Hidden Gems to Discover in Ottawa

Explore David Jackson
Explore David Jackson

Ottawa is Canada’s capital. Yes, that means there are lots of government buildings and politicians there. But this doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the vibrancy this city brings to Canada’s urban landscape. Whether you’re in the mood to eat, drink, explore, or adventure, Ottawa has something for you to try — something quirky, something tasty, and something you definitely won’t find anywhere else.

Eat

No matter where you go, food tends to dictate your trip. In Ottawa, you’ll be treated to all types of cuisines and options for every budget. Here are some of the lesser-known spots you should definitely discover.

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Flapjack’s Canadian Diner is the place to enjoy a very Canadian culinary experience: indulging in fluffy pancakes topped with the freshest maple syrup. Serving up all types of Canadian diner fare, they’ve even named a panwich (fried egg-bacon-cheese nestled between two buttermilk pancakes) the Jimberrr! Watson, after Ottawa’s Mayor Jim Watson. Plus, they also offer live shows and DJ parties to keep you entertained as you digest.

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Ask a local and they’ll definitely recommend grabbing a shawarma (spit roasted meats often served on pita) while visiting Ottawa. Want the best bang for your buck? Check out Shawarma Palace. Stuffing bellies of travellers and Ottawa natives alike, this Lebanese eatery is a fan favorite for both its flavourful meals and its incredibly affordable prices. Talk about beef for your buck. Grab your shawarma to-go then head down to the Rideau Canal to enjoy your meal with a view.

Sure, you’ve probably heard of it, but that doesn’t mean this particular experience isn’t unique. Ottawa is home to the North American headquarters of Le Cordon Bleu, the famous French culinary arts institute. Besides teaching some of the world’s best chefs, this training institute offers cooking classes (you can take a simple 3-hour demonstration course) as well as a restaurant, Signatures, where you can enjoy high-quality eats at affordable prices. To add another element of interest, Le Cordon Bleu Ottawa is located within a former lumber baron mansion in the leafy Sandy Hill neighborhood just east of downtown, making it as beautiful as it is tasty.

SconeWitch is much more scone than it is witch, though the pastries they bake are particularly spellbinding (in terms of flavor at least). This bakeshop and cafe has two locations that specialize in — you guessed it — scones! From sweet options, like their currant and ginger, to savoury options in sandwich form, like their goat cheese with tomato and pesto on a feta scone, this is truly a must-try in Ottawa.

 

Looking for more places to chow down in Ottawa? Our foodie’s guide gives you a more in-depth look at Ottawa’s food scene.

Drink

Where food goes, drinks are sure to follow. Ottawa has a few key areas where bars are plentiful, including the ByWard Market, but don’t be afraid to explore too. You might find one of these thirst-quenching spots.

Don’t let its rough exterior fool you, this place is a local gem. Like locals actually go here — promise. Located a bit outside of downtown Ottawa, Local Union 613, or “Union” as it’s known, offers fantastic whisky cocktails, fresh, local ingredients, and Southern-inspired cuisine. This is THE place to go in Ottawa for fried chicken and grits. After dinner, head downstairs where behind a bookcase, you’ll find Union’s now-legendary speakeasy.

More of an experience than a bar, Brewery Market happens once a month and should be at the top of every beer lover’s list. Instead of fresh, local produce, this twist on a farmer’s market focuses on beer, glorious beer! Sample ales, lagers, pilsners, and more, then vote on your favourite — there’s a different theme every month. This market is a great introduction to many of the area's local breweries that have popped up over the past five years. Pick the one you like best and stop by for a visit later on your trip.

Experience

To really get to know a city, you have to do as the locals do. These experiences — often hidden, always entertaining — will do just that. Time to get out there.

 

On the last Friday of each month, the Canadian Museum of Nature shakes off the day and turns into a nightclub. With a different theme for each event, you’ll love exploring the museum while sipping on a cocktail and immersing yourself in a totally different museum experience. Indulge in food and drink, dance to the DJ in the Queens’ Lantern, and explore this castle-like museum.

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Fun? Yes. Quirky? Definitely. Mayfair Theatre showcases a ton of lesser-known films, many of which are shown in 16mm. If you’re a film fanatic, you’ll surely love stopping by this theatre, which has been open since 1932. Known for showing “stuff you won’t see anywhere else,” they have a rotating selection of newer films, as well as classics. They even host campy monthly events like their showing of The Room, which has become a cult favourite — just be sure you read up on the audience participation first!

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Where can you experience the ocean, rainforest, Aztec jungles, and medieval times, all in one day? At Ottawa’s blacklight mini-golf course, Putting Edge. This multi-coloured escape features 18-holes and a completely immersive experience amongst all sorts of bright colors. Stop by for a game or two, fun music, and even an arcade.

For all the history buffs out there, the Diefenbunker, Canada’s Cold War Museum, is a must-see. This four-storey, 100,000-square-foot underground bunker, is now home to all sorts of exhibits, though it was originally built to house over 500 government officials and officers if a nuclear war struck. Start by exploring this awesome piece of Canadian history, then delve further by catching a movie at their Cold War Cinema event. Featuring different movies throughout the year, hunker down in this bunker for popcorn and entertainment in an entirely unusual setting. Also offered are musical events, geocaching hunts, and whisky tastings.

Ottawa’s first Chinese restaurant, Shanghai Restaurant, is more than a place to chow down on your favourite dishes; it’s also a community space that features comedy events, showcases local art, and hosts Ottawa’s best karaoke night. This lively event is an amazing way to spend a Saturday night in the city. With no cover and performances from 9pm to 2am, song and merriment are bound to follow. Also keep your eye out for Bingo nights.

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Opening its doors in 1849, The Lafayette (or “The Laff”) is Ottawa’s oldest bar. And although The Lucky Ron Show hasn’t been around quite as long, it too has stood the test of time. Performing every Saturday for 28 years, Ron Burke, belts out country favourites that locals love. This means two things: the place is packed, and singing along is encouraged. Even if you’re not a country music fan, this show (that’s only ever been cancelled once in 28 years — for Christmas Day!), is a must-see. Plus, The Laff serves quarts of beer for a really good deal and has board games on hand, which are pretty good reasons to visit in their own right.

Adventure

Just because you’re in a city doesn’t mean there isn’t an opportunity for adventure. No matter if you’re an adrenaline junkie, or more of an occasional thrillseeker, there’s something to try in Ottawa.

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You don’t have to go far to experience a bit of the outdoors and a lot of adventure close to downtown Ottawa. Ottawa City Rafting invites you to spend a day cruising through three sets of class II and III rapids all within the city limits! Perfect for adventurers of all levels, this trip will take you from Britannia Park to downtown, near the Canadian War Museum, meaning you can start your day off with a bit of adventure and cap it off with some culture.

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If low-key adventure is your thing, take a walk to Nepean Point and see the city from above. Wander around the top of this viewpoint and take in scenic views of Parliament Hill, the National Gallery of Canada, and more. Plus, it’s just steps away from the ByWard Market area, so you can explore restaurants and local shops after you’ve taken in the panoramic views. Better yet, visit a deli on your way up and have an impromptu picnic. Bon appetit!

 

Though we still love the popular spots, these hidden gems will show you a different side of Ottawa. Add them to your to-do list and start experiencing Canada’s capital like a local.

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