By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
September 26th, 2013
Queen Victoria made her choice. Five cities competed for the esteemed honor. Quebec, Toronto, Kingston, Montreal and Ottawa each hoped to be named the capital of what was then called the Province of Canada.
Her Majesty, heeding advice from trusted advisors, issued a communique via royal emissary on Dec. 31, 1857: Ottawa would be the capital city. This settled the matter, designating a permanent home for Canada’s perambulating Parliament. It would be ten years before our neighbor to the north became an independent nation.
Ascending Parliament Hill on the southern banks of the Ottawa River today, one encounters an impressive assemblage of Gothic Revival government buildings. Gray stone and turrets are complimented by an enormous clock tower. The Peace Tower’s chimes note passing quarter hours with a deep resonance, not unlike its cousin—Big Ben—in London. An imposing statue of Queen Victoria shares this politically hallowed ground, eyes gazing over this North American swath of her former dominion.
As French as Montreal feels, Ottawa has a decidedly British tone. This is reflected in Anglo-inspired architecture and the prevalence of English in what is “officially” a dual-language city.
Ottawa stands as a prime example of the City Beautiful Movement. This North American architectural trend, popularized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, was an intentional effort to beautify urban areas. Inspired by Beaux-Arts and neoclassical styles, the movement evoked a sense of grandeur.
Architecture that is ambitious in scope and scale, inviting green spaces, promenades, bike paths, and canals are masterfully intertwined, achieving an aesthetic that is visually pleasing while also easily navigable. Ottawa’s pace is slower than Montreal’s, even though it’s the capital city. Ottawa is also visibly cleaner than Montreal, perhaps, because it is the capital city.
A weekend trip to Ottawa is within reach—before the snow flies. It’s a pleasant four-hour, 177-mile trip from Williston along highways and two-lane roads.
Our preferred place to rest our heads in Canada’s capital is the Albert House Inn (www.albertinn.com). Located on a quieter, one-way street, it’s a seven-minute walk from Parliament Hill. This Victorian jewel, once a convent, offers decidedly “cozy” and clean rooms, a fabulous breakfast with newspapers galore, and a high-ceilinged formal living room where guests perch with books and coffee. The innkeepers are friendly and downright chatty.
When in Ottawa, these are among my favorite places to visit:
National Gallery of Canada. This striking glass and pink granite building offers open, airy spaces to wander while enjoying drawings, paintings, sculpture and film installations. Although the collection is international in scope, it affords a particular opportunity to zero in on Canadian art created by Canadian artists. On-site cafés offer snacks, meals and even high tea for art lovers craving scones with jam and clotted cream.
Canadian War Museum. Military museums can be highly educative, telling stories of human conflict. This museum traces Canada’s entanglements from the Seven Years’ War to the American Revolution to the War of 1812, with numerous artifacts on display. Attention is paid to Canadian involvement in World War I, World War II, the Cold War and more recent conflicts while also highlighting peacekeeping missions. If you like to poke around authentic military jeeps, tanks and amphibious vehicles, this is the place for you.
Parliament Hill. Touring this impressive structure provides important lessons on Canadian History, something this “neighbor to the South” knew very little about.
ByWard Market. This farmer’s market, established in 1826, offers up stalls of artfully arranged fruits, vegetables, cheeses and meats along with local delicacies. Maple syrup, Canadian bacon, chutneys, “squeaky cheese” (cheese curds) and Beaver Tails fried dough pastries are on offer among whatever fruits and vegetables are in season. Bakeries and ethnic eateries line the periphery. This is the best place to pick up food to fuel a long day of exploring on foot.
Ottawa is an amazing city for walking, bicycling, boating, and—in winter—skating. It seems that everywhere you’d wish there was a path, there is one. City planners made full use of the canals, designing pathways to encourage close interaction with waterways as one walks to school or work. Pocket parks sprout in nooks and crannies of residential neighborhoods, offering a bit of green and a place to encounter neighbors.
Did I mention that Ottawa is also a college town? The University of Ottawa and Carleton College are both within easy walking distance of downtown. Students add energy and a youthful vibe—inspiring vegetarian restaurants, funky live-music venues and used bookstores.
If you’re ready for a weekend trip before the snow flies, consider Ottawa. You won’t be disappointed.