Picture of Winterlude skaters on canal, Ottawa, Canada

The Winterlude festival brings Ottawans out on the ice.

Photograph by Brownstock/Alamy, All Canada Photos

By Eva Holland

Canadians aren’t known for being especially brash and outspoken, and their capital, Ottawa, Ontario, reflects that politely understated character. It’s green, friendly, accessible, and, contrary to its reputation as a buttoned-down government burg, a city that loves to play. Ottowans’ fondness for fun is pushing west of downtown, with stylish new pubs and eateries opening all the time. Hockey is still king, of course, with either an Ottawa 67’s junior or Senators pro game on tap most nights from September to May. Even the city’s Canadian Museum of Nature, housed in a castle-like building that’s rumored to be haunted, is more of a natural history playground. And all summer "the Hill," seat of Canada’s federal government, welcomes each day with a song (and pomp and pageantry) when the regimental marching band performs at the colorful Changing of the Guard ceremony.

When to Go: On Canada Day, July 1, the nation’s birthday bash begins with a morning Peace Tower carillon concert and ends with evening fireworks. In between are free concerts, patriotic ceremonies, and other performances on Parliament Hill and across the city. The 12-day Ottawa Jazz Festival runs through late June and features an indoor-outdoor lineup of jazz, rock, and country performances. Next is Bluesfest, a ten-day outdoor music festival at LeBreton Flats that attracts headliners like Sting, Bob Dylan, and Van Morrison. In early September, family-friendly Folk Festival at Hog’s Back Park mixes day and evening performances with hands-on music workshops. February’s Winterlude is a three-week celebration of all things icy, including an annual bed race on Ottawa’s 4.8-mile canal/skating rink (the world’s largest).

How to Get Around: The downtown core is walkable and the rest of the city is well served by a network of buses and light rail. If you prefer a rental car, traffic and parking are rarely the nightmares you sometimes find in bigger cities.

Where to Stay: The Château Laurier is a grand old hotel that rubs shoulders with Parliament Hill; nearby, the Lord Elgin is another elegant classic. For something completely different, the 150-year-old county jail has been transformed into a hostel for travelers; sleep in a one-time jail cell and take a tour of death row.

Where to Eat or Drink: The Byward Market and Elgin Street are the traditional hotspots for food and drink in Ottawa, but there are growing scenes elsewhere too, particularly in Little Italy, Hintonburg, and Westboro, all west of downtown. "Craft cocktails and late-night menus are taking off in Ottawa," says Ryan Saxby Hill of popular local blog Apartment613. Some of his favorites: "Union 613, with their bourbon-based drinks and southern-inspired menu; the new Whalesbone Oyster Bar in the former Elmdale Tavern, with craft beer and sustainable oysters; and the Hintonburg Public House, with a quality wine list and cute plates of house-made bar snacks."

What to Read or Watch Before You Go: Several of Ottawa’s fantasy author Charles de Lint’s books, including Moonheart, Spiritwalk, and Greenmantle, are set in and around the capital. For a bit of history, Will Ferguson’s Bastards and Boneheads: Canada’s Glorious Leaders Past and Present (Douglas & McIntyre, 1999) is a light-hearted introduction to the men who have governed from Ottawa for the past 150 years.

Helpful Links: Ottawa Tourism, Apartment613, OC Transpo, Parliament of Canada

Fun Fact: The main Centre Block building that stands on Parliament Hill is a replacement. The original building that dated back to 1859 burned down in a dramatic fire in 1916.

Eva Holland is a freelance writer and editor based in Canada's Yukon Territory. She is a frequent contributor to Canadian magazines Up Here and Up Here Business.

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