Ottawa's Canadian Tulip Festival, One of the Most Beloved Festivals in Canada
As a Canadian, I’m all for festivals which put an exclamation mark on the arrival of spring, and it’s hard to think of a festival which does that better than Ottawa’s Canadian Tulip Festival.
Growing up in the Great White North, as I child I never really conceptualized the seasons in terms of temperature. All I knew was that when it was fall, I’d be playing hockey again soon, in winter I’d be playing hockey and tobogganing, spring meant I was getting close to getting up north to the cottage, and the summer was cottage season. In short, I was indifferent to weather. Is that the most Canadian paragraph I’ve ever written? It’s possible.
It was at this year’s Canadian Tulip Festival, one of the top events in Ottawa, that I realized all that has changed. Now, just a lick of sun and I’m giddy as can be about the prospect of getting rid of that cold, biting breeze. I’ll admit it, I’m a touch more grumpy and feeble with age, and I actually check the weather when I get dressed in the morning, so the arrival of spring has a different meaning altogether. I have a theory that the three years that we lived in Turkey ruined us because we got pampered with warmth and we lost a touch of our Canadian edge.
You can imagine that, during my visit to the Canadian Tulip Festival, I was frolicking about, like a poor man’s Julie Andrews in Sound of Music, soaking up the sunny rays. Bri, like me, also loves the arrival of warmer weather, and I’m sure she’ll love the fact that I fit a Sound of Music reference into this post even more.
In general, it’s hard not to appreciate how aesthetically pleasing these Ottawa tulips can be in full bloom. What I also appreciate about the Canadian Tulip Festival is that it’s a very accessible event that can be enjoyed by all - something the whole family can enjoy. In the same moment, you can see a more senior individual taking a deep breath and relishing the cacophony of colours, while a younger person is going trigger happy on their smartphone in anticipation of barraging instagram with tulips galore. And why not? Everybody deserves their moment at the Canadian Tulip Festival.
The History of Ottawa’s Famous Canadian Tulip Festival
During the Second World War, Canada sheltered the future Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, as, sadly, the Netherlands was occupied by Nazi Germany. In 1943, Princess Margaret was born at the Ottawa Civic Hospital and, as a sign of good will, the maternity ward was declared extraterritorial by the Canadian government, essentially ensuring that she would still be born on “Dutch soil” even though she was technically in Canada.
As a thank you, in 1945 the Dutch royal family sent 100,000 tulip bulbs, followed by another 20,500 bulbs the following year, then eventually making the promise that 10,000 more bulbs would arrive each and every year moving forward.
As a result of this, Ottawa became famous for its tulips, and, in 1953, the Ottawa Board of Trade decided to capitalize on that by organizing the first version of the Canadian Tulip Festival.
Over the years, the Canadian Tulip Festival has experimented with many different versions of itself. For a while, the festival aimed to be part-concert/part tulip festival, and names like The Trews, Big Sugar, Alanis Morissette, and even Liberace graced the stage at certain points. However, in 2007, the decision was made to have this Ottawa festival simply focus on the power of international friendship, and thus focus on the significance of the original gift from the Dutch.
One thing that hasn’t changed over the years is the fact that the Dutch still remember the kindness of the Canadians during their time of need. In 1967, Queen Juliana came back to celebrate with us during out centennial year, and in 2002, Princess Margaret returned to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the festival.
Now, the Canadian Tulip Festival is the world’s largest tulip festival, displaying over one million tulips to almost three quarter of a million people per year.
What You Need to Know About the Canadian Tulip Festival
Below, I’ll talk about some key information as it relates to Ottawa’s Canadian Tulip Festival which will help you visit in the future.
The festival took place between May 10-20 in 2019, and you should expect that, moving forward, the festival will take place on or around those dates.
Typically, programming is centred around Commissioners Park, where, in 2019, there were over 300,000 tulips in more than a dozen varieties. The best thing to do, in my opinion, is arrive there then leisurely stroll along the kilometre pathway that weaves in and out of the Ottawa tulips. Commissioners Park, for those who don’t know, is located in the Dows Lake section of the Rideau Canal.
Much of the festival is free, and it’s very family friendly.
If you’d like to learn more than just a casual stroll can offer, you can take the Tulip Legacy Walking Tour, which is five bucks for adults, three bucks for seniors and students, and children under the age of 12 are free.
There are regular live music performances that will take place throughout Commissioners Park throughout the Canadian Tulip Festival. Many will take place in The Dutch Theatre at the Heritage Building, but there will also be plenty of “Boardwalk Bands” on the weekend.
There’s a Tulip Plaza at the Dows Lake Pavilion with plenty of tulip sculptures, and merchandise to purchase that celebrates the tulip.
Don’t forget about the fireworks which take place typically on the final Sunday of the Tulip Festival, and take place at 10pm.
A lot of this information pertains to this year’s Canadian Tulip Festival, but this should serve as a guide for next year. I’ll also be sure to include updated 2020 information when it’s released.
What to Do During the Canadian Tulip Festival
Firstly, it’s worth noting that the Tulip Festival is a city-wide event, and takes place all across Ottawa, though the “headquarters” is indeed Commissioners Park.
Other places that you can see tulips in Ottawa include Major’s Hill Park, the Parliament Hill, Along the Rideau Canal, or on the Garden Promenade tour.
The list above includes much of the key information that will aid you in planning your own itinerary for experiencing the Canadian Tulip Festival, but there are few more things that I’d like to mention that you may want to consider.
Remember that there’s plenty of food on offer including the Canadian classics. That means that they’ve got plenty of poutine, as well as Beavertails, the latter of which Bri and I happily indulged in during this delightful Canadian festival.
In 2019, there was the first Tulip Cup Regatta put on in part with the Ottawa Rowing Club. It appears this stake race is here to stay, so keep your eye on it for future years. It will likely take place near the beginning of the festival as a bit of a fun celebration of the launch of the festival. This year it took place in the morning on May 11.
As far as festivals in Canada are concerned, the Canadian Tulip Festival is very kid-friendly, as I mention before. One place in particular to note is the Tulip Pavilion, which had innumerable tulip-themed craft activities for kids.
Wander around a bit, take a deep breathe, and bask in the experience.
However you approach this Canadian festival, you’re not going to go wrong. Just look for what would make your experience the most enjoyable.
How to Get Around the Canadian Tulip Festival and Ottawa at Large
In my recent post on Ottawa, which talked about my stay at the Fairmont Château Laurier, I mentioned that, on one particular day, we borrowed bikes from the Château Laurier, and saw Ottawa via bike. However, that’s far from the only way to see Ottawa, and the Canadian Tulip Festival for that matter.
You can choose to explore Ottawa and the Canadian Tulip Festival by foot, but just remember that it’s over 6 kilometres from downtown Ottawa to the Commissioners Park, which is why it’s likely worth considering whether you should take public transit.
You may also want to consider taking a Rideau Canal Cruise to appreciate the tulips on either side of the canal from a unique viewpoint. I also saw someone kayaking down the middle of the middle canal, and it looked awfully pleasant.
Is it Worth Visiting Ottawa’s Canadian Tulip Festival?
Not surprisingly, I’m going to give an affirmative here. After being cooped up inside all winter, why not spread those wings in the sunshine at one of the more joyous festivals in Canada?
Now, it is Canada, so there’s no guarantee of nice weather, but at least you can celebrate that it isn’t January or February anymore.
Beyond weather, I’m proud that Canada did their part in ensuring the safety of the Dutch royal family in a time of crises. This festival, the blooming of these flowers, is a physical manifestation of Canada’s commitment to world peace. We haven’t always done the right thing internationally, and perhaps no nation has, but this is an important reminder of what Canada should and can be on the world stage. We are a country that should be known for inclusiveness, and our ability to lend a helping hand, not a country that is ever compelled to hold up an iron fist.
So, in my opinion, let them bloom with all their glory. Come and explore of our nation’s capital, and let the sun come down and melt a little bit of the snow off those shoulders while basking in wonder of Ottawa’s famous flowers.
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