A Food Lover’s City Break in Ottawa’s Byward Market

Ottawa has a bit of a bad rap amongst Canadians.

Visiting Toronto in Ontario and Montreal in Quebec, as soon as we mentioned that we were heading to the nation’s capital we were immediately asked why and told not to bother! Ottawa was dismissed as dull, boring and not worthy of our time by several people we encountered. I suspect a lot of this is down to the fact that for many Canadians, their first (and often only) experience of Ottawa is on a school trip where they are forced to traipse around Parliament Hill – the seat of national government, the Canadian Museum of History, the War Museum, the National Library and other such places guaranteed to make a teenager yawn.

But the reality is that Ottawa is a wonderful city to visit, especially for those of us with a love of beautiful architecture and good food and drink.

Of course, you can visit Parliament Hill and one or more of Ottawa’s many museums if you like – as well as the ones I’ve already mentioned, there are museums for Agriculture and Food, Aviation and Space, Science and Technology, History, Nature and Art.

Collage - Ottawa 2016

But we chose to focus our short visit on the food and drink delights of Byward Market and this bright and bustling neighbourhood quickly won over our hearts and our bellies.

In a rare case of perfect timing, we were able to stay in the brand new Andaz Ottawa Byward Market, which opened just days ahead of our visit. Located right in the heart of the neighbourhood, the Andaz provided luxurious rooms with beautiful views across the city, a good solid breakfast to start the day and warm and friendly service.

Andaz Hotel - Ottawa 2016

As soon as we had arrived, checked in and sent the car to be parked we booked ourselves onto a cruise along ‘the Canal’ with Rideau Canal Cruises. Unlike other tourist cruises we have taken, we really appreciated having a live commentary rather than a canned one, and our guide gave us a great introduction to the history of the canal, and the city itself.

Rideau Canal Collage - Ottawa 2016

In short, Ottawa was originally named Bytown for Colonel John By, the British royal military engineer who built the Rideau Canal, a strategic waterway between Kingston and Montreal. As the town grew, Colonel By also laid out street plans for two neighbourhoods known then as Uppertown, where the wealthier residents lived, purchased plots and built grand homes, and Lowertown, which was leased to Irish and French Canadian immigrants and labourers. Is is the area of Lowertown that is now known as Byward Market and is a bustling and eclectic food-focused neighbourhood. Just before being chosen by Queen Victoria as the capital of her colony in Canada, Bytown was renamed to Ottawa.

For fellow history geeks… click here for the longer version...

The place we know now as Ottawa has been inhabited for over 6500 years by native Canadian populations, chiefly the Algonquin people who settled along the banks of the Ottawa River which they used as a highway for trade and cultural exchange. It was first visited by European explorers in 1610, followed by traders and missionaries. In 1800, a New England trader settled there, creating a small but thriving agricultural community (called Wrightsville for its founder) and establishing an immensely successful lumber business.

But it was not until 1826 that the city proper really established itself, as hundreds of land speculators acted upon the news that British authorities were constructing a military canal that would connect Kingston to the south with Montreal to the North. The purpose of the canal was to provide a secure transportation route that would bypass the stretch of the St Lawrence River that bordered New York and had exposed British forces to American enemy fire in the War of 1812.

The building of the canal was overseen by British military engineer Colonel John By, and took six hard years. By’s amazing feat of engineering, during which he overcame all manner of difficulties – from malarial swamps to the requirement to build far more locks than anticipated to allow for changing levels – are clearly recognised today but at the time he was soundly derided for escalating costs, loss of life and the lengthy construction period. During the period of construction, By established a military barracks where Parliament Hill now sits and drew up street plans for Uppertown and Lowertown neighbourhoods. The growing city quickly became known as Bytown.

In those days, it was a violent and lawless place known for fighting, prostitution and thievery. Uppertown was a wealthy and predominantly Protestant neighbourhood where residents owned their lots and homes whereas Lowerton (where Byward Market sits today) was populated by poorer Irish immigrants and French Canadian lumberjacks, most of whom were Roman Catholic and were not permitted to buy land, nor participate in local governance. This resulted in huge animosity which often flared into vicious uprisings, culminating in a political crisis in the 1830s. At this point, the Crown finally allowed Lowertown residents to buy land and property and to vote, though it took another decade or two for the unrest to settle down.

The fate of the city finally changed for the better in the mid 19th century. In 1855 it was renamed to Ottawa and in 1857 Queen Victoria made the surprise decision to establish the province’s capital there, snubbing the political lobbyists of the fledgling nation’s more-established cities. Ottawa was far more defensible from American attack, being situated much further inland from the border, and the Rideau Canal meant that it was easy to supply from both east and west provinces. It was also the midpoint between Quebec City in the French-speaking Canada East and Toronto in the English-speaking Canada West. Soon after, construction of the rather grand Parliament Hill building began, now a key landmark of the Ottawa landscape.

Riding the canal was a very serene introduction to Ottawa, and we really appreciated the historical grounding we were given by our guide.

Byward Market Core Building Collage - Ottawa 2016

We built upon that by booking a guided walking food tour of Byward Market with C’est Bon, and were happy to find we were the only guests booked on that weekday afternoon.

Byward Market Neighbourhood Collage - Ottawa 2016

Our guide, Britney was a real food lover herself and enthusiastic about showing us around the neighbourhood, sharing lots of interesting stories about the area’s history as well as the various specialist retailers we visited. I loved learning that when Colonel By had laid out the neighbourhood street plan, he’d deliberately made George and York Streets extra wide to allow space for holding a market, and for the horses and carriages of both traders and visiting customers.

The tour includes lots and lots of stops at some of the best shops and stalls in the neighbourhood (including some in the covered market building itself) and tastings at many of them.

We loved trying Canadian cheeses at The House of Cheese, delicious raspberry cupcakes at The Cupcake Lounge (I’m not usually a huge fan of cupcakes but these were really amazing!), a cold fruit tea infusion at teastore (a store selling hundreds of homemade teas featuring all manner of teas, fruits and herbs ), maple syrup from producer Robert Hupé of Maple Country Sugarbush (who gave us a great primer on the production and types of maples syrup) and aged Parmigiano-Reggiano at Italian deli La Botegga Nicastro. And that’s not even the whole list!

One of my favourite stops was a specialist grocery shop called Byward Fruit Market, not least for the charmingly worn hand-painted shop sign outside. Inside, friendly staff proudly showed off their store and some of the more unusual produce and food products they stock.

Byward Market Fruit and Veg Collage - Ottawa 2016

I also loved the fresh produce market area, full of all manner of fruit and vegetables.

Britney explained how the signs above each stall tell customers more about the produce. A green sign indicates that the stall holder produces 100% of their goods themselves. If the sign is yellow, that indicates that the vendor produces at least 60% of their goods. And red is used for vendors who source most or all of their products from elsewhere.

While we were walking and talking fruits, Britney told us about a personal favourite of hers, the hardy kiwi aka arctic kiwi. To my delight, we found a stall selling these and bought a punnet – see the photo of bowls of red, green and blue fruit above? These smooth-skinned little green fruits are a type of kiwi fruit that can be eaten whole, skins and all and they are super sweet and delicious. We are hoping to grow them at home in our garden, thanks to the tip from Britney that these thrive in colder climates.

Byward Market Restaurants Collage - Ottawa 2016

As well as visiting so many food stalls and shops, we also stopped for sit-down tastings at a couple of local restaurants. We had some fresh guacamole and nachos at Mexican restaurant, Corazon De Maiz (considered by those in the know as one of the best eateries in the city), a fresh-out-of-the-tandoor hot-buttered naan at Shafali Indian (which we were able to watch being made), one of the best Naples-style pizzas I’ve had for a while at The Grand Pizzeria (where the pizza maker put on quite a show for us as he stretched the dough) and a amuse-bouche style taster of one of the sharing dishes at Play Food & Wine.

Byward Market is such a compact area – with hundreds of stalls, shops, cafes and restaurants – that you could certainly explore it on your own. However, we found the tour a really enjoyable way of getting a feel for the area, and then went on to explore it further on our own afterwards. C’est Bon offer several walking food tours in Ottawa including two in Byward Market, as there’s just so much to cover in this neighbourhood. We took the Byward Market Courtyards tour which covers the West side of the area; the other one is called the Lowertown tour and focuses on Dalhousie and Murray Streets.

Brew Donkey Black Tomato - Ottawa 2016

I mentioned right at the start that Ottawa is a great destination for food and drink lovers, and you may be wondering where the drink part of that is.

Although we weren’t in town on the right day to take one of Brew Donkey’s guided and chauffeured brewery tours, we were able to meet up with founder Brad Campeau who told us all about the booming beer scene in Ottawa. Within an hour of Ottawa city centre you can find nearly twenty craft breweries, many of whom have launched only within the last few years. There are a couple of micro-breweries right in the heart of town too, and several bars and restaurants that stock a great range of local beers. We met at Black Tomato, one such restaurant, and enjoyed a delicious dinner and some great beers.

If you plan in advance, you may also be able to coincide your visit with one of the beer markets or festivals run regularly in the city; a great way of meeting many of the brewers in one place, and sampling the range of their beers.

Beaver Tails - Ottawa 2016

One Ottawa institution I was very keen to visit was Beaver Tails, one of Canada’s most famous pastries, yet only harking back to 1978. It started out as a family-run food concession at a craft and community fair in Killaloe, Ontario before taking its first permanent home in Ottawa’s Byward Market. It’s now an international business with stores across Canada as well as franchises in America, Japan and South Korea.

Chloe Gervais, manager of the Byward Market store, was kind enough to let Pete and I have a go at making our own beaver tails, after showing us how it’s done.

Making Beaver Tails Wide Collage - Ottawa 2016
Click on the image to view a larger version

These days the whole wheat cracked wheat dough is made in a a central production centre and sent out daily to each store. Each piece is stretched out into the elongated shape of a beaver’s tail, before being slipped gently into the hot oil and turned over a few times as it deep fries. Once it comes out of the oil and has drained for a few seconds, it is painted with melted butter and generously topped with the customer’s chosen flavours – cinnamon sugar, maple butter, chocolate hazelnut spread, fresh sliced bananas, peanut butter and even a savoury option of garlic butter and cheese.

Pete did a great job, and made a delicious maple butter beaver tail which he enjoyed hot and fresh. I had mine with hazelnut chocolate spread with fresh bananas. Delicious!

Beaver Tails really come into their own during the very cold Ottawa winters when the Rideau Canal freezes over and a long stretch within the heart of the city becomes the second largest skating rink in the world at nearly 5 miles long. Beaver Tail set up stands along the length of the frozen canal, and sell lots of hot, freshly fried treats to the many skaters braving the cold weather. An hour of ice skating sounds like a great way to burn off enough calories to indulge in lots of these deep fried treats!

Sash Gelato Collage - Ottawa 2016

If you love gelato, do visit Sash Gelato Cafe – a locally-owned gelateria. They make truly excellent gelato every day using natural ingredients and there are some wonderful flavours to choose from. We visited both nights of our stay in Ottawa and I can strongly recommend their hazelnut chocolate, tiramisu and pistachio gelatos, all of which were superb. Pete gave their coffee a huge thumbs up too.

Bridgehead Roastery Collage - Ottawa 2016

My last recommendation is a local coffee chain with twenty branches around town, including one on Dalhousie Street by Byward Market.

Bridgehead’s history makes for interesting reading – it was initially set up in 1981 to support small-scale coffee farmers in Nicaragua, and was the first Fair Trade coffee offering in Ottawa. It’s been through a few changes of ownership since then.

We visited the roastery on our way out of town. Built in 2012, this is where the chain’s coffee is roasted and baked treats for the coffee shops are made. The roastery, located between China Town and Centretown West, is a spacious, high-ceilinged industrial cavern with coffee roasting to one side, a coffee shop to the other side and kitchens at the back. If you have a car, or are happy to use public transport to hop around town, do drop in for some excellent coffee.

Our two nights in Ottawa flew by far too quickly – we could easily have spent another day exploring just Byward Market alone, let alone venturing out to the many other appealing neighbourhoods in the city. On our next visit, we will also set a day aside to visit some of the many craft breweries in and around Ottawa and see more of the beautiful natural landscape of the region too.

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Foodies Break in Ottawa Canada (tall)

Kavey Eats visited Ottawa as guests of Ottawa Tourism.

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52 Comments to "A Food Lover’s City Break in Ottawa’s Byward Market"

  1. kaveyeats

    Yeah on my first trip it was all about Toronto, Montreal and Quebec City. But Ottawa really is worth including in the itinerary, especially Byward Market.

    Reply
  2. Sharon

    Omg that beaver tail look delicious! It looks like you guys had a blast in Ottowa. I am so glad you shared your experience so others see how great of a place it is to visit.

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Those Beaver Tails are amazing! We loved Ottawa and I really hope more people give it a chance.

    Reply
  3. April J Harris

    I’m really surprised people described Ottawa as boring – like you I think it is a wonderful place to visit! I have never been to Byward Market though – what a fabulous treasure trove of deliciousness! We are planning a trip to Ottawa the next time we go to Canada so I’ve pinned this post for reference.

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Yes, it made me apprehensive but actually we loved our time there and wished we had another 2 nights! Some even said if it wasn’t too late we should cancel the visit and go somewhere else. Really surprising!

    Reply
  4. kaveyeats

    That’s great Bintu, then you should definitely go to Ottawa when you visit Canada. The fruit market was amazing, as was the entire neighbourhood.

    Reply
  5. Lucy Parissi

    I love Montreal and enjoy Toronto. Never had the chance to visit Ottawa but it looks absolutely fantastic! So many things to do, see and (yay!) eat.

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    kaveyeats

    I love both cities too, and each one is so different and well worth visiting. Definitely time to include Ottawa on your next trip!

    Reply
  6. Julie Cao

    I met several people that has lived in Ottawa and they all say it is a boring city, but I went there on the 1st of July and it totally different. My friend and I spend the whole afternoon and night walk around the Byward market, and we love the stalls and the exquisite restaurants. Rideau Canal is so peaceful and cool on the summer nights.

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    I’m so glad you’ve said this, and had those same conversations followed by the discovery that those people are wrong about Ottawa! Thank you for commenting!

    Reply
  7. kaveyeats

    Yeah, we had a great visit, we were there 2 nights, got in for lunch time on day 1 and had to leave early the last day, so we only had a day and a half. I’d like to spend longer next time!

    Reply
  8. Gingey Bites

    I love your travel pieces, they always inspire me to go to new places and this one is no exception! Love the potted history and it looks like you ate some amazing food!

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Heheh, did you read the short or long version of the history? I don’t know how many history geeks are reading 😉 It’s a lovely place to visit, thank you for your kind words!

    Reply
  9. Katie Bryson

    Wow what a fab place… I especially love the look of the fruit market, just the kind of place I could wander around for hours. I need more travel in my life….

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    I love produce markets in Canada, they are just so appealing, so full of fantastic fruit and veg, I can lose hours!

    Reply
  10. Carla Abanes

    OMG! That pizza and that breakfast plate! Ottawa does sound lovely to visit and I love hitting food markets when travelling. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    It was a very very very good pizza, I’m pretty fussy about pizzas and it got a huge thumbs up from me. The breakfast at the Andaz was a joy too. And me too on the food markets, can lose hours in the good ones!

    Reply
  11. Hugo Cura

    I keep on adding reasons to visit Canada. Ottawa looks like a great place to visit and the market is amazing – lots of variety!

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    I love Canada. I’ve written a whole series of posts on some of my experiences in Ontario and Quebec. Next trip I hope to go West!

    Reply
  12. Natalie

    It looks like you had a great time! It’s cool that you highlighted how Ottawa as an interesting place to visit. When I think of visiting Canada, typically Quebec, Vancouver, and Toronto come to mind. It’s great of you all to point out Ottawa as well. The beer, canals, food, and ice cream all seem great!

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Thanks Natalie, yes it’s a great place and craft beer lovers really should put it on their itineraries!

    Reply
  13. Chrysoula

    I totally agree with you guys. ottawa does deserve a visit. I love the canaltour you did . I love doing them it gives you another perspective of the city.

    Reply
  14. Tara

    I have heard the same things about Ottawa, that it’s not worth the visit. Thanks for turning that notion on its head. It looks like you found some really amazing culinary attractions!

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    kaveyeats

    Definitely worth visiting, at least a couple of nights, or three if you’re taking a more leisurely itinerary.

    Reply
  15. Maddy

    I really like when someone says a place is dull/ ugly/ not worth visiting and then you get the chance to prove them completely wrong. That’s exactly what I don’t listen to negative reviews on places! I am 100% adding this to my bucket list as the food you’ve tried is utterly divine!

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Yes, it’s a great feeling. Honestly, after the last few negative comments, I was feeling a little apprehensive about our visit and whether I’d like it, so I was very happy to discover such an appealing neighbourhood. I definitely want to see more of Ottawa next time.

    Reply
  16. kaveyeats

    I could have spent longer but our lovely guide organised a little taste of a particular cheese for us and then had us quickly moving on. We covered lots of places on that tour!

    Reply
  17. Brenda Tolentino

    Wow, you lucked out twice on this trip! Being one of the first hotel guests and also the only people on the wonderful food tour. The breakfast looked so delicious and Byward market eats looks delectable. I’ll keep this in mind when we visit Ottawa.

    Reply
    kaveyeats

    Yes, we loved the hotel and it was so shiny and new. There were a couple of minor snags that they were still working out, but staff were very quick and willing to fix any such things, so it wasn’t an issue for us at all. The location was so perfect. Food in the neighbourhood is great fun, especially the little stands and casual places.

    Reply
  18. Indrani

    How can Ottawa be boring with all these!
    The amazing variety of food you have shown tempted me a lot.
    Love cruises in new cities… the only problem with commentaries during the tour is that I forget everything once I return home. 😛 🙂

    Reply
  19. kaveyeats

    Thanks Becca, yes me too, would easily have been able to spend longer just browsing that market area.

    Reply
  20. Laura@howtocookgoodfood

    You always have the most brilliant adventures, I’d love to visit Canada and now will keep Ottawa in mind if and when I manage to get there. I’d need to throw in a bit of skiing too so maybe plan a winter trip 😉

    Reply

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