Ottawa is the capital of Canada and it’s located between Toronto and Montreal. I have to admit, this is all I knew of Canada’s fourth largest city before I began planning my trip. But as I would find, Ottawa is much, much more than a non-descript capital city sandwiched between Canada’s two largest cities.
A decree by Queen Victoria in 1857, and Ottawa became capital of the then “Province of Canada.” Straddling the border of anglophone Canada West and francophone Canada East, Ottawa was a natural compromise for the fledgling bicultural colony.
The geographic center of Ottawa is Parliament Hill, located on the southern bank of the Ottawa River. Parliament Hill’s main building is the Centre Block which houses the commons and senate chambers as well as the offices of many high ranking government officials. Here’s a panoramic video I took from the middle of the Hill.
In 1916 the original Centre Block was destroyed by fire. The structure standing today was completed in 1927.
Built in the Gothic Revival style, the Centre Block is one of Canada’s most recognizable works of architecture. It’s image is emblazened on $10, $20, and $50 bills.
Parliament Hill is situated along Wellington Street (not pictured) which is also home to the Canadian Supreme Court and the Canadian War Museum. For government and history buffs, Ottawa is chalked full of attractions, mostly all within convenient walking distance from Parliament Hill.
The East Block (pictured here) is home to parliamentary offices, and is one of only two Parliament structures which have survived from the original construction.
Across from the East Block is the West Block, with similar functions. The West Block is slated as the temporary home to the House of Commons during a renovation to the Centre Block in 2019.
On the rear of the Centre Block is the Library of Parliament, the only surviving remnant from the original Centre Block built in 1876.
With the Canadian government as its largest employer, Ottawa’s city center pushes right up against Parliament Hill.
Downtown Ottawa’s main thoroughfare is the Sparks Street Mall. Sparks Street became North America’s first outdoor pedestrian mall in 1966 when automobile traffic was permanently diverted to other streets.
Ottawa’s downtown is dense and lively during the day, with federal employees creating much of the pedestrian traffic.
Due to its proximity to Quebec and the high concentration of federal employees, a substantial amount of French is spoken in Ottawa. From my unscientific estimations, I’d say about 1 in 5 conversations I overheard downtown were in French.
Ottawa also has an active Europe-esque cafe culture, with cafes and bars throughout the downtown and surrounding neighborhoods.
Alive and vibrant by day, much of Sparks Street Mall closes shop after 4 pm. According to several locals, Sparks Street used to be the location of much of Ottawa’s nightlife, but now caters almost exclusively to the daytime working crowd.
As one of North America’s premiere pedestrian cities, Ottawa is a hot spot for street food. Popular items include poutine as well as pogos (what Americans call “corn dogs”) Most trucks also carry the standards such as burgers, fries, chicken sandwiches, and Italian sausage.
Like much of Canada, Ottawa is a cultural mosaic of customs and languages from around the world.
And like much of Canada, the three most prevalent languages are English, French, and Chinese (in that order).
Ottawa’s urban core is compact geographically, and much of its vitality is centered around downtown. A ten minute walk away from Sparks Street is the Byward Market area. Inside the market (pictured above) are stalls selling various handyworks and touristy knickknacks. The area surrounding the market serves as one of Ottawa’s premiere drinking and dining districts.
The outdoor portion of Byward is Canada’s oldest continuously operated farmers market. My personal favorite was the ready-to-eat organic fruit bowls, selling for around $2 a piece. Most transactions at Byward Market are conducted in French.
Just west of Byward Market is Major’s Hill Park, which provides this rear vantage point of Parliament Hill.
Ottawa is home to one of the world’s most innovative liquor stores, appropriately named “The Beer Store.”
Boards on the wall list all beers in stock. Below each logo is a price listing for various quantities. The quantities include 6-packs, 12-packs, 24-packs, and singles. Some beers are available in all quantities, while others are limited to one or two options. This allows for convenient mixing and matching on large purchases.
Customers wait in line at the counter, and place their order with an attendant. The most popular beers, listed on a board as “The Big Ten” are stocked (cold) directly behind the counter for quick dispension. More obscure beers are stored in the back room refridgerator.
Ottawa has mandatory deposit laws, which means most customers return their old bottles to the site of purchase. To expedite this process, The Beer Store employs a sophisticated conveyor belt system to process returned glass.
Now moving south of Downtown we find many of Ottawa’s traditional residential neighborhoods.
Ottawa regularly appears at the top of many North American quality-of-living city rankings. As one of Canada’s most livable cities, it has experienced high rates of gentrification in recent decades. The proliferation of condo developments in Ottawa is widespread, angering at least one individual who has proclaimed his distaste for “uppee scum” on this real estate advertisement.
Also south of Downtown is Ottawa’s Chinatown.
Small in size compared to the Chinatowns of Toronto and Montreal, Ottawa’s Chinatown consists primarily of the area along a single street: Somerset from Bay Street to Rochester.
Ottawa’s Chinatown contains many of the same services and businesses found in most North American Chinatowns; restaurants, groceries, souvenir shops being most prevalent.
Although commercial activity caters to Chinese residents, Ottawa’s Chinatown is also home to businesses serving various other ethnic communitites, notably Arabs and Vietnamese.
The city of Ottawa spans across the southern bank of the Ottawa River, which also serves as the boundary between Ontario and Quebec. On the north bank of the river is the town of Gatineau (aka Hull).
Home to roughly 240,000 citizens, Gatineau is markedly different from its sister city across the river. While Ottawa has a majority English speaking populace, Gatineau is almost exclusively francophone. The main tourist attraction in Gatineau is the Canadian Museum of Civilization (far right) with exhibits focusing on Canada’s indigenous peoples (aka First Nations).
It’s a fifteen minute walk from Ottawa to Gatineau, and upon crossing the bridge, the tone and surroundings change drastically. Storefront and street signs are all in French, major streets lack the hustle and bustle of Ottawa, and there are very few non-white people. With a quarter the population, Gatineau has the vibe of a tranquil Quebec town, rather than the cosmopolitan urbanity of Ottawa.
Even with only a quarter of a million people, Gatineau is the third largest metro area in Quebec, after Montreal and Quebec City. Although there isn’t a whole lot to do in Gatineau, it’s definitely worth spending an afternoon there for a taste of francophone Canada.
The people of Gatineau generally prefer not to use English for public notices, unless of course they are targeting a wider non-local audience.
And amongst non-locals (particularly those from across the river) Gatineau is commonly regarded as the region’s vice capital.
As bona fide Quebecois territory, Gatineau is an ideal place to sample poutine, Quebec’s preeminent contribution to Canadian cuisine. In simplest form, poutine consists of french fries, topped with cheese curds, and smothered in gravy
As I wandered through Gatineau for an afternoon, one question constantly ran through my mind. How was it that two cities, separated only by a river, could remain so culturally dissimilar from one another? One explanation was provided by a historical marker which indicated that the bridge links between the two cities had been plagued by frequent collapses and natural disasters, making convenient transport between the cities relatively rare until recent times. Today there are 4 bridges linking the two cities, yet the francophone anglophone cleavage remains markedly distinct.
Coming to Ottawa, I wasn’t expecting much. It was located on the way from Toronto to Montreal, and since it was the capital of Canada I figured I might as well check it out. What I found was that Ottawa is an attraction in and of itself, equally as worthy of a visit as Toronto or Montreal. Ottawa is clean, livable, and has comparatively few of the urban problems which plague most North American cities such as crime, poverty, and sprawl. Transportation in Ottawa is also a cinch, as I didn’t even require public transit during my stay. I went everywhere on foot. With the Canadian government, museums, a bustling downtown, ethnic neighborhoods, and a French settlement across the river, Ottawa has more than enough attractions to pack a multi-day tourist itinerary. Next stop: Montreal.
Toronto has its skyscrapers and Niagara Falls its natural beauty. But sometimes when you’re on the road, the best places to see are those with nothing to see at all. In between Toronto and Niagara Falls lies the blue collar town of Hamilton, a city of half a million residents and without any unique tourist draw.
Hamilton wraps around the westernmost reach of Lake Ontario. It’s about an hour west of Toronto and an hour north of Niagara Falls, making it a convenient stop for travelers from Toronto en route to Niagara.
The urbanized region stretching around Lake Ontario from Toronto to Buffalo is colloquially known as the “Golden Horseshoe.” 25% of Canada’s population lives within this region, and Hamilton is its second largest city on the Canadian side of the border. Convenient transit to Toronto is provided by the Go Transit Lake Shore West line allowing many Hamiltonians to commute to jobs in downtown Toronto. Originally focused on heavy manufacturing, recent years have seen Hamilton’s economy shift towards the service sector, particularly healthcare. Thesedays Hamilton is not exactly a boom town. But it isn’t dying a slow death either, like so many other North American Rust Belt cities.
Without a laundry list of tourist attractions, I spent my day casually wandering through the Hamilton city center. I had been expecting a run-down, under-utilized downtown, with few pedestrians and the remnants of a one-time industrial glory. Instead, I found downtown Hamilton surprisingly lively.
Walking through downtown, it became apparent that Hamilton has been the recipient of prescient, pedestrian-centered urban planning. Downtown centers around King Street, a split boulevard with wide sidewalks on the edges and a broad pedestrian zone in the middle. In the pedestrian area are benches, fountains, and green space, providing space for a bustling pedestrian street life.
Nothing kills a pedestrian zone more than parking lots, and downtown Hamilton’s planners addressed this by locating most of its parking behind King Street.
Locating parking and other dead space behind the main drag has helped to ensure the vitality of streetlife on Hamilton’s main drag. (medium-sized US cities, take note)
Back on King Street, a variety of restaurants and shops compliment the active pedestrian zone (I intentionally took this pic when few pedestrians were in view).
For a city its size, Hamilton also posseses a substantial international flair, with various eateries and groceries on most major streets.
Like much of Canada, there is a significant Chinese presence in Hamilton. I counted at least 5 Chinese restaurants on King Street alone. Locals told me that there had originally been a downtown Chinatown, but in recent decades the population had dispersed throughout the city.
Just south of King Street are some of Hamilton’s more pleasant residential districts. After the hustle and bustle of Toronto, and the barrage of tourists at Niagara Falls, a quiet walk through Hamilton residential neighborhoods was a welcome contrast.
These are some of the typical row houses common in neighborhoods surrounding downtown.
At this point you may be wondering what exactly I was trying to see or do in Hamilton…well, that’s just the point. In a dynamic country like Canada, it would be impossible to define a “normal” city. But, if I had to throw out my lot, I would say Hamilton is close as you could get.
Hamilton is not flashy, and it isn’t exactly overflowing with tourist attractions. While it does have a significant immigration population, Hamilton is the kind of town where you feel like most residents are locals rather than transplants. It’s the kind of town where people are authentically appreciative of visitors who don’t bypass their town on the way to Toronto. And it’s the kind of town where a local will stop for half an hour in a Greyhound station and give you a in-depth oral history of their local CFL franchise (this actually happened). I wouldn’t have added a multi-day stay in Hamilton to my itinerary, but for the half day on my way from Niagara to Toronto, it was well worth it. At the end of the day, I took the bus back to Toronto and was off to stop number 4: Ottawa.
Located 75 miles south of Toronto and 17 miles north of Buffalo, tourists arrive from all corners of the globe to visit Niagara Falls. With convenient transportation to and from Toronto, taking the day trip to Niagara was a no-brainer.
Transit between Toronto and Niagara Falls is provided by Go Transit, Toronto’s commuter rail/bus service. During weekends the train runs all the way from Union Station to Niagara Falls. On weekdays, riders have to take the train to Burlington, where a Go bus completes the journey to Niagara Falls (the town, not the actual falls). From the town, it’s a ten minute bus ride on local transit to reach the falls. In total, the journey takes about 2 hours.
Niagara Falls’ fame doesn’t come from its height, but rather its width. At high flow, nearly 4 million cubic feet of water rush over the Falls every minute.
The Niagara River serves as the border between the United States and Canada. On the Canadian side lies Niagara Falls, Ontario and on the American, Niagara Falls, New York.
“Niagara Falls” consists of two separate waterfalls, the Horseshoe Falls, located mostly in Canada, and the smaller American Falls (pictured above), located in the United States.
There is no admission required to view the Falls, but the best view is not from land, but by boat. A ride on the “Maid of the Mist” costs $15 and is well worth it. Ticket price includes a complimentary poncho which all passengers are advised to don.
The first leg of the boat ride passes the American Falls.
At the bottom of the Falls, the boat stops for a few minutes, allowing passengers this close-up view.
The Maid of the Mist then heads away from the American Falls and toward the Horseshoe.
For another two minutes the boat ride is calm. Rounding the corner, the great Horseshoe comes into view.
Aesthetically speaking, the American Falls are more photogenic than the Horseshoe. But when in a boat, the feeling of being surrounded entirely by the Horseshoe Falls is unmatchable. Between the roar of the river tumbling down the falls, the airborne water soaking the deck, and the ensuing claustrophobia, the ride into the Horseshoe was the highlight of my afternoon.
Niagara Falls may spew 4 million cubic feet over the falls every minute, but it also shoots an ungodly amount of water into the air. This shot was taken just below the Horseshoe Falls, and it’s at this point when passengers get drenched.
After spending two or three minutes below Horseshoe Falls, the Maid of the Mist heads back past the American Falls en route to the dock.
After the boat ride, I took a long walk along the promenade stretching the length of the cliff on the opposite side of the Falls. (promenade is behind me in this pic.)
The multiple viewing angles along the length of the promenade serve to space out the droves of tourists who diverge on the Falls any given day.
another shot from the promenade of American Falls with Niagara Falls, NY in the background
Horseshoe Falls from the promenade
…and another shot of Horseshoe Falls. The white stuff in the picture is not fog, but rather water bouncing off the Falls.
Here’s a view showing the ledge of the promenade (right) overlooking the falls.
Although Niagara Falls is extremely touristy, the surroundings are set up so that the most touristy stuff (souvenir shops, go carts, $6 hot dogs, etc.) are on a road a few hundred feet off of the promenade. It’s fairly easy to walk the length of the promenade and experience the Falls, while bypassing most of the tourist traps.
Unless you plan to explore some of the surrounding nature, a single day in Niagara Falls is more than enough time. As long as you prepare in advance (check transit schedules, pack food, etc.) it’s quite affordable as well. My entire expenses for the day including 2-way transit from Toronto, bus transit within Niagara Falls, and ticket for the Maiden of the Mist boat ride, came to just under $50. For a world class natural wonder of the world, that can’t be beat. In addition to the photos above, I took 3 videos, posted below. Next stop: Hamilton.
As an American, it can be easy to forget about our friendly neighbors to the North. Afterall, Canada has roughly the population of the state of California, with over 90% living within 100 miles of the US border. Many of it’s most famous personalities relocate to the US to make the big stage. And though Canadians enjoy most of the same spectator sports as Americans, only a handful of North American sports franchises play their home games north of the border. Yet with territory larger than that of the US, and an ethnic mosaic equally if not more diverse, Canada is one of the world’s most dynamic nations. With this in mind, I decided to take two weeks to explore Canada, starting with its two most populous provinces, Ontario and Québec.
The first leg of my trip was a flight from ORD to YYZ.
With a population of just over 5.5 million, Greater Toronto (GTA) is the most populous metropolitan area in Canada. In American terms, this is slightly larger than the DC or Atlanta metro areas. Toronto’s status as Canada’s number one city is relatively recent. Until the middle of the 20th Century, Montreal was Canada’s economic center and most populous urban center. In the prosperity following World War II, Toronto’s growth eclipsed that of Montreal, and it hasn’t looked back since.
Unlike Montreal, Toronto looks and feels very much like a major city in the United States. Although sometimes described as the “New York of Canada,” I would suggest a comparison to Chicago is more accurate.
In fact, Toronto may share more in common with Chicago than does any city on US soil. Both are on a lake. Both are mega-metroplexes anchored by a dense urban core and an expansive commuter zone accessible by extensive public transit networks, and both are characterized by scores of well-defined ethnic neighborhoods. In terms of scale as well, downtown Toronto feels more like Chicago than it does say, New York or Los Angeles, or even Montreal.
Downtown Toronto is centered around Old City Hall, which was built in 1899, and was home to the City Council until 1966.
The elaborate city hall was built in an age when North American governments still needed to show bling to exemplify their power. While the ostentatious architecture is a marvel to observe today, I imagine the modern day construction of such a building would be harangued as a colossal waste of public funds.
With its decadence, and its placement in the middle of a busy downtown intersection, Toronto’s Old City Hall fulfilled a similar ideological symbolism to that of the famous City Hall in Philadelphia.
From the old to the modern. Standing at 1,815 feet tall, the CN Tower is the world’s highest tourist trap. For over 30 years after its completion in 1975, it was also the largest free-standing man made structure in the world. Rather than spend the better part of a day waiting in line to ascend to the top, I chose to appreciate it from ground level.
Near the CN Tower, and centered around King and Bay Streets is Toronto’s Financial District. This is the economic center of the city, and sees over 100,000 commuters enter and leave every workday.
Surrounding the Financial District are a swathe of high rises, including many residential towers. Toronto has a lively city center, and the demand for downtown housing is high.
Downtown Toronto’s main entertainment areas are centered around Yonge (pronounced “young”) Street. Much of Toronto’s vitality, such as the area above, has grown around subway stops. Thus while many of the downtown attractions are scattered beyond convenient walking distance, most are easily accessible via public transportation.
Just east of the Financial District is some of Toronto’s earliest architecture. This area provides more of an old, small town vibe, in contrast to the big city feel of the rest of downtown.
Toronto is one of North America’s most vertical cities. Sandwiched between several of the highrises are relics of Toronto’s past, before it became Canada’s most dynamic urban core.
One of which is St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church.
Constructed in 1876, St. Andrews was built in the Romanesque Revival style, and is still a functioning church today.
However, the majority of Toronto’s more impressive architecture is on the newer end of the spectrum, such as this downtown indoor mall.
Downtown Toronto is also home to the Hockey Hall of Fame, which for $15, is worth a visit. My personal highlight was a 30 minute video tracing the history of the Stanley Cup from hockey’s early beginnings in the frozen lakes of Canada up to the Blackhawks’ championship run this past year.
Like most North American cities born in the age of the railroads, Toronto has a “Union Station” which serves as the main transportation hub for the region. Go Transit (Toronto’s commuter rail and bus system), ViaRail (Canada’s long distance rail carrier), and Amtrak (the US’s long distance rail carrier), all run their Toronto operations out of Union Station. Originally opened in 1927, it is the largest transportation facility in the country.
For a city of its size, Toronto has fairly decent (albeit extremely expensive) public transportation. Complimenting Toronto’s subway system is a network of streetcars (pictured above) which run throughout the downtown area. Further from downtown, buses are used to shuttle riders to and from major transit points.
My main qualm with Toronto’s public transportation was its pricing and fare collection scheme. A single ride on subway, bus, or streetcar is $3. Week passes are sold, but are only good Monday through Sunday, rendering them pointless for my stay which spanned Saturday through Monday. A single day pass costs $10. (For comparison sake, a three day pass in Montréal is $15). Furthermore, the passes themselves are cumbersome (about 6 inches tall) and not electronic. They are too big to fit in a pocket, and upon each use must be manually handed to TTC personnel for inspection.
By fortuitous luck, my first day in Toronto coincided with a CFL game at the Rogers Centre between the Toronto Argonauts and Les Alouettes de Montréal.
Although the CFL was in season, the real talk of the town was the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, who will be playing two home games at the Rogers Centre this fall.
Rogers Centre (formerly SkyDome) opened in 1989, and is currently home to both the Argonauts of the CFL and the Blue Jays of Major League Baseball. To combat adverse climate, Rogers Centre was built with a retractable roof. The idea was that it could be an outdoor stadium during agreeable weather, and an indoor arena during blizzard or torrential downpour. The game I saw occurred on a clear evening with temperatures in the mid-70’s, yet the roof was still closed, leaving me wondering what exactly counts as agreeable weather in Toronto.
While essentially the same sport, there are significant rule differences between the CFL and NFL. Canadian football is played on a field 10 yards longer and 11.5 yards wider than the NFL. The end zones are also 20 yards deep as opposed to the NFL’s 10, and a CFL team is allowed 12 men on the field at a time as opposed to the NFL’s 11. But the most obvious difference in game play is that a CFL a team has only 3 downs to advance the ball, as opposed to 4 in the NFL. Due to these and other slight divergences in rules, the CFL game runs at a quicker pace. Teams change possession more frequently, and points are thrown on the scoreboard in a hurry.
After dark, much of downtown Toronto lights up in vibrant colors, such as this shot of Rogers Centre after the game with the CN Tower in background.
Surrounding downtown Toronto is an expansive checkerboard of neighborhoods, many of which are home to Canada’s most concentrated ethnic enclaves. According to statistics from the Canadian government, Canada has the highest rate of immigration in the world. Of its immigrants, 43% settle within Greater Toronto.
Toronto is home to one of the largest Chinese populations in the Western Hemisphere, and the Chinese make up the largest non-white ethnic group in the city. The primary Chinese settlement in Toronto is the massive Chinatown centered around the intersection of Spadina and Dundas, just south of downtown. By my crude estimations, it’s the largest Chinatown in North America outside of New York City.
Like New York City, Toronto has multiple Chinatowns, but when people speak of “Chinatown Toronto,” it is the Spadina and Dundas location to which they are typically referring. Like most North American Chinatowns, the residents of Spadina and Dundas are mostly Cantonese, but with increasing numbers of recent immigrants from other regions, particularly Fujian.
A broad selection of authentic Chinese food can be found at Spadina and Dundas, and I chose to go with 快餐 (Chinese fast food) for my first meal. Plates like these typically include the choices of 3 dishes and rice for $4, and can be found all over Toronto (not necessarily only Chinatown).
Just West of Chinatown is “Kensington Market,” one of Toronto’s funkier neighborhoods.
While the actual market itself is small, Kensington Market is surrounded by open air restaurants and cafes, and a plethora of shops selling dry foodstuffs, counterfeit clothing, marijuana smoking accessories, Canada flair, and other touristy knick-knacks. Additionally, Kensington Market was the only area on my Canadian trip where I noticed a significant Mexican presence.
Kensington Market and Chinatown are also home to some of Toronto’s quirkier medium density housing.
With good housing, convenient access to downtown, and a multitude of culinary and entertainment options, Kensington Market has become one of the trendier neighborhoods for young professionals in the Toronto area.
On Toronto’s East Side lies its second largest Chinatown, with the main drag located along the intersection of Gerard and Broadview.
The Chinatown on Gerard and Broadview is both smaller and less touristy than Spadina and Dundas. To see a Chinatown with more of a local flavor(by “local” I mean Toronto Chinese), it’s definitely worth a visit.
Marking the entrance is the “Toronto Chinese Archway.”
Like most secondary Chinatowns, the commercial center around Gerard and Broadview serves mostly the needs of Toronto’s Chinese population, as opposed to those of tourists and Chinese food enthusiasts. There are many restaurants, barbershops, markets, and social services, primarily targeted at the local Chinese population.
Also on Toronto’s East Side are some of the city’s best beaches.
Between the beach and Queen Street (the main East Side drag) lie some of Toronto’s fanciest residential real estate. On my last day in town, I spent the better part of an afternoon wandering up and down the waterfront, and exploring these beach neighborhoods.
It would take weeks, or possibly months to explore all of Toronto’s neighborhoods and experience the full extent of what the city has to offer. But in the three days I spent there, I did feel I got an ample taste of Canada’s largest urban conglomeration. Toronto’s most interesting feature is its ethnic neighborhoods, so to any potential travelers, I would suggest spending a single day on the downtown sites, and then devoting the remaining time to exploring the areas outside of the downtown core. Chinese, Indian, Portuguese, Italian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, or any other ethnicity with a presence in North America, chances are you’ll find them in Toronto.
Toronto was also the perfect place to set my bearings for further exploration of Canada. Canada is a nation of immigrants, and in no other city is this more apparent than Toronto. As Canada’s foremost economic engine, what happens in Toronto ripples through the entire country. But unfortunately for my trip, time was limited, so after three days in Toronto, I headed south for the next segment: a day trip to Niagara Falls and Hamilton.