Canadian Staycation Inspiration: Must-See Stops, Stays, Eats and Experiences in Ottawa
This May marks the 70th anniversary of the annual Canadian Tulip Festival in Ottawa. Photo: Courtesy of Ottawa Tourism
Perhaps more than any other Canadian city already grappling with tourism challenges because of the pandemic, Ottawa needs our love. For three weeks in January and February, it was unhappily home to an occupation by “Freedom Convoy” protesters. Life near Parliament Hill ground to a halt and shops, businesses and workplaces were forced to close to keep people safe.
But that’s over and there’s much to celebrate in the city known for having seven of Canada’s nine national museums, including the National Gallery of Canada, the Canadian Museum of History and the Canadian War Museum.
A new Indigenous agritourism offering called Mādahòkì Farm (“share the land”) is a sanctuary for Ojibwe spirit horses, which lived here long before colonization and the arrival of Spanish horses. A Legacy Trail showcases plants and medicines, while a marketplace sells the work of 40-plus Indigenous craft, art and food vendors. Four annual festivals will celebrate the seasons and the next one — the Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival — runs June 21 to 26.
Red Bird, a new music venue, opened Feb. 22. It’s the brainchild of musician Geoff Cass and offers lessons, classes and live music. Bluegrass Mondays are already a hit, as are open-stage Tuesdays, coffee-house Sundays and sporadic concerts. “We’ve already had some really great moments,” says Cass, adding that shows end by 11:30 p.m. because “we’re a music space that has a bar, not a bar that has music.”
Not far away on Bank Street is Moo Shu Ice Cream & Kitchen, where owner Liz Mok concocts local and Asian-inspired flavours like Hong Kong milk tea and white rabbit (a riff on the famous Chinese candy). Mok has also recently become a certified Living Wage employer and launched a scoop bank that lets customers claim a free scoop or pay scoops forward.
Moo Shu has been in business for six years, but Mok says “with the pandemic it feels like we’re a new business.” The shop is in a “nice little foodie neighbourhood” near City Goose, Pizza Nerds, Three Tarts Bakery and the Arlington Five coffee house.
On the shopping front, check out Maker House Co. in Hintonburg, Mickle Macks Haberdashery (for hats curated by Gina Csiffary) on Bank Street and Afrotechture in the ByWard Market Building created by sisters Resa Solomon St. Lewis and Tracey Solomon to showcase Black artisans.
Also worth a visit is First Bite Treats in ByWard Market where Elias Ali and his friend Abdallah Jama have been making “croffles” — waffles made from a croissant dough — since last summer. Try the Biscoff Croffle, featuring a Lotus Biscoff cookie (the kind that some airlines hand out) on a bed of whipped cream with caramel drizzle and cookie crumbles.
“Who doesn’t love Biscoff?” asks Ali. “It’s also unique because you don’t find anybody in Ottawa with it.”
Also on the unique front, Dao Café on Merivale Road specializes in Euro-Asian treats like Korean macarons, Japanese fruit sandwiches called “sandos” and a fun creamy-garlicky concoction called the Evil Garlic Bun.
The new Starling restaurant shares space in a three-storey ByWard Market heritage building — that dates back to 1875 — with siblings Apothecary (a cocktail lounge) and YOW (York on William) with global street food (and the chefs have also shared their recipe for a comfort food favourite, French Onion Dip, below). I’m looking forward to cocktails on the patio at the Tavern at the Gallery in the National Gallery’s hidden outdoor courtyard, but until it opens for the season a favourite dinner spot is Riviera, which offers “creative Canadian” cuisine in an art deco-inspired space on Sparks Street that started out as a bank.
Speaking of art deco, the Fairmont Château Laurier’s art deco-era pool was Canada’s largest hotel pool when it opened in 1930 and its original brass heat lamps still work. On your way in for a swim, don’t miss the archival photos that detail early incarnations of health-club equipment, like the electric cabinet bath and infrared treatment.
You can never beat the location of the landmark Château Laurier, steps from Parliament Hill, ByWard Market, the National Gallery and the CF Rideau Centre (which boasts everyone’s favourite Quebec retailer Simons). The Fairmont Gold “hotel-within-a-hotel” experience on the fourth floor — where I stayed on my most recent trip — has its own reception and lounge with complimentary breakfast and evening canapés alongside an honour bar.
With an eye to my next trip for the 70th annual Canadian Tulip Festival in May, I toured reStays, a downtown luxury property “in between a traditional hotel and an Airbnb” that’s inside a condo building with a 24/7 concierge and other amenities, like fitness and games rooms, plus a private theatre you can rent. The locally owned and operated boutique hotel launched in September 2021 and suites (there are 111, with 42 different layouts) have full kitchens and laundry.
Semi-hidden in the nook of the building is a two-level courtyard that’s fast becoming the darling of the Instagram crowd, who love the elegant stairwell that lights up at night and the perfectly distressed brick wall.
I’m still working up the courage to try Interzip Rogers, the world’s first interprovincial zipline that goes over the Ottawa River between Ottawa and Gatineau. The attraction finally opened last June after a lengthy, pandemic-related delay. But I’ve got time: it was closed for winter, but is slated to reopen May 7.
Try It at Home: Starling French Onion Dip
Starling restaurant is named for a noisy, social bird that often gathers in large flocks. “They signify the importance of communication, family and community,” the restaurant explains, “and of learning how to co-exist in harmony with the people around us.” This homemade version of a beloved retro dip is the ultimate communal appetizer.
Makes about 1-1/2 cups.
1 kg onions, thinly sliced
3 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
4 tsp malt vinegar
3 tbsp dehydrated minced onion
160 g cream cheese
75 g sour cream
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
Potato or waffle chips, for serving
1. In a medium pot, combine sliced onions and butter. To know if you have the right size pot, the onions should mostly fill the pot, maybe 3/4 full.
2. Add a pinch of salt and turn the heat on to medium.
3. Cook, stirring frequently so the onions don’t burn, until they have reduced down significantly in volume and are translucent. Reduce heat to medium low and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until the onions start to take on an amber colour. Reduce heat again down to low and continue cooking, stirring occasionally, until onions become a dark brown and have well caramelized. The process could take 45 minutes or more.
4. Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.
5. While onions cool, in a small bowl, combine dehydrated onions, Worcestershire sauce and malt vinegar. If dehydrated onions aren’t completely covered with liquid, top up with water until they are just submerged. Leave to hydrate for about 20 minutes.
6. When caramelized onions have cooled, reserve about 2 tbsp.
7. Purée the remaining onions in a food processor. Add dehydrated onion mixture, cream cheese, sour cream, Parmigiano-Reggiano and black pepper. Purée until relatively smooth. A bit of texture remaining from the onions and dehydrated onions is fine. Season to taste with salt if desired.
8. Transfer to a serving bowl. Stir in reserved 2 tbsp caramelized onions. Serve immediately with waffle or potato chips, or refrigerate until ready to eat.