At just shy of a million people, Ottawa, Canada’s capital city, often gets overlooked. It may not have the tourist draw of cities like Montreal or Vancouver but, Ottawa has more than its fair share of frugal (and fun) places to explore.
Straddling the border of the Ontario and Quebec Provinces on the banks of the Ottawa River, the bilingual Capital Region (which includes both Ottawa and its neighbors on the Quebec side, Gatineau and Hull) was a great destination for a recent long weekend trip on a budget.
Check out these low-cost ways to explore the political and cultural treasures that Ottawa has to offer:
1. See Politics in Action
Ottawa’s Parliament Hill is a stunning monument to the nation’s political process in the Capital region.
The good news is that there are plenty of frugal ways to explore the city’s most famous building. Arriving on Labor Day, I caught the season’s last rendition of their free light-and-sound show, Mosaika, which is a must-see if you arrive in the summer season.
Free walking tours of the building are offered year-round, but be prepared for long lines and tight security. Check out www.parliamenthill.gc.ca for more free events happening at Parliament Hill while you’re in town.
2. Show Your Artsy Side
The National Gallery of Canada is one of Canada’s most famed museums, and for good reason. The building itself is beautiful, with its modern glass and granite façade housing many of Canada’s most prized works of arts.
Unfortunately there is a fee to enter the museum ($9 for adults), but one of the most unique art pieces is actually located outside the museum. A giant spider sculpture by Louise Bourgeois, called Maman, provides a picture-taking opportunity that spins its web around the competition.
More information, including rotating exhibitions and a run-down of admission prices, is at www.gallery.ca.
3. Taste the Culinary Delight of Poutine
All of this walking around and seeing the sights of Ottawa is bound to work up an appetite.
One of my favorite culinary surprises was that of Ottawa’s local Chip Carts. Sure, many cities have a strong street cart foodie scene and Ottawa probably can’t compare with the likes of San Francisco or New York, but a chance to get an ample portion of Canada’s unofficial national dish, Poutine, is something that you can’t afford to miss.
For just a few dollars Ottawa’s local cooks, manning a tiny kitchen in an aluminum trailer, will serve you up an overfilled plate of fries (locally called chips) smothered in gravy and cheese curds.
There’s a reason Canadians love this dish so much. You just might want to search the city for your favorite rendition.
4. Search for Bargains (and a Beaver Tail!)
Ottawa’s By Ward Market provides a great opportunity to find everything from postcards and souvenirs to fine cheese and local produce.
Located on the corner of George Street and By Ward Street, it is nestled among trendy cafes, restaurants, and a copious amount of Irish-themed bars. It is also a conveniently short walk to the Parliament building, the National Gallery, and the Alexandria Bridge, which connects Ottawa to its Quebec neighbors of Gatineau and Hull.
My favorite find, however, was trying a Beaver Tail, a sweet treat made of fried dough and cinnamon shaped like – you guessed it – a beaver’s tail. Find out more at www.byward-market.com.
5. Take a Walk on the French Side
One of the first things I noticed in Ottawa was that it is a truly a bilingual city. Everything from street signs to bus announcements was provided in both French and English, and both languages can be heard as you roam the city’s streets.
For a real cultural immersion, however, take a stroll across the Alexandria Bridge into the Quebec towns of Hull and Gatineau. Immediately after crossing into Quebec province everything visibly changes to French, providing a unique opportunity to practice your language skills or learn a few new phrases.
Most local residents are still bilingual, however, making it a safe step into the unknown for English-only speakers like myself. A cultural treat on this side of the river is the Canadian Museum of Civilization; more information on this museum is available at www.civilization.ca.