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Welcome to Rideau, Ottawa’s Original Downtown

Rideau Street has the oldest and richest history of any other locale in Ottawa, dating back to when the area was first settled in 1826. Today, it has over 600 businesses that offer a wide selection of shopping and dining options as well as arts, culture and entertainment experiences for all ages.

1826: Commercial District

Lt. Col. John By began construction of the Rideau Canal and Rideau Street in 1826; the area would later emerge as the primary commercial district for residents of Lower Town and Upper Town. Underground sewers and drains were eventually installed, followed by a sidewalk, a water well and gas lamps.  

An artist’s rendition of settlers arriving along the Rideau River to establish the community that would eventually become Ottawa. (Image: McCord Stewart Museum) 

Initially, merchants would sprinkle water on the street twice a day to keep dust from entering their stores and spoiling the merchandise. This was no longer necessary after the road was paved in 1895. 

An early photo of Rideau and Dalhousie prior to being paved; c. 1860. 

1857: Civil Servants

The settlement changed its name to Ottawa in 1855 and was declared the capital of Canada in 1857. This led to the construction of the Parliament Buildings and an influx of federal civil servants, growing Rideau Street’s clientele significantly. 

The construction of the Parliament buildings; photo undated. (Image: Government of Canada) 

1889: The Department Store Era

The introduction of department stores significantly influenced the appearance of Downtown Rideau.  

In 1889, T. Lindsay and Co. opened Ottawa’s first multi-purpose department store; today, the CF Rideau Centre occupies the same location.  

By 1901, the north side of Rideau Street accommodated three department stores along Rideau and George. This marked the beginning of Rideau Street’s reign as the premier shopping district in Ottawa, with stores like: 

A.J. Freiman’s Department Store, which operated on Rideau Street for over 50 years before being acquired by The Bay; c. 1938 (Image: Library and Archives Canada) 

By the 1920s, Rideau Street sported over 50 thriving, family-owned retail establishments. Many remained in full operation until the 2000s and some continue to exist to this day. 

The intersection of Rideau and Wellington. Letellier Shoes (pictured bottom left) remains in operation on Rideau Street to this day; c. 1940s. 

1916: Architectural Landmarks

There are three important buildings that anchor the western limit of Rideau Street at Sussex Drive.  

A photo of Ottawa’s Union Station, which is now the Senate Building of Canada; photo undated. (Image: Senate of Canada) 

These buildings remain prominent assets of Downtown Rideau and the intersection of Rideau and Sussex is still one of the most prestigious commercial addresses in Canada. 

For over a century, the Château Laurier has been the most revered hotel in the Nation’s Capital and a national icon; photo undated. (Image: Fairmont Château Laurier) 

The 60’s and 70’s: Suburban Competition

After WW2, Downtown Rideau faced increasing competition from suburban shopping centres as well as the federal government moving 18% of its downtown workforce to Hull, Quebec in the 1970s. The area began to experience a loss of shoppers for the first time and many businesses began to close. 

A photo of the F.W. Woolworth Company’s location on Rideau Street. The store operated for 78 years before closing in 1993; c. 1950s. 

1983: Rideau Area Project

Local, provincial and federal governments as well as a consortium of developers would announce the Rideau Area Project in 1983. This initiative included the construction of the Rideau Centre and Ottawa Congress Centre (current site of the Shaw Centre), along with the Westin Hotel.  

Shoppers flock to the Rideau Centre shortly after its opening to the public; c. 1983. (Image: Andrew King) 

Today, the Rideau Centre is the largest regional shopping facility in Ottawa with over 150 retail outlets. It is the 4th highest sales per square foot shopping centre in Canada, while the Shaw Centre remains Ottawa’s premier trade and convention facility.  

At the same time, the Downtown Rideau Business Improvement Area was formed to market the district and represent its business community.  

1993: Redevelopment

In the early 1990s, a further $4.2 million dollar investment in Rideau Street was made by Downtown Rideau property owners, businesses and the City of Ottawa.  

Cars and buses made a return to Rideau Street in the 1990s and helped re-establish Rideau Street as a major traffic artery in Ottawa; c. 2005. (Image: Andrew Breeden) 

The purpose of this project was to restore Rideau Street to its previous function as a commercial main street and an open-air, pedestrian-friendly area. 

These efforts saw Downtown Rideau get re-absorbed back into Ottawa’s bustling urban fabric. It also succeeded in creating a new pedestrian-friendly atmosphere, attracting more visitors to Rideau Street. 

2011: Redevelopment of The Shaw Centre

After the demolition of the Ottawa Congress Centre, the Shaw Centre was built in its place and officially opened in 2011. It is a world-class, state-of-the-art facility that sits along the Rideau Canal and is in full view of the Parliament Buildings.  

The Shaw Centre, also known as the Ottawa Convention Centre, is a stand-out amongst facilities of its kind not just in Canada, but around the world. (Image: Shaw Centre) 

2013-2016: Rideau Centre Revitalization and Expansion

In 2016, Cadillac Fairview Corporation Limited finished revitalizing and expanding the Rideau Centre. The redevelopment project included a complete interior renovation, a new dining hall and a stellar line-up of the industry’s best-in-class retailers, among many other features. 

Following its remodel, the CF Rideau Centre has set a new standard for shopping malls throughout Canada; c. 2023. 

2015-2017: National Arts Centre Revitalization & Expansion

In 2015, the National Arts Centre’s Elgin Street entrance was replaced with a glass and wood structure, and the Equator café was launched. Its stone tile floor echoes the NAC’s original triangle and hexagon design pattern. Later, the second floor of the north atrium opened, as did the transformed Fourth Stage.  

Since its debut in 1966, the National Arts Centre has been one of the most iconic centrepieces of Downtown Ottawa, helped in no small part by its recent remodels; photo undated. 

The newest architectural feature of the NAC is the 20-metre high Kipnes Lantern, which acts as a digital display. The NAC also offers picturesque views of Confederation Park as well as the East Block and Peace Tower on Parliament Hill. 

2015-2017: Ottawa Art Gallery Expansion and Arts Court Redevelopment

The OAG opened to the public in 2017 and features: 

The Ottawa Art Gallery sports a wide variety of amenities that make it a premier arts institution, including a rooftop terrace, a Black Box Theatre, outdoor courtyards and more; c. 2023. 

The Arts Court Redevelopment was completed in 2019. Existing spaces that were vacated by the OAG were renovated to provide improved facilities for creation, production, exhibition, and performance. 

The Arts Court has transformed from what was once the Carleton County Courthouse into a high-end fine arts establishment. (Image: Arts Court) 

Present Day

The importance of Downtown Rideau today stems from its historic role as the primary commercial district of early Ottawa. Today, it continues to provide a focus for the region’s shopping, dining and cultural activities. The proximity of Rideau Street to many of the capital’s landmarks and attractions cements its role as the centre of activity in the City of Ottawa. 

Whether you’re planning a fun-filled day trip or a high-spirited night out, there’s something for everyone along Rideau Street. Businesses in the area include everything from world-class shopping and fine dining restaurants to mom & pop shops and hidden gems. Check out our Business Directory to find your new favourite place! 

Explore the Business Community

Aside from the fascinating historical landmarks to explore, there’s something for everyone along Rideau Street whether you’re planning a fun-filled day trip or a high-spirited night out. From world-class shopping to fine dining restaurants to mom & pop shops to hidden gems, this must-experience area is home to 600+ thriving businesses that help make it all possible. Check out our Business Directory to find your new favourite place.