Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Our nation's capital offers far more than politics Ottawa dull? No way

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Don't let those bickering politicians scare you away from Ottawa.

Canada's capital is in the news daily for the shenanigans, arguing, scandals and general going-ons in the House of Commons, but Ottawa is so much more than politics: it's a beautiful, compact city where modern buildings and luxuries mingle side-by-side with history.

Best of all, it's easy to get around, so even if you don't rent a car you can walk to most of the city's highlights or catch a cab for $10 to $15. And, of course, transit is also an inexpensive option.

With its abundance of galleries, museums and parks you could spend a whole week there and take in a different attraction every day at an easy pace, but it's possible to see many of the highlights if you want to make a long weekend of it. I guarantee you'll want to go back to catch what you've missed.

Whatever your feelings about the people who work there, the Parliament Buildings and Parliament Hill are must-sees for any visitor to Ottawa. The 145-year-old buildings offer year-round free guided tours of the Centre Block and East Black in both English and French. But get there before noon if you want to be part of an English-language tour of the House of Commons and Senate because they fill up fast. These tours are shorter and skip the chambers when they're in use, so check the online calendar (see sidebar) to see which days they sit. Even if the tours are full, you can still go through security and get in line for an elevator ride up to the top of the Peace Tower, where you'll get an impressive view of the city and Gatineau, Quebec, across the Ottawa River.

The elevator includes a slight 10-degree off-vertical angle you won't even notice. What you might notice is a malfunction. On my recent trip, the elevator konked out and we were forced to walk down a couple of hundred stairs to the Memorial Chamber at the bottom.

This chamber features books of remembrance with the names of Canadians who lost their lives in conflicts dating back to the First World War. The pages of the books are turned each morning at 11 a.m.

Canada's history of conflict, both at home and abroad, is the subject of the Canadian War Museum (adult admission $12) which provides a fascinating chronicle of everything from early aboriginal tribal battles to current wars, with artifacts ranging from simple stone and wood weapons to a room full of tanks. Plan at least a half-day if you want to see everything.

You'll also need at least a half-day or more for a visit to the Canadian Museum of Civilization (adult admission $12) across the river in Gatineau. The visually impressive, award-winning structure, with its distinctive curves and domed roofs, stands out on the north side of the Ottawa River -- and its exterior features 36,000 square metres of Manitoba Tyndall limestone).

The Museum of Civilization lays claim to being the most visited museum in the country and it's easy to see why. With more than four million artifacts, the three-level facility tells the 20,000-year story of Canada and its people. Visitors are immediately awed when they enter the Grand Hall, which houses a dozen towering totem poles and six Pacific Coast aboriginal house facades.

Again, it's worth at least a half-day, but you can see the major highlights in three hours. The building also houses the Canadian Children's Museum, the Canadian Postal museum and an IMAX theatre, so include these in your time schedule if you want to see a bit of everything.

Everything about plants, animals and dinosaurs is covered at the Canadian Museum of Nature, while the National Gallery of Canada has about 800 paintings and sculptures on display at any given time from its 10,000-piece permanent collection. Don't miss works by the famed Group of Seven, and marvel at the $1.8-million Voice of Fire. See if you can prevent yourself from thinking you could paint those three stripes yourself if you had a 5.4-metre canvas, two paint colours and a large straight-edge.

Other galleries include the Currency Museum (where the last printed penny will soon be displayed), the Canada Science and Technology Museum, the Canadian Aviation Museum and the Canada Agricultural Museum and Experimental Farm.

But you don't have to spend all day, every day, in museums in Ottawa. The city boasts large and beautiful parks, a thriving market area and an over-abundance of nightclubs, live music venues and pubs thanks to the large student population of Carleton University.

The ByWard Market area is a fun place to visit day or night. When the sun is shining the neighbourhood east of downtown is filled with people visiting funky shops and one-of-a-kind boutiques, as well as larger retailers like The Bay and Chapters. At the market itself, there's arts and crafts, homemade food and preservatives and the sugary treat, Beaver Tails -- a fried dough pastry sibling to the Whale Tales at the Winnipeg Folk Festival.

When the sun goes down the streets fill with partiers hitting a variety of live music venues, pubs and dance clubs. The Great Canadian Cabin, a two-level country bar on York St., boasts a line of ping-pong tables downstairs and couches, a large patio and stage upstairs.

Another two-floor space turns out to be two different venues with the same 221 Rideau St. address: Mavericks is on the main floor and Cafe Kekcuf is upstairs. Based on the band lineup, Mavericks is like the Pyramid Cabaret with a mix of touring indie-rock groups, punk bands and singer-songwriters who can draw a crowd, while upstairs is like the Albert with heavier bands.

The most famous club of all is Zaphod Beeblebrox (aka the Nightclub at the Edge of the Universe) named after the two-headed, three-armed character from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Though there weren't any bands I wanted to see there on my visit, I did manage to fit in about 10 different clubs, pubs and bars over the course of three nights.

Drinking age is 19 in Ontario, so carry identification. The bars close at 2 a.m., and then it's time to eat.

The ByWard Market area boasts numerous shawarma joints which all feature long lines once the clubs clear out. There are several all-night restaurants too, but watch out: that bacon poutine you have at the Elgin Street Diner at 3 a.m. might feel weird the next day.

Whether you have a car or not, it's worth making the trip to Golden Palace at 2195 Carling Ave., about a 15-minute drive from downtown. The 52-year-old Chinese restaurant is famous for its egg rolls, and the hype from friends who introduced me to them proved to be true. The crunchy hand-made treats are made from a secret recipe, but include pork, bean sprouts, celery and onions. The same friends stopped off at the restaurant on their way out of town and picked up two dozen for the trip home. I should have, too.

Fortunately, now that I know about the Golden Palace, it's on my must-do list for next time. You should, too, no matter how long you're visiting our nation's captivating capital.

rob.williams@freepress.mb.ca

IF YOU GO

Getting there

Air Canada offers three direct flights a day to Ottawa during the week, and two on weekends while Westjet offers one. Expect to pay a little under $600 for a Friday to Monday trip or more during busy weekends and special events.

Getting downtown

Cabs are about $35 to downtown. Car rentals are available at the airport. Transit buses are a thrifty option.

Hotels

Ottawa offers a variety of options from budget accommodations from a little less than $100 to more than $250 a night if you want to live luxuriously. An average price for a decent hotel is about $150 per night.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 26, 2012 D1

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