IT comes as a surprise to many Americans that Ottawa, the capital of Canada, is more accessible to most of us than any other major foreign capital. During the 19th century, Canada's capital was constantly in search of a permanent home. On any given year, the nation's lawmakers might meet in Toronto, Kingston, Montreal, or Quebec City.
In 1857, Queen Victoria irrevocably settled the issue by selecting Ottawa, then a remote lumber town, to be Canada's new seat of government. Although in Ontario, Ottawa was a brilliant political choice. The new capital was positioned right between Canada's two major and frequently contending cultures -- the British and the French.
Not every Canadian delighted in the Queen's choice. Detractors called it ``Canada's Westminster deep in the wilderness'' or ``Victoria's folly.'' But 127 years of history has proved that the Queen's instincts were more valid than those of her critics. Ottawa has come of age in beauty and in substance. It is respected throughout the world.
The city's most impressive feature is a steep bluff above the Ottawa River on which rise the tall Gothic spires of Canada's Parliament Buildings. A 291-foot Peace Tower, burning a white light when Parliament is in session, stands at front center, with the circular library, supported by a ring of flying buttresses, facing the river. The welcome mat is out for you to tour the ornate legislative chambers and the library. Don't miss the stirring ``Changing the Guard'' ceremony, performed daily during the summer by the Governor General's Foot Guards, elegantly clad in scarlet tunics and massive bearskin busbies.
Nearby is the National Arts Centre (NAC), a modern complex housing theaters, an opera house, and a gourmet restaurant. In July the NAC hosts Festival Canada, an annual performing-arts celebration. Another yearly event, the popular Festival of Spring, in mid-May, takes place when millions of tulips planted throughout the city come into bloom, and 70 events -- marathons, flea markets, concerts, art shows, fireworks -- rouse all comers to the rites of a fresh spring.
The NAC spreads on the bank of the Rideau Canal, a pleasant waterway where you can see the city by tour boat. In winter the canal becomes one of the longest ice skating rinks in the world.
Opposite the NAC is the bland block of the National Gallery of Canada, displaying the art treasures of the country, such as works by the famous Group of Seven, who replicated the magnificent wilderness in brilliant, unrestrained colors. A new, more fitting home for the gallery is under construction near the Ottawa River.
The city has several excellent museums dedicated to portraying Canada's heritage and future in science and technology, military history, the cultures of its people, sports, scouting, aviation, and philately.
At the 1875 Log Farm you can learn how to churn butter, cut hay, and make candles the old-fashioned way. Visit the 1,299-acre Central Experimental Farm, which has lovely gardens, prize cattle, an agricultural museum, and a horse-drawn-wagon tour.
Admission to all government-operated museums is free.
Sparks Street Mall, closed to traffic and lined with flowers, features exclusive boutiques, alfresco caf'es, and extemporaneous art shows. The Family Coats of Arms Shop & Highland Outfitters and the Snow Goose (Eskimo and Canadian Indian arts and crafts) are both in this area.
Perhaps the most outstanding attraction of Ottawa is its civilized nature. It's a fresh, clean, safe, orderly city, comfortable and uplifting. The beauty is all around you -- the surrounding hills, the many gardens and sparkling waterways. The warm congeniality of its cosmopolitan inhabitants is genuine.
Ottawa warrants one to three days in your touring itinerary. It is 51/2 hours by auto from Toronto, 3 hours from Kingston, and 2 from Montreal. Frequent rail, air, and bus transportation is available.
Recommended places of accommodation in the heart of the city include Ch^ateau Laurier (Ottawa's landmark hotel), Four Seasons, Holiday Inn Centre, Skyline, Delta Ottawa, and Westin.
This city of foreign embassies and eclectic tastes has a wide variety of restaurants -- from haute cuisine to deli. La Ronde, on top of the Holiday Inn, gives you a delicious meal, live entertainment, and a revolving view of city and landscape. L'Artisan, at the Delta Ottawa, is a deluxe restaurant known for its nouvelle and classic French cuisine.
The Ch^ateau Laurier's Canadian Grill is famous for its delectable fare and as a meeting place for politicians and those who want something from them. Nate's Deli makes wonderful smoked-meat sandwiches, serves hot latkes and knishes, and dishes out the latest scuttlebutt from Parliament Hill. Friday's Roast Beef House would quicken the appetite of Henry VIII, and le Pavillon de l'Atlantique makes culinary delights out of fish and lobster. For Veal Italiano try Mamma Teresa; for Cantonese, the Golden Dragon; for tempura, Suisha Gardens; and for tacos, Guadala Harry's.
To learn more about Canada's splendid capital city -- ``by Queen Victoria!'' -- call toll free 1-800-268-3735 from anywhere in the continental US and Canada.
Frederick J. Pratson is author of ``Guide to Eastern Canada'' and ``Consumer's Guide to Package Travel Around the World,'' both published by Globe-Pequot Press, Old Chester, Conn. 06412.