Canada's capital Ottawa offers a city break packed with history and culture – and here's what not to miss

Strolling past the neo-Gothic spires of Parliament, the familiar chimes of Big Ben punctuated the drizzly afternoon.

Hordes of tourists snapped away at the ornate clock tower overlooking the river. A double-decker drifted by. Bronze statues stood forever frozen in heroic poses.

It was surreal. I could have been in London’s Westminster, yet I was in fact in Ottawa, the capital of Canada.

The city retains an Old World feel in many other ways too, despite the country celebrating a century and a half of independence from Britain.

The mid-rise towers of Downtown and its broad straight streets are distinctly North American, yet its low-rise red-brick neighbourhoods and lush riverside parks have a mellow European vibe, as do the salubrious bars and restaurants.

This is accentuated by Ottawa being a bilingual city. Just across the river is the French speaking province of Quebec, so street signs are in French as well as English, and the both languages can be heard – sometimes in the same sentence.

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This cosmopolitan city is a far cry from its origins in the 1820s as an outpost for the newly constructed Rideau Canal. The small and rowdy logging town was suddenly thrust into prominence due to its geographical location.

Previously, the Canadian seat of Parliament alternated between Quebec City, and Toronto in the English-speaking province of Ontario.

A permanent capital was needed and in 1858 Queen Victoria diplomatically chose Ottawa, as it was on the border between the two provinces.

Despite its rapid growth in size and importance, it was widely thought of as dull administrative capital and often overlooked by tourists, or was just a brief stopover when visiting the more glamorous Toronto or Montreal.

But today the city has a blooming cultural and contemporary scene, and is a tourist destination in its own right.

Byward Market by night

Just below the gentle incline of Parliament Hill is the cool Byward Market. Once the commercial heart of Lower Town – drained swampland originally home to poor French-Canadian and Irish labourers – it’s now one of country’s oldest and largest public markets.

The main market hall that exists today is the fifth incarnation built in 1926, yet many of the surrounding Victorian red-brick buildings remain.

The former slum neighbourhood is now a colourful hub of farmers’ market stalls and shops selling an array of local produce, as well as art and craft and souvenir stores interlaced with bars and restaurants of a similar ilk.

Nights here are a lot calmer than when whiskey-sodden lumberjacks overran the once riotous taverns, inns and brothels, but there’s still much merriment to be found in the many bustling bars and pubs.

Live music is still popular and abundant, and the clientele are a pleasant mix of people of all ages.

As befits a capital, Ottawa has many great national museums, including the Canadian Museum of Nature, and the Canadian War Museum. You can spend days visiting them all.

Chris in the Grand Hall of the Canadian Museum of History

The most popular, and my personal favourite, was the Canadian Museum of History, on the Quebec bank of the river.

It tells the human stories of Canada, with a strong focus on the indigenous First Nation peoples. Its vast Grand Hall houses over 2000 historical objects depicting the history of their traditional cultures and the impact the European settlers.

The museum also has the best view of the Parliament buildings perched dramatically above the opposite side of the river. It’s only a short and pleasant walk across the bridge, or an even shorter ferry ride from the locks where the Rideau Canal meets the Ottawa River.

Next to these massive locks is a small but interesting museum telling the harsh history of the 126-mile canal, and the 1,000 or so people who died constructing it.

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The canal itself is a Unesco World Heritage Site. A nearby stretch becomes officially the world’s largest ice rink when it freezes over in winter.

But I was there in Autumn, so the only rink I saw was that of the Ottawa Senators, the local ice hockey team. Drink in one hand, towering salt beef sandwich in the other, I looked down upon the players swarming breathlessly, engrossed by their intricate passing and movement – and bruising collisions.

The flashing lights and blaring music was very North American, but it was awesome entertainment – and a great way to finally take in a bit of New World culture.

Ottawa city break travel file

GET THERE: Air Canada operates the only daily direct service to Ottawa, with return economy flights from Heathrow starting from £555.77 per person. Fares are inclusive of taxes and subject to change. Visit www.aircanada.com to book or call 0871 220 1111.

STAY THERE: This 4-star hotel in downtown Ottawa boasts an ideal location for those planning to go exploring. Visit Westin.com/Ottawa for more information.

MORE INFORMATION: For tourist information and tips visit Ottawatourism.ca.

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