I recently traveled to Ottawa, our nation’s capitol, for a few days, and wanted to share some travel tips with fellow voyagers traveling on a budget.
How to Get There
If you have a car, drive. But if you don’t, plan ahead, and get a discounted ticket from VIA Rail. It cost me a little over $100 in economy class to go from London to Ottawa each way, which I’ve been told is about the same cost as a Greyhound bus ticket. Beware connections though: VIA trains are notoriously behind schedule, so it’s best if you have at least a 45 minute window to make a connection.
Where to Stay
You can do the regular internet thing and try websites like hotels.com or tripadvisor.com to get a regular hotel room. But I’d advise hunting down either a bed-and-breakfast (for $100 or less), or using the summer residence “hotels” at either the University of Ottawa (you can bus or walk downtown from there) or Saint Paul University (where I stayed). U of O has “prison cell” rooms for at low as $40 a night, with no private bath or much more than a bed. They also have larger rooms for $80-90 a night. But I opted for Saint Paul, which is more out of the way, though had a room sale for $80 a night for a full suite consisting of two bedrooms, a central kitchenette with a fridge, and a bathroom and shower. The AC was a bit tricky to work, but once it was going, the room went from blistering hot to sub-arctic conditions.
Saint Paul isn’t as convenient as other locations. It’s really too far away to walk downtown. But right in front of it is the terminus of the #16 OC Transpo bus, which will take you right downtown to either the Mackenzie-King stop (where half the buses in Ottawa go) or within a couple of blocks of the Parliament buildings. The #5 bus also heads up Main Street, where St. Paul is located. To get to the summer hotel residence, you have to go through the doors on the right side of the college, then head to the brown building on the right.
Note that in this year – 2016 – it seems like the entire city of Ottawa is clogged up with construction. This is especially noticeable on the transit routes, since as far as I could tell, the transitways were all closed. These are bus-only routes that provide quick travel times to key points in the city via routes with numbers in the 90s. Note that the #92 and #96 buses go from the VIA station to the Mackenzie-Shopping Center.
What to See
I’ll refer to summer events, though the indoor things should also be available in winter too. Ottawa is full of museums. It’s also full of long walking and bike paths. From Saint Paul U you can walk or bike along the east side of Rideau Canal all the way to Parliament. This path is a bit dull after a mile or so, since the canal is dark and seaweed-infested, but it might be more charming in the winter. Warning: Ottawa can get VERY hot in the summer – when I visited in August, it was 30C feeling like 38C for a couple of days.
A can’t miss, in my book, is the War Museum. In a brand new building on the north-west edge of central Ottawa, it’s not as easy to get to as some of the other museums, though if you consult the “travel planner” on the OC Transpo website, you can work out a reasonable route. It costs $15 for an adult ticket, and can fill up most of your day, closing weekdays at 6PM. Don’t miss the LeBreton Gallery at the end of the historically-themed exhibits: it’s full of tanks, guns, and other vehicles, mainly from the World Wars. If it’s a nice day, you can exit the back of the War Museum and walk along the Ottawa River path to the Parliament Building, which takes about 25 minutes if you’re fast.
Second, I would recommend the Parliamentary light show, which starts at 9:30 in the summer, and last about a half hour. It’s free. You can also go across the street from Parliament to the tourist office and pick up tickets for a tour of Parliament, either outside or inside (though the inside tours get snapped up quick). They’re free too, though there was construction going on in summer 2016 that prevented access to all the grounds.
Third, I would recommend the Canadian Museum of Nature, on McLeod and Metcalfe in the south-east corner of downtown, walkable from Saint Paul. It’s a Victorian mansion with four floors of exhibits, including this summer a special dinosaur exhibit (which cost $10 more). This museum is free Thursday nights 5-8, as are some of the other “lesser” museums.
Fourth, though I didn’t visit it this time, there’s the National Gallery, in the north-east corner of downtown, just north of the Byward Market (a nice place to have a meal). It’s worth seeing if you like fine art, and has a good collection of Canadian art. Another museum I’d recommend, though like the National Gallery I skipped it this time, is the Aviation and Space Museum at Rockliffe Airport. This is way to the east of downtown, and is directly accessed by bus only twice per day, so you really need to drive or cab there. It has a great collection of vintage aircraft.
Lastly, over on the Quebec side of the river is the Museum of History, which is worth visiting, and like the Nature museum, free Thursday nights. There is a foot bridge you can walk across, which apparently takes about 25 minutes from the Ottawa side.
As far as victuals go, there is the usual assortments of chain restaurants and cafes downtown as you move from Wellington Street (Parliament) up to the Sparks Street Mall (no cars!) and Albert and Slater Streets (east-west streets on which the buses run). For greater variety, head east over the canal to the Byward Market, which has a few dozen small eateries with a variety of cuisines. There’s also a number of bars with outdoor patios within two blocks.
Lastly but not least, Ottawa actually has four beaches, the largest (according to the city’s web site) being Britannia Bay, a large bay west of the city, at the end of the #16 bus route. It’s a long bus ride, though you can cut your time down by using an express route before getting on the #16. The beach itself is roped off, with a lifeguard. Beside it is a medium-sized building with change rooms, some sort of community center, and a beachfront restaurant with burgers and other snacks that are reasonable and tasty. The water was pretty clear the day I went, and there are benches and picnic tables scattered around a small park. Worth a visit.