Ottawa is one of the seventh coldest capital cities in the world, and if that doesn’t make you want to come, then just wait. It is also home to the largest skating rink in the world, along with having more festivals then any other city in North America. Despite all these accolades, Ottawa does not attract the tourism attention that it perhaps deserves, which for a purist like myself, was exhilarating.
The first impression you get upon arriving is how beautiful it is, full of competing gothic and modern architecture, a sweeping green river that bisects its center, with world class restaurants, nightlife and cultural institutions around every bend. It’s cosmopolitan atmosphere blends seamlessly with its authentic frontier history creating a characteristic city that can satisfy even the most worldly traveler who demands nothing less then the best.
Which made me wonder why I was staying the night at an 18-century jail.
And, as an added bonus, I decided to take my pop along on this particular trip, and I think he was a little more surprised then me…
Among the many queer attributes of this Canadian capital is the Carleton County Jail Hostel located adjacent the city center. This 200-year-old stone fortress house some of Canada’s most ill reputed criminals until it was shut down in the 70’s for inhumane conditions. Now you can sleep in it! Ah the life of a travel writer.
Frankly the experience is mind-blowing; the jail is mostly exactly how they left it, with the exceptions to the beds, which have been updated for comfort we are happy to report. You sleep in cells, with iron bars, and are given sheets and a towel much like being in prison. Unlike being in prison is the lively bar downstairs, free Internet, and of course the ability to leave anytime you like. The hostel offers tours of the more interesting facets of the jail, like solitary confinement, original prison equipment, and the piece du resistance, the hanging chamber, still equipped with a noose. The jail is also most certainly haunted, which they have a whole separate tour dedicated for brave souls that wish to know more about their ghostly roommates.
Venturing out of your cell you will find a lively city waiting for you that is easily navigated on foot. You are footsteps from Parliament Hill, an outstanding neo-gothic building that overlooks the Ottawa River. In the morning you can catch the classic changing of the guard, a regal echo from its empire history, getting so close you constantly feel like you might be in the way. As a side note Canada might have the cutest military on the planet.
Continuing north to visit the Fairmont Hotel, one of a dozen grand hotels built by the railroad as an incentive for tourists to travel within Canada. Today the hotel is the crown jewel of the city with its interiors dripping in brass and exquisite woodwork from the turn of the century. It’s no jail, but it’s definitely not a bad place to stay.
Further north you will find yourself in Byward Market (which carries its nomenclature from the original name of the city) where you will find some of the most characteristic shops, pubs, and bakeries in the city. You could pop into Le Moulin de Provence bakery to try one of their famous Obama Cookies, or perhaps grab a Beavertail on the street, which is advice that in any other city that would get you arrested, but here will land you a delicious warm pastry.
I had a full day of walking ahead of me so I opted for an early lunch at Sidedoor, one of Ottawa’s modern culinary marvels. Tucked into a crooked little alley, Sidedoor’s greenhouse-like dining atrium is a beautiful place to nosh on some creative cuisine. Being a New Yorker who lives in Los Angeles I am obviously an expert on tacos, so believe me when I say that the Bajan Crispy Fish tacos are worth the trip to Ottawa alone. The grilled striploin and chef’s daily selection of dim sum rounded out the meal, which was almost too pretty to eat. Almost.
Belly filled with innovative delights, I headed North-West toward the impressive Notre-Dame Cathedral. Perhaps not as well known as her French Sister, this formidable church is worth a peek, with it’s gilded ceilings and flying buttresses. Across the street is the largest spider you will hopefully ever see which guards/greets the entrance to the National Gallery of Canada. This modern museum of glass and steel houses some amazing works of art, in a setting that couldn’t be more beautiful along the riverbank. Let the muse of art seduce you for a few hours before heading out to cross the great Alexandra Bridge.
The Bridge offers views of the city that you cannot get anywhere else and definitely puts the panoramic feature on your phone to good use. In 15 minutes you will find yourself on the west bank and in a whole other province, having left Ontario for Quebec. You will notice immediately that everything, and I mean everything is written in English and French, which I imagine makes being in the billboard business in Quebec extremely lucrative.
As soon as you come off the bridge you are greeted by one of the most spectacular buildings in Ottawa, the Canadian Museum of History (or Musèe Canadien de L’Histoire). Designed by the aboriginal architect Douglass Cardinal, the structure carves itself into the landscape as if the Getty Center and Guggenheim had a beautiful love child. Inside you can explore the rich history that belongs to one of the largest countries of earth and stretches back millennia.
Returning to Ontario across the Portage Bridge I was glad to be greeted by the Mill Street Brew. Ottawa is known for it’s craft beer, and Mill Street is a national treasure to the golden elixir.
Refreshed and fortified from a fresh pint, I headed back toward Byward to experience E18hteen, the more elevated outlet for maestro Jonathan Korecki. Located in a historic stone walled building with great towering ceilings, the elegant, sophisticated and delightfully moody ambiance mimics the seasonal menu. Classic dishes like Quebec foie gras, braised lamb agnolotti and warm beet salad are creatively prepared with care and satisfy even the most prolific palettes. More serious plates such as a ballotine of roasted partridge or a decadent grilled, bone-in pork loin make short work of even the most ferocious hunger. Enjoying a meal at E18gteen is a memory in the making, and brings Ottawa in focus as being a true capital city in every way.
As a fabulous day fades, the Ottawa nightlife heats up. Back in the Bayward the streets become frenetic with young people. Ottawa has the unique characteristic of being a very young city; most of its inhabitants are under 35 years old and are not afraid to show it. Bars sway and jostle with the energy that is youth, and music is heard from every darkened doorway. The soul of this frontier town is alive and well in the bar scene, and the people are as friendly as you would expect them to be in Canada. Despite the dozens of possible places to experience, I opted for Lafayette, the oldest pub in Ottawa, and it was a fine choice. The music was lively, the people even more so, and the beer, a local favorite called Beau’s, was good, cold and served all night long.
Even though the party was still going strong I decided to head back to my jail cell, to put Ottawa to sleep. On the way back I randomly stumbled upon a large crowd of people outside of the Parliament Building. “Is this a protest?” I immediately asked like an American. “Oh no, we’re waiting for the laser show.”
Right. A laser show.
Before I knew it the entire Parliament Building was alive. Literally. Colums moved, windows transformed, bricks started dancing. What was in that Beau’s beer I wondered? Colorful projection mapping thrown onto the building along with a thundering narration, (again, in French then English) made the history of Canada jump off the walls. The entire lawn was covered with people, mostly locals, who had come out to witness the Northern Lights, “A celebration of Canada in 3D”. Then, it started to rain, but hardly anyone left; getting wet was a small price to pay for a country they truly loved.
Patriotism for an adopted country and ready to put my head down I pushed past the iron laden solid wood door of my jail hostel. Jeff, one of the smiling staff members of the hostel, and a truly native Ottawan, greeted me. “So! Whatcha think then” he quizzed me with a big grin knowing full well the answer, as I confessed my true love for this fantastic town. “I told you, it’s the best city in the world. I’ve been all over the world traveling, and I honestly can’t say I ever found a place like Ottawa. I even met my wife here in this very hostel, and now we have a kid. Wouldn’t call any other place home but this.”
I am unsure how many times it has been said you met your wife in a condemned prison, but the sentiment of the statement did not go unchecked. Ottawa with it’s proud culture, world class food and museums, and unique and celebrated culture is a place like no other, and surely not to be missed.
Roberto Serrini is a professional traveler who records his adventures in word, photography and film. He is a staff writer for Get Lost Magazine, a senior contributor to Trip Advisor, as well as a commercial film director and drone pilot. His work can be seen at www.robertoserrini.com where he can be contacted as well.