If you’ve never been to Ottawa for the Canadian Tulip Festival, this year would be the perfect time to add it to your 2017 bucket list. Taking place from May 12 to 22, 2017 this popular springtime festival – the largest of its kind in the world – celebrates the Liberation of the Netherlands during the Second World War and the resulting gift of the tulips to Ottawa.
This outdoor festival, which attracts about 500,000 visitors annually, was first held in 1953 after world-renowned photographer Malak Karsh suggested that something be done to highlight the beauty of the thousands upon thousands of tulips in bloom around the city’s downtown core. But you might be wondering where these flowers came from? They are the result of a lasting relationship Ottawa, Canada’s capital city, shares with the Netherlands, which started in 1940.
Following the Nazi Invasion of the Netherlands during the Second World War, Princess Juliana of the Netherlands took refuge in Ottawa along with her two young daughters, Princess Beatrix and Princess Irene. While in exile in Canada, Princess Juliana gave birth to her third daughter, Princess Margriet. At the time of the baby’s birth, part of the Ottawa Civic Hospital was declared Dutch soil, to allow the new princess to hold Dutch nationality exclusively. Ottawa also helped to celebrate the princess’ birth by flying the Dutch flag at the top of the iconic Peace Tower and playing Dutch music on the tower’s carillon. Ottawa was home to these Dutch royal family members until they could finally return to a liberated Netherlands in 1945.
Upon returning to the Netherlands, Princess Juliana sought to thank Ottawa and the Canadian people with several gifts, including 100,000 tulip bulbs. Today, more than one million tulips decorate downtown Ottawa each May and this lasting gift of tulips is known as the ‘Tulip Legacy.’
There are so many ways to experience the Tulip Festival! From downtown Ottawa, you can head out to explore the beautiful, multi-coloured tulip beds on foot. Visit Major’s Hill Park, located behind the Fairmont Château Laurier, where you will find several beautiful flower beds as well as scenic views of the Ottawa River and the Parliament Buildings. From there, wander over to the Rideau Canal – Ontario’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site – and stroll along its scenic banks, which are lined with tulips in bloom. If you’re fond of walking, you can follow the paved pathways along the water that will lead you to Dows Lake and Commissioners Park, where you will find several flower beds filled with more than 300,000 tulips in bloom. Did you know that the festival puts 50 different varieties of tulips on display each year?
You can also cycle around Ottawa to see the tulip beds. Located just across the street from the Fairmont Château Laurier by the Rideau Canal, RentABike offers adult and youth bikes for rent by the hour, the day or even by the week. Choose from a selection of more than 200 bikes that come with a helmet as well as a bike lock, and explore Ottawa to your heart’s content. Escape Bicycle Tours and Rentals, located at 65 Sparks Street, also offers daily bicycle rentals with similar inclusions. Both companies even carry tandem bicycles, trailers and trail-a-bike rentals, and Escape Bicycle Tours and Rentals also offers electric bicycles.
Follow the route along the Rideau Canal to see the tulips in Commissioners Park and then take time to explore some of the city’s other scenic pathways. Ottawa offers more than 600 kilometres (373 miles) of beautiful paths that link natural areas, parks, gardens and national historic sites.
Another option is to take a guided cycling tour with RentABike or Escape Bicycle Tours & Rentals. This is a great option if you want to see the best tulip spots, but you aren’t sure where to go on your own! Different route lengths are available.
If the weather looks questionable or you’d rather not bike or walk, why not take a bus tour? Ottawa-based company Lady Dive offers “Hop-on Hop-off” bus tours that allow you to stop at many Ottawa museums or other attractions that you find interesting. This is also a great option if your feet need a rest, as you can board the bus – a few of which have sunny, open top decks – and take in the tulips as you ride along. Lady Dive also offers guided commentary in several different languages on these tours.
Or if you’re really looking to make your Tulip Festival experience special, why not see the multitude of beautiful tulips from the air? At the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, located just 10 minutes from Ottawa’s downtown core, you can book a ride in a vintage open cockpit biplane with Ottawa Biplane Adventures or in a bubble canopy helicopter with Héli-Tremblant Helicopter Tours.
Hear the roar of the biplane’s engine and feel the wind blow through your hair, as downtown Ottawa passes by below you. And as long as your camera has a strap, snap great aerial shots as you go! For an experience that is more shielded from the wind, opt for a ride in a Robinson 44 single-engine helicopter. Both the biplane and the helicopter offer flights that vary in length. The biplane can accommodate two passengers and the helicopter can take three.
During the day, the tulips are one of Ottawa’s main attractions. But at night, these delicate flowers close up to protect themselves from the cooler temperatures. So once the tulips go to bed, what is there to do?
Consider having dinner in Ottawa’s bustling downtown ByWard Market neighbourhood – home to many gourmet restaurants.
Also, if you visit over the last weekend of the Tulip Festival, you won’t want to miss the spectacular fireworks show at Lansdowne on the evening of Sunday, May 21!
This festival has been a hit in Ottawa with adults and children alike for many years, as the bright flowers create the perfect backdrop for family photos or fun snapshots among friends. No matter what you do, make sure to bring your camera!