My exploration of Ottawa began in earnest with a tour of Parliament Hill and Centre Block , where Parliament convenes . The guide who led our group of visitors from across Canada and the U . S . showed us the symbolic details of the building ’ s architecture , explained parliamentary procedure and shared stories from the current building ’ s century-long history .
The original Centre Block , as I learned , was built in the 1860s , and it was almost totally destroyed in a fire in 1916 . The only part that was saved , having been sealed behind a set of iron doors , was the Library of Parliament , and its salvation spared a national treasure . The library ’ s rotunda contains rows of elaborately carved shelves of leather-bound volumes and ornate wood floors with inlaid designs .
Public Services and Procurement Canada has been undertaking a massive restoration of Parliament Hill since 2002 . During my visit , the West Block building was quite literally under wraps — scaffolding and tarps — while it received much-needed modernizations and meticulous repairs to its exterior masonry . The completion of the current phase of the project will also add a new welcome center for groups touring Parliament . The renovations to all of Parliament Hill ’ s buildings are expected to continue for several more years .
From Parliament , I headed to the Bytown Museum , which sits on the Rideau Canal and one of the many sets of locks . On the walk from Wellington Street to the museum ’ s entrance on a paved pedestrian path , I watched boats descend from the canal into the Ottawa River . Then I went into the museum for a lesson in Ottawa ’ s history and the construction of the Rideau Canal .
The historic building is Ottawa ’ s oldest stone structure , and it originally served as a commissariat for the construction crews working on the canal . While its compact three floors are less encyclopedic than the nearby national museums and more modest than the ornate centers of government , the Bytown Museum is an essential site for understanding the area ’ s history .
Art , nature and history
The Canadian Museum of Nature was my next stop . The museum ’ s striking facade consists of the stone Victoria Memorial Museum building from the , well , Victorian era , and a multistory glass atrium that was added to its entrance in 2010 .
The museum ’ s interior incorporates the historical and contemporary , too . Some galleries maintain original , massive dioramas of creatures posed in highly detailed environments against gorgeous hand-painted backdrops . A more recent addition , the Canada Goose Arctic Gallery , uses wall-spanning timelines , video screens and projections onto large , touchable sheets of ice to show visitors the ecosystem of the frozen north and educate them about forces threatening it .
The National Gallery of Canada features works of Canadian artists and places special importance on the historical and modern creativity of First Nations , Inuit and Metis pieces . The museum also includes a reconstructed Ottawa church wherein visitors can walk among a chorus of individual speakers broadcasting the parts of a hymn .
The Canadian Museum of History also places great emphasis on the heritage of Canada ’ s aboriginal peoples . Just off the museum ’ s entrance is the Grand Hall , where totem poles stand alongside re-creations of entrances to structures representative of indigenous groups .
La Machine ’ s Kumo
Canadian Musuem of Nature
“ You can find the largest collection of indoor totem poles in the world here and learn about the First People of the Northwest Coast ,” says Stephanie Fortin , tourism and marketing officer for the Canadian Museum of History and the Canadian War Museum . The museum ’ s newest attraction is its Canadian History Hall , which covers 40,000 square feet and showcases more than 1,500 artifacts .
“ This new signature exhibition is the largest and most comprehensive exhibition ever done on Canadian history ,” says Fortin , “ covering 15,000 years , in chronological order , from the dawn of human habitation until today .”
“ We can accommodate both adult and student groups ,” says Fortin . “ We offer advantageous group rates , including combos with the Canadian War Museum .”
The Canadian Museum of History also has a dedicated motorcoach entrance , cafeteria and restaurant spaces for group meals , and visitor guides in multiple languages .
My final night in Ottawa , I was among the thousands of people packing the streets for a view of the meeting between Long Ma and Kumo . As the spider stretched its massive , articulated legs and the dragon raised its head for a fiery breath , I thought about how I might describe these two machines . The truly fascinating part , for me , was the elegance with which the artists and designers of La Machine had incorporated thousands of moving parts .
And that ’ s an apt description of Ottawa at large . Look closely , and you ’ ll find a destination with a complex mix of people , sites and ideas . Then step back and you ’ ll see how the city is working to bring them all together to make something grand .