My hometown of Ottawa, while normally a dull city filled with bureaucratic monotony, comes alive in the summer, and especially lively over the Canada Day long weekend (Sat – Mon, Canada Day being July 1). While cheap during frigid winters, hotel prices creep up as summer comes. On Canada Day, you’re unlikely to get a great hotel in the downtown core without a substantially prior booking. As in, the Chateau Laurier by Fairmont, Ottawa’s most well-known hotel a few steps from Parliament, is currently showing as sold out (it may truly be oversold, or they may just be holding back rooms for VIPs). However, while the Fairmont is the most well-known, it certainly isn’t the best.
Ottawa’s Best: Andaz by Hyatt
One of Ottawa’s newest hotels, the Andaz by Hyatt sits right behind the Byward Market (though arguably within the “Greater Byward Market Area”). It was built by Claridge Homes, a rather upscale construction firm, and I believe is currently managed directly by Hyatt. It’s mid-sized with 200 rooms. The decor is relaxing, with a “Fogo Island like” theme of Canadian heritage and national pride comes out. Each floor is themed as a province or territory, representing things like the prairies of Saskatchewan and the rich cultural and seafaring pride of Newfoundland and Labrador. Rooms are comfortable, brand spankin’ new, and the service is excellent. In contrast, the Fairmont is old, worn-out, and service is largely stuck-up. I’d easily argue that the Andaz is Ottawa’s best hotel.
The downstairs restaurant, Feast + Revel, is a “traditional meets contemporary” type of restaurant. Food is solid but expensive, and the drinks are silly-priced and of mediocre quality. My recommendation? Have some bites at Feast + Revel, take a copper-lined elevator to the top floor at the aptly named bar Copper Spirits & Sights. From here, you’ll soak in the best view of Parliament and the general beauty of the nation’s capital. You’ll have the best view for what’s arguably one of Canada’s most fantastic fireworks shows held every year. All of this while soaking in good (but expensive) cocktails with attending celebrities and political icons.
Leave during the last quarter of the fireworks display – yes, you’ll miss it going downstairs, but trust me: once the fireworks are over, the fun just begins. And where there’s fun there are crowds. Families swarm to get their children out of the upcoming mayhem; rowdy and certainly underage kids yell around inebriated (only in the most courteous way, of course); and the one not-so-pleasant thing about the Andaz will reveal itself – it is, unfortunately, located next to a number of homeless shelters and the like. It’s all perfectly safe and all folks are there for a good time, but something to keep in mind.
A short walk away and you’ll come across one of Ottawa’s most iconic Beaver Tails shops, located a stone-toss away from the Rideau Centre, Ottawa’s central mall. Beaver Tails are a flattened out doughnut pastry that can be covered in a number of toppings, such a Nutella, Maple Crunch, and so on. The local favourite, and certainly the variety I grew up on, is called a Killaloe Sunrise, a delicious deep-fried flattened doughnut covered in cinnamon, sugar, and lemon juice. Sticky, but as well-written blogger wrote: “If you have ever seen a Killaloe sunrise over Round Lake Ontario, it is the same thing, simply heaven.”
OK. So I’m going to warn you: there will be an immense line. It will be gargantuan. Maybe an hour or longer. However, everyone in line is cheerful, wanting to drink more so there’s more for their upcoming pastry to absorb. You’ll have fun chats, and if you’re a tourist, your newly found waiting-in-line friends will be excited to learn about where you’re from, how you like Ottawa, and probably share a splash of whatever sugary alcoholic concoction they’re carrying around. That is, the line will be long but delightful, and maybe you’ll make friends or tour guides on the way. Regardless, you’ll be rewarded with a yummy and hopefully gooey Beaver Tail.
You’re getting tired. It’s late. Some folks are heading home. Resistance is not futile. Overcome your overwhelming sense of exhaustion, and force yourself to attend some of the quieter pubs located on a 20 minute walk down Laurier to the University of Ottawa campus. Don’t bother bussing or taking a car – you won’t get one. Not gonna happen. Use those legs. On Laurier, you’ll find some lively bars, and you should try one of Ottawa’s numerous craft beers. With the growing local beer culture, brands change often, so ask your server about what kind of beer he or she recommends based on your tastes and desire for something local. What Ottawa bartenders tend to know well is beer, not cocktails.
Now it’s really late. Like, one or two o’clock late. Don’t worry, you’re almost done (though if you’re not, there are bound to be parties at every other house, with open arms waiting for you). Now you’re going to take a walk to Elgin. On Elgin, you will find some phenomenal poutine, a traditional Quebecois dish made with french-fries, gravy, and cheese curds (a fresh, preferably squeaky, unripened truffle-shaped cheese). A local favourite is the Elgin Street Diner. If the line is nuts, try walking down the street back toward the Andaz, looking for the numerous poutine trucks along the way. And don’t go thinking that poutine out of a truck is worse than from a restaurant – indeed, it’s about the most Ottawa (or Quebecois) thing one can do.
Stomachs full, weary from the day, you’ll stroll through the crowds back to your hotel. The Rideau Mall will likely be open, but don’t count on it. If it is open, it will be filled with police officers guarding the peace. Going through the mall and past the Beaver Tail shop is your quickest bet. While the geographical distance is short, count on 30-45 minutes or more to make the walk – the crowds will be large, hurried, and drunk.
You’re now back at the Andaz. Your wait to get to your room will be slow, since the elevators are few and the guest numbers will be high. Once settled, plop into bed and sleep in.
I would recommend spending the whole long weekend in Ottawa, from Friday night to Monday morning. Ottawa has a number gems, from the War Museum, the awe-inspiring Museum of Nature, and one of Canada’s finest galleries, the National Art Centre. For food, I recommend Atelier, a hard-to-find restaurant in Little Italy, serving world-class molecular gastronomy dishes with a renowned sommelier (you simply must to do the wine pairing). Riviera on Sparks Street is now Ottawa’s most prestigious restaurant, reportedly where Trudeau’s Cabinet has held meetings. They serve swanky and delicious Italian food, however, with their growth has brought unreliable quality in food (out-of-this-world vs. bad). Both restaurants will require reservations months in advance.
For some cheaper eats, I recommend visiting visiting one of Ottawa’s dozens of shawarma restaurants. I grew up with the myth that Ottawa has the most shawarma restaurants per citizen than anywhere else in the world. While I’m uncertain as to that myth’s accuracy, the city certainly boasts world-leading shawarma. The Shawarma Prince is a local favourite. Other great eats can be found by walking down Bank Street to the Glebe, Ottawa’s upper-middle class academic haven. There you will find the Wild Oat, a cash/debit-only restaurant that serves healthy and delicious hippie-style food. Their chocolate croissants are to die for.
To understand Ottawa’s culture, you have to understand its geography. The National Capital Region, AKA the “Greater Ottawa Area” stands as one of the least-densely populated cities on Earth. There’s lots of space, with immense parks (the Arboretum near Carleton University makes for a pleasant afternoon walk, ending with a dinner in Little Italy). A good chunk of the region is in the French-dominant province of Quebec, while the rest is located in English-dominant Ontario. Further, as Canada’s capital city, the city attracts people from all over Canada (and the world).
Ottawa’s largest employer, the Federal Government and its Crown Corporations, has much-bemoaned bilingual requirements for many jobs, which leads to a constant cultural struggle between the English, the French, and the bilingual. To get a job now in government, or really at most stores/restaurants in most positions, bilingualism is becoming an increasing must have. So yes – people around you may speak in French, and you see prominent displays of forced bilingualism everywhere. While you’re perfectly fine getting about without French (unless you go to the smaller and further areas of Gatineau), it’s important to understand the politics of language that exists in a Canadian’s everyday life, and is significantly magnified in the nation’s centre of bureaucracy and government.
All that being said, the village directly across the bridge from “Ottawa proper” (across the water from Parliament) is the city of Hull. This is part of the National Capital Region. It is French speaking, as it’s situation on the Quebec side of the border. It has an interesting and clearly poorer downtown, but the Museum of Civilization is a great sight to learn more about Canada’s diverse history, and impress upon the museum’s attractive architecture. Spend a day visiting downtown Hull, and finish your time there with mouth-watering Moroccan food at Chez Fatima, a family-run restaurant that serves immense meals with sensational flavour at reasonable prices.
There are a number of great places to go to see other sides of the Region, such as Wakefield, a small artsy “Fair Trade” town about a 40 minutes drive away. It has great restaurants, music, and food. Absolutely worth a half day. In Old Chelsea, you can find some great hikes, or stop at some of the quaint shops, bakeries, and ice-cream parlours on the way.
Of course, you have to visit Parliament, the Parliamentary Library, and all the normal tourist stuff. That, you can Google yourself!
That’s going to pretty much fill a three-day weekend in Ottawa. There will be arts performances everywhere, food stalls, and an all-around celebratory atmosphere. You can soak a number of cultural festivals, representing some of the dozens of diverse groups in Ottawa. Ottawa is home to one of the largest Somali expatriate populations, bringing with them their culture, food, language, and hard work. You’ll also find delicious Ethiopian, French, Korean, Vietnamese, Lebanese, (and I’m sure a few others) cuisine. While the food scene is not up to the likes of a city like Montreal, Ottawa does offer some surprising cuisine, from delicious street-food to world-class restaurants.
Ottawa’s airport is relatively close to the city, being about a 20 minute drive without traffic, and 40 minutes with traffic from the airport. It’s clean, incredibly efficient, and well-designed. Note that as a US Pre-Clearance Facility, you clear US customs and immigration in a secured area at the Ottawa airport, meaning when you land in the US, you’ll enter as a domestic flight, without need to clear anything upon arrival. There is no lounge inside the US departures area, with only one restaurant and a Tim Hortons to serve you. The international and domestic terminal (one in the same) has a Maple Leaf Lounge for Air Canada/Star Alliance guests, and a Porter Lounge for Porter Airlines customers. There are no Priority Pass lounges at the airport. I recommend that you use Uber to get to the airport, which offers a more comfortable ride at half the price. Ottawa’s taxi system is known for its poor service and sky-high prices and is best avoided unless an Uber is unavailable or overpriced due to surge pricing.
All-in-all, Ottawa is a safe, slow-paced, yummy, culture-filled, and all-around enjoyable place to live and visit. A three day weekend is a perfect period of time to see the city, and with this Andaz deal (which I swear is next), you’ll be hard-pressed to not go.
Getting the Andaz on the Cheap
As previously stated, the Andaz is a new property. I’m guessing, that due to their newness, they didn’t think about blocking off Canada Day weekend nights for higher rates. But anyways, they didn’t. The cheapest room at the Andaz on July 1 is $CAD 230. This is still a phenomenal deal, with rooms I’m sure normally going for $CAD 600+. Further, there’s currently a deal with Booking.com if you spend $US 80+ a night, you’ll get $US 40 back on the payment card after purchase (through this link). You must use Visa or Mastercard to use this deal. Make sure the following banner pops up on your page:
If you’re a Booking.com “Genius” member, you may also get an additional 10% discount. Since you’ll get $US 40 back on your stay (book each night separately using different emails and credit cards), you’ll only be paying $CAD 201 for a fully refundable room… On Canada Day… in the Byward Market in Ottawa. Can’t really do better than that folks. You can also spend 6,000 Hyatt points + $75/ night, or 12,000 Hyatt points a night – I think the cash rate with this deal is better. Hurry though, this likely won’t last long!
I deeply apologize for the very long post.