On July 7th, the annual music festival Ottawa Bluesfest will take over Canada’s capital city for 11 days, attracting some of the worlds finest bands (including our very own DZ Deathrays and The Paper Kites, among many others). But with many days of the festival not taking place until the evening – and some days taking off music all together – there are ample opportunities to explore the city while in town for the event. And last year when we paid a visit we, did just that. Join us as we impart on you a veritable to do list for your time in Ottawa – starting with the places to eat, drink (coffee, naturally) and shop.
Get trendy in Hintonburg
For some of Ottawa’s best dining, drinking and shopping, I’d recommend heading west. It’s an area colloquially referenced as Wellington West or Hintonburg, though the neighbourhood of that name only runs through 7 or 8 blocks of the area. Put simply: it’s a gentrified section of Wellington Street West. Typical of any gentrified community around the world, the area is full of trendy coffee shops, new condos and great shopping and dining options lining the streets.
And that’s not the only thing lining the streets – look out for fire hydrant artworks, with references to the area you’re in sitting atop the hydrant. So if you see books, you’re probably near the library – and on the above, I’m guessing we were near a day care?
If you’re looking for coffee in the area, I’d recommend The Ministry of Coffee and Social Affairs (1013 Wellington St W), which features a different roaster each week, and stays open late, also serving beer and wine from 1pm, and cocktails after 6pm. You’ll also find them in Elgin, though this location only operates as a cafe.
For our lunch, we enjoyed a meal at Absinthe (1208 Wellington St W), which specialises in French style bristo cuisine, accompanied by an extensive wine list, and – as the name suggests – absinthe! The vibe is relaxed but up market, and while chefs are award winning (I was told they won “Gold Medal Plates”), this hasn’t stopped them from making their meals affordable. They offer $20 three course lunches, starting things off with a cold potato and leek soup (an offering which varies by the day) and ending with a mini crème brûlée, with everything from burgers to tarts, croque-monsieurs and exquisite pastas available as your main. I enjoyed a stunning Ricotta Cavatelli with peas and mushrooms in a white wine tarragon sauce.
They’re also a restaurant with a cause – $1 from every burger sold is donated to Cornerstone Housing for Women. But Absinthe is just the tip of the iceberg for the area. If you’re after something more casual, try The Flying Banzini (1242 Wellington St W) for their gourmet sandwiches and incredible cheesecakes “with attitude”, or Holland’s Cake & Shake (229 Armstrong St) – a bakery meets malt shop – to satisfy your sweet tooth.
If you’re heading to Hintonburg from the festival site or the centre of the city, you’ll also pass through the city’s Chinatown, which in spite of its name is home to a wide variety of Asian cuisines, including Vietnamese and Korean. Little Italy meets up with Chinatown, so you can be sure that there’s plenty of great food around these areas.
Fun Fact: Ottawa’s sister city is Beijing, so their royal archways have 9 roofs instead of the usual 6!
Stay central on Bank Street and the ByWard Market
If you’re needing to stay close to the festival site, one area within relative walking distance is Bank Street, which as you head south from the main business area, you’ll come across some great shopping and dining options.
A few people recommended Burgers n’ Fries Forever (329 Bank St), or “BFF Burger”, which did not disappoint. Their Aussie burger with egg was perfect, and don’t go past a side of their Belgian style sweet potato fries. Be sure to visit their website before you go to check out their “secret menu”. I’m already regretting not knowing about this before I went. I totally would have ordered The Quebecois – which is basically a poutine burger. *Insert mouth watering emoji here*
Also on Bank Street you’ll find Bread & Sons Bakery (195 Bank St), with the best coffee I had in Ottawa, as well as some delicious pizza, sandwiches and traditional sweet & savory bakery goodies. And no matter where you are in Ottawa you’ll likely spot one of two chains: The Royal Oak, which is a chain of pubs (there are two on Bank Street alone) and Bridgehead, which is a chain of coffee shops (there are four on Bank Street alone). There are 13 and 15 of each, respectively, in the city, and both exclusive to Ottawa. I didn’t try either, but I’m told they’re both pretty reliable for a meal or a coffee.
Another landmark of Ottawa is BeaverTails – a pastry chain (which we talked about in our Bluesfest food piece) which originated in the Ottawa area. North-East of the main business district, and a very short Uber from Bank Street, its ByWard Market location is perhaps its most famous, having even served President Obama, with its hand stretched fried dough, designed to resemble a beaver’s tail and served with a number of customisable toppings.
Located right by Parliament Hill and the National Gallery of Canada, ByWard Market is certainly the most tourist-friendly area in Ottawa, which means you’ll spot some higher prices than anywhere else on the list. But be sure to check out Zak’s Diner (14 Byward Market Square) for some great American style breakfasts, and for some excellent Mexican food stop by Corazon De Maiz (55 Byward Market Square). If you’ve been to Bluesfest by the time you make it out to ByWard, you’ll also notice quite a few of the names serving you at the festival; many have their brick and mortar restaurants in this hub of dining and shopping. You’ll find plenty of street markets around here too, as well as the area’s major mall at Rideau and Sussex.
You’ll even find a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy inspired live music and dance club: Zaphod Beeblebrox (27 York St), where we enjoyed the live music of Chaz Garrett and a few drinks. Though we didn’t have a Pan Galactic Gargleblaster, it was on the menu, and the place was both tacky and cool at the same time – so they’ve really nailed the essence of Zaphod.
Fun Fact: The Rolling Stones shot their music video for “Streets of Love” at the club.
Stay tuned for part two of our Ottawa feature as we take you to the more touristy side of the Capital city – from a “light” trip at Parliament Hill to the multitude of incredible galleries and museums that call Ottawa home. We’ll also take you across the river for a brief trip to Ottawa’s neighbouring, French speaking city in Quebec.
For more details about some of the places and services visit their websites:
The Ministry of Coffee and Social Affairs – theministryofcoffee.com
Absinthe – absinthecafe.ca
Holland’s Cake & Shake – cakeandshake.ca
The Flying Banzini – flyingbanzini.com
BFF Burger – burgersnfriesforever.com
Bridgehead – bridgehead.ca
The Royal Oak – royaloakpubs.com
Corazon De Maiz – corazondemaizottawa.com
Zak’s Diner – zaksdiner.com
Zaphod Beeblebrox- zaphods.ca
The writer visited Ottawa as a guest of Ottawa Bluesfest and Ottawa Tourism. Air Canada got us to Ottawa from Sydney via Vancouver with the support of Ottawa Tourism and Destination Canada. While in Ottawa we stayed within walking distance of the festival at the The Albert at Bay Suite Hotel (435 Albert Street), courtesy of Ottawa Bluesfest and Ottawa Tourism. All prices are in Canadian Dollars and were correct at the time of our visit. Please check with the individual establishments for the latest pricing.