Turn over a new leaf in Canada's capital

City Slicker: Ottawa - This city has a reputation for being boring. Not any more. Amy Watkins offers a guide for new and returning visitors

Why visit?

Forget autumn in New England and head instead for Canada and Ottawa's parks to see the leaves turn crisp and colourful. Look a little harder and you'll find an increasingly hip city trying to shake off a boring image hiding between those trees.

"Ottawa" and "extreme" are not words often uttered together, but between summer and winter the temperature swings from plus to minus 30C. And that makes autumn a great time to visit, with the climate just perfect for walking or cycling around Canada's diminutive capital or a spot of kayaking on the Rideau Canal. This being harvest time, foodies can reap the rewards of Ottawa's growing reputation as a gourmet destination, too, at its award-winning restaurants.

This city also ticks those rainy-day boxes. Its museums have wide appeal, championing everything from agriculture and aviation to philately and photography. There are cutting-edge art galleries showcasing emerging local artists. And you'll find plenty of shopping in bespoke boutiques – with lots of independent coffee shops providing handy pit-stops along the way.

But Ottawa wasn't always such a pleasant place to visit. The city started life as Bytown, a rowdy backwater named after Colonel John By, who built the Rideau Canal in the early 1800s. Bytown was such a squalid place that By wanted nothing to do with it: it had the dubious honour of being the most violent town in North America, drunken navvies and leery loggers frequenting the bawdy brothels in Byward Market. In an optimistic piece of rebranding the city was renamed Ottawa – after the Odawa natives. The ploy worked well enough for Queen Victoria to choose it as Canada's capital in 1857.

Don't miss...

*Soaking up the pomp and circumstance at the very familiar-looking government buildings on scenic Parliament Hill. Stand on ceremony at the changing of the guard.

* Eating a beavertail – a flat, fried dough covered in sugar and cinnamon, not the furry critter – at the red shack in Byward Market.

*Counting the locks, and adding up the price of the speedboats passing through them, on the Unesco-protected Rideau Canal.

*The chance to go museum mad: Ottawa has more than a dozen. Check out the world's biggest indoor collection of totem poles at the Museum of Civilization, or learn about the country's military history at the Canadian War Museum.

*Cheering "Go the Sens!" and swigging a Molson beer at an Ottawa Senators ice-hockey game at Scotiabank Place.

*Celebrating at one of Ottawa's hundreds of festivals – whether chamber music, tulips, or Turkish food is your bag, there's an event dedicated to it here.

*Skating along Rideau Canal in winter and cycling through the Gatineau Park in the warmer months.

*Checking out eclectic native Canadian art and stroking your beard at contemporary collections in the huge National Gallery of Canada.

What's new?

Byward Market

John By established Byward Market in 1826, but it's now one of the coolest addresses in town. This is the place to hang out for fashion, food and fun – vintage boutiques, 88 restaurants, and rows of taverns spill out on to the streets within this four-by-four block area. You can even eat your way around here on a new culinary tour, C'est Bon Cooking, every Thursday and Saturday (cestboncooking.ca).

Details: byward-market.com


Exquisite Italian-inspired dishes, for sharing or scoffing, are chalked on the board above the long tables in Town's buzzing dining room on Elgin Street. Owner and chef Marc Doiron, whose pedigree includes some of Ottawa's best restaurants, serves up fresh tapas-style bites and deliciously indulgent puddings in jam jars.

Details: townlovesyou.ca


Roadtrip has been keeping Ottawans well-dressed since March. International fashionable favourites hang alongside Canadian designers' wares, including Montreal's right-on vegan handbag label Matt and Nat, and Vancouver's Kensie. Stroll down the cobbled yard behind the reopened Planet Coffee to find Roadtrip on York Street.

Details: roadtripclothing.com

Canadian Museum of Nature

Reopened after five years of renovations, this Gothic castle-style museum is stuffed full of natural history. Kids, especially, can marvel at the new 19-metre blue whale skeleton – the world's largest mammal – in the Water Gallery and get hands-on with all the creepy-crawlies in the Animalium.

Details: nature.ca

Oscar Peterson statue

Passers-by do a double take when they see the life-sized bronze Oscar perched on his piano stool outside the National Arts Centre, unveiled by the Queen in June. The jazz great was born in nearby Montreal, and this latest public artwork honours him for putting Canada on the musical map.

Details: oscarpeterson.com

Insider's Secret

'You'll taste fresh berries and exotic vegetables'

Caroline Ishii, Chef, owner of Zen Kitchen (zenkitchen.ca) and star of the TV show The Restaurant Adventures of Caroline and Dave

"Visit Lansdowne Farmer's Market. It's exciting for the people of Ottawa and visitors. Local farmers bring their food – their labours of love – so you'll see all that's grown in this region. You'll taste fresh berries and all kinds of exotic vegetables."

Details: ottawafarmersmarket.ca

Compact Facts

How to get there

Air Canada (0871 220 1111; aircanada.com) flies from London Heathrow to Ottawa daily from £711 return. Fairmont Chateau Laurier (00800 04411414; fairmont.com) offers B&B in a double room from C$269 (£165) a night.

Further information

Ottawa Tourism (ottawatourism.ca).