When it comes to exploring Canada, most travellers are forced to choose where to focus their efforts: to the wild spaces of the west or the culture-rich east.
Canada is big. Really, really big. So big, you could fit the UK inside it 41 times and still have a little room left over. All that is to say that unless you have a lot of time on your hands, you won’t get to see it all. Which means, there are hard decisions to be made.
Broadly speaking, you have two choices: Head east, where you’ll find vibrant cities, pretty mountain towns and pastoral idyll. Or go west, where gargantuan glaciers and mountainous wilderness wows. The choice is yours—but before you make it, we’re here to lend a helping hand.
URBAN EXPLORATIONS IN EAST CANADA
The cities of Canada’s eastern provinces are an eclectic bunch. French-speaking Quebec City feels like a European transplant that’s been shipped in from across the Atlantic. Wander the cobbled squares and sloping streets of its historic core, which is hemmed in by centuries-old walls.
Montreal has its own pretty old town full of architectural eye candy, from the jaw-dropping Notre-Dame Basilica to the Art-Deco Aldred Building, an Empire State in miniature. But there’s more to this city than a well-preserved past. It’s also a place that feels alive, with a glut of arts-focused festivals, exciting restaurants and a vibe that blends French sophistication with Brooklyn-esque cool.
Just a short hop from Montreal brings you to Canada’s capital, Ottawa. Though a touch more restrained than its Quebecois counterparts—blame the government bureaucrats—the nation’s capital is nevertheless beautiful. Tour Gothic government buildings, stroll along the Rideau Canal and explore a rake of excellent museums.
Then there’s Toronto, a multicultural metropolis that draws frequent comparisons to New York. And while it’s true that, just like the Big Apple, it’s got enough restaurants, shops, and sights to fill a lifetime, we find it to be not just friendlier but also cleaner.
THE CITIES OF WEST CANADA
Victoria, the seaside capital of BC, is a low-rise and relatively low-key kind of place, with a strong Anglo flavour and a keen emphasis on local food—look for the provenance of ingredients proudly listed on menus. It’s also the jumping-off point for trips to other parts of Vancouver Island, from the vineyard-laced Cowichan Valley—the so-called Napa of the North—to the surf beaches of Tofino.
If you go west, odds are high you’ll find yourself in Vancouver. Canada’s west coast metropolis is new and shiny. That’s not to say you won’t find history—have a stroll around Gastown for a sense of its past—just that it takes a back seat to the magnificent nature that rears up around the city. Which bring us nicely to our next point….
THE WILD WEST
Canada is not only huge, it’s also sparsely populated. This means there are vast tracts of land where people are few and far between. The landscapes of the west, and in particular Banff, Jasper and Yoho national parks, are truly humbling—it’s hard not to feel small surrounded by the Rockies.
What’s more, the western provinces are decidedly outdoorsy, which means there are countless ways to get out and experience the wilderness. Cruise down Grizzly Bear Valley in search of the fuzzy beasts to whom the valley owes its name, or hop aboard an all-terrain vehicle for a spin on the the Athabasca Glacier.
Mother Nature hasn’t exactly been stingy toward the eastern provinces. The rounded peaks of Quebec’s Laurentian Mountains don’t measure up to the Rockies but they’re lovely nonetheless. Plus they’re home to alpine resort towns such as Mont-Tremblant, and log cabin-style sugar shacks, where maple sap is harvested. Visiting a sugar shack is an annual tradition in Quebec. Forget your diet and loosen your belt as a procession of maple-drenched dishes are heaved to the family-style tables.
A little further up the St. Lawrence River is the Saguenay Fjord, whose mirror-clear waters reflect the surrounding craggy peaks and cliffs. Sail the fjord between Baie-Sainte-Catherine and Tadoussac in search of belugas and humpbacks, who are drawn to the plankton-rich waters.
Over in Ontario lies what may be Canada’s most famous natural attraction: Niagara Falls. While the mere sight of the immense cascades is enough to impress, we recommend getting a little closer to the action. A helicopter ride or a boat trip to the basin beneath the falls makes you confront their considerable power and vast scale.