Canada’s Parliament sits atop a hill overlooking the Ottawa River and is the heart of the city. Every day at 10am from June to August you can watch the Changing of the Guard from the manicured lawns, and at night from July to early September, the Northern Lights Sound and Light Show is spectacular, with beautiful images on Canada’s past projected onto the facade. Local tip: There is yoga on the lawn from 12.15 on Wednesdays over the warmer months. While in the precinct visit the very grand Fairmont Château Laurier – have sunset drinks at La Terrasse in summer – and also neighbouring Major’s Hill Park.
The Rideau Canal
This historic canal, opened in 1832, is the longest continually operating canal in North America, linking Lake Ontario with the Ottawa River. Only 19 kilometres of the 202-kilometre-long Rideau Canal is manmade, with the man who created the canal cleverly linking lakes and rivers through 45 locks in 23 lock stations. At the Ottawa end locals can go boating or pedal boating, or head through the locks for longer day trips or even multi-day trips. Visitors can make it easy and hop aboard a luxury drive-yourself houseboat through Le Boat, cruising to charming towns like Merrickville, Smiths Lake or all the way to Kingston. In winter, the 7.8-kilometre section of the canal between the Hogsback Locks and the Ottawa River locks turns into the world’s longest naturally frozen skating rink. Some people even skate to work.
Pop over the border into Quebec for the spectacular park that has over 200 kms of trails to hike and fat bike on, 20 glorious lakes, wildlife to spot and in the winter, you can go cross country skiing or snowshoeing. The prime minister, Justine Trudeau, has a house here – all thanks to former prime minister Winter Lyon Mackenzie King. King had a cabin and some land near Mousseau Lake. When he died he bequeathed his property to Gatineau Park with the house to be used by all future prime ministers. The Canadian equivalent of Camp David.
The Nordik Spa
Nordik Spa is the biggest spa in North America – a big call but a true one. It has four restaurants, ten outdoor baths, a waterfall that splashes and slides into an icy cold pool, hot pools, even hotter pools, a huge infinity pool, a Dead Sea-like salt pool, and then there is the Banya. Oh the Banya. Inspired by what is a Russian tradition, we undergo/endure 15 minutes in the hotter than hot sauna, with two Banya aficionados flicking oils from birch leaves onto the heat to make it even hotter. After 15 minutes we go out and jump into the freezing cold pool, which is apparently good for you, then back into then oven we go for another 15 minutes. This time, our Banya masters drizzle the birch-leaf oils over us, then ask if we would like to be whipped. Okay then. So off they go, whipping with the leaves. It doesn’t hurt and leaves the skin feeling oddly rejuvenated.
National Gallery of Canada
Established in 1880, the National Gallery of Canada now has more than 75,000 works of art in what is a stunning building. It has one of the finest collections of Canadian and Indigenous art in the world, as well as other works. A current exhibition, Àbadakone (‘continuous fire’ in the Alconquin language), features works by more than 70 artists identifying with almost 40 Indigenous Nations, ethnicities and tribal affiliations from 16 countries, including New Zealand and Australia. It runs until 5 April, 2020. Highlights include the Rideau Chapel inside, and the huge sculpture of an egg-carrying spider, outside. Called ‘Maman’, the piece is a symbol of motherhood.
This bunker was built 23 metres underground back in 1959 when tensions were spiking during the Cold War. The Canadian government of the time led by John Diefenbaker – hence the Diefenbunker – built the bunker to house key members of the government and military in the event of a nuclear attack. Tours are offered of the facility and fans of escape rooms will want to tackle this one – it is the world’s biggest escape room, plus there are spy camps and a host of other fun things.
This market is the number one tourist attraction in Ottawa, and has been since 1826. Designed by the same clever gentleman who created the Rideau Canal – John By, it has museums, cafes, boutiques, galleries, restaurants, hair and beauty salons and speciality shops. Post for a selfie by the Ottawa sign outside.