Beneath demure exterior, Ottawa offers culture and cool ’hoods
OTTAWA — “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous,” I screamed at full volume. “Here we are now, entertain us!”
Let me tell you, friends, there’s nothing like fist-pumping and singing along to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with an all-female Nirvana cover band — called Hervana , of course — to warm up after a day walking around in the hyperborean winds of Ottawa. Skirt Cobain and the rest of Hervana were performing at a club called House of TARG. The venue hosts live acts, features a full vintage arcade with 30 retro games, and serves delicious pierogi. In short, it had everything I needed on this particular Friday night. Genius.
Feeling happy, sweaty, and quite possibly tipsy, I struck up a conversation with the gent standing next to me. He asked why I was in Ottawa. I explained I was writing a travel story on the city. His face went blank and he asked, “Why?”
It was a fair question. Ottawa is Montreal’s bilingual, bureaucratic little cousin on the Quebec-Ontario border. It’s far smaller than Toronto (883,000 residents versus 2.6 million), and lacks the dramatic landscapes of Vancouver. But Canada’s capital has always piqued my curiosity. I’d seen pictures of nuzzling couples skating on the Rideau Canal, which transforms into the world’s largest natural skating rink during winter. I’d seen images of the 3 million (no exaggeration) shocking pink and electric yellow tulips that herald spring around the city. I like skating, tulips, and Canadian accents. Ottawa would do quite nicely.
But when I arrived, it was neither skating nor tulip season. The Canadian Tulip Festival begins May 8 and the river was no longer frozen. I’ll be honest: I was afraid the highlight of the trip would be sitting in my hotel room working on a “Daydreaming Raccoon” paint-by-numbers kit while watching “Crocodile Dundee 2” on Netflix.
What I learned my first day is that Ottawa is a demure town. It’s easy to spot the striking architecture of beautiful Parliament Hill and the retail hub in the Byward Market commercial district, but beyond that, I was a bit lost. At first glance, I didn’t see much here beyond a gob of Brutalist buildings. I heard about little neighborhoods with hip names such as the Glebe, Hintonburg, and Wellington West. But it seemed that I would need to enlist the help of both Cagney and Lacey to find them.
But like a tight-lipped guy on a first date who starts getting chatty after the amuse-bouche and a couple of cocktails, Ottawa finally started revealing its hot spots to me as I eavesdropped on conversations, chatted up the locals, and walked the streets.
I felt that I hit the jackpot in the Wellington West neighborhood, which connects to the equally cool Hintonburg. The scrappy districts are equal parts chic eateries and dollar stores. It’s not what I would call a shopping promenade, but it is an adventure. I had dinner at the excellent Supply and Demand Foods in Wellington West, which included perhaps the best plate of heirloom roasted carrots I’ve ever consumed.
I was joined by Jantine Van Kregten, who not only works for Ottawa’s tourism bureau, but is also the city’s most knowledgeable cheerleader. By the end of dinner, I was no longer afraid that my experience would be as bleak as I feared. She filled my head with ideas — some of which involved pastry. Things were looking up.
The next morning I was breathing heavily on the glass case at SuzyQ Doughnuts in Hintonburg. These doughnuts are based on a traditional Finnish recipe topped with untraditional flavors such as raspberry cassis and maple bacon. The shop is an actual shack, which added considerable charm.
The next stop was Art-Is- in Bakery. I was there on a Tuesday at lunchtime, and a line snaked out the door. Line or no, I was not leaving without the shop’s much-ballyhooed almond croissant.
Since I was going whole hog — literary and figuratively — on the pastry scene, I needed to sample a local specialty called beaver tail. Before you animal activists get your hemp bloomers in a knot, a beaver tail is an oblong piece of fried dough completely smothered in cinnamon and sugar. But you can get them with pretty much anything on top. They’re as wonderful as they sound, and I may have consumed more than one during the course of my trip. I also recommend a visit to Holland’s Cake and Shake. If you’re too lazy to lift a mini cake to your lips, and let’s face it, we’ve all been there at some point in our lives, you can pick a cake and have it blended into a milkshake for your sipping convenience.
I was now ready to waddle through a tour of the Centre Block building of Parliament, where the Senate, House of Commons, and Library of Parliament are located. Free tours are available daily.
The guide quickly answered the question that was on most of our minds. No, not the location of the restroom, but why Ottawa is the capital. Once a sparsely populated logging town, it was chosen because of its proximity to the Ottawa River and its central location between Montreal and Toronto.
I tried to round as many museums as I did pastry shops — not an easy thing to do. I bounced from the Canadian War Museum to the Canadian Museum of Civilization to the National Gallery of Canada. All essential to an Ottawa visit, but I advise you start with the war museum. If you’re traveling with kids, head to the tyke-friendly Museum of Civilization. In many ways, this was the city’s strength. Ottawa’s institutions are like a tasting menu of the country’s 10 provinces. You can get through the best of it in a long weekend.
My favorite museum was located about 30 minutes outside of Ottawa in a town called Carp. Diefenbunker — Canada’s Cold War Museum was constructed in the 1960s as a bunker for the government to seek refuge in the event of a nuclear attract. Decommissioned in 1994, its 358 rooms sit eerily frozen in time, with giant computers from the 1970s and nuclear war necessities such as Instant Mil-Ko powdered milk (special fallout safety pack!). A sign in the cafeteria reads “You’re lucky to be alive. . . . Just eat it!”
This was easily the creepiest museum I’ve ever visited. I took the self-guided audio tour, but wished that I was with a group because I started to get the collywobbles trolling through the massive bunker by myself. I was shocked to read that you can rent out the bunker for children’s birthday parties. Invite a sinister clown to that bunker shindig and you can give your child the gift of nightmares. Thanks, mom and dad!
The best way I know to calm my nerves, aside from visiting a petting zoo, is shopping. Ottawa’s epicenter is Byward Market, which hosts a farmers’ market in summer, and is surrounded by local stores and chains. The chain stores felt monotonous, but there were enough original offerings to make Byward worth visiting. It’s also where you’ll find pubs stuffed with young professionals enjoying an evening tipple. The night I club-hopped, all eyes were glued on a hockey match, which I took as my cue to explore the smaller neighborhoods.
You can’t swing a squirrel without hitting a brew pub in Ottawa, ditto for coffee houses. In Wellington, try Beyond the Pale and Happy Goat Coffee Company. A burger at Hintonburger is essential, as is a trip to Vertigo Records. Follow all of that with drinks at the Ping-Pong bar SpinBin. I couldn’t find a recently renovated boutique hotel, But I found plenty of good beer.
All of this brings me back to the Hervana show at House of TARG. When my new bar buddy asked me why I was writing a travel story about Ottawa, I replied with a question of my own: “Have you tried the beaver tails?”