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Canada: the history and must see sights of Ottawa

Kieran Meeke / 24 January 2017

Celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2017, Canada is a fascinating country full of history and intrigue. The 11th installment in a series of articles, we look at Ottawa.

Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Standing on the Ottawa River, which forms the border between Ontario and Quebec, the city of Ottawa will be a major focus for celebrations of Canada’s 150th anniversary during 2017.

Canada’s capital of Ottawa is in Ontario but only 120 miles from Montreal in Quebec. The Ottawa River forms the border between the two provinces.

Cool mountain peaks and even ‘cooler’ cities, Canada offers a world of experiences. Find out more about our holidays to Canada here


The Ottawa River connects to the Saint Lawrence River and was a major transport artery from the time of the first European explorers in Canada.

In the early 1800s, the Royal Navy had an insatiable demand for Canadian timber, which was logged and then floated down the river for export to English shipyards.

The river held dangerous rapids that were not tamed until the opening of the Rideau Canal in 1826 and the Carillon Canal in the 1830s. Following the War of 1812 with America, both canals were designed to provide an alternative supply route in the event of another war.

With clear passage to and from the Saint Lawrence River open, loggers and traders used the route in increasing numbers. The small settlement of Bytown – named for Colonel John By who oversaw the construction of the Rideau Canal – soon grew into a thriving town.

In 1855, a year after the railway also arrived, the town was renamed Ottawa from the Algonquin word “adawe” meaning “to trade”.

In 1857, Queen Victoria named the new city as the capital of the United Canadas. Its position in thick forest away from the potentially volatile border with the US made it a safe choice. 

The United Canadas was formed in 1841 from the existing two provinces of Upper Canada (present-day Southern Ontario) and Lower Canada (present-day Quebec).

During Canadian Confederation in 1857, when Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were united into the Dominion of Canada with the United Canadas, Ontario and Quebec were split apart again into provinces. However, Ottawa remained the capital of the new country.

By the end of the 1800s, Ottawa had started to take shape with grand municipal buildings, museums, art galleries and a university. The Mint opened in 1908 and during the 20th century government became the major employer.

A large fire in 1900, which destroyed hundreds of buildings and timber mills, and again in 1916 left their mark on the city. The 1916 fire ravaged Parliament Hill, leaving only the Library of Parliament standing.

The city is now increasingly recognised as a high tech centre and attracts a growing numbers of visitors, more than 7 million a year, albeit with more than 80 per cent coming from other parts of Canada. 

It’s one of the country’s best-kept secrets, regularly ranked as its best city to live in.

Getting Around

Ottawa has two city bus systems: OC Transpo on the Ontario side of the Ottawa River and Société de Transport de l’Outaouais (STO) on the Quebec side. 

The OC Transpo is the biggest operator and most of its buses have low access. A Day Pass offers all-day journeys and is valid on both bus systems as well as the light rail O-Train.

Major Sights

Parliament Hill and Buildings

The Gothic-style Parliament Buildings peep above the forest-covered slopes of Parliament Hill to create one of the most handsome views of government in the world. 

The ornate style of architecture was chosen in 1859 as a deliberate contrast to the severe neoclassicism of the United States. Free tours describe the building and its workings.

Must-do: Climb (OK, take the lift) the Peace Tower to enjoy the views of Ottawa.

National Gallery of Canada

As you might expect, the focus at the National Gallery of Canada is on Canadian art but there is also a major Andy Warhol collection and works by other American and international artists. 

Such names include Francis Bacon, Cézanne, Chagall, Constable, Dalí, Pollock, Rembrandt, and van Gogh.

Must-do: See “The Death of General Wolfe” (1770) by Benjamin West, which did much to mythologise the general with the British public.

Canadian War Museum

Covering the military history of Canada, from the battles fought on its soil in earlier centuries to more recent conflicts broad and, of course, both World Wars, the Canadian War Museum holds some 2,500 artefacts. 

These range from large armoured vehicles and weapons to maps and paintings.

Must-do: Spot the window from where light will shine on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the 11th minute of the 11th hour on November 11.

Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica

The severe exterior, albeit topped with tin-covered spires, hides this Notre Dame Cathedral’s much less restrained interior. 

That’s a fantastical Gothic display of religious imagery and gilt, with hundreds of statues and some fine stained glass. Inspired by medieval church art, it has several original Canadian touches.

Must-do: Look up to see the beautiful blue ceiling lit by gold stars.

Byward Market

This district is now as well known for its street buskers and nightlife as for the original markets at its heart. 

It is also the place to find new restaurant openings, edgy boutiques, a craft brewery and such essentials as a juice bar and yoga salon. In 2009, President Obama visited the Byward market during an official visit to Canada.

Must-do: Eat a Beavertail, a whole-wheat pastry in the shape of a beaver’s tail that is fried in oil and then topped with various coatings, such as chocolate hazelnut spread.

Canadian Museum of Nature

In a country with such a large and spectacular outdoors, it is no surprise that the Canadian Museum of Nature is a major draw. 

Its first collections date back to the 1850s and now include some 14 million specimens. 

The “Scottish Baronial” style of the Victoria Memorial Museum Building was influenced by the architecture of Hampton Court and Windsor Castle, and hundreds of Scottish stonemasons added details such as the Canadian plants and animals that decorate walls, windows and interiors.

Must-do: If you are visiting more than one museum, buy a National Museums Passport valid for entry to three museums of your choice over three days.

Rideau Canal

Ontario’s only Unesco World Heritage Site, Rideau Canal, was built in 1832 to help better connect Ottawa to Lake Ontario. Every winter, one stretch from Ottawa’s downtown core to Dows Lake becomes the largest naturally frozen skating rink in the world. 

You can hire skates and stands sell hot soup, hot chocolate and Beavertails (see Byward Market, above). There are also heated changing booths to warm you up in.

At other seasons, it is a scenic chain of lakes, rivers and canals still used by boaters, while walkers and cyclists enjoy its tree-lined banks. 

The Ottawa Locks within the canal are particularly interesting, being a set of eight locks over an 80 ft drop around which Ottawa was built. Most of its original 19th century buildings are remarkably intact.

Must-do: Hire a boat or kayak and paddle down at least part of the canal system. 

Cool mountain peaks and even ‘cooler’ cities, Canada offers a world of experiences. Find out more about our holidays to Canada here

Major Events

Winterlude Ottawa

The first three weeks of February are the time of Winterlude, when the Rideau Canal’s skating park is a focal point for the capital’s celebration of winter. 

If you can’t skate, someone will teach you. Artists create ice carvings in Confederation Park, downtown Ottawa, for the International Ice-Carving Competition and there are also musical and culinary events around the city.

Canadian Tulip Festival

The Canadian Tulip Festival pays tribute to the liberation of Holland by Canadian Force during World War II, when Canada also provided a safe haven for the Dutch Royal Family. 

Every May the country is given 10,000 Dutch tulip bulbs to mark the connection which are added to the other bulbs planted in 100 tulip beds at 30 different sites. 

The main display is at Commissioners Park, Dows Lake, where 300,000 flowers burst into colour to welcome the coming of spring.

Doors Open Ottawa

See inside some of Ottawa’s most architecturally and historically significant buildings as owners allow free entry to normally closed spaces during 'Doors Open Ottawa', over a June weekend

Past openings have included Earnscliffe: Official Residence of the British High Commissioner, the Supreme Court of Canada, and the Embassy of the United States. 

A Shuttle Bus connects more than 50 participating buildings, while a bicycle tour offers another option to get around.

Changing of the Guard

Held on Parliament Hill during the summer months, daily at 10am from late June to late August, the changing of the guard ceremony owes much to the Buckingham Palace original with its red uniforms and bearskins.

Canada Day Festival

Where better to celebrate the Canada Day Festival than in the nation’s capital? 

July 1 is marked with ceremonies and live shows at various venues, including Parliament Hill, Major’s Hill Park and Confederation Park. Museums also hold special events and the day finishes with a major fireworks display.

Gatineau Hot Air Balloon Festival

Music concerts enliven the air as dozens of hot air balloons fill the sky with a multitude of colours. 

The five-day Gatineau Hot Air Balloon Festival at the end of August/early September features many francophone music artists but acts such as KC and the Sunshine Band have also appeared. 

It has grown rapidly to become the fifth largest such event in the world.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.