Did you know that due to its close proximity to the French-speaking province of Québec, which is located just across the Ottawa River, Ottawa is a bilingual city? It is not uncommon to hear both French and English being used as you walk down the street!
According to the 2011 Census on the Linguistic Characteristics of Canadians, which is the most recent study, more than half of the Ottawa-Gatineau region’s population (58 per cent) list English as their first language and close to a quarter (22 per cent) list French.
And if you’re in a bilingual city, there is no better time or place to practise your French! As Canada’s Capital, Ottawa is home to most of the country’s national museums and historic sites, which all provide services in both official languages. If you make the effort to express yourself in French, you’ll find that most of Ottawa’s attraction staff members and residents are willing to support your efforts.
But with so many places to serve you in French, where do you start? We’ve put together a list of five Ottawa locations that are sure to help you brush up on your French-language skills. Why not try to use both languages like many residents do?
VISIT PARLIAMENT HILL: Located right in the middle of Ottawa’s downtown core, Parliament Hill is home to Canada’s federal government and to three ornate Gothic and neo-Gothic structures that overlook the majestic Ottawa River. The most visited building on Parliament Hill is Centre Block, which is home to the famous Peace Tower. In this building, you can take a guided tour in either French or English. You will also find tour guides and parliamentary staff who are friendly and completely bilingual. And as the parliament staff is used to dealing with visitors from around the world, don’t be shy about practising your French! Take a guided French-language tour to see the secrets of this beautiful site including the House of Commons and the Library of Parliament, and ask lots of questions en français.
VISIT THE CANADIAN MUSEUM OF HISTORY: Located just across the Ottawa River in Gatineau, Québec, the Canadian Museum of History is a great place to immerse yourself in the Ottawa region’s French-language and culture! Take a guided tour of this expansive museum in French and see highlights from a thousand years of Canadian history. Or opt to peruse the many halls on your own and read about priceless artifacts, for which the descriptions are posted in both French and English. Like on the nearby Parliament Hill, you’ll find friendly tour guides and staff who are willing to support your efforts. This museum is also home to the largest indoor collection of totem poles in the world and a bilingual CINÉ+ cinema! And in the warmer months (roughly May to October), you can take the eco-friendly Au Feel de l’eau Aqua-Taxi to get to the museum. Departing from the dock near the Bytown Museum, this charming water taxi is operated by a Gatineau-based French-speaking company. The Aqua-Taxi’s operators are warm and welcoming, so don’t shy away from addressing them in French. And though the Canadian Museum of History is a good place to start, any Ottawa museum will be able to assist you in French. If you want to keep practising, visit the Canadian War Museum, the National Gallery of Canada or the Bytown Museum, which are all located nearby.
VISIT THE BYWARD MARKET NEIGHBOURHOOD: Found in the heart of Ottawa’s downtown core, the ByWard Market is one of the oldest and largest farmers’ markets in Canada, as well as the name of the eclectic neighbourhood that surrounds it. Head out to explore this open-air year-round market, where you will find many French-speaking local food as well as arts and crafts retailers. In the height of summer, the market totals about 175 outdoor stalls, but it is busy at any time of the year! And don’t be afraid to purchase your items in French. You will see that the market’s retailers are friendly and willing to help you. And be sure to visit French bakery Moulin de Provence for a tasty treat! Located in the central ByWard Market Square building, this bakery offers delicious French-style baked goods. Take a chance and order your lunch or dessert en français. The friendly bilingual staff will be happy to help you choose from among more than 200 freshly created items! Also, as Ottawa’s entertainment district, the ByWard Market is home to a variety of great restaurants, clubs, bistros, coffee shops and unique boutiques –most of which would be happy to help you practise your French.
VISIT THE VANIER MUSEOPARK: Located in the neighbourhood of Vanier, about a 5-minute drive from Ottawa’s downtown core, the Vanier Museopark is a small museum dedicated to preserving the heritage of “Quartier Vanier,” the historic Richelieu Park and the French-speaking population of Ottawa. Practise your French and talk with staff members as you visit the museum, which explores the history of Ottawa’s Vanier district by looking at themes such as the First Nations, the Voyageurs, the Ottawa region’s waterways and early pioneer life. And in the spring season, the Vanier Museopark becomes Ottawa’s only downtown sugar shack. Each year (from March to April), the small sugar shack is open every weekend offering maple products, souvenirs and a traditional sugar shack pancake meal. This is a unique Canadian experience! As this museum focuses on the Ottawa region’s French-speaking population, this is a great place to practise your French. Prepare to make conversation and be encouraged!
VISIT DOWNTOWN GATINEAU: If you want to completely immerse yourself in the French-language, visit downtown Gatineau. Located just across the Ottawa River, downtown Gatineau is home to a variety of French-speaking restaurants and boutiques. Order a drink in one of the quaint bistros or brasseries and do some shopping all en français. And as Québec is largely a French-speaking province, don’t be surprised if restaurant servers and retailers address you in French first!
And just a bit further –about a 10-minute drive from Ottawa’s downtown core, you can visit the Casino du Lac-Leamy. Continue to practise your French throughout the Casino as you play your evening away on more than 1,800 slot machines, poker tables, roulette tables and more. Or if the machines don’t interest you, catch a live performance in French at le Théâtre du Casino.