Most people don’t know much about the Canadian capital, Ottawa, but it definitely shouldn’t be underestimated! Ottawa is not just a city for civil servants with early bedtimes. In fact, it’s a vibrant student city with an appreciation for the arts.
Ottawa is known for its international music festivals, its record-breaking ice skating rink, and its beautiful nature. Ottawa is also known for its bilingual character, its politeness, its internationally influenced cuisine, and a hunger for beaver tails (yes, you read that correctly).
So, let’s discover 15 things that Ottawa is known for!
1. The Odawa
Locals will tell you that Ottawa is actually pronounced “Odawa”. This is because the name actually comes from the indigenous group, the Odawa or Odawe, which means “traders” in the indigenous Algonquin language. The bands and tribes of Odawa people solely occupied the land until the arrival of English and French colonies. You can still find about 15,000 Odawa people living in Ontario, Michigan, and Oklahoma today.
Ottawa is located in southeastern Ontario, but it might as well be considered part of Quebec too. The National Capital Region includes the neighboring city of Gatineau. In fact, you can actually walk across a bridge and find yourself in the French province of Quebec. Many people commute into Ottawa from Quebec every day to work. This means that the bilingualism Ottawa is known for is truly embedded into the city’s culture.
If you enter a shop in Ottawa, you’ll be greeted with “bonjour, hi”. You’ll also hear a lot of French spoken around the University of Ottawa, which is the largest English-French bilingual university in the world.
3. Parliament Hill
Ottawa is known for its Parliament Hill, the well-visited political center of the country. Tourists and locals enjoy a good view of the city from the Peace Tower and relax on the Hill’s pristine green grass during Ottawa’s hot summer days.
Did you know that Parliament Hill is home to a fountain that doesn’t freeze, even in the middle of the Canadian winter?
The Centennial Flame is lit by natural gas and heats up its surrounding fountain. It was first lit in 1967 for the 100th Anniversary of the Confederation of Canada and remains lit today. Locals and tourists toss coins into the fountain to make a personal wish, but what they probably don’t realize is that the coins are collected every year and awarded to a person with a disability to conduct research.
Parliament Hill has also opened a beautiful walkway that offers a fantastic view of the Ottawa River behind its buildings.
Ottawa is known for having one of the most architecturally unique art galleries in the world. Designed by architect, Moshe Safdie, the National Gallery of Canada’s exterior is made of glass windows and granite walls.
The National Gallery of Canada houses over 93,000 different works—the most photographed work is visible before even entering the gallery. A 30-foot-tall spider named “Maman” by artist Louise Bourgeois greets curious visitors.
The Ottawa Art Gallery was recently rebuilt in a sleek new building beside the University of Ottawa. The 55,000 square foot gallery includes work from the infamous Canadian Group of Seven as well as other local and international artists. After checking out the exhibitions, you can enjoy views from its two rooftop terraces.
If you take a walk-through Ottawa and Gatineau’s streets, you’ll notice plenty of independent contemporary galleries showcasing work from local artists, such as the Wall Space Gallery, Cube Gallery, the Carleton University Art Gallery, and Axené07 to name a few.
The Ottawa School of Art (OSA), located in the ByWard Market, offers creative classes for those looking to try their hand at making their own art. The OSA has a range of short courses and more intensive programs available for all ages.
5. The ByWard Market
It would be impossible to visit Ottawa and not find yourself in Ottawa’s ByWard Market or “The Market”. This downtown district is filled with produce stands, specialty shops, cafes and restaurants open throughout the summer and winter. This is where you’ll find an endless supply of maple syrup and the famous national treat, BeaverTails.
For a bit of shopping, stop by the Rideau Centre, which has all your favourite name brands and more. You can also head over to Sussex for some higher-end boutiques and lovely restaurants.
Canada is known for its beavers. The beaver was the centre of the global fur trade, the source of which was Canada. This not only put Canada on the map but made this wood-loving critter a national symbol.
While some people have been known to eat beavers, the BeaverTail is a much more innocent and popular treat. Whole wheat dough is stretched and shaped to look like a beaver’s tail, deep-fried, brushed with hot butter, and your choice of sweet toppings. The classic topping is cinnamon, sugar, and lemon and it’s best enjoyed on a cold winter day, especially after a long skate on the Rideau Canal.
7. The Rideau Canal
Ottawa is known for having the world’s largest outdoor ice-skating rink. The Rideau Canal was built in the 19th Century in case a war broke out with America. It is actually named its curtain-like appearance, since rideau is French for curtain.
The Rideau Canal is 202 km (125 miles) long and is the oldest continuously working canal system in North America. This UNESCO World Heritage Site leads to the Ottawa River, the Saint Lawrence River and the Great Lake Ontario.
In the summer, it is a fantastic place for a bike ride or a jog but in the winter, it is turned into the infamous skating rink that Ottawa is known for. The ice rink stretches 7.8 km (4.8 miles) from Ottawa’s Parliament buildings to Carleton University.
Some even opt to commute to and from work on skates, but most prefer a more leisurely skate down the canal. For many, the priority is the reward: a hot chocolate with soft and delicious BeaverTail. Just be sure to eat yours before it freezes!
Every winter, Ottawa is known for its snow and ice sculpture competition at the city’s Winterlude. Sculptors display their cool creations at Confederation Park downtown. However, families also love visiting the large ice slides just over the bridge in Gatineau.
Hosted for three weeks during Ottawa’s coldest month, February, visitors should be sure to put on their warmest snow gear. The Rideau Canal is only open if the temperatures consistently reach -10°C (14°F).
9. Gatineau Park
Nature-loving locals, of which there are many, are known to frequent Gatineau Park. The national park is 361 square kilometres (139 square miles) and is known for its beautiful leaves in the fall.
During the summer, campers stay at campgrounds around Gatineau Park or visit one of its beaches. Meech Lake, Lac Phillipe and La Pêche Lake are popular among those who need a break from the hot and humid summers that Ottawa is known for.
In the winter, locals take up cross-country skiing and even snowshoeing. In Gatineau Park, there are 200 km (120 miles) of trails available to cross-country ski on. The more adventurous go downhill skiing at nearby Camp Fortune.
Keep your eye out for deer, beavers, wolves and even bears!
Ottawa can thank its large Lebanese diaspora for bringing this amazingly delicious garlicky dish to the nation’s capital. Since 1975, a population of Lebanese immigrants have called Canada home after fleeing civil war. About 2% of the Nation’s Capital Region is Lebanese and so, it should come as no surprise that on nearly every block, you will find yourself a very tasty shawarma restaurant.
The shawarma sandwich or plate is made of chicken, lamb, or beef, slow roasted on a vertical spit and wrapped up tightly in pita bread or put together on a plate with your choice of pickled turnips, tomatoes, onion, lettuce, parsley and a dollop extra-potent garlic sauce.
Politeness is Canada’s answer to American southern hospitality. Maybe you’ve heard that Canadians are known for saying “sorry” somewhat excessively. When it comes to giving way in traffic, waiting in line or just simply saying sorry for a lack of something better to say, Ottawans usually meet their stereotype as being over-polite.
Canadian’s take pride in their extra-friendly customer service, but don’t forget to leave a tip! You also shouldn’t be surprised if you accidentally bump into someone and they apologize to you.
12. Music Festivals
Ottawa is known for its summer music festivals.
The Ottawa Bluesfest is the second largest blues festival in North America. Although, despite the name, the festival features world-famous performers from pretty much every genre under the sun. In my opinion, it would be better labeled as “Ottawa’s Annual Music Festival”.
The TD Ottawa Jazz Festival also boasts international performers at a number of indoor and outdoor stages. You’ll find some of the most famous jazz musicians of today and yesterday playing for crowds of all ages every summer downtown at Confederation Park.
Escapade is Ottawa’s recently founded and quite popular electronic music festival. The CityFolk Fest also an increasingly popular folk-lover’s festival located in Ottawa’s Landsdowne Park.
13. The Canadian Tulip Festival
In the late months of spring, Ottawa is known for its blossoming tulips. With over one million tulips blooming in all colors and patterns, The Canadian Tulip Festival is that largest of its kind. The flowers line the Rideau Canal and Dow’s Lake for half a million annual visitors to see.
Where did all the tulips come from?
During the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands during the Second World War, Canada sheltered the future Dutch Queen Juliana. In gratitude, the Dutch Royal Family sent 100,000 tulip bulbs to Ottawa. From that point on, tulips have been displayed and celebrated in the Nation’s capital.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) are Canada’s federal police force. Ottawa is known for its presence of Mounted Police (Mounties) dressed in bright red tunics, brown felt hats, and tall riding boots.
While you might still find them during ceremonies, such as the Changing of the Guards on July 1st (Canada Day), it is less common to see an official RCMP officer dressed in traditional uniform riding through Ottawa on a horse.
There are, in fact, police horses, but cars have proven much more effective in a high-speed chase.
15. The Fairmount Chateau Laurier
Downtown Ottawa is known for its beautiful Chateau Laurier, located next to the Parliament Buildings and the Rideau Canal. The hotel was built in the early 20th Century along with the Ottawa Union Station, which is now a non-functioning train station. Named after Sir Wilfred Laurier, the Canadian Prime Minister who had it built, the hotel is an iconic piece of architecture that Ottawa is known for.
Guests enjoy staying in this high-end national historic site, with its views of the Ottawa River, but you don’t have to book a room to go inside. Stop in for afternoon tea service at Zoe’s Lounge, served with a spread of fancy sandwiches, scones, cakes and other delicious treats.
Ottawa is a green city, appreciated for its nature and beauty. It is famous for its mix of historic architecture and modern architecture, its many unique winter and summer festivals, and its tasty treats. Ottawa is a cozy city loved by families and students alike. I hope that you have a chance to visit the nation’s capital to discover more of the exciting things that Ottawa has to offer.
Now, hop over to read about other Canadian cities in this series: