Beyond Skating on the Rideau Canal

Visiting the nation’s capital in winter usually means a stop at the party on ice, Winterlude. But out-of-towners might be surprised to find a multitude of activities and attractions taking place away from the Rideau Canal.

The obvious place to start is the Parliament Buildings, which offer an open house throughout Winterlude (running until Feb. 17) in addition to guided tours.

Check out the beautifully restored Library of Parliament, which features a domed ceiling covered in gold leaf.

For student Nick Moore of Fredericton, N.B., seeing Parliament was the highlight of his visit to Ottawa. “I don’t know how you can go to Ottawa and not visit the Parliament Buildings,” says the 21-year-old, who was most struck by the spectacular view from the peace Tower’s observation deck.

For an entirely different view, plan your visit for a day when the House is sitting so you can take in the action first-hand from the public galleries.

If you’re looking for something a little quieter, head for the National Gallery of Canada. An exhibition by Saskatchewan sculptor Joe Fafard runs Feb. 1 to May 4, and an exhibit of 19th-century watercolours, engravings and other works collected by Lord Dalhousie will be on display Feb. 15 to May 11.

While parents check out exhibition such as Secret Riches: Ancient Peru Unearthed at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, running until April 27, kids can explore the Canadian Children’s Museum, conveniently located within. The exhibit Living in Space, also until April 27, lets children see what life is like on the International Space Station.

But if toting shopping bags is your idea of a good trip, then head for Ottawa’s ByWard Market, where you will discover unique boutiques with everything from local handmade jewellery to upscale designer outlets.

After dark, there are plenty of good options for theatre. The Great Canadian Theatre Company is in the middle of its “capital letters” season, says artistic director Lise Ann Johnson. “All of the plays in the 2007-2008 season are either penned by writers from Ottawa or feature a connection to our nation’s capital.”

And if you’re craving a pint after your long day of sightseeing, the market is also home to a vibrant nightlife that includes 25 clubs. “We definitely had fun down in the market at night,” says Matt McCann, 27, of Toronto. “There are a lot of good places to hang out – there’s a good scene at night in Ottawa.”

The range of the market’s 86 restaurants makes any visit worth extending just to try to sample as many different dishes as possible. Menus vary from tapas and wine bars to all-day breakfast joints, but the most popular restaurants are often those with the best views of the bustling market streets.

But then again, perhaps nothing can compare to beaver tails and hot chocolate while skating on the Rideau Canal.

BY KATHERINE LOW for The Globe and Mail