current special exhibits include Arctic wildlife and X-ray images of fish. Interactive displays are sure to please kids. Admission is C$12.50 for adults, C$10.50 for students, and C$8.50 for children.
Diefenbunker: For one of the world’s most unique museums, check out the Diefenbunker, the Canadian government’s former Cold War bunker. Officially designated as CFS Carp, Diefenbunker was built between 1959 and 1961 as part of a government continuity plan in case of a nuclear attack. At four stories, 300 rooms, and a total of 100,000 square feet this was an incredible engineering marvel for its time. The bunker was made a National Historic Site in 1994 and became a museum in 1997. Some of the highlights of the tour include the government conference room and a re-creation of the Prime Minister’s quarters. As you walk past the thick metal doors and through the cavernous, eerie halls of the bunker, you’ll get a real sense of the fear that pervaded Canadian society during the Cold War. Admission is C$14 per adult, C$10 per student, and C$8 per youth 6-18.
Seasonal activities: Don’t think that Ottawa’s only claims to fame are its buildings and politics. The city is also renowned for its outdoor attraction, the most popular of which is the Winterlude. Taking place on the first three weekends in February, Winterlude offers tons of family fun including an ice sculpture competition in Confederation Park, ice skating shows, and interactive art displays. But the real highlight is skating on the frozen Rideau Canal. At 5 miles long, the Rideau Canal Skateway is the world’s largest skating rink.
In May you can experience the Tulip Festival which commemorates the Dutch royal family’s donation of 100,000 tulips to Canada in gratitude for having sheltered Princess Juliana and her family during WWII. The sight of countless tulips blooming in the backdrop of the Rideau Canal and Parliament Hill is something not to be missed.
Finally, come on July 1 to celebrate Canada Day, marking the anniversary of the creation of Canada in 1867. Witness Canadians coming out to support their country with massive street festivals, concerts, jet fly-overs, and a spectacular fireworks display at night.
Daven and Eat:
Ottawa has many great shuls to choose from. Some of these include:
Ohev Yisrael at 516 Rideau St. (613-565-6194, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Congregation Machzikei Hadas at 2310 Virginia Dr. (613-521-9700, email@example.com)
Young Israel of Ottawa at 627 Kirkwood Ave. (613-722-8394, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Chabad of Centrepointe at 13 Cedar Grove Ct. (613-224-7050, Rabbi@ChabadCentrepointe.com
Kosher food can be found at the following locations:
Rideau Bakery at 384 Rideau St. (613 789-1019)
Ottawa Bagelshop & Deli at 1321 Wellington St. (613-722-8753)
United Kosher Deli at the Soloway JCC at 21 Nadolny Sachs Private (613-798-9818)
Loblaws Supermarket at 1980 Baseline Rd. (613-723-3200)
Ottawa is served by the Ottawa MacDonald-Cartier International Airport. Airfare from L.A. costs around $500 per person round trip. Driving there will take about 3 days. You can also take an Amtrak train to Rochester, NY and then take a four-hour drive to Ottawa. Greyhound offers a direct, 3 day bus route to Ottawa for just under $300.
(Sources: Ottawa Tourism, Wikitravel, Tripadvisor, Encyclopedia Britannica)