Outstanding Ottawa

vendor selling maple syrup in ottawaI never thought much about Ottawa. I knew it was the capital of Canada and that they had some sports teams, but other than that it wasn’t ever on my radar. When I thought of places I wanted to visit in Canada, destinations like Vancouver, Calgary, Banff, Montreal, Quebec City, and the Maritime Provinces all came to mind, but Ottawa was always at the end of my list, if it even made the list.

When I had a chance to go there on a recent trip to Canada, I simply shrugged my shoulders. I was looking forward to Montreal more than anything else. I was in Canada with Everything Everywhere and the Brooklyn Nomad for a weeklong press trip courtesy of VIA Rail. We were testing their new Wi-Fi service, which had actually been out for a few months already. I took the trip because I genuinely like traveling by train. They’re a great way to see the countryside and are a lot less stressful than airplanes. If you’ve ever traveled via Amtrak, you know how slow the service is and how bad the trains are. While VIA Rail is a lot better than Amtrak, it’s no French TGV or German Bahn.

Pulling into Ottawa, I wasn’t expecting much, but the city surprised me. Not only is Ottawa beautiful, it’s also exciting. The tourism officials gave us a quick tour of the city, which included Ottawa’s suburbs, parks, the prime minister’s house, and the Ottawa River. It was all totally beautiful. We made the driver pull over frequently to get pictures. Since it’s fall up in Ottawa, the trees were amazing shades of reds and oranges that made the city even more serene.

After checking into the Château Laurier and exploring the downtown, I was surprised to find it has a very western feel to it. I almost felt like I was in Deadwood or some other old western town. The buildings had these great patios, awnings, and shuttered windows. But when I learned about Ottawa’s past as a rough logging community, it didn’t surprise me that it feels “western.” The city began as a logging community with very few people and laws, just like cities in the American west. It’s no wonder they have a similar feeling. That downtown core, with its many cloistered squares, restaurants, and shops, is just as beautiful as the suburbs.

ottawa suburb

I’d hoped to walk around more, explore the many museums in the city, and head into the Quebec part of the city, but I didn’t have time. Our time was filled with official dinners and lunches and several sightseeing tours with our hosts. Plus, it was painfully cold, and I can’t deal with cold weather. I’m a sun worshiper.

Ottawa was simply outstanding. I hadn’t expected much from the city and maybe that’s why I enjoyed it so much. Travelers often have preconceived notions of a place, and more often than not we look for things that reinforce the stereotypes in our heads. We go to Amsterdam and “see” all the coffee shops, red lights, and canals but somehow overlook the huge café culture and art scene there. In Bangkok, we see the sleaze, traffic, and the pollution, but we miss the friendly people and ease of living. It’s often the places we know the least about that blow us away the most.

There’s this Buddhist saying I live by that says, “No expectations, no disappointments.” If you expect nothing, how can you never get what you expect? Ottawa proved to me just how important this philosophy is. If you don’t have preconceived notions, any city in the world will live up to your expectations. It might even lead to a richer experience as you’ll be more open to experiencing the city, since you have no idea what it might offer.

ottawa parliament

Ottawa definitely blew me away. I barely got to scratch the surface of the city, but I loved what I scratched. One day I’ll go back (in the summer) and spend more time visiting the museums that dot the city and eating at the mouthwatering restaurants I saw on every corner. Ottawa is simply not the boring capital city I thought it would be.

For more information on Canada, visit my guide to Canadian travel.

Editor’s Note: VIA Rail paid for my trip.

  1. Tina

    Glad you enjoyed Canada. Sorry to hear that you didn’t know that much about Ottawa, our capital. It’s rather a shame when I hear about the lack of knowledge American’s have about Canada. It’s a great country with beautiful scenery.

    Perhaps with blogs such as yours people will become more knowledgeable about other countries.

  2. Tan

    Winter is great in Ottawa. You can ice skate on the Rideau Canal. It’s supposed to be the world’s largest skating “rink” (almost 8km long). You can also enjoy the winter festival, the Winterlude. It’s quite different from the Carnaval in Quebec City.

    But since you don’t like the cold, you could come in spring when the million of tulips are blooming

  3. Sofia

    Great saying! I try my best to live by it too – but sometimes it’s hard to travel without having expectations.. Ottawa seems like a nice place :)

  4. Sounds like Ottawa’s well worth visiting! Been wanting to travel in Canada for a long time. As for expectations, I also use to travel without them. Much better ’cause you can enjoy the destination rather than complaining about how things weren’t like you thought they would be, or compare the place with the image you had in your mind. I didn’t know about that Buddist saying though.

  5. MaryLS

    Re: “But since you don’t like the cold, you could come in spring when the million of tulips are blooming” — tulips are lovely, but it can also be coolish in the Spring. Wait until summer — so much fun in the summertime.

  6. Alexandra

    Maybe it’s because I grew up in Ottawa (well in one of the suburbs), but I never really thought the city had much to offer. Of course I’d been to all the museums about 15 times each for school field trips, but I never appreciated how much adventure activities the city has around, until I left and came back for visits. Definitely check out Gatineau Park just across the river, it’s a great place to hike. There’s also white water rafting trips, which are big. The one thing you absolutely have to do though is go see an Ottawa Senators hockey game. If you can manage to see one against our arch rivals the Toronto Maple Leafs, even better. (Though maybe wait until next season… we’re really sucking this year). Oh and fun fact about the tulip festival: The tulips are donated every year by the Dutch as a thank you for helping free them during WWII and for providing a safe haven for their Royal family. One their princesses was actually born in Ottawa, but the hospital declared the wing Dutch territory for the night so that it wouldn’t affect her citizenship.

  7. madison

    Thanks for the great post about Ottawa, Matt! It is an under-appreciated city. I would love to go back and visit again soon. Do you have any hotel recommendations? I stayed in the Novotel which I loved!

  8. Camellia

    Hi all

    I recently had ajob opportunity in ottawa but i cant seem to make up my mind about it and am thinking on turning it down. I appreciate Canada and its people but its the cold weather that i cant stand and i have problems with my joints . I also think Ottawa isnt acity worth staying in for many years . May be am wrong.
    Its hard decision and I sure could use some advise.
    Thank you.

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