HI Hostel Ottawa: Arrestingly Unusual Accommodations
Ever wanted to spend the night in jail, but didn’t want to commit a vicious crime in order to do so? Well, you can. Part of the global HI Youth Hostel chain, this historic Nicholas Street building was once the Carleton County Gaol. Ideal for young people who are deep sleepers, don’t mind shared bathrooms, and those not afraid of a few ghosts, you’ll be hard pressed to find more affordable accommodations within walking distance of Parliament and Ottawa’s downtown attractions.

While there are some nice (and fairly pricey) hotels in Ottawa’s core, there are surprisingly few non-corporate inns and B&Bs for those looking for something a little different or inexpensive. The HI Hostel not only fits the bill as a beautiful historic building, but also offers up a good anecdote for your next dinner party when you can talk about the night you spent in jail.

I stayed at the hostel during Winterlude last year for two nights. During my stay, I spent one night in an individual cell and one in a shared hostel room. Some floors of the 110-room hostel have the original jail cells (2x3 metre cells with creeky barred doors), while others have typical hostel rooms shared by up to six people.
My first night, I was greeted by a staff member at the front desk who handed me the small gold-coloured key, my free on-site parking pass, and a stack of sheets and a bath towel. I proceeded up industrial steel stairs to the sixth floor. A long, desolate hall with unadorned white walls leading to the shared bathroom greeted me. With my footsteps echoing off the hard surfaces, I found cell 8. Newspaper entries from the Ottawa Times with accounts of the people who were incarcerated in my cell in Victorian times:

A newsboy was found sleeping in the street on Friday and was sent to the Gaol until Monday. (1872)

Joseph William Walker of New Edinburgh was charged with indecent exposure in Major’s Hill Park yesterday afternoon. He was arrested by Doinion constable No. 25…he was sentenced to three months in the Gaol at hard labour. (1892)

With the gloomy image of spending several months or even years in these quarters, I turned the key in the door lock. Inside was my room, such as it was. A single uncovered light bulb illuminated the spartan quarters with a metal-framed bunk bed on the left side and a mattress on the floor on the other.
A sign on the inside of the door explained that for historic accuracy, the cell’s arched ceiling was left as it was in its jail days. As a result, guests are asked to respect “quiet time” after 11pm as sound travels especially well. This was helpful for guards in the olden days as they could hear any troublemaking or whispers. However, it is less ideal when trying to sleep with potentially a couple dozen other people on your floor with lap tops, cell phones, bags of chips, high heeled shoes, squeaky bed springs, etc. The top and bottom of the door have been left with just the bars (a reinforced panel covers the middle portion so have some privacy that inmates would not have enjoyed) so you can see the hall light throughout the night and hear people’s shoes as they pass your cell to use the washroom or to get to their room.

Overall, this is a neat way to pass a night, but not ideal for light sleepers or those wanting to hang out privately in their room. The dim lighting and purposefully austere décor create the proper ambiance, but you’ll likely want to head down to the common living room to read a book, use the free WIFI or chat with other guests visiting Ottawa from around the world.
The second night I stayed on a different floor in a shared room in a style any hostel-goer will recognize. A simple, square, white room with a pair of bunk beds and one single bed provides less ambiance than the cells, but it is also quieter (assuming you have considerate roommates).

In general, the hostel provides a more social experience than your typical hotel or inn. There is a bar, Mugshots, on the lowest floor where a continental breakfast buffet is served. It is also the starting point of a Friday pub crawl and the host of an open mic night Wednesday nights and trivia on Thursdays.

HI Hostel knows their clientele. There’s a whiteboard in the lobby listing cheap or free activities in town (e.g., Parliament tours, Thursday free night at museums, discounted Gaol tours).

Overall, as a hostel, I would recommend this accommodation option. It’s good value for money, in a good location, and offers a variety of affordable entertainment and social options for guests. You know yourself: If you think you can handle jail life, go for it.

Price: $40-65 a night depending on whether you want a private or shared “cell.”
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