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The Perks and Drawbacks of Ottawa – Quality of Life and Activities

In the first part of this series, I highlighted a few characteristics of Ottawa’s job market.

Sunset on Parliament Hill, Ottawa, 2011
Sunset on Parliament Hill, Ottawa, 2011

Now, what do you do when you’re done working? That’s right—you enjoy your wonderful lifestyle and free time.

Or at least, you try to.

So, what are Ottawa’s living conditions and entertainment options? Is the city as boring as the rest of the country seems to think?

Life in Ottawa

Ottawa has a high quality of living and is regularly ranked as one of the best communities in the country to live in. It is a very picturesque city with several landmarks, including the Parliament of Canada. Sure, there are potholes and not everything is patched up at the end of the construction season, but lawns are mowed, streets are clean (it was rated the second cleanest city in Canada), snow is cleared and there are no “dangerous” neighbourhoods per se—even the dodgiest streets are tame by capital cities standards. Yes, this is where your tax dollars are going, Ottawa is the home of embassies, politicians and leaders, they need a nice playground.

On the downside, because many residents work for the federal government and are usually considered “middle class with some disposable income” (in 2013, Ottawa-Gatineau ranked second place behind Calgary with a median family income of $101,070), life in the city can be pricey. For instance, hotels are more expensive than they should be. They cater to business travellers and there aren’t that many options, even though splurging in Château Laurier may not be what you had in mind. Some services are also overpriced because it is expected that you have good benefits—Ottawa has an amazing number of dentists, chiropractors and registered massage therapists. Too bad if you are only covered by OHIP! For cheap spa options, well, you will have to head to Chinatown and hope for the best.

Ottawa is very much a 9-5 city—actually, scratch that, some people start much earlier than 9 a.m. But it is not a round-the-clock city and public servants set the pace. During normal business hours, the downtown core is busy and caters to office workers who head out for a quick snack, a to-go lunchbox or a quick coffee. Most if not all businesses close at the end of the workday and you will have to head to a 24/7 Tim Hortons for your late-night cravings.

On the plus side, rush hour and peak time are also very predictable. If you follow another schedule (the perks of freelancing!), you will never be stuck on the 417 or queuing at Loblaws at 6 p.m. Bank holidays are also religion around here (many people head to the cottage or Gatineau Park when the weather is nice) and you can have the city to yourself if you choose to stay in.

Entertainment and activities

Favourite activities include attending hockey games during the NHL season (if the Sens don’t suck), going to concerts or festivals (including the Bluesfest, Jazz Festival, Folk Fest, Winterlude, etc.), practising seasonal outdoor activities (the nearby Gatineau Park is a nice giant playground—Canadians call it a “park” but it’s a 361 square kilometres wedge of land!) and tackling home-improvement projects in their single-family home (renovations and gardening are among favourites).

Ottawa is conventionally artistic and cultural. They are great museums, including the National Gallery of Canada, the Museum of Nature, the War Museum and the great Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, across the river. However, don’t expect a lot of street art of other quirky modes of expression. Even buskers have to apply for a licence and abide by very serious “terms and conditions” of the street they perform in.

Despite a population of one million (it is the fourth largest city in the country), Ottawa feels like a village. People care about their “community” and several neighbourhoods host their own very popular events, such as the Glebe Garage Sale or Westfest in Westboro Village.

I’d say people who were born and raised in Ottawa and have never lived anywhere else are a bit “sheltered”—and I mean it in the nicest way possible. They may not realize that their way of life (and standard of living) isn’t the same throughout the country… or the world. Everyone doesn’t aspire to be a public servant, to invest in a house in the suburb (and maybe a cottage later on), buy season tickets for the Sens and put the two kids in French immersion. Even young adults can be a bit disconcertingly confident with their career choice—university, coop, government job and a house before their turn 30. Gee, what happened to spontaneity?

Socializing is easy though, mostly because people are fairly welcoming and supposedly less individualistic and rushed than in Toronto. Strangers do talk to each other and even leaders and higher-ups are surprisingly approachable. However, it is sometimes hard to move past the superficial and build lasting friendships if, for whatever reason, you don’t “belong.”

That said, over 20 percent of the city’s population is foreign-born and many come from other walks of life. It’s a matter of finding your peers… and carving your niche.

So, is Ottawa for you?

(These two articles were not sponsored by the City of Ottawa, but if you offer bribes, I’ll take them…)

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