I needed a getaway after a long, drab Ontario winter. Previous holidays had all been spent exploring foreign cities, but last May it occurred to me that I ought to visit Ottawa, my own country's capital. I went just in time to catch the tail end of the annual Tulip Festival.
After an eight-hour bus ride from my hometown, including a transfer in Toronto, I checked in at A Voyageur Guest House. The best thing I can say about this B&B is that it is conveniently located behind the bus station and within walking distance to downtown and many of Ottawa's major attractions.
With a few hours of daylight left and no particular plan in mind, I went wandering, on foot, aiming north toward the spires of the parliament buildings, which I could see etched on the skyline. Within twenty minutes I found the Palermo Cafe on Sparks Street Mall and grabbed a cup of coffee just before 4pm closing.
I meandered around the area, getting oriented, and soon began to notice vibrant displays of tulips everywhere. What a welcome, cheerful sight! Ottawa's Tulip Festival originated with a gift of bulbs sent by the Netherlands after World War II because Canadian troops had played a large role in liberating their country, and Ottawa had given refuge to the Dutch royal family.
Shortly, I came upon the National War Memorial at Confederation Square. Many times I had watched Remembrance Day ceremonies televised from here; now I could pay my respects in person. I stood awhile looking down at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and quietly thought of the many Canadians who have lost their lives serving their country.
By then evening was approaching, and raindrops had begun sprinkling, so I decided to have a light meal and call it a day. Back on Sparks Street I found Yesterday's Restaurant. The BLT sandwich with fries and a glass of wine ($15) hit the spot.
Morning arrived warm and bright, and I set off to see more of Ottawa in bloom. I didn't need a map, I just went back to where I left off, on and around Wellington Street, about where it intersects with the Rideau Canal and the Ottawa River. This is the core of the capital and the beginning of the tulip route, which proceeds from park to pathway all along the canal.
Dominating the scene to the east of the Rideau Canal is the landmark hotel Chateau Laurier, built in 1912. After a quick look at the fabulous lobby, I went to the adjacent Major's Hill Park, one of the main venues for the Tulip Festival. All sorts of family activities and star-studded entertainments coincide with tulip time. A vintage carnival going on at the park filled the air with hurly burly sounds of fun that swept up everyone, even a solo wanderer like myself.
Nearby, at Nepean Point, I had a bit of a climb up to see a statue of Samuel de Champlain, the French explorer who was the first white man to travel these parts. Samuel has a gorgeous view of Parliament Hill, the Ottawa River, and its eight working locks. I went to have a closer look at the locks and, with perfect timing, arrived just as a couple hand cranked two locks to let a boat through. These small but interesting diversions made the time fly, and I still had much to see in the vicinity.
Bytown Museum ($6), next to the locks, gives a perspective of Ottawa's early history, but I had only time for a walk-by glimpse.
Next door, Parliament Hill, or as the locals call it "the Hill" rises impressively above the south bank of the Ottawa River. Monuments and memorials abound, not only to commemorate former leaders but also other notable persons and events. Of the many, a few made a particular impression on me: The Terry Fox statue called to mind the courageous young man who walked across Canada on one leg and a prosthesis to raise money for cancer research. He had to stop midway due to a relapse of his illness and died at the age of 22. The Women Are Persons memorial is a reminder of women's struggle for equality, and Police and Peace Officers honors Canadian law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty since 1804.
Moving on to the Gardens of Provinces and Territories, I sat awhile amid tulip and daffodil displays enjoying the gentle sounds of fountains and snacking on fruit and chips. Then, clouds rolling in overhead made me think of taking my sightseeing indoors.
Ottawa is filled with museums national in scope agriculture, the arts, aviation, children, civilization, nature, postal, science, technology, war name it, Ottawa's got it. All of those subjects would have to wait for another time; my choice for this visit was the Canadian War Museum. I'm not a big fan of museums, but I must say that the three hours spent there were worth every penny of the $12 entrance fee.
Exhibits depict how wars of the First Peoples, the French, and the British have shaped Canada. I especially enjoyed an informative video with a bit of humor about the Plains of Abraham. Some exhibits, complete with sound and visual effects, added a feeling of reality. I could easily imagine being among the men running through water toward the beach that fateful June 6th, 1944, known as D-Day.
By the time I left the museum, I was nearly exhausted, and although I knew that evening activities were planned at various Tulip Festival sites, I decided I had only enough energy left for a bite to eat and the walk back to my B&B. On Spark Street, D'Arcy Magee pub had a nice view of the war memorial and the Chateau Laurier, and a bit of the Hill.
My last day in Ottawa started with a 20-minute walk to Commissioners Park, at the opposite end of the tulip route. This park beside Dows Lake had the largest tulip display, a dazzling sea of reds, yellows, whites, purples. What started with the Netherlands' gift of 100,000 bulbs has grown to millions of blooms during Tulip Festival. In ongoing appreciation for Canada's war effort, the Netherlands continues to send 20,000 bulbs to Ottawa each year.
I stopped for a drink break at the pavilion beside Dows Lake and noticed that seasonal boat and skate rentals are available here. In winter, Dows Lake joins the Rideau Canal to become the "world's longest skating rink." I could have walked the 7km from the lake along the canal pathways but thought I'd save my feet for the afternoon sights.
With advice from a local, I hopped a bus at Preston Street and Carling Avenue ($3) and hopped off near the Ottawa Public Library an opportunity to check my email. Located at 120 Metcalfe Street, the library is in territory I had more or less covered previously, and I could easily zig-zag my way from there in a 15-minute walk to my next stop at Byward Market.
This market would have been a great place to pick up picnic fixings, had I felt so inclined. Instead, I sat outdoors and watched the world go by at the Cornerstone Bar and Grill (peach mojito and panini sandwich, $16).
Refreshed, I was ready for Ottawa's main attraction, a look inside the heart of Canadian government. Parliament Hill consists of three buildings: Centre Block, East Block, and West Block. I signed up for the free, 45-minute tour of Centre Block at the Info-tent. After the airport-like security check, we admired the portrait of each Prime Minister, took a quick peek inside the House of Commons, the Senate, and the extraordinarily beautiful Library of Parliament.
The Memorial Chambers holds books of Remembrance listing the names of those who lost their lives during the two world wars. I wished I had been among five lucky ones who got a reservation for the 11am page-turning ceremony. Instead, I spent some time reading a few poems in this room, including Flanders Fields by John McCrea. On my own, I took the elevator ride up the Peace Tower to get a 360-degree, breathtaking view of the city and Ottawa River. All in all it was quite a memorable experience.
Opposite the Peace Tower, on Wellington Street, the Parliament Pub is a cosy outdoor cafe with a fantastic view of Parliament Hill and the hotel Chateau Laurier. I sat outside with my carrot soup, fresh bread, and glass of white wine and thought what a perfect way to end my three-day getaway to Ottawa.
My only regret is that I waited so long to discover the history and beauty of my own country's capital. Yet, I saw so little; I did not even get across to Gatineau on the Québec side of the Ottawa River. Now I know there is so much more to see I will gladly return to this vibrant, walkable, and single-friendly city.
Ottawa Tourism: places to stay, maps, restaurants, attractions.
National Capital Commission: Info Centre.
Bus Info: Greyhound Canada.