How hard is it to be a US expat in Ottawa?
November 13, 2015 7:11 PM   Subscribe

I have been offered an opportunity at a promising company in Ottawa, Canada. However, I'm a US citizen who has never lived outside of the US. Have any Metafites done this before? Do you regret it? Is this just a Bad Idea (TM)?

Difficulty factors: 1. I am a single parent with kindergartener. 2. I own a house in the US. 3. If I move to Ottawa, the closest family would be a 10 hour drive away in the US, and I have no friends in Ottawa.

I visited Ottawa for a weekend, but had no idea where to start to figure out where to live, what schools were good, what neighborhoods were safe and community-oriented, where people shop when there are no Target stores :). The majority of the company is staffed by twenty something, post-university locals, so they haven't been completely helpful for family-related concerns.
posted by msladygrey to Work & Money (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
What's your experience with winter? Ottawa has serious winter; similar to the very northernmost part of the central US. For some people that would be a dealbreaker, for others not a problem.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:21 PM on November 13, 2015

No problem with serious winters. I've lived in Michigan.
posted by msladygrey at 7:26 PM on November 13, 2015

I grew up in Michigan. Later I lived in Ottawa. Believe me when i say you have no idea what a serious winter is. (Unless you lived in the Upper Peninsula, in that case disregard what I said.)
posted by barnoley at 7:35 PM on November 13, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm Canadian although American-born and I've lived in Ottawa and have family there. I am a Toronto girl and found that out, but if you have lived in northern Michigan I think you might be fine. Invest in really, really good cold weather gear and boots. If you like nature walks the Gatineau hills are just fabulous and if you like skiing the Laurentians are not very far at all.

Depending on where your work is, I really liked the Glebe although it's pricey. Tons within walking distance and good schools. I can't really comment on neighbourhoods too much more than that so hopefully someone else will chime in. If you are looking for daycare one thing to consider is living in Hull because of the Quebec $8/day thing, but be aware that would mean being required to have your child schooled entirely in French, which is different than French Immersion. Quebec culture is its own thing.

Compared to Toronto I thought there was a great work-life balance and a lot of sporty things. I didn't find the writing life there great but with the NAC and the National Gallery there was plenty of highbrow art. If your kindergartener is reasonably bright and secure and things I strongly recommend some flavour of bilingual schooling; it's not just a gift but it will make finding jobs as a teenager so much easier.

The one thing I didn't like is that it is a government town and felt...a bit stagnant to me. But I was not there before having my son and at a weird time in my life, and now that I've been parenting for longer I am a much bigger fan of sedate. It may take a bit longer to break into social circles than you might think; Upper Canadians in general (I mostly am one) just are a bit frosty; it's not personal or mean or anything, but it's definitely not warm and welcoming.

There's an Ikea at Pinecrest and downtown there's the Rideau Centre and The Bay, and there's Bayshore. Food can be pricey but there are some really yummy places to get some. And if you like burgers it's the home of The Works and if you're vegetarian

Overall I would recommend trying it out, totally.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:48 PM on November 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

American from Georgia living in Ottawa. I love it. It's not a huge city but there's enough cultural stuff going on that there's always something to do. Lots of activities for kids. The schools are all great.

I could go into detail about all the neighborhoods. Are you looking to live closer to downtown (centretown, sandy hill, the glebe, Hintonburg, westboro) or in the suburbs (Orleans, kanata)? Basically, compared to most cities in the States, there is no "bad" section of town. Most neighborhoods have great communities. There's crime, I suppose, but I seriously have never felt in danger here.

You can get a two bedroom apartment in a walkable section of town for about $1200. No need to buy.

Have you ever been to Canada? It's really pretty similar to the U.S.

Another bonus is can put your kindergartener in French immersion.

I've found it pretty easy to make friends. It's a pretty nerdy city (there's always a public lecture happening somewhere), quite educated, and most people are well traveled but Ottawa is where they come to put down roots and start a family. You'll definitely be able to make friends with parents from school and in your neighborhood.

Winter can be a slog but if you dress for it, it's not bad. Everyone honestly makes the most of it and goes ice skating and cross country skiing and snowshoeing and there's a month long festival in February.
posted by betsybetsy at 7:55 PM on November 13, 2015

I've lived in Ottawa for about 15 years.

Hope these help:

School rankings. Don't pick Ottawa to start with, leave the city as 'all' and Ottawa-Carlton DSB as the authority for Public Schools. Pick Ottawa CDSB for Catholic schools. (There are also at least two more (french language) school boards as well.) This will give you all the schools across all the suburbs of Ottawa. Not sure how useful the ratings will be, but at least it's something.

Outer newer cities/areas tend to be more big box shops, strip-malls & drive everywhere. Kanata, Stittsville, Barrhaven, riverside-south in the south & west. I'm not as familiar with the East end. Often there will be a 'old-x' part that's been around much longer with fewer chain stores.

In the city: Westboro, Mechanics-ville/Wellington Village are areas which have been up and coming, and more walkable. On this Map of Neighbourhoods MechanicsVille/Wellington Village are in Hintonburg.

The Glebe is nice, walkable, central, good schools and pricey.

Also previously on the green. It's from 2007 though.

Feel free to me-mail me if you have specific questions.
posted by oddphantom at 7:56 PM on November 13, 2015

I found a write up I did for a friend last year. is a great website that focuses on cultural stuff. You can look through the archives and see what appeals to you and see where it is. There's also a neighborhood wars that they do where people write in about why they love their neighborhood and then readers vote.

Will you be driving to work primarily or do you want to walk/take the bus/bike? If you have a car you can live further out (though the neighborhoods I tend to like are all central). If you're taking the bus, I would try to live closer to the
"transitway" (that's the main bus line that runs through downtown- generally the 87-99 buses run on it and they have a much higher frequency than the locals, which are 1-20).

ok, so the neighborhood list ended up being REALLY long. it might be easier to follow what i'm saying if you look at a map as i tried to go by geography (or it might be impossible!). hope it helps and that it makes sense. feel free to ask if you want any more info about anything.

Here's a quick rundown of the neighborhoods going east to west (so parallel to Ottawa River).

Rideau Street runs east-west parallel to the Ottawa river. It starts out as Montreal Road in Vanier, then turns into Rideau once you cross the Rideau river into Sandy Hill, then you hit the Byward Market and go past the Rideau Centre where it turns into Wellington Street and goes past all the government buildings and Parliament.

Vanier: francophone, is considered to be not as nice -some people will say "dangerous" as you might see drugs, prostitutes, etc occasionally- but we've never felt threatened there. sort of up and coming. still a place to find affordable houses to buy. rents would be cheaper here but it is a longer walk to byward market/downtown and local buses can be a hassle depending on your level of patience with buses in general.

Sandy Hill: adjacent to University of Ottawa campus. was first wealthy neighborhood in Ottawa in 1800s. lots of embassies there now. Very nice homes and apartments are usually quite nice as long as their not geared specifically to students. The closer you get to uOttawa, the louder it gets. We lived at Besserer and Chapel and it was very nice.

Byward Market: main tourist bit. lots of restaurants and bars. centrally located. farmer's market in the summer and lots of little speciality stores (my partner walks through every day on his way home so we get groceries there a lot). lots of uni students partying on weekends. can be very loud. transitway stop is "mackenzie king" which is at the rideau centre (big shopping mall).

Centretown: the downtown district south of Parliament. The Transitway runs through on Albert and Slater streets (being converted into underground light rail set to open in 2018). Lots of new condos in the area. When we first moved here the area was pretty dead on weekends but I think that's changing. Main commercial street through Ottawa is Bank Street. Running parallel to Bank is Elgin street which is also a nice area. Lots of restaurants. I think it is also student-y because it is near uOttawa but maybe more grad students?

If you go south on Bank Street a couple blocks, you hit Somerset which runs through Chinatown, past Little Italy, and into Hintonburg where the name changes to Wellington West where it continues into the neighborhood called Wellington West (or sometimes Parkdale or Tunney's Pasture) and then into Westboro.

Chinatown: still being gentrified, housing stock can be very nice depending on street. Lots of restaurants, asian markets, some new hipster-y things moving in. There are a couple of coffee shops I quite like. Rents would be quite cheap around here.

Little Italy: runs along Preston Street to Dow's Lake. Lots of Italian restaurants, some Italian markets, nice houses. Rents between $800-$1000 for a one bedroom I think. There's a bike path connecting the bike path that runs from the Rideau Canal to the Byward Market with the bike path that runs along the Ottawa River. lots of condo's going in here in the the next 2-5 years.

The o-train: runs parallel to preston from a randomish spot closer to the Ottawa river at bayview where there's a connection to the transitway. the next stop is at carling/dow's lake in little italy, then a stop at a large government complex, then a stop at Carleton University, then final stop is at a big box shopping centre at south keys/greenboro. if your office is next the otrain then would be an option but mostly used by Carleton students.

Hintonburg: heading west over the o-train tracks is up and coming hipster area. Nice coffee shops, restaurants, etc. there's a farmer's market at parkdale market. housing stock is very nice for apartments and there's also been a lot of infill that may be rented out as apartments. Might pay a bit of a premium b/c it's a bit of a desirable neighborhood.

Westboro: continuing west. Lots of restaurants, shops, there's a superstore and a mec. houses are pretty expensive here and I consider it far out and thus requiring a car.

Ok, a couple more going south on Bank Street.

So Bank Street runs north-south from parliament/government area at Ottawa River way out into the suburbs (south keys big box stores are on bank). Several very nice neigborhoods closer to downtown though.

Centretown: see above.

The Glebe: very wealthy, amazing homes. you can find good, not terribly expensive rental units though as the homes are so big that many have been broken up or had an apartment added. Tons of shops and restaurants. Not on the transitway so bus travel is a little more difficult. Lansdowne is the football stadium and it's just been redeveloped. whole foods is opening and there's a big park. the main ottawa farmer's market is moving back soon after being displaced due to construction. many people in the glebe were very opposed to redevelopment in a "not in my backyard" kind of way.

Going south on Bank through the Glebe you pass Lansdowne and cross the Rideau Canal into Old Ottawa South.

Old Ottawa South: very nice though not quite as wealthy as the Glebe. there's a great independent movie theater.

Other neighborhoods you might hear about:

Lowertown: north of Byward Market and Sandy Hill. Not as nice- more public housing/co-ops but it's possible you could find a decent place there.

Beechwood/New Edinburgh: very nice area by Ottawa River and Rideau River so good bike paths, parks. Local buses go there and there's a couple stores. Rent is awfully expensive. Like $1600+ for a two bedroom.

If you want to look at a specific public school, check out rockcliffe park public school. Lots of diplomats, public servants, prime ministers...send their kids there. Living in new Edinburgh or lowertown would automatically put you in that school I think.

Gatineau: on other side of Ottawa River in Quebec. rents are super cheap there but provincial taxes are very high. and i don't consider the housing stock to be as nice. people do actually speak french there too. i wouldn't move there right off. the bridges can also be a pain during rush hour but otherwise it's very easy to get across.


Kanata- way out west
Barrhaven- way out south
Nepean- south but closer than Barrhaven
Orleans- way out east
posted by betsybetsy at 8:13 PM on November 13, 2015 [7 favorites]

I'd include Old Ottawa South as nice, walkable, and fairly central. I think it is less pricey than the glebe. No idea about schools or daycare, but lots of kids.

Oh, and we have the fourth best gelato in North America, and a decent used book store and small but thorough supermarket. Don't rent on Sunnyside west of bank, it's a sedate student ghetto with a little bit of traffic. One Block away is ok, though.
posted by sebastienbailard at 8:22 PM on November 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

Annual family membership in the museum of civilization was worth it just for the children's museum when I was there one summer with my son. Went there sometimes twice a week! Its in gatineau (quebec side of the city), walkable from downtown ottawa.
posted by chapps at 9:06 PM on November 13, 2015

1. I am a single parent with kindergartener. 2. I own a house in the US. 3. If I move to Ottawa, the closest family would be a 10 hour drive away in the US, and I have no friends in Ottawa.

My boyfriend is an American expat who has lived in Ottawa for 6 years.

1. He is not a parent; can't help here.
2. He too owns a house in the US. He bought immediately pre-crash, so he rents his home with a property management company. If the exchange rate was better, he'd basically break even. However, there are a couple of things to think about. If you sell your home AFTER it stops being your primary residence, you'll have to pay tax on the sale. Additionally, US/CAN have different ideas of when a rental property is profitable, so I would recommend an accountant (I'd recommend one anyways, as you'll have to do tax in both countries). My boyfriend uses Stephen Ernst, 5310 Canotek Rd #40.
3. My boyfriend also had no friends in town when he moved, and his closest family was in Cleveland. Since he moved to Ottawa, he has dated more people than he had dated in his entire US life (with the caveat that he had only dated 2 people in the US). He has a bunch of groups of friends, now, whom he met through work, through Swing Dynamite's dance sessions, or through boardgame nights (now the main boardgame nights are run by Cardboard Kingdom).

Ottawa has a goodly amount of activities for a city its size because it is the capital. It is very, ridiculously safe compared to anywhere my boyfriend had previously lived. There are some neighbourhoods in the South End that are less safe than most (although I temporarily lived what was apparently 2 blocks away from a major intersection for gang activity and had no blessed clue, just looked like normal suburbs to me). Traditionally, Vanier and some stretches of Carling as the "shady" neighbourhoods. Avoid the highrise apartments at Lees (near Vanier); they are all notorious (to different degrees) as they are the cheapest student housing available.

Generally speaking, if you think you will be using public transit extensively, you want to be pretty far north to minimize your distance to the Transitway. Going North-South in Ottawa, unless you live on the (frequently out of service) O-Train line or on the North-South branch of the transitway, is a bit of a pain. That said, Downtown Ottawa (the neighbourhood immediately between Centretown and Parliament) and northern Centretown have had some problems with quality and distance of grocery stores (and hardware stores). It's gotten better now that there's a Sobey's here, but plan for 1km grocery trips if you choose my neighbourhood.

If you're not planning to use public transit, realize that the bulk of commuters go from Orleans to Downtown in the morning. (I cannot speak for west-end traffic patterns).
posted by flibbertigibbet at 4:12 AM on November 14, 2015

Honestly, by American standards, every school in Ottawa is good and every neighbourhood in Ottawa is safe. Ottawa is known, even by Canadian standards, as being an ideal city in which to raise children.
posted by 256 at 6:12 AM on November 14, 2015 [5 favorites]

Look into the tax situation. What does Canada get? What does the U.S. get? Or, does it?

Health care? insurance?

Any concerns that the new employer would be suitably responsive to your inevitable parental issues?
posted by justcorbly at 6:20 AM on November 14, 2015

For a basic introduction to the real estate market, check out You can input some data about price range, preferred number of bedrooms and bathrooms, etc, and get some sense of the market.
posted by obscure simpsons reference at 7:55 AM on November 14, 2015

I can't speak to being a US expat, but I think you would find Ottawa to be a safe and pleasant city to live in.
posted by ageispolis at 8:59 AM on November 14, 2015

My sis in law moved to Ottawa after a peripatetic 15 years and she has found it difficult to forge a social community... Probably it doesn't help that she isn't interested in the sporty/outdoorsy pastimes that are so very popular in Ottawa.
She has a two year old and we can attest to the awesomeness of the Children's Museum. There are also lots of parks for warmer months. She has found quality of life much improved by having a car!
On the schooling front, the French immersion schools are generally much higher calibre (so she says) vs same neighbourhood English school. Some people are hesitant about French immersion because they want to be able to help their kid with homework... Depending how long you stay this is maybe a non-issue? Ottawa is definitely one of the more bilingual cities in Canada because you kinda need both languages to get anywhere in the federal government, which is a major (the major?) employer.
posted by dotparker at 10:25 AM on November 14, 2015

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