15 practical facts you need to know about Ottawa

When I moved to Ottawa in 2018 I knew very little about the city. I’d already been in Ottawa as a tourist in 2015 but real life 24/7 is a totally different thing. I remember getting lost driving my car many times, just because I didn’t know that my neighborhood was in the eastern part of the city.

How many times did I take the wrong direction entering on to highway 417 going west instead of east? Finally, a Peruvian friend, who had been living in Ottawa for some time, told me that my house was to the east. What a gift! I never got lost again. I must say that I’m not that great with directions.

That’s why I decided to write this post, to help newcomers to be less lost, like I felt during those first few weeks. In this post you’ll find practical advice and facts I would have liked to know when I first moved to Ottawa.

1. Ottawa, the capital of Canada

Ottawa is Canada’s capital and is located in the province of Ontario. It’s the second largest city in Ontario after Toronto, which is the capital of the province. Ottawa forms, with the city of Gatineau (on the Quebec side), the National Capital Region. The cities are separated by the Ottawa river.

Ottawa is the seat of Canada’s Parliament, all the ministries and foreign embassies. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau lives in Ottawa.

Chateau Laurier and Rideau canal locks

2. Population

Ottawa is a city of one million people, a milestone it reached in 2019. It’s the fifth largest city in Canada after Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and Calgary. Ottawa’s population is highly educated, with more than two thirds of its residents holding a university degree.

In 2019, Ottawa welcomed almost 11,000 new immigrants. Immigrants represent 23,8% of its population. Most immigrants come from Asia and the Middle East (53%), Africa (17%) and Europe (15%).

3. Language

Ottawa is a bilingual city, but English is spoken predominantly. All public signs, and signs for goverment institutions are written in English and French. If you’d like to work for the government, being bilingual is a big plus, but it’s not necessary to be bilingual to work in Ottawa.

4. Neighborhoods

Ottawa is organized in 23 wards with downtown in the middle, the neighborhoods of Orleans and Cumberland in the east end and the neighborhood of Kanata in the west end. Other neighborhoods are Nepean, The Glebe, Westboro, Rockcliff Park, Altavista, Barrhaven, Gloucester, Riverside South, and Findlay Creek.

5. Weather

Ottawa has the most capricious weather, and it’s a weather of extremes. In winter the temperatures can drop to -27 degrees Celsius, and with the windchill it can feel almost like -40. While in summer the temperature can go up to 37 degrees and it can feel like 43 degrees with the humedex.

Moreover, all types of metereological events happen in Ottawa. In the summer there are rainstorms, electrical storms and tornados! In the winter there are snowstorms, blizzards, freezing rain and hail. You must know that it snows a lot in Ottawa, and it is definitely a snowy city.

Ottawa doesn’t have stable temperatures. It can be -24 one day, and the next one 5 degrees. It can start snowing in December one year, and in the middle of November the next year. Surely the winter is very long in Ottawa if we measure it by the presence of snow. It can last from the middle of November to April.

6. Schools

There are four school boards in Ottawa: The Ottawa Catholic School Board, and the Conseil des Ecoles Catholiques du Centre-Est. Both group the Catholic schools, but the first one is for anglophone schools, and the second one for francophone schools.

Besides those two boards, there are the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board and the Conseil des Ecoles Publiques de l’Est de l’Ontario. The first one is for english public schools, and the second for french public schools.

There are many private schools in Ottawa, with the best known being located in the Rockcliff neighborhood.

7. Universities and Colleges

There’re seven institutions which offer post-secondary education in Ottawa. The most well-known includes the University of Ottawa, which ranks 13 in Canada, and 281 in the QS World University Rankings® 2020. The second is Carleton University, which ranks 20 in the country ranking and 601-650 in the world.

There’s also Algonquin College, which ranks 31 in the Canada ranking, La Cité (or City College), University of Saint Paul, Dominican University College, and La Cité College of Applied Arts and Technology.

8. Public Transportation

Since September 2019 the city has had a metro, a light rail system operated by OC Transpo that crosses Ottawa from the station known as Tunney’s Pasture in the west to Blair station in the east. The second phase of the project is currently in construction and is expected to be finished completely by 2025. The light rail trains are complemented by a system of buses.

You can buy a Presto Card to pay for fares online at https://www.prestocard.ca/en or in the Customer Service Centre located in Rideau Mall downtown, or at the fare vending machines in all subway stations.

9. Festivals

There are many festivals in Ottawa, especially during summer weekends, but among the biggest has be the Tulip Festival, which takes place in May when one million tulips blossom and decorate Ottawa’s public parks with beautiful colors! This festival attracts 600.000 people.

Ottawa’s Tulip Festival

Another popular festival is Winterlude, which takes place in February, aiming to motivate people to get out of their homes and have fun in the snow and cold.

Another big festival is the Blues Fest in July, which features a massive number of musical concerts.

10. Main attractions

The most iconic building in Ottawa is Parliament, a majestic neo-gothic building with a 98 meter tower. Parliament Hill is the center of political power in Canada. Unfortunately for tourists, it’s closed to visits due to remodeling and repair work that will last 10 years! But tourists can still visit the West Bloc, where the House of Commons meets in the meantime.

The most touristic area in the city is the Byward Market, probably the best destination for shopping, dining, arts, and entertainment for residents and visitors. The area receives on average 50,000 visitors per weekend during the summer.

Check out what to find in Byward Market

Another attraction is the Rideau Canal and its locks, built in the 19th century for military purposes. It never served for that and has been limited to the transit of boats for leasure activities. In winter a 7,8 kilometer section of the canal is turned into the largest skating rink in the world.

Other sites of interest are: the Chateau Laurier, a hotel that is another emblematic building in the downtown area; the Notre Dame cathedral, and the National Art Gallery with its sculpture of a giant spider.

11. Museums

Ottawa, as Canada’s capital, has many great museums, and seven of them are national museums. These include the: National Art Gallery of Canada, Canadian Museum of History, Canada Science and Technology Museum, Canada Aviation and Space Museum, Canada Agriculture and Food Museum, Canada Museum of Nature, and Canadian War Museum.

Most of the museums in Ottawa offer free entrance on Thursday afternoons!

12. Malls

There’re two major malls in Ottawa. The largest is the Rideau Centre, https://www.cfshops.com/rideau-centre.html a four-level shopping centre located downtown, which is home to 170 retailers and receives almost 20 million visitors each year; and Bayshore, http://www.bayshoreshoppingcentre.com located in the western part of the city, and which attract almost 7 million visitors per year.

Other large indoor malls are Saint Laurent and Place d’Orleans in the east. But if you’re looking for very good deals, visit Tanger Oulets, located in the Kanata neighborhood in the west end. https://www.tangeroutlet.com/ottawa. This shopping area host 79 brand name stores.

13. Beaches

There are four beaches inside the city that are located on the banks of rivers. The most popular is Mooney’s Bay, and the largest one is Petrie Island, in the Orleans neighborhood. There’s also Britannia beach and Westboro beach, the smallest of all four. All of them have washrooms, parking, and places to buy snacks or drinks.

Petrie Island beach

14. Immigrant services

If you’re immigrant you will be happy to know that there are non-profit organizations aimed at helping immigrants in Ottawa find a job, learn English, or just settle down and adjust as smootly as possible to the city.

Some of them are: World Skills, https://ottawa-worldskills.org/ Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization, https://ociso.org/ Catholic Centre for Immigrants, http://cciottawa.ca/ and Immigrant Women Services Ottawa https://www.immigrantwomenservices.com/.

15. International products stores

If you miss your country’s food and culinary treats, you’ll be happy to know that there are some stores specializing in selling groceries and diverse products from all over the world. Examples are the Mid-East Food Centre https://www.mideastfoods.com/ and Bienvenidos Latin Market, http://bienvenidos.ca/, which specializes in products from Latin America.

How do you like this list of things about Ottawa? Do you think something is missing? Feel free to comment if you have any other recommendation. Take care.

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5 thoughts on “15 practical facts you need to know about Ottawa

  1. Congrats, I admire your effort not just for writing in advance and native English also for give us useful information. I hope to meet you in a few months. Bests, Diego

    1. Thank you so much Fidel for your kind words! I wish I could also write posts in advanced French! I’ll check out your website. All the best. Carla

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