Tips + Trends

Uncover Cold War Secrets, Kombucha and Disco Bingo on an Ottawa Weekend Getaway

Canada’s capital has all the usual must-see sights of any major city. But just under the surface, this leafy, family-friendly metropolis has more than a few unexpected gems.

Home to just under a million people, Ottawa has a thriving art scene, museums galore and vast wilderness just minutes away from the downtown hub. It’s the perfect place to spend a weekend of culture, kitschy fun and relaxation.

Friday

Ottawa airport is just 20 minutes from downtown Ottawa. Catch the 97 bus, and the ride will only set you back a few dollars, or jump in an Uber for slightly more.

Ottawa’s scenic Rideau Canal snakes through the city, sparkling icy white in the winter; as it freezes, this UNESCO World Heritage Site becomes the world’s longest skateway. In the summer the waters are a haven for boaters, kayakers, rollerbladers and bikers.

Rent a bike under the Rideau Plaza bridge at RentABike and cycle the canal pathways before stopping at a pop-up restaurant or food truck along the trail for a bite of lunch.

what to do in Ottawa
Shop for edible souvenirs — or simply stop in for a coffee and pastry — at ByWard Market. (Photo: Alamy)

If you want to pick up a souvenir, avoid the crowds at the Rideau mall and instead shop the boutiques on Dalhousie street, adjacent to the downtown historic ByWard market.

Established in 1826, the market supports more than 600 local businesses and remains one of Canada’s oldest and biggest public markets.

You’ll find vintage clothes, jewelry, housewares and more. At Adorit Boutique designers create original pieces from recycled materials, and their inventory changes every two weeks, so you’ll be sure to snag a one-of-a-kind outfit.

Also be sure to check out the unusual pantry items, stationary and homegoods at Goods on Dalhousie; it’s the perfect place to pick up a unique gift.

Take a break from retail exercise after an 8-minute walk toward Parliament Hill and rest your weary feet. Refresh with a hot drink and a sweet treat, and pet a cat at Ottawa’s only cat-themed coffee shop, Feline Cafe, on Wellington Street.

You’ll stumble into a cat zone with specific rules for visitors to ensure the animals are safe and happy. All cats are from the Ottawa Stray Cat Rescue, and all are up for adoption.

Saturday

Start the day with a healthy dose of good bacteria in your belly by sampling Culture Kombucha‘s range of delicious fermented teas made right here in Ottawa. They are available from a variety of stores and cafés throughout the city or straight from the factory at 409 Industrial Avenue, just a 10-minute drive from downtown.

Then, grab brunch at Pressed, a gourmet sandwich bar on Gladstone Street. The café offers the usual breakfast staples with the addition of some South American favorites, such as huevos rancheros and local handcrafted muesli.

However, their gourmet weekend waffles are really where it’s at. These buttery squares are piled high with inspired combinations, including local caramelized apples, cheddar and La Ferme Älska maple syrup or smoked trout with a poached egg drizzled in hollandaise. Yum!

Ottawa is well-known as the capital of Canada and seat of government. With a full stomach you can now tour the parliament buildings. Parliament Hill entrance is free of charge, but you will need to reserve tickets for guided tours on a first-come, first-served basis.

The tours include a chance to walk around “Centre block,” home to the Senate, House of Commons and Library of Parliament. Visitors can also listen in on live parliamentary debates: Check the Senate calendar for details.

If you arrive midweek, you can get your “Om” on by taking part in the free yoga classes held right on Parliament Hill every Wednesday at noon. As you move through downward dog, take a chance to look around at the iconic peace tower, eternal flame and the houses of parliament. What a view to meditate on!

Or for the price of a day pass ($20) you can use the gym and art nouveau swimming pool at the world famous Chateau Laurier. Built at the turn of the century, this castle-like Ottawa staple has become part of the downtown skyline.

what to do in ottawa
Shhh … Cold War secrets lie at your fingertips at the Diefenbunker. (Photo: Alamy)

If politics are your bag, take a short drive 25-minutes out of town to the small village of Carp to visit the Diefenbunker museum. This relic of the Cold War age is a bunker built 75-feet underground to house former Prime Minister Diefenbaker and key members of government during the early 1960s in the event of nuclear attack. Admission includes a range of activities organized throughout the year, including the screening of Cold War–era movies.

For dinner, head to Shanghai Restaurant on Somerset Street West, where every Saturday night performer (and Ottawa favorite) Ed Kwan transforms himself into China Doll, a fabulous, glittery karaoke drag impresario who knows how to host a party.

China Doll serves as the feisty, fun MC for weekly karaoke singalong nights and disco bingo with prizes awarded. The party goes until 2 a.m., so order another side of spring rolls and pick out your theme tune!

Sunday

what to do in ottawa
Despite it’s name, you won’t see a whole lot of pink at the splendid Pink Lake. (Photo: Alamy)

After a busy weekend visiting city sights, you might crave peace and quiet. Retreat just minutes across the downtown border into Gatineau, Quebec, and stroll through Gatineau Park.

The park covers 89,281 acres and houses a diverse ecosystem of plants and native animals. One of the most beautiful spots along the parkway is Pink Lake, a meromictic lake, meaning the upper and lower layers of water never mix.

The water remains a beautiful turquoise color thanks to its unique composition. Visitors can walk the perimeter of the lake on boardwalks accessed by a series of seemingly never-ending steps and a platform designed to protect the lake from erosion.