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Ottawa, Canada's center of government, is Cool with a capital C

From Bern, Switzerland, to Canberra, Australia, capital cities often get a bad rap. Although they are frequently museum- and gallery-rich, travelers routinely dismiss them as provincial, dull, squeaky-clean and overrun by bureaucrats and diplomats.

Ottawa may share that ho-hum rep, but you may want to reconsider a visit to the Canadian capital. The city offers the promise of transformative cultural experiences and intriguing opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts, foodies, art enthusiasts, shoppers and history buffs.

Visitors can go boating at a UNESCO World Heritage site, inspect an impressive collection of totem poles, partake in beer tastings and explore formerly grungy neighborhoods that have transitioned into hipster zones.

Kayaking on the Ottawa River.
Kayaking on the Ottawa River. (Ottawa Tourism)

What's more, Ottawa’s position as the country’s cultural and political hub, coupled with its up-and-coming coolness, make it an ideal epicenter for celebrations tied to Canada’s 150th birthday this year.

I traveled here in March for a preview of anniversary events — and a reminder of the permanent attractions that may inspire a return trip.

Ottawa is a classic Canadian city. Almost 1.3 million people live in this multicultural, multilingual capital, but it retains a welcoming, small-town character.

MORE CANADA: Why Canada is cool, not cold | Celebrate Canada’s 150 | Quiz | 150 Canada photos

It's walkable, and its compact downtown area is laced with green spaces. Gatineau Park, a wilderness area with spectacular forested hills that appeal to hikers and mountain bikers, is less than a 10-minute drive away.

The National Capital Region, which includes the capital, the neighboring city of Gatineau and other nearby communities — offers almost 400 miles of walking and cycling paths.

In summer you can boat or paddle the Rideau Canal, a UNESCO World Heritage site completed in 1832 that winds 126 miles from Lake Ontario through downtown Ottawa.

Skateway on the frozen Rideau Canal.
Skateway on the frozen Rideau Canal. (Ottawa Tourism)

In winter it becomes the world’s largest naturally frozen skating rink, a 4.8-mile-long skateway where it’s common to see business people in suits with briefcases gliding to work.

If you like the great indoors, there's no shortage of galleries and museums in the Ottawa region. Among the most notable are the National Gallery of Canada, which is housed in a delicate glass palace overlooking the Ottawa River; the Canadian Museum of History, which includes the world's largest indoor collection of West Coast totem poles; the War Museum; the Museum of Nature; the Aviation and Space Museum; and the offbeat Diefenbunker (Canada’s Cold War Museum), a massive underground bunker built secretly by the government during the Cold War.

But my favorite place to start an Ottawa visit is the eclectic ByWard Market, one of Canada’s oldest and biggest farmers’ markets where merchants sell plants, flowers, fruits and vegetables, as well as arts and crafts, in outdoor stalls.

Shops that line the market, as well as the Market Square building from 1926, include gourmet delis, restaurants, pubs and bakeries including Moulin de Provence, which sells Québécois classics such as tourtière meat pies.

A short walk away, on a bluff above the Ottawa River, are the copper-topped turrets and gargoyled facades of Canada’s three Gothic Revival Parliament buildings. The main building, Centre Block, contains the Senate, House of Commons and the spectacular Library of Parliament.

You can take a free Parliament tour (advance tickets required), and I never miss taking the elevator to the top of the Peace Tower, which rises like a needle in front of Centre Block.

Fairmont Chateau Laurier hotel.
Fairmont Chateau Laurier hotel. (Ottawa Tourism / Ottawa Tourism)

During my March visit, I slipped into the nearby Château Laurier, a 1912 hotel that thinks it’s a castle. I prowled the gray-and-black marble floors of the lobby and art-lined corridors, seeking the Tiffany leaded-glass windows and black-and-white portraits by photographer Yousuf Karsh, including a classic 1941 image of Winston Churchill, still scowling after Karsh snatched a cigar from his mouth.

I also got my first look at the new Riviera restaurant, a short walk from Parliament on Sparks Street, a bleak, long-struggling pedestrian mall that is slowly getting its mojo back.

The Riviera, housed in a former Art Deco bank with 50-foot-ceilings, brass fixtures and a wine cellar in the vault, is a stylish open-kitchen venue for popular Chef Jordan Holley’s locally sourced contemporary dishes.

The next day, I strolled tree-lined, pedestrian-friendly Bank Street in the Glebe neighborhood south of downtown.

The area has a turn-of-the-last-century village-life feel, which enhanced the experience of poking through locally owned shops such as the Papery and the funky imports at Bridgehead, checking out espresso cafes, including Il Negozio Nicastro, and stopping for a beer at Pints and Quarts.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BQjCivgBaSI/?taken-by=bridgeheadcoffee

It was also a treat to explore the blocks of newly hip Wellington West, an area west of downtown that is morphing into a busy and free-spirited avenue of independently run businesses.

There’s a lively cafe and foodie scene, where visitors might indulge in Scotch eggs and a ploughman’s plate at cozy Hintonburg Public House gastro-pub, cappuccino at the Ministry of Coffee and Social Affairs, and beer tastings at Tooth & Nail.

Late on the afternoon of my last day, I went to the Holtz Spa downtown, on Rideau Street, for a uniquely Canadian experience: a maple luscious body scrub and wrap treatment. After a maple-sugar exfoliation, I was covered with maple/shea butter and left to rest on a cocoon-like bed, giddy at the thought of smelling like a melted maple cookie.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BSpEGR0gI1j/?taken-by=andazottawa

I finished my day with a visit to the nearby Andaz Hotel's Copper Spirits + Sights, Ottawa's first rooftop lounge. The lights were low, all the better to admire the views of the twinkling city below while sipping a craft cocktail and experiencing Ottawa, elevated.

Canada's birthday celebration

Events celebrating Canada’s 150th anniversary will be held in Ottawa throughout 2017. (You can keep track of the festivities with a free Ottawa 2017 app or check out Ottawa 2017, www.ottawa2017.ca. Here's a sampling of anniversary events:

Canadian Tulip Festival

What: Summer officially launches this month with 1 million tulips in bloom during the May 12-22 Canadian Tulip Festival.

Where: 100 flower beds across Ottawa

Info: Canadian Tulip Festival

Cycling along the Rideau Canal during the Canadian Tulip Festival.
Cycling along the Rideau Canal during the Canadian Tulip Festival. (Ottawa Tourism)

La Machine

What: A three-story mechanical fire-breathing dragon and a giant snow-venom-shooting spider will strut through Ottawa’s streets 24 hours a day July 27-30. It’s the first time that France’s remarkable La Machine ambulatory urban theater will appear in North America.

Where: Downtown Ottawa

Info: La Machine

Inspiration Village

What: York Street in ByWard Market will be transformed into an "Inspiration Village" with 30 to 40 huge commercial shipping containers that have been converted into an artistic installation — venues for working artists, dancers, fashion designers and creative Canadians from every province and territory. May 20 through Sept. 4.

Where: ByWard Market

Info: Inspiration Village

Ottawa Welcomes the World

What: More than 75 embassies, high commissions and international partners will show off their country’s cultural flair, culture and cuisine in a series of events held in the heritage buildings at Landsdowne Park, through December.

Where: Landsdowne Park

Info: Ottawa Welcomes the World

Kontinuum

What: Kontinuum, orchestrated by Montreal’s creative Moment Factory, is a futuristic multimedia experience projected inside one of Ottawa’s new Light Rail Transit stations. It's free, but tickets must be picked up in advance. From the end of June through September.

Where: Underground, Lyon Station

Info: Kontinuuum

Agri 150

What: Twenty one-day outdoor events will introduce visitors to Canadian experiences, including a gourmet dinner in a tomato greenhouse and a Bootleg Boat Cruise that includes a 12-course tasting menu of once-taboo and illegal foods and drinks, throughout 2017.

Where: Throughout the National Capital Region

Info: Agri 150

The National Gallery of Canada

What: "Our Masterpieces, Our Stories," an exhibition of about 1,000 works of art within the newly designed Canadian and Indigenous Galleries, will open June 15 at the National Gallery of Canada.

Where: Ottawa

Info:Our Masterpieces, Our Stories,”

Canadian Museum of History

What: The Canadian Museum of History has organized a comprehensive exhibition on Canadian history that opens July 1.

Where: Gatineau

Info: Canadian Museum of History exhibit

MosaïCanada

What: Canada’s huge horticultural event will feature more than half a mile of plant “sculptures” and “paintings” that were inspired by the country's 150th anniversary celebrations. Free admission. June 30 to Oct. 15.

Where: Gatineau

Info: MosaïCanada

If You Go

THE BEST WAY TO OTTAWA, CANADA

From LAX, connecting service (change of planes) is offered on Delta, United, Air Canada and WestJet. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $387, including all taxes and fees.

WHERE TO STAY

Andaz Ottawa ByWard Market: 325 Dalhousie St., Ottawa; (613) 321-1234. Central and chic new boutique-style hotel alongside ByWard Market with great views from the 16th floor Copper Spirits + Sights specializing in cocktails with Canadian ingredients. Doubles from $240 a night.

Fairmont Château Laurier, 1 Rideau St.; (866) 540-4410. One of Canada’s century-old grand railway hotels with turrets, Tiffany windows and ballrooms. Overlooking the Parliament buildings. Doubles from $512.

ALT Ottawa, 185 Slater St., Ottawa; (844)-258-6882. New minimalist chic accommodations at affordable rates in the downtown business district near Parliament Hill. Rooms have a stylish industrial feel with high ceilings. Bonus: Book online and there is no check out time. Doubles from $146.

WHERE TO EAT

Riviera, 62 Sparks St., Ottawa; (613) 233-6262. A dose of urban chic just off Parliament Hill, Riviera opened in 2016 in a 1920s Art Deco bank building. Inside, a small, changing menu is served under 50-foot ceilings with brass fixtures and a 70-foot-long bar. Dinner for two from $85.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BSRyvHjjWn5/?taken-by=dineriviera

Feast + revel, 325 Dalhousie St., Ottawa; (613) 321-1234. The popular in-house restaurant at the Andaz Ottawa Hotel specializes in New Canadian cuisine and emphasizes local, organic, hormone-free and sustainable food. Dinner for two from $80.

Hintonburg Public House, 1020 Wellington St. W.; (613) 421-5087.

This restaurant offers creative and hip renditions of traditional pub fare and comfort food in a cozy atmosphere popular with locals. Lunch for two from $30.

MORE TO DO IN OTTAWA

Parliamentary Library, Ottawa.
Parliamentary Library, Ottawa. (Margo Pfeiff)

Parliament Tour, 111 Wellington St., Ottawa; (613) 992-4793 or (866) 599-4999 toll free. Guided tours inside the Canadian Parliament, the Peace Tower and Memorial Chamber are free, but tickets must be obtained in advance across Wellington Street for that day’s tours.

Holtz Spa, 135 Rideau St., Ottawa; (613) 241-7770. Eighty-minute Maple Luscious Body Scrub and Wrap $150.

Moscow Tea Room, 527 Sussex Drive, Ottawa; (613) 627-2335.

TO LEARN MORE

Ottawa Tourism | Ontario Tourism | Destination Canada

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