Ahh, tulips. Who doesn’t like tulips? Each year the Ottawa Tulip Festival celebrates a gift from Holland to Canada. Here’s what it’s all about.
On January 19, 1943 a princess was born at the Civic Hospital in Ottawa. To celebrate the new princess, the Canadian government flew the Dutch flag on Parliament, the only time ever in the history of Canada that a foreign flag was raised on the Peace Tower.
The princess’ name was Princess Margriet and she is a daughter of Dutch Princess Juliana. In order to make sure she would have Dutch nationality, the room in the hospital was declared extraterritorial land by a special act on the day she was born so that the Princess didn’t automatically become Canadian. This would have had consequences if she would possibly become queen. Contrary to popular belief, the room was not “Dutch territory” nor did they put real Dutch soil under the four legs of the princess’ bed.
But why were the royals in Canada in the first place? The princess was born during World War II, after several European royal families narrowly escaped to Canada. Queen Wilhelmina stayed in England with her Dutch government in exile, but her daughter Juliana with her daughters Beatrix (the future queen and grandmother of the current King Willem Alexander) and Irene moved to Rockcliffe, near Rideau Hall.
After the war, the Dutch expressed their gratitude to Canada for liberating the Netherlands by sending 100,000 tulip bulbs to Ottawa. Princess Juliana sent another 20,000 tulips as a thank you for the hospitality and promised to send another 10,000 in the years following, matched by an equal amount by Dutch tulip growers, which still happens today. Out of this grew the Canadian Tulip Festival, known to most as the ‘Ottawa Tulip Festival’.
When to go: the tulips start to bloom in early May and last usually until the the third week of May. It is estimated that a total of 1 million tulips bloom in the capital region, with the largest concentration at Commissioners Park at Dow’s Lake: about 300,000 along a stretch of 1.2 km of the park.
For many Ottawans, the tulips are the real start of the spring. On a sunny day, thousands of Ottawans and visitors take their bikes to see the tulips as they can be seen for free in public spaces, such as Commissioners Park, Mayor’s Hill Park, along the Rideau Canal and at Parliament Hill and across the river in Gatineau. You really want that quintessential Ottawa selfie with tulips, a bicycle and the Peace Tower: Ottawa at its best in a selfie for the folks back home!
The Canada 150 Tulip
The best time to go and see the tulips is before 10 am, when the crowds have not arrived yet, the dew is still on the petals and the light is diffuse. Bring your camera because there is more Instagram material than you can ever imagine. Every year there are new varieties. Between the 100 different varieties, make sure you find the Canada with its red maple leaf on a white background. Amazingly, the tulip resembles the Canadian flag! Keep an eye out for the ‘Apeldoorn’ tulip, named after the Dutch town which has the same ‘man with two hats’ statue that you will find at Commissioners Park. Bonus if you find the ‘Escape’ tulip. We are not kidding, there really is one.
If you are staying downtown, the best way to see all the tulips is by foot, although be prepared for a 10 km walk to see all the colourful flowers. Alternatively, renting a bike might be a better idea. Escape Bicycle Tours & Rentals offers guided tulip bike tours in May and rent out hybrid bikes and e-bikes to explore the several sites. We have bikes available in all sizes for adults and youth as well as kids’ bikes, a child trailer and trail-a-bike.
Don’t even think of taking the car. During the weekends, the Queen Elizabeth Driveway along Dow’s Lake will be closed for traffic between 10 am and 4 pm. You didn’t come to Ottawa to sit in traffic, right?. Instead, enjoy the colours and scents from the seat of the bike. There is a beautiful separate bike path along the UNESCO World Heritage Rideau Canal from downtown to Commissioners Park. With so many tulips and bike paths, there is no need to go to Holland anymore! Book your trip in time as it is a busy time of the year.