Ottawa: another side of Ontario

Most tourists tend to rush past Ottawa when in the Canadian province of Ontario. More fool them, for Canada’s capital is an enchanting city that rewards a stop off.

If you’re short on time, head straight to Parliament Hill to capture the postcard perfect Parliament on camera. This complex of copper topped towers is truly stunning - and where Canada’s politicians make the all important decisions. Visitors can see the Senate and the Commons while they’re in session - admission is on a first come, first served basis. If you’re there in summer, check out the colourful changing of the guard on the front lawns, daily at 10am.

Parliament aside, Ottawa’s big draw is its array of first class museums - most of which are within easy walking distance of each other. Must see museums include the Canadian Museum of Civilization - documenting the history of Canada through a spectacular range of exhibits - the National Gallery of Canada (Canada’s largest art gallery), the Canadian Museum of Nature and the Canada Science & Technology Museum. However new museums are opening all the time, so do ask the staff at your hotel/hostel for the low-down on the latest openings. If you’re mad about museums, it’s worth buying a Culture Passport ($30 for an adult and $75 for a family) which entitles you to discounted entry into Ottawa’s best nine museums.

Musuem-ed out? Take a spin - in winter - on the Rideau Canal. It’s the largest ice skating rink in the world at around the size of 90 Olympic sized hockey rinks. The 175 year old, 200km long canal connects Kingston with Ottawa and became Canada’s 14th location to be named a UNESCO national historic site back in June 2007.

On the food front, Ottawa has an impressive array of restaurants, cafes and bars for such a small city. I’m a big fan of Byward Market - a gourmet district where you’ll find scores of vendors selling fresh farm produce and local specialties such as as Beavertails (sizzling slabs of fried dough) and Boulangerie Moulin de Provence’s Obama Cookies (so called because Barack Obama once popped in for a sugar hit). Byward Market is also a good spot to pick up some kitschy gifts, cool threads and even antiques.

Other Ottawa suggestions include catching a Senators hockey game at ScotiaBank Place: Ontario, more than any other province, is hockey obsessed.

Tempted to add Ottawa to your Ontario itinerary? Now all you need is somewhere to sleep. I spent my night in Ottawa in jail but panic not: I didn’t fall foul of ‘The Mounties’. Rather the hostel where I chose to lay my head (Hostelling International Ottawa Jail) was once a Carleton County Jail used to house petty offenders, mental patients and those on death row.

Guests can sleep in dorms in the old wrought iron cellblock, the prison hospital or even the governor’s quarters. The quirky hostel also offers a Crime and Punishment Walking Tour which takes in the closed off eight floor of the stone penitentiary, believed to be the most haunted building in town, and gives you the low-down on what life was like for the prisoners.