I have been prioritizing obscure flight route out of New York. Porter, a Canadian airline, recently started flying from Newark to Ottawa, the capital of Canada. This added competition brought fares down 60%.
When visiting a city, I try to visit when their sports team is playing. Ottawa has just one Big 4 professional team, the Ottawa Senators NHL hockey team. So, I picked the first weekend in April as it was the final Saturday game of the season, thus giving me the best chance of not completely freezing weather. It just so happened that Ottawa was playing the Toronto Maple Leafs, so I invited my business school friend/Toronto fan Erik to drive over for the game.
March 31, 2023: A Wintry Welcome
The flight from Newark to Ottawa took just 70 minutes on the turboprop plane. When landing, I could see that the ground was completely white, a huge shift from New York which was warm and nearing spring.
I landed around 20:30, giving me 90 minutes to check in to the hostel before the reception closed at 22:00. After clearing immigration, I discovered that I could take public transit to the hostel using a combination of a bus that runs every 30 minutes and a tram. I purchased my ticket inside the airport.
When I walked outside, I realized that I had just missed the bus and had to wait 30 minutes. 45 minutes later, there was still not bus and I started to worry that I would not make it to the hostel on time. So, I called an Uber and, obviously, the bus showed up at the same time as my Uber. I made it to the hostel with just 3 minutes to spare.
The hostel was full of travelers glued to their phones. I chatted up a group of French tourists who were upset that I said “of course” when they mentioned they were traveling around Quebec. Another Canadian said it was very American that I said the city I was from (New York) instead of the country (USA). Despite the weird interactions, I still liked the hostel.
Since I had not eaten dinner (Newark´s Terminal B is abysmal), I headed over to Zak´s Diner for a souvlaki wrap. Prices listed appeared to be the same as in New York except the Canadian dollar is worth 35% less than the American dollar, making this a reasonably priced meal. The diner is in the main bar district where people were walking around in short sleeves! Canadians are another breed.
April 1, 2023: Ottawa´s Main Attractions
After waking up, I walked over to Ottawa´s top attraction, the Parliament of Canada. Parliament is made up of three main buildings: West Block, Centre Block and East Block. Centre Block is the most iconic and normally houses the two houses of Parliament: the Senate and House of Commons. However, Centre Block is amidst a 12-year renovation (yes 12 years). As a result, the houses have moved to temporary locations. The House of Commons is in West Block and the Senate is in a former train station.
Both houses can be toured but require separate free tickets. My first tour of the day was the House of Commons.
The House of Commons is the main wing of Parliament and functions very similarly to the British House of Commons. The Speaker functions as an impartial judge and moderator of the debates. Prime Minister is the leader of the majority party. The Prime Minister appoints ministers to run departments of the country. The current Prime Minister of Canada is Justin Trudeau.
One unique facet of Canada is its status as a bilingual state. English and French have equal standing and all official documents must be shown in both languages. This manifests itself through simultaneous translations of all debates and the presence of two copies of the laws of Canada. On the parliament floor In fact, it is possible for two members of parliament to debate each other in different languages.
The temporary House of Commons was built in the old courtyard of West Block, which was enclosed and filled in with a modern chamber. The courtyard was previously unused. While controversial when originally built, most everyone agrees that the temporary space is beautiful.
The Senate is located a few blocks away in the former central train station. When waiting in line for security, I met a group of First Nations (indigenous) people from the north of Quebec. The elders wanted a vacation and decided to road trip to Ottawa for the weekend. They did not seem to have much respect for or understanding of the government and its institutions – which is fair considering all the terrible things the Canadian government has done to them over the years.
The guide explained the mechanisms of the Senate (which functions just like the British House of Lords) but the people were not listening. However, anytime the words indigenous or first nations popped up, everybody would turn their heads and focus. Even though the group didn´t learn all that much, they seemed to be having a fun time!
Near the Parliament buildings are a few other notable places. The Rideau Canal is the only UNESCO World Heritage Site in Ontario. It goes from Ottawa to Kingston, Ontario on the St. Lawrence River. It is the oldest operating canal system in North America. However, it is best known for its winter incarnation when the canal freezes over and becomes an 8-kilomter-long ice skating street. Restaurants and shops set up along the canal and businessmen take the canal to work.
Across the street from the Senate and overlooking the Canal, the Fairmont Chateau Laurier was built by the Grand Trunk Railway as part of its chain across Canada. The Canadian Gothic style architecture of the hotel is iconic.
The ByWard Market is a century-old market and centerpiece of the ByWard district. Today it houses touristy shops and restaurants. The north end houses a bakery best known for the Obama cookie. When Barack Obama visited Ottawa on his first foreign trip (as all US presidents traditionally do), he stopped at this bakery and purchased an iced cookie in the shape of a maple leaf with CANADA written on it. This is now known as the “Obama Cookie”. Joe Biden happened to visit a few days before me, so the bakery made special cookies to commemorate that visit.
I then walked over to the National Gallery of Canada, the main art museum. The building is modern and has 2 large floors of art. The 1st floor contains mostly Canadian art. The most notable pieces were the “Death of General Wolfe”, which is actually by British-American artist Benjamin West, but counts as Canadian because it commemorates the Battle of Quebec, the final battle of the French and Indian War. Britain sneakily climbed a ridge and won the battle, thus removing the last bastion of French presence in Canada. However, the main British general died in the effort.
The centerpiece of the gallery is the Rideau Chapel, an 1888 chapel that was moved into the museum.
After 2 hours exploring, Erik arrived from Toronto. We ate lunch, checked into our hotel and walked around the ByWard district. One of Canada´s most popular treats that originates in Ottawa is a BeaverTail – essentially a fried strip of dough doused in sugar. The French word for beaver is Castor!
It was not time to head to the game. Ottawa´s hockey arena is inconveniently located 30 minutes from downtown in the middle of a sea of parking lots. Despite the wide-open location, parking was difficult, and the traffic was bad.
There appeared to be more Toronto fans than Ottawa fans.
The crowd was good, and the arena was full. I was very impressed by the announcer´s ability to speak in both English and French so quickly with ease. Toronto ended up winning by a landslide. To celebrate our victory, we went out to the bars in downtown.
April 2, 2023: Gatineau
We had time to visit one museum in the morning. Based on several recommendations, we headed to the Canadian History Museum, which is located across the river in Gatineau, Quebec.
As soon as we drove over the Ottawa River, everything changed. All the street signs were in French (without any English). And not just street signs, but also restaurant names. For example, instead of calling a Thai restaurant The Green Papaya, it would be required to be called Papaya du Verde. I believe this is by law to “protect the French language”.
The Canadian history museum gives a very extensive overview of the country´s history in 3 parts: Prehistory up to European discovery, colonial period, and independent Canada. The history of Canada is too long and complex for this blog, but my key takeaway was that Canada´s history is a foil to the US. Throughout their histories, the countries were presented with many of the same problems (e.g. independence from Britain, slavery, western expansion, relations with indigenous peoples, social programs). Canada chose differently and therefore has had different outcomes. Additionally, having Erik around tell personal anecdotes and highlight certain exhibits added so much more color to the trip.
Three stories stood out to me that I would like to share here.
First, during the US Civil War, the Confederacy staged a small invasion of Vermont from Canada. The US at first thought Canada was involved and almost invaded Canada. This made the provinces fear an invasion from the US. Therefore, when creating the country of Canada in 1867, they decided to have a stronger central government than in the US so that it could more easily respond to a potential American invasion.
Second, Canada did not become a country all at once. Rather the process was gradual. The first step was Confederation, when 3 British provinces of Canada (Ontario), Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick unified into a single federation known as the Dominion of Canada. While functionally independent, Britain could overrule Canadian laws. Canadians still had to fight for Britain, which happened during World War I. In 1931, Canada gained sovereignty from the UK, which made it an independent country in the eyes of the world. Still, the UK could amend Canada´s constitution.
It was only in 1965 that Canada had its own flag. Finally in 1982, more than 110 years after Confederation, Canada created its own constitution. Canada is still part of the Commonwealth, and the King of England is its head of state.
Third, Charles de Gaulle is known around the world for being the French leader during World War II and the namesake of the Paris airport. However, he has a different significance in Canada, where French speakers have always felt at odds with the English speakers and have long strove for autonomy and independence. This boiled to a head in the latter half of the 20th century.
In 1967, Charles de Gaulle visited Montreal for the World Expo. At the expo, he gave a passionate speech that was supposed to end with the words “Vive le Quebec (Long live Quebec)¨. However, he instead said “Vive le Quebec libre! (long live a free Quebec)”. This caused a huge diplomatic raucous in Canada as he was advocating for a secessionist movement as a visiting foreign head of state! Still to this day, he is considered a hero of the Quebecois and a hated figure by English speaking Canadians who felt betrayed for helping liberate his country during World War II and D Day.
With that, it was time to head back to airport and to New York.
Ottawa is a perfect weekend trip. The highlight is the museums – especially the history museum, but the city has enough else to offer as well. Ottawa was surprisingly small with just over 1 million in the metro area and is easy to navigate.
The hockey game was also fun. The fans are not only loud but are also quite knowledgeable of the game since everybody plays, a unique distinction from the US fan bases. It is clear that hockey is the religion of Canada.
Because most of the main activities are indoors, I think Ottawa can be visited all-year. Certainly, the summer is the most pleasant time to visit and skating on the canal in January also sounds fun but go when you can.