When I was invited to tag along on The Ottawa Free Tour, a new activity on offer, I didn’t have to think it over much – they had me at “free”. With scarcely anything in life that doesn’t put a dent in my bank account, I’m clearly going to jump at anything that costs nothing. And I’m sure glad that I did. It’s a 2-hour walking tour that takes place every Saturday (May 2-Sept 5) at 2 p.m. I met up with our expert guide, and the rest of the group, at the War Memorial, knowing only that we were going to be learning about political assassinations, the construction of a UNESCO world heritage site, and past Prime Ministers, among other things. Considering I’m super uninformed about history AND politics, this seemed like the right kind of tour to freshen up my knowledge about what’s happened where I live.
Right off the bat, it’s obvious that this tour isn’t typical – it’s very informative of course, but also equally chill, with the guides making seemingly boring subjects actually quite fun and exciting to learn about. It starts off with the changing of the guards at the National War Memorial – that tall, granite, memorial arch with bronze sculptures downtown. It was originally built to commemorate the Canadians who died in the First World War, but was rededicated to also include those killed in the Second World War, Korean War, Second Boer War, and War in Afghanistan, as well as all Canadians killed in conflicts past and future.
Did you know: in 2000, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was added in front of the memorial and symbolizes the sacrifices made by all Canadians who have died or may yet die for their country.
We then walked a few steps over to where the only Canadian politician to ever be assassinated was gunned down, although the circumstances surrounding this controversy are fuzzy. I won’t give everything away, but we were swept back in time, everything having played out where we now stood almost 150 years later.
Did you know: Terry Fox ran down Sparks Street in 1980.
We walked along the beautiful and historic Sparks St. until we came out in full view of the Parliament Buildings. Of course there’s a Canadian flag flying high, but this flag is replaced by a brand new one every single day, and the old ones are given away to those who sign up for a waiting list that is currently 54 years long.
Did you know: the Prime Minister spends most of his time in the Langevin Block, across from Parliament Hill.
We walked some more, and learned that the paths of the Rideau Canal used to be train tracks, with the current Government Conference Centre having served as Union Station.
Did you know: Charles Melville Hays, president of the Grand Trunk train company, perished on the ill-fated Titanic.
We’re all aware that Ottawa is known for it’s long, long skating rink, or the Rideau Canal, which was registered as a UNESCO Heritage Site in 2007. It officially opened in 1832, but its construction took six long years.
Did you know: malaria killed around 1000 of the people who worked on building the Canal.
We made our way from Uppertown to Lowertown, stopping for a break at Planet Coffee, and ended up at a beautiful lookout that I didn’t even know existed, behind the National Art Gallery. It was surely a fantastic summary of our city’s long and, as I now know, intriguing history. My hat goes off to this new endeavour and I can only foresee people from around the world soaking in Ottawa and everything that made us who we are today.
You can learn more about the Ottawa Free Tour here. This 2-hour walking tour takes place every Saturday at 2 p.m., from May 2nd to September 5th. It is absolutely free, but an RSVP is required.