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Ottawa is the capital city of Canada, and as such it tends to see a lot of tourism. Fortunately for said tourists, Ottawa is a fairly nice place to visit and live.
There are innumerable tour guide books written about the National Capital Region (the local term for Ottawa), and being that most of said books are published by the Canadian Federal Government, they tend towards being quite long-winded and boring, written by people who spend all day in little bureaucratic cubicles trying to imagine the good life. Recognising that boredom is the bane of any tourist, this entry aims instead to tell you what you really need to know to enjoy a visit to the city of Ottawa.
The foremost thing you need to know is that Ottawa is generally regarded to be one of the safest and cleanest cities in the world, so please don't litter. On the bright side, you needn't worry about getting mugged and you won't need to worry too much about the drinking water.
Arriving in Ottawa
The Airport Ottawa has an international airport, albeit a small one. You can travel to and from the airport via city bus, taxi, or rented limo. Taking a rented limo is a bad idea, because angry taxicab drivers will park in front of it and honk angrily and you won't go anywhere very fast. Ottawa's taxicab unions really don't approve of the limo service. The bus, route 96, will take you right downtown in about 20 minutes.
Train Station Ottawa has a train terminal. Just beside it is a private bus road and from there you can catch a bus downtown. The bus you will want for this is the 95. It runs every five minutes or so. Make sure you get the bus going westbound, otherwise you will wind up in Orleans, a different city altogether where people tend to speak French more than English. If you don't have a compass handy, the westbound bus is the one that you catch on the far side of the transitway road, opposite the terminal itself.
Bus Terminal There is a Greyhound Bus Lines terminal in Ottawa, about a 30-minute walk from downtown. Due to some stroke of ingenious planning, the only local city bus you can catch from the bus terminal is the number four, which takes you into the southern part of the city (the opposite direction to where you, as a tourist, probably want to go). If your willing to carry your luggage a little way though, you can turn left onto Catherine Street, walk a few blocks, turn left again on Bank Street, walk a few blocks more, and then catch just about any bus you might see (on the right hand side of the street), and you'll then wind up downtown within ten minutes or so.
The 'Rideau Centre' is a large shopping mall situated right downtown, and just about any bus you catch downtown will drive right past it. This will probably be your first stop if you are from a different country, because a Currency Exchange centre is located up on the third floor, and you'll want to trade in your local currency for some of the notes that Canadians use to make purchases.
Hotels and Accommodation
While you're downtown, you'll probably want to find a place to stay. The Quality Inn offers the best value for a moderate budget. You'll find it on Rideau Street, near King Edward Avenue, a short walk from downtown. Alternately, if you are on a large budget, you can try to book a room in the Château Laurier, which overlooks the Parliament buildings. Other possibilities are the Sheraton and the Citadel. You could just wander around on foot and you'll pass a hotel eventually. There is a YMCA near the Greyhound bus terminal for those on a shoestring, and also a Salvation Army just off the Byward market.
Points of Interest
You've arrived and arranged a place to put your head down, so now you'll probably want to look around. Here are some ideas:
Parliament A short, friendly walk from downtown, Parliament Hill is situated in the heart of the city, along the banks of the Ottawa River. Here you can see the changing of the guard, a fire fed by natural gas that never goes out, and the odd politician. Be careful about approaching the latter...
Rideau Canal A system of locks, the building of which became something of an historical epic. In the winter months, the canal is a skating rink, touted as the longest maintained outdoor rink in the world.
Byward Market The oldest section of Ottawa and still very much the heart of its community. In the summertime, the market there's a bazaar of produce stalls and roadside vendors. During other seasons, you'll have to make do with getting drunk at one of the innumerable bars or restaurants situated here.
Sparks Street Mall An outdoor shopping mall, decorated by a lot of avant garde art.
The Glebe Located in south-central Ottawa, the Glebe is a good place to find little curiosity shops and knick-knack booths. It is also the setting of many of fantasy novelist Charles De Lint's1 books.
Sandy Hill An historic district, Sandy Hill is the site of the residences of several of Canada's early prime ministers, including Sir Wilfred Laurier and Sir John A MacDonald. Also, most of the international embassies are in this area, so if you get a hankering for foreign soil this is the place. Most importantly, however, this is a student district, just off the Ottawa University campus - that means pubs. British pubs, Irish pubs, student pubs, whatever you might want. Recommended is the Royal Oak off Laurier Avenue for those with a taste for UK food; Guinness and scotch eggs, or haggis, or bangers and mash, or whatever. Also, Drumlin's pub on Somerset East is worth your time to check out.
National Arts Centre A good place to check out classy shows. A bit on the pricey side, but if you want live orchestral music then go here.
National Art Gallery This place is worth checking out both for regular exhibits, and for travelling shows passing through (Van Gogh, Renoir, and so on).
Museums All Ottawa museums are good, except the Museum of Science and Technology, which sadly hasn't been able to keep up. The latter is a fun place to visit if you want to know what everyone thought would happen with computers back in the 1960s. The Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec, is just across the river (a short walk over the bridge near the Parliament Buildings really). It includes an Omnimax wide screen movie theatre for those who crave blitzed-out motion sickness.
Movies Ottawa has lots of movie theatres that show regular run-of-the-mill Hollywood fare. A theatre called the ByTowne Cinemas, on the corner of Rideau and Nelson streets, shows avant garde films, foreign films, animation festivals, and Canadian independent efforts.
Mexicali Rosa's An Ottawa start-up that has since sent tendrils down into the US, Mexicali's is without doubt one of the finest Mexican food restaurants you could find in Ottawa. Except for the one located off Dow's Lake, which serves offal amongst other things.
Korean Garden A small, upscale establishment, offers a buffet of raw meat which you bring back to your table and cook on a barbecue grill set into panelling there. A real experience.
Black Tomato Really good food, reasonably priced. A good place to meet Beatniks and hippies. Comfortable chairs.
Lick's Big burgers with weird toppings. Interesting menu selections. Employees of this restaurant sing vapid songs, smile, and wear colourful striped outfits. The entire restaurant says 'Boing' as soon as you enter. A surreal dining experience.
A bar is a bar, for the most part. You might want to check out the Dominion House Tavern in addition to the aforementioned pubs, although it can get pretty rowdy. There are plenty of big noisy dance clubs you may want to shy away from, if dance music isn't to your taste. There is, however, one exception:
Zaphod Beeblebrox Named after a character from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, this bar serves some of the best drinks in the known universe, such as, their version of the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster. It also serves drinks with such monikers as Bambleweenie 57, Deep Thought, and Googleplex. The walls are decorated with pictures of taunting little green spheres and large, friendly 'Don't Panic' signs. The music is downright cool for dance fans, and the guiding philosophy of the club's owner is to give underground music as much exposure as possible. Tuesday nights are recommended for some cutting edge techno industrial tunes. At any rate, you'll find this bar on York Street in the Byward Market. As an additional bonus, Zaphod's is situated right between the aforementioned Dominion House Tavern and a strip bar so you won't have far to walk if you start yearning for a different kind of entertainment.
Notable Events in Ottawa
Winterlude During the weeks of February, this is an outdoor festival celebrating how wonderful it is to live in so cold a climate. Ice sculptures, folk music and ice skating on the world's largest maintained outdoor skating rink, the Rideau Canal, are all available.
Canada Day The big patriotic holiday in Canada, 1 July of any given year. A good time to see fireworks, and the sort of behaviour from people normally associated with a Heavy Metal band on tour. It's very hard to get good restaurant service and very easy to get drunk in Ottawa on Canada Day.