Drifting in a hot air balloon high above Canada’s Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, I look down upon the Ottawa River Valley, the cane-shaped Rideau Canal, and expanses of green that I’d earlier seen at eye level. I am surrounded by more than 100 colourful balloons during the biggest hot air balloon festival in Canada, held annually in the neighbouring city of Gatineau on Labour Day weekend.
My bird’s eye view encompassed the mosaic of sites I have visited in Ottawa and nearby Gatineau, Quebec, by bike, boat, and on foot.
The secret to Ottawa’s livability is the greenbelt that surrounds the area. Stretching along three rivers and a huge canal, and spilling into the provinces of Ontario and Québec, it’s an active person’s paradise. There are more than 600 kilometres of bike paths in metropolitan Ottawa alone, meandering through luscious green space.
A good place to start your tour is at the Château Laurier, Ottawa’s grand old hotel and probably the best-known site in downtown Ottawa. You can rent bikes next to the hotel.
As you cycle south along the Rideau Canal, imagine it in winter when thousand skate on what becomes the longest outdoor rink in the world. From Dow Lake, take Preston St. through Little Italy to Scott Ave. The biscotti at the Italian cafés here is worth a stop. Turn west on Scott Street past the Russian Orthodox Church and the nearby mosque.
Soon you’ll reach the Ottawa River. Here, you’ll have to make a decision: take the bike path to Kanata, a western suburb, or head back toward downtown and eventually venture into Gatineau. If you choose Kanata, which is about an hour away, you’ll get a good workout.
Kanata is home to the Diefenbunker, an underground four-story building constructed at the height of the Cold War. It was a well-guarded secret until its existence was revealed in 1995. Regular tours into the bowels of the earth are held there—it’s like stepping back into the Cold War era.
When you return to downtown Ottawa, you’ll be riding along the Ottawa River, the site of logjams when Canada’s capital city was a puny lumber town with a bad attitude. Near the spot where the bike path crosses Carling Ave. near Bayswater, take a break for a meal at the delightful Indian restaurant Taj, a going concern here for well over 20 years.
Even on a hot day, there’s a nice cool breeze coming off the Ottawa River. The air has a distinctly Maritime feel to it, and you’ll probably spot ducks, Canada geese, cardinals, and even river turtles.
Gatineau, ByWard Market
When you reach the Portage Bridge you have two great choices that allow you to avoid downtown’s traffic lights and occasional traffic jams.
One is to take the bike path that circles down to the Ottawa River, which puts you directly beneath Parliament Hill. It’s a surprisingly green and relatively untouched spot. Cross the locks just beneath the Château Laurier, and cycle up the steep entrance to the historic ByWard Market, Ottawa’s number one people-watching spot. Barack Obama made it famous upon his first visit to Ottawa. You may well spot a cabinet minister there!
The other choice is to head to Gatineau, following the bike paths as you follow the Ottawa River. Gatineau is the axis of a series of bike paths spreading out in all directions, allowing you to explore the Outaouais region of Québec. You can practice your French, too.
On the north side of the Ottawa River (Rivière des Outaouais in French), you have by far the best view of the Parliament Buildings, and you pass within feet of the fantastically shaped Museum of Canadian History.
After you’ve taken in the museum, I would recommend continuing west along bike paths that immediately allow you to forget that you are in a major urban area. You will arrive in the Aylmer sector of Gatineau where you can visit the old Aylmer Cultural Centre known for its intimate concerts of world beat music and Québécois talent. The building itself is of extreme historic importance, being the only building named in the 1867 British North America Act, Canada’s Constitution. Stop at the L’Augbergiste restaurant for a meal in this quaint sector of Gatineau.
When you decide to make your way back to Ottawa, stay on the bike path and you will eventually hit the access to the Champlain Bridge. If you take this bridge south, you will be back in Ottawa, and indeed can make your way all the way back to the Château Laurier. There, you can have a well-earned rest and treat yourself to their famous Afternoon Tea.
Bruce Sach is a veteran travel writer based in Ottawa.