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The city of Ottawa is situated at the confluence of two rivers, the Ottawa and the Rideau. Its geographic location has shaped the city from its earliest days.

Founded as logging towns, Ottawa (originally known and Bytown), and its twin city, Hull (originally known as Wrightstown), were once among the roughest towns in the New World. In the early 1800s, most of the population was concentrated in Wrightstown, on the other side of the Ottawa River. In 1826, Colonel John By arrived on the scene with orders to link the Ottawa River with Lake Ontario. The result was the Rideau Canal and a new village called Bytown, which, thanks to the canal, soon became a bustling boom town.

In 1855, Bytown was officially renamed Ottawa. Five years later Queen Victoria selected the city as the capital of the newly-founded Dominion of Canada.

With a population of about 750,000 Ottawa is smallish as capital cities go. The Ottawa International Airport is located in the south end of the city about a 20-minute drive from downtown. Visitors traveling by car arrive via Highway 416 from the south or Highway 417 from the east. Both highways join up with the Queensway, Ottawa’s major east-west artery. Downtown access can be had by taking either the Nicholas, Metcalfe or Bronson exits northbound. Train and bus stations are downtown.

Once downtown the street layout is pretty basic, with all major streets running either north-south or east-west.

The City
There is a good reason why Ottawa is one of the most popular destinations among domestic travelers and globetrotters. As capital cities go, it is one of the most user-friendly in the world, filled with museums, green spaces, a wide range of restaurants and accommodations, and memorable events.

The most famous of these events is mid-May’s Canadian Tulip Festival, the largest of its kind in the world. The festival’s origins lie in a gift of 100,000 tulip bulbs, presented to Ottawa in 1945 by a grateful Holland. Canada had given the Dutch royal family refuge during the war and, in 1944, a floor of an Ottawa hospital was declared part of Holland so that a princess of the exiled royal family could be born on Dutch territory. Today, millions of tulip bulbs are planted each fall in flower beds throughout the city. The result is a cacophony of color that has to be witnessed to be believed.

Another famous event is February’s Winterlude, one of the largest winter festivals in North America, featuring the world’s longest skating rink, the Rideau Canal.

In between these festivals are spectacular displays of fall foliage at nearby Gatineau Park, a winter of downhill and cross-country skiing at numerous surrounding slopes, and a summer of sightseeing, relaxing in sidewalk cafes, and strolling, rollerblading or bicycling along miles of pubic pathways.

Number one on every tourist’s list of places to visit is Parliament Hill. Home to Canada’s parliament buildings, Parliament Hill also offers a spectacular view of nearby points of interest such as the National Gallery of Canada and the Museum of Civilization.

Parliament Hill has three parts. The Centre Block contains the House of Commons and the Senate chamber as well as the Peace Tower, while the East Block and the West Block are occupied by members of the two houses. Guided tours of the Centre Block, which take in both houses of parliament as well as the parliamentary library, are held every 20 minutes in both French and English. During the summer months visitors to Parliament Hill can also take in the Changing of the Guard Ceremony every morning at 10am.

One block south of the parliament buildings is the Sparks Street pedestrian mall. During lunch hour the mall is filled with public servants who pour out of the many surrounding government buildings. Walk east along Sparks Street (that’s left if you’re facing Parliament Hill) and you come to Confederation Square, containing the National War Memorial and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Running south of the square is trendy Elgin Street, with its many restaurants and busy nightclubs.

East of Confederation Square is the National Arts Centre, home to the NAC Orchestra and a variety of theatre productions and live performances. To the northwest is the landmark Chateau Laurier Hotel, built in 1912. Behind the hotel is Major’s Hill Park, the oldest park in Ottawa. One block east of the hotel is the Rideau Shopping Centre, with over 200 stores, restaurants and services.

North of the Rideau Centre is the Byward Market. The Market has been a Mecca for visiting tourists for decades. Containing dozens of excellent restaurants and specialty shops, one can spend hours touring the area. Along with Elgin Street, the Market is also the place to go to experience Ottawa’s night life.

Just east of the Chateau Laurier and running north along the west side of the Byward Market is Sussex Drive, home to several must-see attractions including the National Gallery, the Canadian War Museum, the Royal Canadian Mint, the Prime Minister’s residence and Rideau Hall, home of the Governor General.

Behind the National Gallery one can find Nepean Point, with a statue of Ottawa’s first tourist, Samuel de Champlain, at its summit. Across the Ottawa River and over the Alexandria Bridge in Hull is the Museum of Civilization, containing a state-of-the-art Imax theatre and Canadian Children’s Museum.

Somerset Heights and Little Italy
Beyond the downtown core, one should find time to visit Somerset Heights with its multicultural mix of Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants and specialty shops. The area is about a 10-minute bus ride down Somerset Street. Somerset intersects Bank Street, the city’s main north/south artery, about 10 blocks south of Parliament Hill.

A short walk west of Somerset Heights along Somerset Street is Little Italy, which runs south along Preston Avenue. Be sure to walk down to the Prescott Hotel and enjoy a cold draft beer in one of Ottawa’s oldest drinking establishments.

At the southern end of Preston Street one can access the Queen Elizabeth Driveway which runs along Dow’s Lake and the Rideau Canal.

Sandy Hill
East of the Ottawa’s main downtown area and south of Rideau Street is Sandy Hill, with its long, grid pattern roads and old growth trees. Situated in the west end of Sandy Hill is the University of Ottawa, surrounded by student dwellings. In the east end of the Hill one can find several embassies and diplomatic residences. To the far east, at the end of Laurier Avenue East bordering the Rideau River, is Strathcona Park. Hill dwellers take pride in the area’s architectural past and are avid protectors of the many local heritage buildings.

Further to the east of Sandy Hill, across the Rideau River, is Vanier. A Francophone bastion for decades, Vanier has been working hard to transform its image as Ottawa’s poorest community. A quick drive down Montreal Road yields a wealth of shops and stores which mainly service the local populace.

New Edinburgh
North of Vanier is New Edinburgh. One of Ottawa’s oldest communities, New Edinburgh is situated to the northeast of the Vanier Parkway and Beechwood Avenue. During recent years a great deal of private development has helped reshape the area, turning it into a haven for the city’s upwardly mobile middle class. With the change in population have come a number of trendy shops and restaurants, most of which can be found along Beechwood Avenue.

Rockcliffe Park
Follow Sussex Drive east past Sussex Drive and the Governor General’s residence and then turn south at Buena Vista Road and you’ll run smack dab into one of the richest neighborhoods in Canada. Rockliffe Park is both quaint and opulent. Many of the city’s politicians, diplomats and high-tech nouveau riche have addresses in the tree-lined community. Chief among these is Corel president Michael Cowpland, who built a gold-mirrored mansion at the end of Buena Vista.

One of the more beautiful homes in Rockliffe Park is the Apostolic Nunciature, or office of the Papal Nuncio, at 722 and 724 Manor Avenue. The mansion, which can be seen through a curved archway, is also known as Manor House. Other homes of interest are the residences of the US and Russian ambassadors, located next to each other on Lisgar Road, and Stornaway, the home of the leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition in the House of Commons, on Acacia Avenue.

The Glebe
Located south of the Queensway along either side of Bank Street is the Glebe, famous for its trendy stores, coffee shops and quaint restaurants. No shopping trip to Ottawa is complete without a visit to this eclectic mix of craft, clothing and toy stores. Look for that one-of-a-kind flying angel from Bali at Dilemme, authentic Andes woven sweaters at Quicha Crafts, garden knick-knacks at Thorne & Co. or scientific toys at Mrs. Tiggy Winkle’s. In between stops enjoy a beer at Irene’s Pub or the Royal Oak, a marguerita at Mexicali Rosa’s or a café latte at either the Second Cup, Grabbajabba or Starbucks.

Located in the west end of Ottawa-Carleton is the city of Kanata, also known as Silicon Valley North. Kanata is home to many of Canada’s leading high-tech companies including Mitel, Alcatel, Crosskeys and Mosaid. Like any bedroom community, there is not a lot to see and do in Kanata except the Corel Centre, home to the National Hockey League’s Ottawa Senators.

Across the Ottawa River from downtown Ottawa is Hull. Located in the province of Quebec, Hull is predominantly French speaking. Besides being home to the Museum of Civilization, Hull is also the jumping off point for the Hull to Wakefield steam train. A number of excellent restaurants can also be found here including Café Henry Burger and Oncle Tom.

History of Ottawa

If Samuel de Champlain were to return to modern-day Ottawa, he would likely shake his head in wonderment at what has transpired in the years since his last visit some four centuries ago. In 1613, he was the first European to tour the area, which had long served as hunting grounds for the Outaouais tribe of Algonquin Indians. Champlain took the time to christen the Chaudière Falls (French for “cauldron”) and observe Indian sacrifices of tobacco before venturing deeper into the continent.

In the two following centuries the region served as little more than a camping stop along the Ottawa River, which was named by the French fur traders who followed Champlain’s lead. In 1800, a United Empire Loyalist (a supporter of Great Britain in the Revolutionary War) named Philemon Wright left Massachusetts, snowshoed down the Ottawa River, and found a likely spot to found a permanent settlement. Originally called Wrightstown, the tiny community was later renamed Hull in honour of the English birthplace of Wright’s parents. Wrightsville grew in the early 19th century as British demand for wood exploded. The Napoleonic Wars, and Britain’s lumber-hungry shipyards, made the Ottawa region’s thick pine forests a valuable commodity; Wright cleared the forests and floated timber down the Ottawa River to Montreal.

In 1826, construction began on the Rideau Canal. Lieutenant-Colonel John By and his workforce of French, Irish, and Scottish workers completed the 202-kilometre, 47-lock canal in 1832. It was originally designed to keep military marine traffic safe from American invasion of the St. Lawrence River. As a defence project the canal was useful in theory only; shortly after its completion it proved much more valuable for industrial purposes. The canal shifted development to the south side of the river where Ottawa (originally known as Bytown, after the canal’s builder)now stands.

An influx of European immigrants flocked to the region, and Wrightsville and Bytown quickly earned their legendary reputations as beery, brawling logging towns. A group of American lumber barons descended upon the area in the 1840s, expanding the squared-timber trade and establishing the two communities as their centre of operations in the Ottawa River Valley. In 1850, the Chaudière Falls were harnessed, providing the power for the largest concentration of milling operations in the world.

Controversial capital
The late 1850s were a turning point for the rough-and-tumble Bytown community. It was renamed Ottawa in an attempt to shed its sordid reputation, and to enhance its chances as a contender for the capital of the Province of Canada. When it won the honor, chosen with seeming arbitrariness by Queen Victoria, who had taken a fancy to watercolours she had seen of the area, Ottawa became the center of a political maelstrom. Leaders in the other contending cities of Montreal, Toronto and Kingston were furious–at times, it seems they still are–but there was method to Victoria’s madness. Ottawa sat conveniently along the border between English Ontario and French Quebec, geographically balancing Canada’s two founding nations, and it also could be easily defended militarily by virtue of its remoteness from the United States. Indeed, as one American newspaper noted, any “invaders would inevitably be lost in the woods trying to find it.”

Construction on the neo-gothic Parliament Buildings began in 1860, and in 1867 they became home to the federal government of the Dominion of Canada, which initially comprised Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec and Ontario. The “Westminster in the Wilderness” was a bizarre study in contrasts: the stately centre block of Parliament Hill towered over the haphazardly-planned bustle of industrial Ottawa, and the circular, flying-buttressed Library of Parliament overlooked an Ottawa River that was often tightly packed with floating lumber. Rideau Hall, the palatial residence of the Queen’s representative in Canada, was also completed in 1867, in nearby Rockliffe. All of Canada’s Governors General have lived there since its construction, including one Lord Stanley of Preston, who, in 1892, donated the silver cup that bears his name. (It was the National Hockey League Ottawa Senators who masterminded the first professional Stanley Cup dynasty, winning four Cups between 1920 and 1927.)

A more presentable city
In 1899, the Canadian government concluded that if Ottawa were to be a worthy capital of the vast and steadily expanding Dominion, some planning would be in order, and thus the Ottawa Improvement Commission (OIC) was established. A wholesale restructuring of the city ensued, along with a cleanup of the Rideau Canal and the creation of scenic boulevards. A park system was begun, and, in 1912, the Grand Trunk Railway Company’s Union Station and Chateau Laurier were opened. Development was hampered, however, by a massive fire in April, 1900. It wiped out a swath of the community from Hull across the river all the way to Dow’s Lake at the south end of the city. Another fire in 1916 destroyed all but the northwest wing and the Library at Parliament Hill. Although most of Canada’s resources at the time were directed to the war in Europe, reconstruction began almost immediately and by 1922 Parliament had been rebuilt. The new structure featured the 89.5m Peace Tower in the centre block, erected to honour the 66,000 Canadians who died in the First World War. The tower houses a memorial chamber, an observation deck, and a 60-ton, 53-bell carillon considered one of the finest in the world.

In 1936, Prime Minister Mackenzie King, who ran the country for 22 years, became acquainted with the renowned French civil architect Jacques Gréber. Gréber provided the blueprint for the broad park corridors and 44.8-kilometre greenbelt, which give Ottawa its distinctively bucolic and open feel. Mackenzie King lived at Laurier House until 1949, and there visitors can see the portrait of his mother and the crystal ball from which he sought advice during the darkest days of Canada’s involvement in the Second World War.

Ministerial mansions
King also maintained a country home at Kingsmere in the nearby Gatineau Hills. The sprawling estate features stone ruins carefully reconstructed from the bombed-out rubble of London’s Houses of Parliament.

The gloom of the Second World War briefly lifted in Ottawa when the heirs to the Dutch throne, then riding out the war at Rideau Hall, found themselves in a quandary with the imminent birth of a new princess. In 1943, Parliament temporarily ceded a floor of the Ottawa Civic Hospital to the Netherlands so that Princess Margriet could be born a Dutch citizen on Dutch soil. This gesture, as well as Canada’s leading role in the liberation of the Netherlands, led to a lasting bond between the two countries–one that has been symbolized every year since 1945 with the shipment of millions of Dutch tulips to Ottawa. The Ottawa Tulip Festival, held every May, is one of the region’s most popular attractions.

In addition to the prime ministerial residence at 24 Sussex Drive, which has been in use since the 1950s, another official residence bears mention–the nuclear bomb-proof Diefenbunker in nearby Carp, Ontario, which was built in the early 1960s and is now open to the public. Constructed in total secrecy some 30 metres beneath a dairy farm (with the grudging permission of Prime Minister John Diefenbaker), the 100,000 square-foot complex was designed to enable the federal government to run the country in the event of an atomic attack.

A less sombre aspect of all things military also made its first appearance in the early 1960s: every day in the months of July and August the guardsmen and band members of the Ceremonial Guard have mount their changing of the guard ceremony on Parliament Hill.

The metropolitan population of Ottawa-Hull has grown to more than 1 million, and with its booming tourism industry the capital continues to round itself with such recent additions as the National Gallery of Canada and the Canadian Museum of Civilization. The mid-1990s also saw Ottawa reinventing itself as the “Silicon Valley of the North,” with a profusion of high-tech companies establishing themselves in the city’s western suburbs.

Despite its somewhat sterile reputation among Canadians as a quiet, family-oriented city, Ottawa is both a bustling metropolis and a magnet for tourists from all over the world.