As Ottawa prepares for the 150th year anniversary of Canada where there will be many events - probably costly ones from the way the advertising has already begun on it despite being a year away there are six free things you can do in Ottawa that are vastly worthwhile whether you are visiting as a backpacker at a hostel or with your family.
A stone's throw from Parliament Hill, easily the most iconic image of not only Ottawa but all of Canada, is Canada's Supreme Court. You can take free tours of the building where important cases are contested and can change the way the rest of Canada's legal system thinks. Surprisingly the art deco designed building is more important than Drake to Canada.
Aside from being the place where the very handsome Prime Minster Justin Trudeau spends a lot of his time working, Parliament Hill is the main attraction for Ottawa. Inside the historical building you'll be able to see the many portraits of Canada's previous Prime Minister's as well as the remarkable portrait of Queen Victoria which somehow survived the original parliament building burning down during WWII as well as two other earlier fires. That portrait is proof that fire cannot kill a dragon. You get to see this and more thanks to the free tour that is put on by government employees. Depending on the time of year you go you can get a completely different tour to anyone else.
Whether you go to Ottawa in winter or summer there is always something going on. Most important is the cultural creativity of the city as there is outdoor art. Sometimes in ice while others are in steel. Artist Louise Bourgeois created a well-known large spider that is reminiscent of Tim Burton's iconic artistry. The piece is entitled 'Maman' and sits outside of the National Gallery of Canada. Some pieces aren't as obvious, however. On a parking garage on Murray Street there are fourteen alley cat sculptures. There are more than just these two pieces and the best part of this it being able to find it all yourself through your self-directed tour through the city.
If you're like me, stargazing is your jam. In a city it is nearly impossible without a lot of money, right? Wrong because Ottawa's Science and Technology Museum offers free use of their telescopes to patrons. Go to Ottawa and see the stars!
The Peace Tower is a free addition to the already free tour of Parliament Hill where you are able to take an elevator to the 360 degree view of the city and hear the bells chime from the iconic building. The tower signifies remembrance of past wars and a vow to keep peace in future wars and is the greatest cultural marker of the Canadian people because while it may seem like a call to arms the Peace Tower is about the 'Victory of Peace' with figures showing us how to be peaceful including a quote from the iconic poem In Flander's Fields. If the historical important of the building doesn't matter much to you (no judgement, seriously) you can great photos from the top of the whole city where you could do six things for free!
With Toronto being one of the world's most diverse cities means that hipsters and bohemians alike flock to it like the oh-so Canadian Goose. Like any other there are parts where the regular tourists go as well but I'm here to share a few secrets about hipster hotspots.
It's a well-known fact that Kensington Market is on the up-and-up for hipsters but where to eat has remained a secret from outsiders. I'm about to abandon my own when I say go to Pho Hung for the best Vietnamese food, outside of Vietnam I've ever eaten to my recollection. While the customer service of the waitstaff might leave a little room to be desired as they don't all speak perfect English, the owner is one of the sweetest men. As it's a very busy restaurant, I don't recommend going with more than a group of four. If Vietnamese food isn't your thing, there is an overwhelming plethora of spots in Kensington Market too. With a growing market for veganism and gluten-free food, whatever your diet needs you will be able to find it there.
2. Street Art
Whether you call street art a nuisance, graffiti or vandalism that doesn't change the fact that it is illegal. Sorry Banksy, you're not wanted in the 6. Well other than 'Graffiti Alley' which is right down town. This street is where it is legal and encouraged for street artists to create murals and all the graffiti art their hearts can handle. This spot is getting quite popular for hipsters for Instagrams or Tumblr accounts. Whether you want to go to create your own art or to take polaroids of yourself in front of others; Graffiti Alley is the spot to be.
In Old Toronto there is the Distillery District which has a distinctly hipster feel. With red brick buildings everywhere it's the perfect place to spend an afternoon, just be careful of the Segways. Yes, there are Segway tours through the Distillery District but it's a fairly small neighbourhood so you should be fine walking. This area is perfect for shopping because there are a lot of local, more obscure brands with beautiful clothes but if you're less likely to go shopping you can always just spend your time at the array of bars or hole-in-the-wall cafes. There is even a little play house called the Soulpepper. You really have everything to fulfill your hipster needs there.
With drink culture changing rapidly within the hipster community as it does with popular culture one of the best places that seems to have stander for at least a little while is speakeasy, Cold Tea. It's not an easy find by any means but worth it for great drinks and a unique local in Kensington Market. If that doesn't suit you, The Black Hoof is a favourite of many for their cocktails. Sadly, they don't offer many non-meat based foods but that's not what you're there for anyway.
Road trip season is not upon us just yet but that hardly stopped me from ridesharing, so it didn't stop me from going to a very friendly town. Almonte is a small village with just under 5000 people living there and growing steadily which is, in part, due to the festivals that take place there but mostly due to the beauty of the people and the nature which is celebrated there.
Running through Almonte is the Mississippi River which freezes over the winter but in the summer people can kayak or canoe across and even jump off of one of the biggest bridges, which used to be a train crossing but has since been abandoned, in the village. It makes the summer's heat worth it just to plunge into the nice, clean water for me but that's because I don't have the patience to fish where as many do in Almonte because for many in the little town sustainability is important.
If you still are wondering why else you should visit Almonte, there are so many boutiques that have such an interesting selection like Hello Yellow, The Tin Barn Market or Crush Marketplace. Be sure that before you go, however, you stop by the best coffee shop in town for a fair trade, organic coffee at Equator Coffee Roasters where the staff are as friendly as can be - I should know, I used to work there! Depending on the season, there are many events that take place too like the Harvest Festival where local artisans and artists pieces are shown off to the public, one of the stops is Equator due to the art they post from local artists. It makes the stop worthwhile especially during the fall.
After a coffee and a bit of shopping, tuck in for a nice meal at one of the two best restaurants in Almonte. The Mill Street Crepe Company, is just as it sounds a creperie, which is perfect for a brunch. Be sure to get a window seat to people watch the friendly people of Almonte. My personal favourite is the croque monsieur or if you've got a sweet tooth, be sure to try the Nutella crepe. What can get better than Nutella and carbs? Not much, really! However, if you are hankering for dinner or something a little less niche, The Heirloom Cafe and Bistro brings fine dining to small town Ontario in the best of ways. Owner and Head Chef, Richard Kletnieks has an open concept kitchen and is extremely personable with the patrons - just as the waitresses are. My favourite dish is the Atlantic sea scallops because I'm a sucker for a nice charmoula. Be sure to try one of their house cocktails too!
Between all that shopping and delicious food, you'll see that there is a bronze statue of Dr James Naismith. Why would the creator of basketball be featured in a town so small? Well, he was actually from Almonte - a point of pride for many people in the village. His likeness is in the centre of the main street, be sure to snap a selfie with him. Nearby is one of the oldest buildings in the town, the town hall where you can actually rent bikes for the day inexpensively and learn just a little bit more about Almonte's history from under General Juan Almonte, the namesake of the town. This and more can be found in Old Town Hall, a place that is visible throughout almost all of Almonte.
If you happen to make your way to Almonte in winter, it's cold sure but totally worth it because the hiking trails that are beautiful in the summer are even more so with snow all around. My favourite routes are at the Mill of Kintail, a conservation area a short drive away from the town centre, where you can bring snow shoes or cross country skis and embrace the beauty of Eastern Ontario all around you.
If the cold isn't your forte, there is a museum in town as well to do with the history of Almonte and the way it was built through the textile industry. The Mississippi Valley Textile Museum is a definite must-see for any visitors. With this and everything else you'll be able to see why Almonte is the friendly town.
The traveller's survival guide to New York City should be extensive in many ways but especially when it comes to New Year's Eve. I've spent many a magical night abroad and been to parties all over but they all pale in comparison to the concrete jungle during the countdown to the New Year. Here's how to survive it - even when you travel solo.
Firstly, you must make the key decision. Will you go to Times Square to celebrate? I didn't. Instead I enjoyed my day doing other things until night fell where I met up with people at my hostel for pre-drinks. Perhaps a few too many but it was New Years Eve and I had a flight to Ottawa at 7am so I'd have to make the night last well into the morning.
Shortly thereafter we left our hostel for another where we would tag along to Brother Jimmy's a pub with a big enough area to dance and play arcade games all at once. We met people from all around the world and you would too. This made the night something worthwhile to be sure. However, as midnight was approaching we didn't want to be cooped inside.
What was just meant to be my group of six people ended up with the entire bar following us to Central Park after we were, probably loudly, discussing how to get there and someone shouted into the bar that everyone should get their coats to go to Central Park. Going through the streets followed by what felt like a hundred people while singing and dancing behind and with us made me feel like I was on top of the world. Oddly enough I hadn't felt this way on the top of the Empire State Building.
As it ticked closer to midnight we rushed to find a spot big enough for our group in Central Park and had been lucky enough to find that, on top of seeing a bunch of insane people ring in the year with a marathon which alludes me in ways I can't quite express, there was live music. I can't say it was anyone I'd ever heard of playing but it was nice to listen to as we all talked.
Within the last moments the music ended and the crowds started to become a bit rowdier as if that would hold off the cold we all felt in our bones and make 2015 a greater year than 2014 had been until the year had begun and fireworks erupted out for us all to see. The rest of my night had been equally as fun when we headed back to Brother Jimmy's and then to our hostel where we had a few more drinks before I left for the airport.
Longing for change I booked a train from Ottawa to Montreal over Halloween weekend, a city I've been to a few times but have never fully explored.
Although my train arrived late there was much to do so I dropped my bags off at the hostel and met up with a fellow traveller who I had been corresponding with briefly and went about my day, wandering the city and enjoying the street art and regretting not bringing another sweater or two. While my French is limited I was able to navigate the city quite easily which was perfect for Halloween when my aforementioned travelling friend, her friends and I all went mini-putting at Putting Edge after a few drinks to celebrate the occasion.
The next day was much more productive with a quick bite to eat at M Montreal's complimentary breakfast I went into Old Montreal. While the iconic and oh-so beautiful Notre-Dame Basilique was closed in the morning I enjoyed the rainy sights and sounds of the people and the city on an early Sunday, something that you would be a fool to miss in such an enigmatic city. My wanderings led me to a small cafe near Mont-Royal which I was lucky enough to find was a cat cafe before I decided to walk at least some of the mountain before it turned too dark and too cold to do so.
Upon returning to the hostel there was a comedy show which we all deemed truly, truly awful but it was a reparable evening for the most part as we were lead to a salsa club where we danced with each other and strangers, who for the most part were much better than we were at it but the fun of it was not to be missed and we were glad not to have as it could've easily been so as it's a hole in the wall but as the whole in the wall didn't have a visible sign outside if you wish to go yourself it will be a bit hard to find it as well but if you can't, don't miss out on your chance to go to a local spot where you have the time of your life.
The rest of my trip was more singular as I had meetings, from family to old friends but I ended with a high! Seeing Halsey live at the Metropolis. It left me with a sore throat and an even greater love of the city as I've always felt and still do, that Paris is not a city I could fall in love with but Montreal - she has had my heart from day one. It is a place of nostalgia for a life that isn't my own but read between the pages of books or in old polaroids. It is the box of old love letter's you find that belonged to a parent from before you ever were a thought. It's true life - young and wild life. It feels indestructible as we all do when we're a teenager, perhaps because She is in comparison to Paris. This is why I've loved Montreal so much and for so long. A city you shouldn't miss on any North American trip!