OTTAWA (Reuters Life!) - Canada’s compact capital is ideal for those who enjoy an active winter break with their families, particularly when the world’s longest groomed outdoor skating rink opens for business in mid-January.
The city’s charm lies in its small size, which makes a pleasant contrast to Toronto and Montreal. You can explore most of Ottawa by foot and the more far-flung attractions are usually no more than 15 or 20 minutes away by taxi.
Two words of warning: although temperatures no longer routinely sink down to minus 40 Celsius (minus 40 Fahrenheit) in winter, Ottawa is still one of the world’s coldest capitals. Dress warmly
* Canadians are generally law-abiding but have a mysterious habit of running red lights. Check carefully before crossing roads or pulling out into traffic.
Ottawa was an obscure logging town when Britain’s Queen Victoria chose it to be the Canadian capital in 1857 and it has stayed relatively small. So put on your boots and start walking.
5 p.m. - After you’ve checked in to your hotel stroll toward the ByWard Market, which was once home to brothels, rowdy taverns and packs of aggressive loggers. Now it is one of the city’s best shopping, dining and entertainment centers.
7:30 p.m. - Enjoy a leisurely dinner at Domus Cafe (87 Murray Street, 613 241-6007), rightly one of the best-known restaurants in town. Chef John Taylor specializes in using local ingredients
9:30 p.m. - Canadian music is on a roll right now, as Feist, Arcade Fire, Sam Roberts and plenty of other acts testify. Ottawa has an excellent live music scene and you can watch up-and-comers at venues such as Barrymore’s Music Hall (323 Bank Street), the Capital City Music Hall (128 York Street) and Zaphod Beeblebrox (27 York Street).
8 a.m. - No trip to Canada would be complete without coffee and a donut at Timmy‘s, as the Tim Hortons fast food outlet is informally known. There is always one close by. You’ll notice people asking for a “double double” -- a coffee with two sugars and two creams.
10 a.m. - Stroll past the Eternal Flame and up Parliament Hill for one of the best free tours in town. For the next hour or so you’ll wander through the Parliament buildings, peeking into the House of Commons, the Senate and climbing up the 300-foot (xxx meter) high Peace Tower for a great view of Ottawa. Don’t miss the magnificently restored Library, an white-paneled room dominated by a statue of the young Queen Victoria (866 599 4999 for details).
12 p.m. - Enjoy lunch at Play restaurant (1 York Street). This cozy spot features great food, not to mention one of the best deals in town-- just C$20 for two dishes from an extensive menu of small plates. Two standout dishes are the Digby scallops with chard and ginger celeriac and the Erie pickerel with squash and brown butter.
1:30 p.m. - It’s time to get active and enjoy some typical Canadian winter fun. Head across the river for the short drive into Gatineau Park, a 360 square km (140 square mile) expanse which offers a great series of cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trains (call 819 827 2020 for details). You can rent skis from the non-profit group Relais Plein Air (819-595 9001), based in the park itself.
4:30 p.m. - You undoubtedly built up a thirst, so it’s time to return to downtown for a beer or two. Two popular drinking spots are D‘Arcy McGee’s (named after that great rarity -- an assassinated Canadian politician) at 44 Sparks Street and the Clock Tower at 575 Bank Street, which brews its own beer.
7 p.m. - Canadians’ well-deserved reputation for politeness flies out of the window when they’re watching hockey (no one here ever calls it “ice hockey”). Nothing excites people like the national sport and it’s a 25-minute ride to Scotiabank Place, home to the Ottawa Senators of the National Hockey League (call 877 788-3267 or visit www.capitaltickets.ca). The game is best enjoyed with a hot-dog, popcorn and a beer -- and possibly an expletive or two.
8 a.m. - Head down to the Elgin Street Dinner at 374 Elgin Street for their Big Breakfast of three eggs, bacon, ham, sausage, home fries, baked beans and three pieces of toast. You need to build up your strength for some more outdoor fun.
10 a.m. - The highlight of any winter visit to Ottawa is skating on the Rideau Canal, which runs through the center of the city (call 613 239-5000 for details). The city maintains a 4.5-mile-long stretch and at weekends thousands of people zip up and down the ice. You can rent skates and push the little ones along in sleds but watch where you’re going, since the surface can be rough in places. There are wooden shacks on the ice which sell hot chocolate as well as BeaverTails -- hot whole wheat fried pastries variously covered in cinnamon, lemon juice, apple sauce and other toppings.
12 p.m. - If you’ve had a BeaverTail you should then try another Canadian classic for lunch: french fries covered in cheese curds and gravy, known as poutine. You’ll find no shortage of places and outdoor vendors in the ByWard Market and elsewhere waiting to sell you a bowl.
2 p.m. - Time for some culture, so it’s a short walk to the National Gallery at 380 Sussex Drive. The striking glass and granite building, designed by Moshe Safdie, is guarded by an enormous 30-feet high sculpture of a black spider. The museum has works by Rembrandt, Warhol, Mondrian, Rubens, Cezanne and Klimt as well as paintings by Canadian artist Tom Thomson
4 p.m. - End your trip with afternoon tea at the stately Chateau Laurier hotel in the heart of downtown. You’ll dine in Zoe’s Lounge, known for its ornate glass chandeliers and live entertainment (reservations required, tel 613 241-1414). At night the lounge turns into a high-end bar.
Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Patricia Reaney