Canada’s charismatic prime minister is shining new light on the United States’ northern neighbor, but it’s worth visiting Ottawa, the country’s capital, even if you don’t catch a glimpse of Justin Trudeau. Like Washington, D.C., Ottawa has fantastic national museums that you could spend hours discovering, but the city’s increasingly diverse restaurants and growing craft beer scene are worth checking out, too.
Start your Ottawa stay by booking a room at the stately Fairmont Château Laurier or the thoroughly modern Andaz Ottawa ByWard Market, then set off exploring. And who knows? If you’re lucky, you might even cross paths with the country’s photogenic leader somewhere along the way.
Any trip to Ottawa should begin on Parliament Hill, the complex of ornate copper-roofed buildings above the Ottawa River that houses the legislative headquarters of Canada’s national government. Book a guided tour (it’s free, but tickets are required) or wander the grounds and listen to the 53 bells of the carillon chime during late-morning or noon concerts.
If you’re visiting in the summer, watch the changing of the guard ceremony that marches across the Parliament lawn each morning. Dressed in ceremonial red coats and high fur hats (they look like the sentries at London’s Buckingham Palace), the guards drill in precise formation, with a military band providing musical accompaniment.
When you’ve had your fill of governmental pomp, take a walk along the Rideau Canal. Opened in 1832 and now lined with scenic strolling and cycling paths, it’s the oldest continuously operating canal in North America. In winter, the frozen waters transform into the world’s largest skating rink.
When you finish there, head east from the canal and wander into the ByWard Market district for an early lunch at Play Food and Wine. The creative, even playful, menu matches small plates — like fried quail with blue cheese dressing or gnocchi with scapes, spinach and olives — with lunch-size wine pairings.
After your meal, play tourist and snap a selfie in front of the bright red-and-white “Ottawa” sign, then browse the shops along Sussex Drive, where Trustfund sells of-the-moment styles for men and women. You can find shoes to match your new outfit at Schad.
Amble (or ride a cab) over the Alexandra Bridge, crossing to Gatineau on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River. After you enjoy the views of Parliament Hill and the city skyline, your next destination is the curvaceous stone building housing the Canadian Museum of History. You could easily while away a couple of hours taking in the multimedia exhibits that illuminate the country’s past in engaging and thought-provoking ways, including listening to stories from Canada’s diverse indigenous peoples; exploring the complicated relationship between the country’s British and French settlers; or learning more about the much-discussed Canadian national health care system.
You’ve been on your feet all day, so while in Gatineau, catch a taxi for some relaxation at North America’s largest Nordic-style spa. At Nordik Spa-Nature, you alternate between hot and cold treatments, moving among seven pools of varying temperatures outdoors beneath the trees. Booking a massage is optional, but highly recommended.
Try to time your return to the city for sunset drinks at Copper Spirits and Sights, the rooftop bar at the Andaz Ottawa. This 16th-floor perch has great views across the city to Parliament Hill and the river.
For dinner, book a table at Riviera, a trendy eatery in a grand, high-ceilinged space that once housed a bank that’s just a 13-minute walk from the Andaz. Start with something from the raw bar — perhaps tuna crudo with puffed quinoa or venison tartare — paired with a negroni or other specialty cocktail. Consider sharing dishes like wild mushrooms on toast topped with a quivering egg and shaved truffles, or dig right into a hearty bouillabaisse or steak frites.
Peruse the long list of postprandial digestifs and herbal spirits, if you’re not quite ready to call it a night.
Begin your day at the Canadian War Museum. The well-designed exhibits not only trace the country’s militaristic history, but also put a human face on periods of fighting, illustrating societal issues of the times.
Outside the museum, walk through the sobering National Holocaust Monument, which was completed in 2017. Designed by Poland-born, New York-based architect Daniel Libeskind, this angular stone structure features hauntingly beautiful images by Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky.
After this somber start, elevate your mood with lunch at popular bakery-café Art Is In. Hidden in an industrial park, it’s a little hard to find, but the creative sandwiches served on fresh-baked bread draw regular crowds. Save room for sweets, like dark chocolate cookies or elaborately erected “kronuts.”
Craft brewery Beyond the Pale is conveniently next door for pre- or post-lunch tastings.
In the afternoon, drop by another of Ottawa’s museum highlights: the National Gallery of Canada. Architect Moshe Safdie designed this glass building, which may be even better known for the 30-foot-tall bronze spider sculpted by artist Louise Bourgeois on the plaza out front. Inside, the museum houses one of the country’s largest collections of paintings, drawings and other visual arts. Don’t miss the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries — recently redesigned in 2017 — for a walk through 5,000 years of regional art.
After a long day of sightseeing, return to your hotel for a brief rest. You’ll want to have an early dinner before taking in an evening theater, dance or musical performance at the National Arts Centre.
For a pre-theater meal, opt for a selection of mezze at the modern Middle Eastern Fairouz (try the excellent cured salmon pastourma — akin to jerky — or the nutty cashew-pomegranate dip, muhammara).
If you’re in the mood for something quick and casual, graze on spicy cauliflower “wings” or a veggie-filled “Warrior Bowl” at the vegetarian Pure Kitchen.
After the show, stop for a nightcap at Zoe’s, the lounge at Fairmont Château Laurier. Who knows whom you might see as you toast to your two perfect days in Canada’s capital?