About this series: With COVID-19 restrictions expected to ease over the next few months, Wheels wants to inspire you to get ready to explore – but only when it is safe to do so. This series of daytrips and weekend drives highlight great experiences you can have in the province once conditions allow, and why Ontario is “Ours to Discover” this summer and beyond.
In Ottawa, a small capital of around 1.3 million residents, you can revel in Canadiana and visit the country’s Parliament and seat of government. But why not also check out the spots that locals favour, including seeing the city from its waterways and visiting the diverse neighbourhoods that make this place so friendly and accessible?
In the morning: Leave Toronto, driving east on Hwy 401, and, depending on traffic, you’ll reach Ottawa in under five hours. Make a stop to stretch your legs in historic Kingston with a walk along its waterfront. If you’re feeling hungry, stroll down Princess Street, the main retail strip, for brunch at a quaint cafe.
Continue driving along Hwy 401 or opt for a more scenic route by taking the Thousand Islands Parkway. You’ll follow the shoreline of the St. Lawrence River and enjoy gorgeous views of the islands that dot the waterway. Rejoin Hwy 401 and continue east, taking Hwy 416 north to Ottawa.
In the afternoon: Once you arrive, it’s time to navigate the city’s waterways, including the Ottawa River and Rideau Canal that were historically important for trading and supply chains. Start at the Bytown Museum at the Ottawa Locks to learn more about the role these waterways played.
In warm weather, you can kayak, boat or take a stand-up paddle board out on the waters (there are several outfitters in the city). In winter, the Rideau Canal, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, famously becomes the Rideau Canal Skateway, the world’s largest skating rink. You can stay dry instead by walking or cycling along the Rideau Canal Pathways that run along both sides of the canal. Visit RentABike, located under the Plaza Bridge opposite the castle-like grandeur that is The Fairmont Château Laurier hotel, to find your perfect ride.
Later, when you head to your hotel, stop at the ByWard market to sample an Ottawa delicacy, BeaverTails. Now available as far away as Japan and the United Arab Emirates, this tasty pastry piled high with sweet toppings was invented in Ottawa.
IN THE EVENING: It’s time to check into your hotel. Choose the chic and modern Le Germain Hotel Ottawa on Daly Avenue or, for a unique experience, spend the night at the HI Ottawa Jail Hostel – if you dare. This 150-year-old former penitentiary is reportedly haunted, as you may find out if you stay in one of its authentic jail cells.
Once you’re settled in, take an evening stroll around the ByWard Market, snap a selfie at the colourful oversized lettered “Ottawa” sign on York Street and stop at the retro-inspired Atari bar on Dalhousie Street for pre-dinner nibbles and cocktails. Its drink menu features creations inspired by classic video games, including the Kirby that is made with Tanqueray gin, Cointreau, raspberry, lemon, honey and marshmallow.
Walk to Datsun on Elgin Street for pork belly bao and dumplings and on the way back look at the Parliament buildings illuminated at night. The ByWard Market is lively in the evenings with lots of clubs, bars and restaurants to choose from if you’re not quite ready to head back to your hotel yet.
In the morning: Start your second day in Ottawa by getting better acquainted with the unique neighbourhoods where locals shop, dine and spend their weekends. Head to the Glebe, located between the Queensway and Queen Elizabeth Drive, for a breakfast sandwich at the Wild Oat bakery. Many of its organic ingredients come from its two-acre farm just outside the city. Wander along Bank Street browsing independent boutiques, rare book shops and collectible stores. Keep your eyes peeled for the many murals that line these streets and that poke out mischievously from alleyways.
Further along Bank Street, you’ll find Lansdowne, a multi-use entertainment attraction that is home to Aberdeen Pavilion, the last surviving Victorian exhibition hall in Canada, as well as children’s playgrounds, a movie theatre, restaurants, bars, the weekly Ottawa Farmers Market and more. Line up at a food truck or stall and take your lunch to a picnic table and watch the world go by.
In the early afternoon: Visit another one of Ottawa’s diverse neighbourhoods, Westboro Village, along Richmond Road. There are plenty of shops to explore so pick up a little souvenir of your weekend away, like an Ottawa-shaped necklace at Magpie. Order a drink at the rooftop terrace of The Barley Mow pub where you can people watch from above and plan your next move.
Then take a sandy stroll along Westboro Beach on the Ottawa River or head to the Maplelawn House and Garden Estate, a National Historic Site that dates to 1831. Visit the peaceful walled garden, which is a beautiful oasis to sit awhile, especially if you first pick up a sweet treat from The Cupcake Lounge to enjoy.
In late afternoon: It’s time to start your journey back to Toronto by heading south on Hwy 416 and then west on Hwy 401. If it’s still light enough, extend your weekend away without adding too much extra driving time by stopping at Peter’s Woods Provincial Nature Reserve. It will only take you 15 minutes driving along Hwy 23 north from Hwy 401 near Grafton. There you can explore Ontario’s only surviving old-growth forest and walk the park’s 800-metre trail, before heading home.
SIDEBAR: COVID-19 need to know
Ottawa is currently under the provincial reopening restriction and some businesses or attractions may be closed or operating at reduced capacity. Contact individual businesses for details. For more information on local restrictions, consult Ottawa Public Health (ottawapublichealth.ca).
SIDEBAR: For the drive
Task your passenger with scrolling through Little Miss Ottawa’s Instagram feeds, one of the best local bloggers in the capital, and bookmark any special sights or selfie spots you want to visit in the city. Cue up a playlist full of Ottawa musical talents like Elijah Woods and Jamie Fine, Night Lovell and the eclectic, genre-blending tunes of Blakdenim.
TIMELINE SIDEBAR: Drive Guide
- 7 a.m. Leave Toronto
- Drive east on Hwy 401
- Exit Hwy 416 to Ottawa
- Side stop: Kingston for brunch
- 1 p.m. The Bytown Museum and Ottawa’s Waterways
- 4 p.m. BeaverTails
- 5 p.m. Le Germain Hotel Ottawa
- 6:30 p.m. Drinks at Atari
- 8:30 p.m. Dinner at Datsun
- 10 p.m. Explore the ByWard market nightlife
- 11 p.m. Return to the hotel
- 9:00 a.m. Wild Oat Bakery
- 10:30 a.m. Shopping in the Glebe
- 12 p.m. Lunch at Lansdowne
- 1:30 p.m. Westboro Village
- 3 p.m. Westboro Beach or Maplelawn estate
- 4.30 p.m. The Barley Mow
- 5 p.m. Drive back to Toronto
NOTE: Times are suggestions only