This weekend, after six years of construction, Canada’s capital Ottawa welcomes a new light rail line to its city – the Confederation Line. With 13 stations (a combination of under and above ground), the 12.5 km rail network will connect the city to its O-Train LRT like never before. And it’s just the start of a wide expansion to the city’s public transport that will see another 24 light rail stations open around the city through to 2025.
So join us as we impart on you a veritable to do list for your time in Ottawa – letting you know what station you need to jump off at to find the best galleries, food, coffees, shops and scenery, both the in nation’s capital, and the neighbouring city of Gatineau, Quebec.
Rideau Station: Rideau Canal and the ByWard Market
Rideau station is just steps away from the Rideau Canal (pictured in the headline image) and the ByWard Market, which really is centre of tourism for the city.
In the markets, you’ll find a landmark of Ottawa, the pastry chain BeaverTails which originated in the Ottawa area. North-East of the main business district, and a very short Uber from Bank Street, its ByWard Market location is perhaps its most famous, having even served President Obama. They only have one dish: hand stretched fried dough, designed to resemble a beaver’s tail, served with a number of customisable toppings.
Located right by Parliament Hill and the National Gallery of Canada, ByWard Market is certainly the most tourist-friendly area in Ottawa, which means you’ll enjoy some inflated prices, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t experience what it has to offer.
But be sure to check out Zak’s Diner (14 Byward Market Square) for some great American style breakfasts, and for some excellent Mexican food stop by Corazon De Maiz (55 Byward Market Square). You’ll find plenty of street markets around here too, as well as the area’s major mall at Rideau and Sussex.
Like any Capital city, a lot of what one would consider a tourist’s activity in the area is positioned as much for school field trips as it is for the everyday tourist – be they from Australia or otherwise. So whether it’s a Parliamentary building, an art gallery or a state-of-the-art museum, there’s a huge range of activities to enjoy; much of which will teach you about the history of Canada – and all of which will impart some knowledge on you, the intrepid traveller.
But before you take that plunge into the individual galleries and buildings, you should get to know a little bit more about the city you’re in. For that, we jumped onto Paul’s Boat Line, which we boarded at the foot of the Rideau Canal, right by Parliament Hill.
The canal – whose name is French for “Curtain” – has been in operation since 1832 and connects the Ottawa River to Kingston on Lake Ontario, and during winter becomes a transportation method for the locals. They jump on the frozen canal and skate to work in the morning; vendors even offer drinks along their journey. When Canadians say they don’t let the cold weather stop them from living their lives they weren’t joking. It seems like they go so far as to let it improve it… as much as freezing cold weather can improve anything, anyway.
On board the ship named “Paula D”, you take a bilingual 90 minute journey that costs $26.50 for adults, and learn a lot of information like this. You start with our view of the canal, in between Parliament Hill and the Fairmont Hotel, and then journey into further waters. Along the way, you travel past some magnificent properties; many serving as residences for ambassadors from around the world. We learn more about the history of the city, and also its neighbouring Quebec counterpart.
We also see the Rideau Falls, which have been reinforced over the years but remains a natural (and beautiful) part of Ottawa, sitting right alongside Rideau Falls park. The falls continue to be used for hydroelectricity. Our journey, which was the 730pm sunset cruise, offers beers on board and was a wonderful way to watch the sun set and say goodbye to one of our days in Ottawa.
Also a short walk from Rideau station is the National Gallery of Canada, which opened the doors of its current site in 1988. Interestingly, established in 1880, it was once housed in the same walls as the Museum of Nature, which you’ll find elsewhere in the city.
This is an incredibly well designed museum, full of a myriad of works that start to impress before you’ve even entered the building – the above spider (complete with see-through eggs as you walk underneath) standing tall at the entrance.
The centrepiece of the gallery is the Rideau Street Chapel, originally built in 1887 before being demolished and reconstructed as a piece of art in time for the building’s original opening. Voices sing constantly in the room, and its sound permeates the surrounding areas; including a tranquil water feature enveloped by small sculptures and the flower garden that serves as its entryway, which can be viewed from both floors.
Unsurprisingly, the gallery is home to the country’s largest collection of Canadian works, and alongside this, holds pieces from the likes of Dali (1933’s Gala and The Angelus of Millet Before the Imminent Arrival of the Conical Anamorphoses), Cézanne (Forest), Vincent van Gogh (Iris), Picasso (The Small Table), Pollock (No. 29, on glass) and Andy Warhol (his famed Brillo boxes).
In addition to the permanent collection, the sizable building holds temporary exhibitions. An incredible Gaugin portrait exhibition just wrapped up last week, but you can have a look at what’s coming up HERE.
Another museum which opened in 1988 is the Ottawa Art Museum, which now sits on the other side of the ByWard Market. Their new location opened in 2018 and at 55,000 square feet is triple the size of its original home at Arts Court. Here, you will find Contemporary Art across four levels, with two permanent collections under its supervision – one of which is the the City of Ottawa-owned Firestone Collection of Canadian Art.
Pimisi Station: Pop over the river to Gatineau, Quebec
If you have the time, jump on the O-Train to Pimisi Station and you can get a bus across the Ottawa River to Gatineau, Quebec – the fourth largest city in the Province after Montreal, Quebec City, and Laval. It’s also a pretty easy walk across the bridge, or you could jump in an Uber or a Lyft.
In the space of a five minute drive or a twenty minute walk, it’s like entering a different country. People don’t speak English (or at least refuse to, speaking instead French Canadian, or Québécois as it’s known), the drinking age is 18 instead of 19 and the cuisine and atmosphere feel a world apart. It’s something I’ve only ever experienced in Europe; but even then you’re looking at a couple of hours between locations.
Here, in addition to enjoying some incredible Quebec food (including, of course, Poutine – though I surprisingly had one of the best Cuban sandwiches ever during my visit), you can head to the Canada Museum of History.
Until 1988, this museum shared the space with the Museum of Nature (notice a trend?). Now they’re not only apart, but sitting in different Canadian provinces. It’s no surprise why they had to part ways though – the building and its collection is massive, with a permanent gallery on the ground level focusing on the indigenous art of the region in the “Grand Hall” and the “First Peoples Hall”. There’s a compelling design as you walk through houses and under faux trees, onto the other exhibitions in the museum, which are ever changing. You can have a look through what’s on offer HERE.
The museum is the most visited in all of Canada – if their own promotions are to be believed – with 25,000 square metres of display space and some 20,000 years of human history presented. Entry is $20 for adults, and includes access to their CINÉ+ film screenings, which screen a number of 2D and 3D films in 4K resolution with 295 seats. You can see what they’re showing HERE.
Parliament Station: The heartbeat of the capital
While all this barely scratches the surface of the museums and galleries you’ll find in Ottawa and Gatineau, these aren’t the only places you can learn more about the Country and its Capital city. No trip to Ottawa is complete without a visit to Parliament Hill.
Historically, one of the most popular tourist stops in the city is the trip to the building’s Memorial Chamber and the top of the Peace Tower, which is the Parliament of Canada’s clock tower. Taking you up 9 levels, past all the bells, it gives you a pretty amazing view, which you can see above, as you learn a lot of the building along the way. Sadly, this is no longer possible, as the building closed at the start of this year for a decade long restoration.
Every night through the Summer though, you can stick around for the impressive and free “Northern Lights” sound and light show, which covers the Parliament building in projections and tells a story in both French and English about the history of Canada, Ottawa and this building – which had been partially destroyed by fires 100 years ago.
It’s a spectacular show, but be prepared to get patriotic for a Country you may or may not be from… If you didn’t know the Canadian National Anthem don’t worry – you will by the time you leave.
This year’s season of Northern Lights has wrapped up for 2019, but expect it to return in 2020. And while the Centre Block is closed for restoration, there’s still plenty to do at Parliament Hill, as you explore the new homes of the Senate and the House of Commons – or watch the traditional “Changing of the Guard”, and you can find details on all that HERE.
And if you have some time, one of the destinations that’s worth travelling to outside of the rail line is the Canadian Museum of History, which currently has a fantastic Neanderthal exhibition, that’s running until January 26th, 2020. More details on that can be found HERE. It’ll take about 20 minutes to walk there from Parliament Hill, or you can jump on a number of buses that run in that direction.
Bayview Station: A stroll through Hintonburg
Sitting at the intersection of the new light rail line with the old one (the Trillium Line) is Bayview Station, located near the eastern edge of Hintonburg off Albert and Scott streets.
Here, as you keep walking west – give it at least 15 minutes – you’ll find some of Ottawa’s best dining, drinking and shopping. It’s an area colloquially referenced as Wellington West, though the neighbourhood of that name only runs through 7 or 8 blocks of the area. Put simply: it’s the gentrified section of Wellington Street West.
Typical of any gentrified community around the world, the area is full of trendy coffee shops, new condos and great shopping and dining options lining the streets – and artworks!
Look out for “fire hydrant” artworks, with references to the area you’re in sitting atop the hydrant. So if you see books, you’re probably near the library – and on the above, I’m guessing we were near a day care?
If you’re looking for coffee in the area, I’d recommend The Ministry of Coffee and Social Affairs (1013 Wellington St W), which features a different roaster each week, and stays open late, also serving beer and wine from 1pm, and cocktails after 6pm. You’ll also find them in Elgin, though this location only operates as a cafe.
For our lunch, we enjoyed a meal at Absinthe (1208 Wellington St W), which specialises in French style bristo cuisine, accompanied by an extensive wine list, and – as the name suggests – absinthe!
The vibe is relaxed but up market, and while chefs are award winning (I was told they won “Gold Medal Plates”), this hasn’t stopped them from making their meals affordable.
They offer three course lunch specials, starting things off with a cold potato and leek soup (an offering which varies by the day) and ending with a mini crème brûlée, with everything from burgers to tarts, croque-monsieurs and exquisite pastas available as your main. I enjoyed a stunning Ricotta Cavatelli with peas and mushrooms in a white wine tarragon sauce.
And Absinthe is just the tip of the iceberg for the area. If you’re after something more casual, try Morning Owl Coffeehouse + Parlour (229 Armstrong St) – a bakery meets malt shop – to satisfy your sweet tooth.
As you’re heading to Hintonburg the centre of the city, you’ll also pass through the city’s Chinatown, which in spite of its name is home to a wide variety of Asian cuisines, including Vietnamese and Korean. Little Italy meets up with Chinatown, so you can be sure that there’s plenty of great food around these areas.
Fun Fact: Ottawa’s sister city is Beijing, so their royal archways have 9 roofs instead of the usual 6!
Getting around Ottawa & Gatineau
The OC Transpo system will get you around Ottawa and Gatineau, and you can find more details about the network HERE. Their network – which includes the brand new light rail Confederation Line which opens this week – uses the Presto card (which also is used in Toronto) – the city’s equivalent of an Opal (Sydney, Australia) or the Oyster (London, UK).
It costs $6 to buy a new Presto card – though it is possible to pay for single trips, they’re just priced slightly higher. More details on pricing can be found on their official website.
If there’s anywhere you need to get to in a rush, or that public transport mightn’t take you, I usually jumped in an Uber or a Lyft, and taxis were fairly easy to come across when Ubers weren’t. Everything is pretty close by in this city, so walking isn’t a chore, either!
Learn more about the featured attractions in this article:
Pauls Boat Line: paulsboatline.com
Canadian Museum of Nature: nature.ca
National Gallery of Canada: gallery.ca
Canadian Museum of History: historymuseum.ca
Ottawa Art Gallery: oaggao.ca
Parliament of Canada: lop.parl.gc.ca
The Ministry of Coffee and Social Affairs – theministryofcoffee.com
Absinthe – absinthecafe.ca
Morning Owl Coffeehouse + Parlour – morningowl.ca
Corazon De Maiz – corazondemaizottawa.com
Zak’s Diner – zaksdiner.com
In August 2019, the author travelled to Ottawa from Toronto as a guest of VIA Rail. To book your next trip with VIA Rail, head to their official website.
While in Gatineau, we stayed at the Crowne Plaza Gatineau-Ottawa. Photos by the author.
All prices are in Canadian Dollars and were correct at the time of our August 2019 visit. Please check with the individual establishments for the latest pricing.
This article utilises content from our two part 2016 series on the city (“The Knowledge” and “The Best Food, Coffee and Shopping“), updated with some August 2019 experiences. For the original trip, the writer visited Ottawa as a guest of Ottawa Bluesfest and Ottawa Tourism. Air Canada got us to Ottawa from Sydney via Vancouver with the support of Ottawa Tourism and Destination Canada.