Offbeat Ottawa: 10 quirky things to do in Canada's capital city

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If you think that Ottawa is all beige government buildings and staid traditional restaurants, think again. From 'Cold War Movie Night' in a vintage 1960s bunker, to a drag queen-hosted karaoke fest in Chinatown, Canada's capital city is full of fun.

'Blast Tunnel' by Iouri Goussev. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike  licence

Feel the chill of the Cold War

At the Diefenbunker, Canada’s Cold War Museum, an underground bunker built to house Canadian government officials in the event of a nuclear attack, you can tour the war room, the emergency broadcasting studio, and the prime minister’s secret hideout, all painstakingly preserved from the 1960s. But for the full Dr. Strangelove experience, visit on the third Tuesday of the month for the 'Cold War Cinema' to watch a Cold War-themed film inside the bunker.

Salute the sun on Parliament Hill

Join hundreds of fellow downward-doggers for a free one-hour yoga class on the lush green lawn in front of the Parliament buildings. Classes run weekly in summer; get the current schedule from the local Lululemon store (www.lululemon.com/ottawa/rideaucentre).

'Parliament Hill' by tsaiproject. Creative Commons Attribution licence

Go home to art

Artist Brenda Gale Warner operates one of Ottawa’s most unusual gallery spaces – in her living room. Her 1870s woodframe home (once was a Catholic convent) houses Galerie 240 (www.galerie240.com), a first-floor art space where Warner shows her paintings and photographs alongside works by local, Canadian, and international contemporary artists.

Laugh at a lawyer, jeer at a justice

Supreme Court justices, members of Parliament, and local lawyers take the stage during the annual Lawyer Play, a fundraiser for the Great Canadian Theatre Company (GCTC) (www.gctc.ca), in which members of Ottawa’s legal community play small roles in a GCTC production. The GCTC also stages a full season of creative, contemporary Canadian theatre from September through June.

Croon with a queen

A long-standing, family-run Chinatown eatery, the Shanghai Restaurant (www.shanghaiottawa.com) morphs into a quirky club on Saturday nights, when drag queen China Doll hosts a popular no-cover karaoke night. The crooning kicks off at 9pm.

'Chinatown Gate II' by Marcel Regimbald. Creative Commons Attribution licence

Veg out in Chinatown

Chef Caroline Ishii serves grilled seitan cutlets with fondant potatoes and horseradish crème fraiche and dresses hand-cut tofu-filled ravioli in a smoky tomato purée, at her innovative Zen Kitchen (www.zenkitchen.ca), an all-vegan fine-dining spot that takes vegetarian fare far from its crunchy-granola roots. Save room for the delicious, dairy-free Mexican chocolate cake with warm chocolate-chili sauce.

Indulge your inner fashionista

Here’s a crafty sightseeing break: Workshop Studio & Boutique (www.workshopboutique.ca) and its sister Flock Boutique (flockboutique.ca), which stock eclectic styles by independent Canadian designers, also offer short workshops in knitting, sewing, or crocheting – perfect for do-it-yourself fashion fans.

Take a quest

Channel Sherlock Holmes on an Urban Quest (www.urbanquest.com), as you follow a series of clues to explore Ottawa and its history. When you solve them all, the trail leads to a meal in a mystery restaurant.

Pig-themed decor on Murray Street. 'Metal Pig Bust' by daryl_mitchell. Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike licence

Stuff your face with a whole pig’s head

Love pork? Recruit eight or nine porcine-passionate pals and head for Murray Street (murraystreet.ca), a nose-to-tail bistro and charcuterie bar that will smoke and roast a whole pig’s head (when you order 48 hours in advance). It’ll be far tastier than a tour of Parliament.

Go directly to jail

In Ottawa, you don’t have to get arrested to spend the night in jail. At the HI-Ottawa Hostel, you can sleep behind bars in the former Carleton County Gaol. And if you don’t want to snooze in a cell, take a Haunted Walk (www.hauntedwalk.com) tour of the 19th-century building and learn why Ottawa was once considered North America’s most dangerous town.