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Ottawa : Tourist Attractions to see

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An unofficial walking tour reveals Ottawa's hot spots

Bonnie James - The Calgary Herald - Saturday, August 30, 2003

Ottawa is not just a city of red tape and bureaucracy. Granted, it has more than enough civil servants, but it's also a clean, green town with a whack of recreation, culture and nightlife.

Being the country's capital means considerable dollars have been poured into preserving history and creating places to honour recent Canadian achievements. Many of the attractions are free or dirt cheap. There are a plethora of awesome restaurants and pubs, and the city has a decent live music scene.

Once you've had a gander at all the typical tourist stuff, such as the Parliament Buildings, the National Gallery and the Museum of Civilization, consider this day-long walking tour to really get a feel for the city.

1. Currency Museum at the Bank of Canada

Did you know that, in the 1830s in Lower Canada, military uniform buttons were flattened and used for coins due to a cash shortage? Or that, at different times in Canada's past, playing cards were used as currency? Find out more about these and other interesting tidbits as you learn about the history of Canadian money and currency from around the world.

Don't miss the giant Yap stone located in the garden court. On the island of Yap in the South Pacific, stones like this one, though mainly much smaller, were used as money up until modern times.

You'll also find out how coins were made historically and how they are made now. Guided tours are available and there is a decent gift shop, too, where you can buy mint coins, fool's gold or a bag containing $5,000 in shredded Canadian bills. Before or after taking in the museum, stroll the boutique-laden pedestrian walkway of Sparks Street -- from tacky souvenirs to high-end clothing, it's all there.

- 245 Sparks St.; www.currencymuseum.ca; Tuesday to Saturday, 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 1 to 5 p.m.; free.

2. The cats of Parliament Hill

This cat condo for strays has been a bizarre Parliament Hill attraction since the late 1970s. Pensioner Rene Chartrand takes care of feeding the kitties and has them immunized. Males are neutered to prevent an increase in population. In the Hill tourist literature, you'll read some gibberish about how the juxtaposition of the majestic Parliament Buildings and the modesty of the cat sanctuary symbolize the Canadian values of tolerance and compassion, but the federal government does not contribute to the nearly $6,000 a year it costs to take care of these feline parliamentarians. (There is a donation box on site if you wish to chip in.)

- Parliament Hill, behind the Queen Victoria statue; anytime, year-round; free.

3. Bytown Museum

To the east of Parliament Hill, where the Rideau Canal meets the Ottawa River, lies the charming Bytown Museum, housed in Ottawa's oldest stone building, where you can give yourself a good grounding in the history of the city.

Until mid-November, there is an exhibit entitled Boozing, Brawling, Bawdy Bytown that takes a look at the more sordid aspects of Ottawa life in 1800s, from cholera and typhus fever outbreaks to working ladies of the night. This exhibit requires some reading, as much of the information is relayed through written stories and biographies. It's well worth the time, though, and the entire museum will take you about an hour to complete.

- 1 Canal Lane, between the Chateau Laurier and Parliament Hill; www.bytownmuseum.com; Sunday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. (hours shorten after mid-October); $5 for adults, $2.50 for youths and seniors, $12 for families.

4. Zak's Diner

Meander through the Byward Market and make your way to Zak's for some lunch. From the jukeboxes to the milkshakes, Zak's perfectly nails the '50s period decor and authentic diner food. You can get breakfast all day and their sky-high apple pie is famous.

Yes, you can also get an excellent order of poutine, which is a must for any visit to Ottawa. An assortment of burgers, wraps, salads and even meatloaf round out the menu.

The service isn't always speedy, so pick your favourite jukebox tune, soak up the atmosphere and rest your feet. The King lives and Marilyn is the hottest thing going.

- 16 Byward St. in the Byward Market; www.zaksdiner.com; Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to late, open 24 hours on weekends; most entrees are $8 to $10.

5. Peacekeeping monument

Titled Reconciliation, this is a monument unlike any other. It depicts an urban landscape ravaged by war, with three bronze figures perched atop converging walls, overseeing the process of reconciliation.

These same three figures are featured on the Canadian Peacekeeping Service Medals, which were first awarded in 2000. Dedicated in 1992, the monument honours Canadian involvement in the UN peacekeeping force since 1948, and is the only monument of its kind in the world.

More than 125,000 Canadians have served as peacekeepers so far and all the peacekeeping missions, past and present, they have been involved in are listed here. Chances are you'll see some countries named that you had no idea Canadian troops ever visited.

- Across from the National Arts Gallery on Sussex Drive; anytime, year-round; free.

6. Chilly Chilies

Some like it hot and this boutique is a haven for those who like to break a sweat while eating. Peruse shelf after shelf of hot sauce with names such as Lawyer's Breath, Bee Sting, Rectal Rocket Fuel, Hellenback and Scorned Woman. You'll be entertained, even if you don't like anything spicier than a little black pepper on your mashed potatoes.

You'll also find treasures such as jalapeno jellybeans, Death Rain Habanero potato chips, an assortment of chili pepper-printed kitchen and personal accessories and a mini Tabasco bottle on a key chain -- for emergencies. Pick up a catalogue, so you'll be able to order hot stuff no matter where you live.

- 493 Sussex Dr. on the edge of the Byward Market; www.chillychiles.com; Monday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; free.

7. Rideau Canal

To fully appreciate Ottawa, you need to get up close to the canal. The building of this incredible waterway, which opened in 1832, was instrumental to the city's growth. The French, Irish, Scottish and English canal labourers shaped the early city's population landscape.

Rent inline skates or bikes and spend the afternoon touring the recreation paths along the water. Dawdle a few minutes at one of the locks to see how they work as pleasure boats make their way through. From the Ottawa River to Dow's Lake and back will take you about 1.5 hours and will help you wear off some of your lunch.

- Rear parking lot of the Chateau Laurier, 1 Rideau St.; daily, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., until Oct. 31; Prices start at $8 per hour.

8. D'Arcy McGee's Irish Pub

Thomas D'Arcy McGee was an Irish immigrant who became an influential politician and was one of the Fathers of Confederation. On April 7, 1868, McGee was assassinated on Sparks Street. That it where you'll find this pub named in his honour.

The interior, with its stained glass, mosaic tile floor and dark, carved wood was handcrafted in Ireland and brought over by ship. McGee's features Irish-inspired dishes such as Guinness Steak, Buncrana Bridie and Finnegan's Fry (fish and chips), as well as a large selection of Irish whiskies, single-malt scotches, bourbons, cognacs, and ports. You can get most of the usual pub fare as well.

There is live Celtic music in the evenings, Wednesday to Saturday. The pub is fairly large, but fills quickly with a varied mixture of clientele once quitting time rolls around.

Grab a bite and raise your glass to one of the finest Irish pubs in Ottawa. Slainte!

- 44 Sparks St. at Elgin; Sunday to Tuesday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m., Wednesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.; most entrees are $8 to $10.

9. Ottawa International Hostel, formerly Carleton County Gaol

Now that you've been introduced to D'Arcy McGee, head over to Nicholas Street to see the place where McGee's murderer was hung.

James Patrick Whelan's death was the last public hanging in Canada, witnessed by about 5,000 people on a snowy February day in 1869. Whelan claimed he was innocent and there have been accusations through the years that he was a political scapegoat.

The daily tour of the jail (now a hostel) is conducted by bilingual guides. The tour explains the building's history, covers some famous cases and lets you peek at the gallows, which have remained in working condition. This building is said to be one of the most haunted in all of Ottawa and, at one time, the hostel offered free accommodation to anyone who could last the night on Death Row.

Spooky reports include sightings of Whelan's ghost and hearing disembodied voices reciting the Lord's Prayer. Be on the lookout for anything strange.

- 75 Nicholas St.; one-hour guided tour daily at 7 p.m.; $5 per person, $4 if you're staying at the hostel.

10. Zaphod Beeblebrox

Zaphod's has become an institution of Ottawa night-life. The Douglas Adams (the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) theme continues once you're inside, with drink names such as the Pan Galactic Gargleblaster and the Slartibartfast.

Zaphod's has a knack for booking hot up-and-coming bands and in the past has nabbed Alanis Morissette, The Watchmen and The Tea Party before they were famous. It's one of the best venues at which to catch a live show in Ottawa. Its excellent Web site has a full schedule of who is playing when.

The live acts are usually finished by 11 p.m., when the bar converts to a full-on dance club with DJs. Food is available every night (except Sundays) from 4 p.m. to midnight and, in accordance with city bylaws, Zaphod's is smoke-free. This pub on the edge of the universe is a fantastic place to wind up a day in Ottawa.

- 27 York St. in the Byward Market; www.zaphodbeeblebrox.com; open daily from 4 p.m. to 2:45 a.m.; cover charges vary.

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