Ottawa Surges Back from a One-Two Punch

Ottawa, Indigenous, Mādahòkì Farm, Louis Riel, Métis, Cobblestone Tours, Royal Canadian Mint, Byward Market, Diefenbunker, Ottawa Tourism, Museum of History, National Gallery of Canada, Byward Market

A dancer participates at a festival at Mādahòkì Farm,  a safe space where Indigenous communities can reconnect with the land through both healing and wellness programs and social enterprise opportunities. (Paul Knowles photo for

Every tourism destination in Canada — actually, in the entire world — took a punch to the gut during the COVID-19 pandemic. And all of them are still working hard to recover, as tourism regains its role as a vital contributor to local and national economies.

Ottawa, however, not only took that punch to the gut, but then a blow to the head from the illegal occupation outside of Parliament Hill that led to the unprecedented use of the federal Emergencies Act to stop. The three-week protest, from the perspective of tourism, brought the nation’s capital to its knees and struck its reputation as a civil, well-managed destination.

Faced with these challenges, what was the city to do? Well, it is clearly determined to fight back, hard, to regain its status as one of the country’s premier places to visit — a designation it rightly deserves, given both the quantity and quality of attractions in and around Ottawa.

Ottawa, Indigenous, Mādahòkì Farm, Louis Riel, Métis, Cobblestone Tours, Royal Canadian Mint, Byward Market, Diefenbunker, Ottawa Tourism, Museum of History, National Gallery of Canada, Byward Market

Louis Riel’s jacket is part of an extensive exhibit of Indigenous peoples and culture at the Museum of History. Riel was a Canadian politician, a founder of the province of Manitoba and a iconic political leader of the Métis people. (Paul Knowles photo for

There are some exciting new features in the city as well as some brave and worthwhile efforts that were launched during the pandemic. And then there are the dozens of venerable attractions that continue to be updated and improved — just because you may have been to Ottawa before, doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy the innovations to discover on a return visit.

First, some new stuff: in November, a brand-new hop on/hop off bus tour will be launched by Cobblestone Tours, featuring vintage, heated trolleys. Also before the year ends, a dedicated indoor roller skating rink, 4Wheelies, will debut.

The focal point of Ottawa, Parliament Hill, has been a massive construction site since 2019, and that will continue for an undetermined length of time, as the Centre Block is fully restored. The House of Commons currently sits in the West Block, and the Senate has moved to the classically impressive former train station just down the street. And, just since mid-2022, tours of these “temporary” facilities have been available to visitors.

Another city-centre institution that has reopened for tours is the Royal Canadian Mint, which until June was also closed for renovations.

I think the most intriguing new attraction in the National Capital Region is Mādahòkì Farm, an Indigenous agritourism venture located 20 minutes by car from Parliament Hill. This fascinating, multi-faceted destination opened just a year ago. It includes a year-round Indigenous Marketplace, and is intended to be a safe place where Indigenous communities can reconnect with the land. A small herd of Ojibwe Spirit Horses, an endangered species native to North America, is also among the attractions. Mādahòkì celebrates four seasonal festivals each year: Sïgwan (spring), Tagwàgi (autumn), Pibòn (winter), and an annual Summer Solstice Indigenous Festival. These events include dancers, music, storytelling, crafts, visual arts, food, and more. As a non-Indigenous Canadian, I found a day at Mādahòkì to be entertaining, educational, challenging, and thought-provoking — a pretty good scorecard for a tourism destination.

Diefenbunker, blast tunnel entrance bunker

The entrance to the Diefenbunker is a blast tunnel built during the Cold War. (Photo courtesy of the Diefenbunker)

Also well worth the travel time is the Diefenbunker, in the municipality of Carp (a half-hour drive east of downtown Ottawa). The intriguing facility is dubbed “Canada’s Cold-War Museum” because it was an underground bunker covering four massive subterranean floors, built at the height of the aggressions between the Soviet Union and western powers. Construction lasted from 1959-61. In the event of nuclear attack (why does that sound chillingly familiar, today?) it was intended to house 595 specially chosen political and military leaders who would run the country from 70 feet below ground level.

There’s a fascinating irony to the story — the nickname for the place clearly comes from the prime minister, John Diefenbaker, whose government initiated the project, but he never actually entered the facility. He learned that while the “specially chosen” 595 people obviously included him, as leader of the country, the list did not include his wife, Olive – and if Olive wasn’t going, neither would Dief the Chief.

MORE ONTARIO: Small-Town Finds

The Diefenbunker was used as a military base, through 1994, when it was closed. It sat empty until 1998, when the government of Carp formed a not-for-profit to open it as a museum. Thank you, Carp — the Diefenbunker is one of the most interesting museums I have ever visited; the tours are excellent, the information surprising, and, if you are so inclined, you can also experience the place through a wide-ranging Escape Room adventure.

Back in the heart of Ottawa, there are dozens of attractions, galleries, museums — and perhaps hundreds of great places to eat and drink. In fact, in mid-2022, Ottawa Tourism designated more than 76 diverse locations around the city as Unofficial Museums. Some of them I will visit, again and again — they are that good.

Such as the Museum of History in Gatineau, across the Ottawa River from Parliament Hill. It is the most-visited museum in Canada, and deserves that status. The multi-level Canadian history exhibit is refreshingly honest, detailing the good, the bad, the ugly — and the quirky  — about the history of this country we love. The museum is also a terrific place to learn about Indigenous experiences, both as they are interwoven with the national story, and also in individual, dedicated exhibits to the cultures of the original inhabitants of the land.

A stroll back across the Alexandra Bridge will bring you to the National Gallery of Canada. It includes a fine collection of important art from around the world and through the centuries, but my favourite bits are always the Canadian works — wonderful creations by artists like Norval Morrisesau, Tom Thomson, and Emily Carr and Lawren Harris and their Group of Seven colleagues.

Ottawa, Indigenous, Mādahòkì Farm, Louis Riel, Métis, Cobblestone Tours, Royal Canadian Mint, Byward Market, Diefenbunker, Ottawa Tourism, Museum of History, National Gallery of Canada, Byward Market

Mādahòkì Farm has become home to a small herd of endangered Ojibwe Spirit Horses. The farm’s name, which means “to share the land” in the Anishnaabe language, reflects its agricultural and community focus. (Paul Knowles photo for

Perhaps my favourite, less-known Ottawa attraction is Laurier House — the home that was once occupied by Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier and his wife, Zoe, and then by Canada’s longest-serving Prime Minister, the eccentric William Lyon Mackenzie King. The rooms feature authentic furnishings from the Laurier period and from the King era – everything from Zoe’s sofa to King’s spectacles. There are plenty of items and artifacts that will fascinate — chief among them are the crystal ball that King used in séances in an effort to communicate with this late mother. Like many other National Parks sites, Laurier House is open to visitors only in the warmer months.

Your time in Ottawa should always include a visit to the Byward Market. There are always new shops and eateries in the area — including a new Indigenous store called Adaawewigamig, and Afrotechture, which offers crafts, jewellery, clothing and more from Black artists and makers from across Canada. The market is also the epicentre for nightlife and some of the city’s most loved restaurants.

The tourism attractions in Ottawa are alive, well and welcoming, eager to erase memories of pandemics and occupations. There could not be a better time to visit the nation’s capital.


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Travel Deals: Until the end of December 2022, Ontario residents qualify for the Ontario Staycation Tax Credit that reduces their accommodations cost by up to 20% for visiting provincial locations such as Ottawa.