The locale: A five-hour drive northeast, including border-crossing at the scenic Thousand Islands.
The scoop: Canada’s national capital has been a major commercial post since its founding as a fur-and-lumber town — the name Ottawa derives from an Algonquian word meaning “to trade.” These days shopping is still a draw, especially around the holidays. Even on snowy days, the city’s historic ByWard Market area lights up, selling Christmas trees and pastries to the gift-hunters who turn up in fur-lined parkas and lug their bags through the cold streets. The shopping ranges from Canada’s most venerable department stores to fun artisan boutiques.
Beyond shopping, Ottawa has a couple more major winter attractions. Canada’s Parliament Buildings, including the impressive green-topped Gothic Revival tower, are illuminated with a lively “Christmas Lights Across Canada” show nightly in December. A huge fountain out front becomes a giant fire pit for light-watchers to warm themselves around, too. The other big showplace, Rideau Canal, is more weather-dependent—at nearly 5 miles, it’s the world’s longest ice-skating rink. Temperatures are measured closely, and the canal often doesn’t freeze solid until January or February — but gifted with a cold November and December, a visitor could get lucky.
The hit list
Andaz Ottawa ByWard Market — This new hotel, at 325 Dalhousie St., juts up as the historic market district’s most prominent high-rise. For guests, that means sweeping views over Parliament Hill and the Ottawa River. Non-guests can still enjoy the scenery from Copper Spirits and Sights, the hotel’s cozy 16th-floor bar and small-plates restaurant.
For luxury, try Fairmont Château Laurier — Erected in 1912 at 1 Rideau St., this tremendous stone building is no doubt the capital’s stateliest hotel. Stay there while it’s still elegant — an expansion planned to begin soon will add a modern section to the French château look, and public reaction to the architectural plans has not been kind.
Feast + Revel — The Andaz promises “subtle Canadiana” touches, so its hotel restaurant, also at 325 Dalhousie St., becomes a good place to taste the capital and beyond. Feast + Revel’s comforting entrees include ease-off-the-bone elk rib. A must-try drink is the spicy National Capital Caesar, something like an American Bloody Mary but made with a Clamato base and rimmed with crushed only-in-Canada “ketchup chips.”
BeaverTails — Reward yourself for anything you can think of (ice-skating, shopping, braving the cold) with an irresistible BeaverTail. This Canadian pastry — served at multiple stands, including at 69 George St. — is a hot obelisk of fried dough topped with cinnamon sugar, Nutella, or dozens of other add-ons. Made of whole wheat, “it’s healthier than a doughnut, although we do use butter, so there’s that,” the vendors say.
National Gallery of Canada — This long, imposing glass-and-granite building at 380 Sussex Dr. looks like a secular cathedral dedicated to the muses. The art collection ranges from ancient Inuit sculpture to edgy modern photography exhibitions. On Thursday evenings, museum admission is free until 8 p.m., making it a popular date night or post-shopping cultural stop.
Canadian Museum of History — If you’ve shopped and viewed the lights and at least strolled along the Rideau Canal, consider getting more enrichment (in a warm indoor setting for those winter days, of course) at this national museum, just over the Quebecois border at 100 Laurier St. in Gatineau. Exhibits on subjects like female suffragettes and Klondike gold miners are informative for Americans and Canadians alike.
Victoire — This stylish boutique at 209 Dalhousie St. describes itself as a “rock & roll tea party.” Its merchandise blends edgy T-shirts with classic dresses from Canadian (and a few American) designers.
Hudson’s Bay — The grande dame of Canadian department stores has a large ByWard Market outpost at 73 Rideau St. selling a huge selection of boots, scarves, and more with Canadian distinction (and extra lining). At Christmas there are also nutcrackers, ornaments, fleece tree skirts, and snowglobes with cross-country skiers, all in the distinctive red, green, yellow, and blue stripes of the famous Hudson’s Bay blankets.