My Ottawa Life: Catherine Callary’s top tourism tips for the local staycationer

As vice-president of destination development with Ottawa Tourism, Catherine Callary is a treasure trove of information when it comes to some of Ottawa’s most exciting activities, hotspots and best-kept secrets. But even before she began working in tourism, Callary grew up in Ottawa, and always jumped at any opportunity to show friends, family and visitors around the nation’s capital.

Now, Callary is still one of Ottawa’s biggest fans, and spends her days working to share the city’s opportunities with tourists.

In this instalment of My Ottawa Life, Callary takes us on a tour of her top restaurants, retailers, activities and attractions and shares why, in her view, one day “just doesn’t cut it” to see it all.

February is Heart Month and the University of Ottawa Health Institute Foundation is back with its annual campaign. Get ready to #LightTheTownRed

What area of the city/region do you live in?

I live in the Carleton Heights part of Nepean, and I love the access to all the things here: proximity to nature, the Rideau River, the airport and some great cycling network access, too.

What type of home do you have (condo, house, etc.)?

My partner and I live in a bungalow with no houses behind our house, so we get the odd fox and weasel coming through the backyard, and so many rabbits!

What type of pet do you have?

I’ve had all kinds of dogs growing up, but right now my partner and I currently report to two demanding cats and a very kind horse, who is boarded at a farm in Gatineau.

What’s your favourite part of town?

Ottawa has many great neighbourhoods and each has its own vibe and businesses that draw people in. I work downtown, so I spend a lot of my time in Centretown and the ByWard Market or along Sparks Street, where there are lots of activities like Winterlude taking place.

Then there’s also the Glebe, Little Italy, Hintonburg and Westboro, all of which have great retail, cafés or restaurants. I mean, each has its own unique charms.

What is your favourite place to eat in Ottawa?

Sunday dinners at my parents’ place. We still do this as a family and it’s a special highlight of the week. When I go out with friends though, I find myself at Thali quite often, or at Sidedoor or Beckta.

What’s your favourite hobby?

My favourite hobby is visiting my horse. It’s a great way to refresh the brain, temporarily push pause on ruminating about things, and get a fresh perspective. He also has his good and bad days (especially as he gets older), so it’s also being aware of what his mood is and gauging what activities we can do together that are going to work for us both.

He’s a 1,000-pound animal with his own feelings on things, so I can pay attention and be present from the start, or I can pay the price later (laughing). Someone once said to me, “Riding a horse is great for anyone who wishes their bicycle could make bad decisions” and while that rings true, it’s also true that if you listen properly from the beginning, several of those bad decisions can be averted. Which I suppose is true for most human-to-human relationships, too!

What’s your favourite local charity or cause?

There are so many needs in our community and so many great charities, it’s tough to pick just one. I’m very impressed with the work of CHEO, United Way and the Food Bank. I have a special soft spot for animal shelters because my two rescue cats came from one and now they have a new lease on life.

What’s your favourite festival?

Well, that’s not a fair question to ask someone who works in tourism, is it? I’m not sure I can truthfully pick a favourite, but I do want to take a moment to get on my soapbox and say that our festivals are incredible contributors to our community.

They improve our collective quality of life, they support our creative community and sporting communities, and they are vehicles for big economic impact in Ottawa. They also create reasons for people to travel to our city, stay in our hotels, dine in our restaurants, shop in our retail stores, and form bonds with our city.

Who’s your favourite live music artist in Ottawa?

I want to give a shout-out to a few that I heard recently at an event called The Next Stage organized by the Canadian Live Music Association, Ottawa Board of Trade and the OBJ held at the legendary Rainbow Bistro. Angelique Francis is such a talented artist and TALK was a discovery for me, so I’ll definitely seek out more of these artists.

Beyond that, Amanda Rheaume is crushing it and won Indigenous Songwriter of the Year last year at the Canadian Folk Music Awards.

And I’m a fan of Jamie Fine, both in terms of more recent releases and in the duo with Elijah Woods.

And I’d be remiss not to mention our amazing National Arts Centre Orchestra. I studied classical music and love to get to the philharmonic whenever I can.

If you were to play tour guide for a first-time visitor to Ottawa for a day, where would you take the visitor?

Funnily enough, I’ve been doing that all my life. Growing up in Ottawa, my family hosted several relatives from overseas over the years and we always loved seeing our city through their eyes. And now I’m actively engaged in promoting our city with Ottawa Tourism.

Tip for you: If you host guests in Ottawa, check out www.ottawatourism.ca to get familiar with attractions and events happening that you can show off to your visitors.

Back to your question. So I’d start by convincing them that they’ll need to extend their stay because one day just won’t cut it! Of course, they’d totally agree.

We’d start with a coffee from Beandigen Café at Lansdowne and walk over to enjoy the Ottawa Farmers’ Market. After wandering through the stalls (not too early, because I’m not a morning person), we’d stroll along the Rideau Canal to the Museum of Nature, where we’d take in an exhibit, the architecture and the huge hanging moon in the atrium.

From there, walk to Parliament Hill and then to the ByWard Market for some shopping at places like Adaawewigamig or MILK, cutting through NCC Courtyards, too.

The National Gallery’s next for its stunning architecture and collections, and a stop at the Tavern at the Gallery for an afternoon bite or drink while we were there.

Then we’d walk back through Major’s Hill Park via the new Kiweki Point, if it is open by then, to take in the beautiful views of the river and Parliament Hill, heading over to the zipline where we’d zip across to Gatineau and see the Ottawa River from a different and more exhilarating angle.

For dinner, we’d find ourselves at Stofa or Riviera or Fairouz, before they tuck back into their hotel and we can start again the next day.

What’s your favourite entertainment venue?

I’m very proud of the breadth of entertainment offered at the National Arts Centre, so I’ll pick that. From dance to Indigenous theatre to symphony, we can be proud of having this hub of talent in our downtown core.

Where do you get your hair cut?

It’s a family affair! Meaning that several members of my family go to this great little family-owned salon in our neighbourhood called European Flair. They do an excellent job and it always feels friendly and neighbourhood-oriented in there. I can tell that lots of other families also go there over several generations, too. You get customers of every age from eight to 80 in there, which I find super-endearing.

What’s your favourite weekend outing to do with family or friends?

I probably don’t do enough of these, but I always appreciate exploring places that are a short drive from the urban core. I think about Manotick — think, a day-trip to do some shopping, visit One World Bazaar, or the Manotick Mill. Lots of boaters on the Rideau River have discovered this fun stop, too.

Or Carp, with its Carp Farmer’s Market, Makatew Workshop, KIN Vineyards, or the Diefenbunker – and so much more to make a great day there.

A little further afield, there’s Merrickville or Almonte, which is so charming that Hallmark movies have adopted it as a film set! That’s the great thing about Ottawa – there are endless places to explore in town and close by.

What Ottawa personality, past or present, do you admire?

I’ll keep this answer general because there are really so many Ottawans that I admire and I wouldn’t want to miss anyone. Because I saw up close how hard sector leaders worked to keep their communities informed of all the moving parts, from health measures to funding programs, during the pandemic, I admire those people in our community who tirelessly fought for their industries, from tourism to business to music to health. You know who you are.

And I’m also in awe of business operators who had to adjust their staffing, hours, sanitation procedures during that time and who are still working through recovery and rejuvenation a year or two later. Our community is better because of all these businesses, so they deserve some admiration.

What’s your favourite business event or conference in Ottawa?

Yes, let’s hear it for all the conferences that come to our city! Did you know that business events are a major driver of tourism in Ottawa? Many business travellers stay a day or two extra as well, and take in the sights, sounds and tastes of our city. They really contribute to Ottawa’s visitor economy.

As far as local business events, I’m a big fan of the Ottawa Board of Trade’s annual Economic Outlook Luncheon, which is always informative and a great place to network with other Ottawa businesses, as are all of their business events.

Which local tourist attraction do you like visiting?

So many! But I have a particular affinity for visiting Mādahòkì Farm on Hunt Club Road, to see the spirit horses there and take in one of the seasonal festivals that are such incredible showcases of Indigenous culture and heritage. Even better if I catch the powwow or storytelling performances. I have enormous admiration for the work and experiences that Trina Mather-Simard and her team offer at the farm.

What local business or attraction do you think is one of Ottawa’s best-kept secrets?

Marc Forgette’s Carp-based Makatew Workshops is an amazing Indigenous business that is off the beaten track and is probably still more or less a local secret. He offers workshops making medicine bags, dream catchers and other unique pieces, while taking the time to talk about Indigenous lived experience, storytelling, the significance of the medicine wheel, Reconciliation and the 94 Calls to Action, and the painful legacy of residential schools in Canada.

Our whole team of Ottawa Tourism colleagues went there for the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation and his message is so powerful and honest and it connects while you make something with your hands.

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