Ottawa has many things going for it, but a dynamic, year-round cultural scene and thriving nightlife are not among them. True, the city has seen an upswing in high-end restaurants, and there have always been bars that cater to students from the three main postsecondary schools, but Ottawa will never be mistaken for Toronto, Vancouver, or San Francisco. Fortunately, the fact that the city is the national capital means government money subsidizes some major cultural institutions and annual festivals that might not otherwise exist without more grassroots arts infrastructure.
Most of the after-dark action is centered around the ByWard Market, although Hull (now the Hull sector of Gatineau) has long held the reputation as the city where Ottawans go to play at night. Today, most of that action happens at the Casino du Lac-Leamy.
Finding Out What's On -- For current live music, theater, and film -- particularly aimed at young audiences -- your best bet for finding out what's happening and where is to pick up a copy of Ottawa Xpress, a free publication distributed each Thursday, or read it online at www.ottawaxpress.ca. Where Ottawa/Gatineau, a free monthly tourist guide listing entertainment, shopping, and dining, is available at hotels and stores in the city. Voir is a French-language weekly arts-and-entertainment paper that lists some venues and events in Gatineau, as well as Ottawa.
Visiting families should keep an eye out for Capital Parent, a free monthly newspaper that's available at 400 outlets. The Ottawa Citizen has a comprehensive Arts section on Friday with an emphasis on films and a special "Going Out" section on Saturday, which lists upcoming live entertainment events.
The Performing Arts
Canadian and international musical, dance, and theater artists -- including the resident NAC Orchestra -- perform at the expansive National Arts Centre, located at 53 Elgin St. at Confederation Square (tel. 613/947-7000; www.nac-cna.ca). The building, created by architect Fred Lebensold, is made of three interlocking hexagons beside the Rideau Canal, its terraces tendering views of Parliament Hill and the Ottawa River. There are three auditoriums: the European-style Opera; a 950-seat Theatre with an innovative apron stage; and the Studio, used for experimental works. The National Arts Centre Orchestra performs in seven or eight main concert series here each year. The center also offers classic and modern drama in English and French, and guided tours are also available. Ask for the free monthly Calendar of NAC Events.
Augmenting the main events at the National Arts Centre, the ensemble at the Great Canadian Theatre Company (tel. 613/236-5196; www.gctc.ca) has been providing bold, innovative, and thought-provoking theater for more than a quarter of a century. Featuring predominantly Canadian playwrights and local actors, the season runs from September to March in a sparkling theater facility known as the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre. It's located at 1233 Wellington St. W. (at Holland Ave.).
It is the era of the DJ, the sports bar, and the high-end martini place. Consequently, Ottawa's popular music scene has seen better times, and likely will again. These things tend to go in cycles, and clubs come and go. A good example of these trends is Barrymore's Music Hall (323 Bank St.; tel. 613/233-0307). In its heyday, it regularly featured top-name performers and became somewhat legendary for playing host to the likes of U2 and Tina Turner just before they hit the big time. The place has changed hands several times in recent years and now only sporadically features live music.
Supplanting Barrymore's as the city's main venue for live music is Capital Music Hall (128 York St.; tel. 613/789-9922), which features rock, punk, and hip-hop artists who are on the international tour circuit.
Zaphod Beeblebrox (27 York St.; tel. 613/562-1010) is another club that has suffered somewhat from changing musical tastes and the shifting economics of the music business, yet it continues to feature live acts on a regular basis. It is best known for figuring prominently in a video the Rolling Stones shot in Ottawa in 2005.
Some of the most interesting independent acts on the road, particularly American roots and folk musicians, perform at the Blacksheep Inn (753 Riverside Dr., Wakefield, QC; tel. 819/459-3228), which is located in a picturesque village on the Gatineau River, a 20-minute drive from downtown Ottawa. Still a working-class tavern by day, the Blacksheep gained a higher profile when it became the launching pad for singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards, who still performs here between world tours.
One genre of music that has always thrived in Ottawa is blues, and although it, too, has fallen on hard times, it continues to rule at the Rainbow Bistro (76 Murray St.; tel. 613/241-5123). An oddly shaped room (patrons must climb a staircase beside the stage to access the restrooms), the Rainbow has hosted the biggest names in the business and helped launch the careers of Ottawa musicians like Sue Foley. Live music is featured 7 nights a week.
Café Paradiso (199 Bank St.; tel. 613/565-0657) features local acts on weekends and occasionally books New York City-based jazz musicians like saxophonist Dave Liebman and singer Sheila Jordan.
The Bar Scene
With three postsecondary institutions and Parliament Hill, you know Ottawa must have its share of drinking establishments. In fact, there are now so many bars in the ByWard Market/Lowertown area that the city council has twice issued a moratorium on new liquor licenses there. Elgin Street is also chockablock with bars, and you can find one on almost every block in the Glebe and Ottawa South, too. The trick, as always, is finding the right bar. In Ottawa, it's usually a good idea to avoid any bar with a name that sounds like a double entendre or a tawdry pickup line -- this is a three-college town, after all. Usually, that means staying away from the area of the ByWard Market east of William Street, especially on York Street, and from Elgin Street south of Somerset Street West (with the exception of the Manx and a couple of others). The recommendations here attempt to cover all the bases, including places where the only wines sold are either house red or white, and some where martinis come in every color of the rainbow.
Gay & Lesbian Bars -- Social life and entertainment for the gay and lesbian community in Ottawa is clustered around Bank Street in the vicinity of Frank Street, Somerset Street West, and Lisgar Street. There are also a couple of venues in the ByWard Market district. A free monthly paper, Capital Xtra, serves the gay and lesbian community and has extensive entertainment listings. You can find it at vendor boxes throughout the downtown core.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.