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Ottawa: highlights

Here are our Ottawa highlights:

Parliament Buildings

Like their counterpart in London, the Parliament Buildings are an imposing neo-Gothic pile restored from the ruins left after a devastating fire in 1916. They dominate the Ottawa River from a bluff somewhat exaggeratedly known as Parliament Hill. As a counterpart to Westminster’s Big Ben, the 92m (302ft) Peace Tower, with clocks on all four sides and a 53-bell carillon, was built in front of the central building as a monument to those killed in World War I. Take the lift to the observation deck for a fine view of the city, the Gatineau Hills and the Ottawa River.

Guided tours usually take in the chambers of the Senate (in place of the UK’s House of Lords) and the House of Commons. If you want to attend a debate, the visitor centre under the Peace Tower can advise you on how to get a permit.

North of the central block, the handsome, pine-panelled Library of Parliament miraculously survived the 1916 fire. This elegant gem has been restored after a four-year project to its Victorian grandeur. Beneath the formidable Gothic rotunda, you’ll see an imperial, almost goddess-like marble statue of Victoria surrounded by the early prime ministers of Canada. Some of the latter’s offices have been restored in the east wing, which also survived the fire.

Evoking the ceremony at Buckingham Palace, the Changing of the Guard by the Governor General’s Foot Guards adds a degree of pomp. On summer evenings, a 30-minute sound-and-light show illuminates the Parliament Buildings to present the history of Canada.

Rideau Canal

Local citizens boast that the ?Rideau Canal, which stretches 200km (124 miles) from the Ottawa River to Lake Ontario, is in winter ‘the world’s longest skating rink’. Built between 1826 and 1832, the canal has 47 locks. Its original purpose was military: the British Army wanted a second, more secure route connecting Upper and Lower Canada in the event of an American seizure of the St Lawrence River. Thousands of Irish labourers were specially brought to Canada to construct the canal, working for brutal taskmasters in a foul, mosquito-ridden wilderness. Yellow fever claimed 1,000 victims.

Nowadays, in summer, the canal offers boat cruises and canoeing, or you can explore its banks on a rented bicycle.

ByWard Market

On the edge of the parliamentary district, across the Rideau Canal, is ByWard Market (one block east of Sussex Drive and north of Rideau Street). Since 1846, when nearby farmers traded their produce here, this has been the popular centre of town. Only one of the stalls dates back to 1867, but the market retains much of its 19th-century atmosphere. With its colourful stalls of fruit and vegetables, along with artsy shops, trendy restaurants and nightclubs, it’s a lively spot to visit – day and night.

National Gallery of Canada

Sussex Drive

The National Gallery of Canada is the creation of architect Moshe Safdie, also known for his Habitat homes in Montréal. It is worth spending at least half a day at the gallery, which houses the country’s best European collections. The airy glass-and-steel construction brings natural daylight flooding into the spectacular Great Hall and all the galleries. The terrace of the main restaurant faces Nepean Point Park, while the windows of a less formal restaurant look out over the Ottawa River.

There are important works from the 14th century to today, by European, American and Canadian artists. The 19th-century exhibits include works by Turner, Constable, Pissarro, Monet, Dégas and Cézanne. Klimt and James Ensor provide the transition to the 20th century, well represented by Matisse, Picasso, Braque and Francis Bacon.

Canadian Museum of Nature

Victoria Memorial Museum Building

On show at the Canadian Museum of Nature are the treasures uncovered by the Geological Survey of 1841, which went beyond geology and mineralogy to study Canada’s palaeontology as well as its climate, forests and flora. In the east wing, there’s the Talisman Energy Fossil Gallery presenting a unique look at the dramatic events that led to the extinction of dinosaurs and rise of mammals through a 50-million-year slice of time and utilising a large number of real dinosaur skeletons. 

Read more about Canada

Read more about the highlights of Canada in Insight Guides: Canada

Insight Guides: Canada

Insight Guide Canada is a comprehensive, full-colour guide to getting the most out of one of the world's most beautiful countries. Engaging History and Culture chapters explain the tumultuous histor...

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