A Comprehensive Gay Guide to Ottawa, Ontario

A view of the historic Rideau Canal, as it drops down to the Ottawa River via a series of locks - note the ByTown Museum on the left, and the neighboring city of Hull, Quebec, just across the river in the distance

 Andrew Collins

The second-largest city in Ontario and the seat of government in Canada, Ottawa has a population of about 883,000 - it's nearly 1.3 million if you factor in the metro region, which includes parts of eastern Ontario and southern Quebec. This attractive, tidy, and culturally vibrant city bisected by the scenic Rideau Canal and separated from the smaller city of Hull, Quebec by the Ottawa River is just a 2.5-hour drive from Montreal and a 5-hour drive from Toronto. The nearest major U.S. cities - Boston and New York City - are about 8 hours away by car, but they're easily reached by short (under 90-minute) direct flights.

As Ottawa is capital of one of the most progressively gay-friendly countries in the Western Hemisphere, it's not surprising that the city has a sizable GLBT community. You won't find the raucous party scene more typical of Montreal and Toronto, but there are a handful of fun gay bars, not to mention a great variety of hip restaurants and lounges catering to a mixed bunch. For visitors and residents, much of the social and entertainment scene is anchored around downtown, within a few blocks of the magnificent government buildings of Parliament Hill.

Follow Bank Street south of Parliament Hill for about 10 blocks, and you'll find yourself in the heart of Ottawa's Gay Village. The roughly six-block span of Bank Street (and to a lesser extent O'Connor Street) between Somerset and Gladstone makes up the heart of this GLBT hub, which has just one gay bar but several shops, restaurants, and cafes with strong community ties.

Plenty of locals assert that "Gay Village" is something of a misnomer given how eclectic the aforementioned Bank Street area is, and also taking into consideration how geographically diffuse the city's GLBT community is. There's a noticeable gay presence, both in terms of nightlife and dining, in the lively and hip Byward Market district, on the northeast side of downtown, just across the Rideau Canal from Parliament Hill. This is a great area for exploring during the day, as it's home not only to wonderful cafes but also a noteworthy gallery district (gallery walking tours are given on Saturdays).

Some of Ottawa's gay nightspots are right in the center of downtown, just blocks from Parliament Hill. The Westboro village neighborhood a short drive west of downtown also has some GLBT-popular businesses, especially around the junction of Wellington Street and Holland Avenue.

Finally, the bustling Glebe neighborhood, which is south of downtown along Bank Street just beyond where it crosses the 417 Trans-Canada highway, contains a mix of eclectic shops, restaurants, and coffeehouses. The best sidewalk-strolling and people-watching are along Bank between Clemow and Holmwood avenues, although there's good shopping right down to where Bank Street crosses the Rideau Canal.

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Museums and Attractions

Parliament Hill, the seat of Canadian government, on the banks of the Ottawa River
Andrew Collins

Many of the city's key attractions pertain to Ottawa's role as the center of the Canadian government. Dominating the city skyline along a high bluff overlooking the Ottawa River, Parliament Hill comprises a series of 1860s buildings that rank among the most elegant works of Gothic Revival architecture in Canada. Housing the Senate, House of Commons, Library of Parliament, and many other government offices, the complex has three key components: the West Block; Centre Block (above which rises the 300-foot-tall Peace Tower, from whose observation deck you can enjoy fine views of the city; and East Block. Guided and self-guided tours are available.

Other attractions that relate to the city's governmental role include Rideau Hall, the official residence of the Governor General of Canada; and the Royal Canadian Mint - tours are available of both buildings.

Downtown contains most of Ottawa's other top sightseeing draws, although one highlight - the Canadian Museum of Civilization, which traces the country's human heritage back more than 1,000 years - is just across the Ottawa River in Hull, Quebec. It's an enjoyable walk or bike ride across the Alexandra Bridge to reach the museum, which has a cafe overlooking the riverfront.

Notable downtown museums include the Canadian Museum of Nature, with its galleries of fossils, mammals, birds, and earth and sea exhibits; and the National Gallery of Canada, which is close to ByWard Market and contains more than 36,000 works of art.

One of the best ways to enjoy Ottawa is to stroll alongside the Rideau Canal National Historic Site, the north end of which is made up of a series of locks that lead down to the Ottawa River. This is the terminus of a canal that stretches for 202 km down through eastern Ontario to the city of Kingston, where it meets Lake Ontario. It's the oldest continuously operated canal in North America, opened in 1832. Recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Rideau Canal passes through some of the most scenic parts of Ottawa as well a number of charming towns on its way south (one of the best, for day trips, is Merrickville). Along the downtown span of the canal, you can walk along the canal to the ByTown Museum, a repository of city history housed in the city's oldest stone building. In winter, the canal is popular for ice-skating. And the rest of the year, this is an ideal route for biking. Hourly and weekly bike rentals are available from Rent A Bike, which is right on the canal near Wellington Street - the store also organizes tours.

Close to the canal and just southeast of Parliament Hill, Canada's National Arts Centre is the city's premier performing arts venue, home to festivals, French- and English-speaking theater companies, classical music, and dance.

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02 of 06

Restaurants and Coffeehouses

The hip ByWard Market restaurant, Play Food & Wine
Andrew Collins

You'll find several hives of noteworthy dining in Ottawa, with the ByWard Market neighborhood leading the way when it comes to critically acclaimed, see-and-be-seen dining. Other good bets include the Bank Street Gay Village, the trendy stretch of eateries a few blocks east of the Village on Elgin Street, the lively Glebe area, and Westboro Village.

In the Gay Village, the '50s-inspired Bramasole Diner is a reliable bet for hearty breakfast, burgers, shakes, and similar short-order fare. The nearby Whalesbone Oyster House is one of the top seafood restaurants in town, known for its commitment to sustainable fish.

Coffeehouses abound in Ottawa, including several outposts of the excellent regional chain Bridgehead Coffee, which uses high-quality, fair-trade beans and serves good food, too. The Bank Street location in the Gay Village is enormously popular (and hoists the old rainbow flag proudly). You'll find other Bridgehead cafes around the city, from downtown to Westboro.

In an old-fashioned redbrick house downtown, 222 Lyon is a bustling spot specializing in Spanish tapas, including tasty cheese and charcuterie plates. Elgin Street's many excellent restaurants include cheerful Fresco Bistro Italiano, good for thin-crust pizzas and such first-rate main dishes as maple-Dijon-hazelnut-encrusted rack of lamb. Play Food & Wine is a ByWard favorite, serving a notable selection of small plates and interesting wines by the glass (flights allow a chance to sample several varietals at once) - the late-night wine-and-cheese flights are a great deal.

Also consider the amusingly named Kinki Asian Fusion restaurant, which is beneath the Lookout gay bar; and the Japanese restaurant Wasabi, which serves excellent sushi. Open 24 hours and famous for poutine, smoked meat, and other Montreal classics, Dunn's Famous has been around since the 1920s and is a satisfying place to refuel after a night of clubbing. There are several locations in Ottawa (the original is in downtown Montreal), including one in ByWard Market.

Other reliable bets in ByWard Market area include Empire Grill, an upscale favorite for steaks with a long wine list. For a memorable dessert, drop by the artisan gelato shop Piccolo Grande.

In the Glebe, you might try Quinn's Ale House for its reliably good pub fare and friendly vibe. Wild Oat Bakery serves delicious sandwiches, "raw" pizzas, and salads, and bakes tempting sweets and artisan breads - it one of the best vegetarian restaurants in the city. And for delicious, Montreal-style bagels, stop by Kettleman's Bagel Co., whose slightly chewy bagels are baked in a wood-burning oven and make delicious sandwiches. It's open 24/7.

A short drive west of downtown, Westboro Village has a handful of very good restaurants, including a couple of gay faves: Canvas Retso-Bar, which has a cute patio out front and a cozy dining room where you might try foie gras with warm pear and pecan salad, thyme-roasted Cornish hen, polenta and prawns, and other treats sourced mostly with local and organic ingredients; and Foolish Chicken, a quirky and laid-back spot inside a vaguely chalet-inspired house serving barbecue chicken and ribs, pulled pork sandwiches, and richly creamy cheesecakes. The healthful Table Restaurant, specializing in organic vegetarian and vegan fare, is also quite good. These are good options before attending a show at the neighborhood's acclaimed Great Canadian Theatre Company stage.

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03 of 06

Best Hotels for Gay Travelers

A room inside the trendy ARC Hotel, a boutique property in the heart of downtown, which is a sponsor of Ottawa Gay Pride and a favorite of GLBT visitors
Andrew Collins

Most of Ottawa's best hotels are in or near downtown, close to local gay nightlife, top restaurants, and engaging attractions. A major sponsor of the annual Ottawa Gay Pride festival in August, the stylish ARC Hotel is an upscale boutique property with 112 rooms and surprisingly reasonable rates. Don't be put off by the weirdly awkward official name ("ARC The.Hotel") - it's an inviting hotel with an attractive lounge off of the lobby and sleek rooms outfitted with THANN bath amenities, Frette robes, mohair throws, and minibars. Seven particularly plush suites have spa bathtubs. It's just a few blocks south of Parliament Hill.

The city's grand dame, the Fairmont Chateau Laurier rises elegantly above Rideau Canal, its peaked crenelated green-copper roof-line looking every bit as regal as the nearby Parliament buildings. A favorite address of celebrities and politicos, not to mention leisure travelers celebrating special occasions, the 429-room stunner has warmly furnished rooms in several configurations - try to score a view of Parliament Hill and the canal and park below. The trendy restaurants and nightlife of ByWard Market are just a couple of blocks away.

Another downtown hotel of note is the intimate Metcalf Hotel Ottawa, part of the snazzy Indigo boutique-hotels brand. It has 106 sleek, hi-tech rooms, and such assets as free Wi-Fi, a great little pool and fitness center, a fun bar and casual restaurant, and friendly and helpful staff. This is one of the best values in the city.

Also very popular are two B&Bs a short drive or 10- to 15-minute walk east of downtown: The Avalon B&B, which has four rooms with such elegant touches as comfy leather armchairs, hardwood floors, and exposed-brick walls, depending on the unit (plus in-room satellite TV and Wi-Fi).

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LGBT Nightlife

The Lookout Bar, a festive and welcoming gay nightspot in the vibrant ByWard Market district (on the ground floor is the excellent Pan-Asian restaurant, Kinki
Andrew Collins

Ottawa may not have a huge number of gay bars, but the ones you'll find here are fun, friendly, and in great neighborhoods - close to downtown (and the city's best hotels), and also within an easy stroll of many good restaurants.

Packed with chic bars and buzzing nightclubs, the ByWard Market district also has one very popular gay hangout, the Lookout Bar, which occupies the upper level of a vintage redbrick building. There's a large balcony offering prime viewing of the neighborhood, hence the name "Lookout", and inside this cozy club, there's dancing, drag shows, and karaoke, depending on the night. Fridays the Lookout hosts a popular lesbian party. The other GLBT option in ByWard Market is Mercury Lounge, which is a mainstream club most of the time. But on HUMP Wednesday, this three-story club with a decidedly youthful, stylish following caters to the queer set, with dancing, martinis, and other fun goings-on.

There are a few gay nightspots downtown, including a welcoming, friendly bar called Swizzles, which serves up karaoke, cabaret, and other entertainment. It's known to pull in a mix of lesbians, gay men, and heteros. 

Ottawa has a somewhat small and basic bathhouse, Central Spa Ottawa (formerly Club Ottawa), a short drive west of downtown in Westboro Village - expect a somewhat mature crowd here.

In the Gay Village on Bank Street, One In Ten carries a huge selection of gay porn, toys, and erotica and also has a backroom X-rated movie theater.

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05 of 06

Popular LGBT Shopping

Drop by After Stonewall, in the Bank Street Gay Village, for Pride gifts, GLBT books, and more
Andrew Collins

Ottawa has a handful of shops with particular strong GLBT followings, several of them in the Bank Street Village. Wicked Wanda's is a well-stocked adult erotica shop known for its helpful and friendly staff (they're very happy to answer questions and offer advice). Here you can pick up DVDs and movies; all sorts of toys, vibrators, and dildos; and sexy lingerie and S&M gear. Also along Bank Street, "Book Bazaar is a terrific used general-interest bookshop. 

In addition to the many excellent restaurants in the ByWard neighborhood, there's the public market for which the district is named: ByWard Market is one of the biggest and long-running such facilities in the country. The market contains dozens of food retailers proffering gelato, baked goods, fresh fruit, deli goods, prepared foods, and more. The ByWard Market website also lists the dozens of independent restaurants, shops, galleries, bars, and other services in the neighborhood. On the edge of ByWard Market, Schad Blu is a trendy clothier - your one-stop for Diesel, True Religion, Elvis Jesus, and more.

Among major downtown shopping malls, the Rideau Centre is a huge three-level mall attached to the Ottawa Convention Centre and the Westin Ottawa Hotel. It's right in the center of downtown, across from the Rideau Canal, and it's packed with popular brands like Coach, Hugo Boss, Calvin Klein, Zara, HMV, and many others.

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06 of 06

Side Trips: Wakefield, Quebec, and Merrickville, Ontario

A covered bridge spans the Gatineau River in the charming town of Wakefield, Quebec, a popular and easy day trip from Ottawa
Andrew Collins

Wakefield, Quebec (and Gatineau Park)

If you're looking for an opportunity to slip out of town and get into the country, consider a day-trip to one of the historic river towns within an easy drive of Ontario. To the north, in Quebec, the village of Wakefield is an artsy, bustling town with a beautiful red-clapboard covered bridge and a number of excellent restaurants. It's just about a 45-minute drive from Ottawa, and en route, you might stop and spend some time in Gatineau Park.

The Wakefield covered bridge is a pedestrian-only wooden structure across the Gatineau River - you can access it from Hendrick Park, a few miles from downtown. Along the western side of the river, several distinctive boutiques, galleries, and restaurants overlook the water. Good bets for lunch or dinner include romantic Cafe Pot Au Feu and the lively Bistro Rutherford, at the Black Sheep Inn.

At Gatineau Park, there are miles of trails, verdant picnic areas, lakes for boating, and a well-designed visitor center with a natural-history museum and displays on the area's eco-system. Near Gatineau Park's headquarters, the village of Chelsea has a handful of inviting restaurants, including Les Saisons Cafe, a great little coffeehouse, and historic Chelsea Pub.

Merrickville, Ontario

About an hour's drive south of Ottawa, the lovely town of Merrickville is set on a scenic span of the historic Rideau Canal and is a picturesque spot for shopping, dining, or - in autumn - leaf-peeping. The town abounds with neatly preserved historic houses and buildings set along tree-shaded lanes. It's a popular destination for kayaking and canoeing, and shopping for antiques and vintage books. And you'll find no shortage of inviting restaurants and quaint B&Bs. The Baldachin Inn has a particularly strong GLBT following.