Canada is another country blessed with incredible natural beauty. It is fairly young, historically and culturally, so does not have ruins or ancient cities, but, rather, its cities are typically modern and well-planned. It is huge and, in some cases, fairly inaccessible, but the southern and coastal parts of the country are well worth the tourist’s time and effort. Below are Canada’s greatest attractions as I see them.
1. Banff & the other National Parks of the Canadian Rockies, Alberta & British Columbia
Banff National Park is located in the province of Alberta, among a cluster of national parks (with Jasper, Kootenay, and Yoho) which showcase the Canadian Rocky Mountains. The combination boasts some of the most magnificent accessible scenery in the world. Snow-covered mountain peaks surround teal blue lakes and crisp, cold rivers, attracting numerous types of wildlife and numerous tourists and adventurers. Banff, in particular, is Canada’s oldest national park (1885), and, with the other parks in the region, was rewarded with World Heritage Site status in 1984 and 1990.
Headquarters for an exploration of these parks is the townsite of Banff, Alberta, which is nestled within the park in a valley surrounded by peaks which reach heights of 9000 -12,000 feet, and which offers lodging, restaurants, shops, and other services for the visitor. Some of the first tourists to the area were drawn to the bubbling thermal waters of “Cave” and “Basin” Springs, now a National Historic Site.
Particular attractions within Banff National Park include Lake Louise, a spectacular turquoise blue lake formed by glacial melt. Visitors may stroll or boat around the lake, hike into the mountains, or take a gondola to an overlook to get an aerial view. At one end is the historic Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, one of a number of hotels throughout Canada, built by the Canadian Railroad to entice tourists to Canada.
Near Lake Louise is Moraine Lake, similar in many respects, but, in this case, occupying the Valley of the Ten Peaks. It is the grayish, glacial silt which contributes to the unusual and dramatic color of these lakes.
Instead of taking the highway from Lake Louise to Banff, take Bow Valley Parkway, which almost guarantees wildlife sightings besides great scenery.
Check out the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, which, like the Chateau Lake Louise, is a grand old hotel built by the Canadian Railroad.
An excellent day trip from Banff is a scenic drive along the Icefields Parkway. The Icefields Parkway, is a spectacular 142 mile ( 300 km) highway which extends from the town of Lake Louise, northward to the town of Jasper, Alberta. This drive offers amazing views of the Canadian Rockies, waterfalls, lakes and glaciers. It is certainly one of the most beautiful scenic drives in the world. Along the route are numerous overlooks and trails. The road is extremely well-engineered and does not require tremendous mountain-driving skill. Plan to spend the entire day if the drive begins and ends in Banff or Jasper or Lake Louise, since the round-trip is almost 300 miles, and there are obligatory stops along the way to admire the scenery or for other activities.
While on the Icefields Parkway, be sure to stop at Icefield Centre (at kilometer 127) and take a ride on a Snocoach out onto the Columbia Icefield. Visitors are allowed to get out and walk around on the glacier for an unforgettable experience.
One of the most beautiful viewpoints on the Icefields Parkway leads to Peyto Lake (at kilometer 40).
Jasper National Park, Alberta, lies to the north of Banff National Park and also offers spectacular mountain scenery and varied outdoor activities. The northern section of the Icefields Parkway lies within Jasper National Park and includes Athabasca Mountain and Athabasca Falls. The town of Jasper, Alberta is also interesting and is equipped to serve as a base of operations while exploring the park.
Yoho National Park, British Columbia, is a small park which abuts Banff National Park. Like its neighbor, it preserves the splendor of the Canadian Rockies. There are guided tours of the Fossil Bed area and numerous hiking trails. Other activities are available at Emerald Lake. Be sure to see Takakkaw Falls, one of Canada’s highest at over 1200 feet.
Kootenay National Park, British Columbia, along with Banff National Park, Jasper National Park, and Yoho National Park constitute a tribute to the magnificent Canadian Rockies, and all have been recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Kootenay adjoins Yoho to the north and Banff to the east. Like the others, this park offers dramatic mountain scenery and numerous outdoor activities. Of special note are Radium Hot Springs and the Paint Pots.
Revelstoke, British Columbia, lies just west of Roger’s Pass, along the Trans-Canada Highway, which travels through Glacier National Park, another of Canada’s group of Mountain/Glacier areas, this time the Columbia Range, just west of the Rockies. Also nearby is Mount Revelstoke National Park, which, besides the usual mountain park activities, offers a scenic auto road to the summit.
The village of Revelstoke is quaint with a western flavor and offers several eating and lodging opportunities.
2. Niagara Falls, Ontario
Niagara Falls is one of the most recognizable tourist locations in the world. It consists of two separate but connected waterfalls, one in the United States and the other in Canada. The Canadian, or Horseshoe Falls are, by far, the more spectacular. The American side of the falls has been developed for much longer, and, therefore, has a seedier, somewhat “honky-tonk” appearance. The Canadian side is much more subdued although many similar activities are offered in both places.
For instance, the Canadian side offers Maid of the Mist boat tours which take the visitor right up to the base of the falls. Journey Behind the Falls gives the visitor access to areas behind the falls and to the base of the falls on land. The Whirlpool Aero Car is about 2 miles north of the falls and precariously suspends visitors over a portion of the Niagara River.
Other activities include a stroll through Queen Victoria Park which is beautifully landscaped and offers great views of the falls, and the IMAX Theater which offers the presentation, “Niagara, Miracles, Myths and Magic”. The film provides a wonderful orientation to and background about the area.
Be sure to see the Falls at night — they are lighted with ever-changing colors.
Although the food is nothing to brag about and is expensive, the Skylon Tower offers spectacular views of the falls from its revolving restaurant, almost 800 feet above the falls.
3. Quebec City, Quebec
Quebec City, Quebec, offers an opportunity to sample Europe without leaving the North American continent. The Old Town has the look and feel of a Medieval European walled city. French is the main and sometimes only language spoken — residents and business people are very proud of their French heritage (the province has actually contemplated seceding from Canada numerous times).
Quebec is old by North American standards — 1608 — and has been the site of much history in the struggle between the English and the French. In fact, the city eventually fell to the British in 1759, and has remained a part of the British Empire even to the present.
Quebec has become a major tourist destination because of all the above, its history and reminders of Europe, as well as the fact that the Old Town is extremely walkable and accessible and has become a Mecca for artists and craftspeople.
The Chateau Frontenac dominates the skyline of the Upper Town. Next to it, along the cliffs which established Quebec as a great location and made it fairly easy to fortify, is the Dufferin Terrace, which offers spectacular vistas of the Lower Town and of the St Lawrence River just beyond. The Terrace connects to the Promenade des Gouverneurs, which is a walkway that leads to Battlefield Park. There is also a Funicular which brings the visitor to Lower Town and avoids the numerous stairs.
The Citadel is one of two official residences of the Governor-General of Canada, and was built on the site of Quebec’s original fortifications. Entry is via the St Louis gate.
In the Lower Town, the quaint streets and shops provide more ambience. In particular, Place Royale is the gathering spot and also the scene of numerous events over the course of the year.
While in the Quebec area, visit Montmorency Falls which, although very nice and fairly tall (at about 270 feet), do not rival Niagara Falls (see #2 above), despite any signs to the contrary.
Also worth a visit is the Basilica of Ste-Anne-de-Beaupre which has been a pilgrimage location for Catholics for many years.
4. Montreal, Quebec
Montreal, Quebec, Canada’s second largest city, is a major all season destination because of its cosmopolitan nature, its major, international recurrent events, such as its International Music Competition (mid-May to early-June), the Montreal International Jazz Festival (late-June to mid-July), its World Film Festival (late-Aug to early-Sep), its world-class museums, and numerous other activities and attractions.
Like many of the major cities of the world, Montreal is a cluster of ethnic neighborhoods which add their flavors and culture to the overall landscape. Vieux Montreal (Old Montreal) is an area near the old port which has preserved the historic buildings and some of the culture of the early city. This area is ideal for walking and several of the squares (places) have outdoor dining establishments and shops. Of special note in this area of the city is the Basilica of Notre Dame, a glorious church with a beautiful, blue interior, which offers not only guided tours but also an evening “sound and light show”.
Other notable attractions include Olympic Park, remnants of the 1976 Summer Olympics, which harbors Montreal Tower and the Montreal Biodome, among other things.
Montreal’s Botanical Gardens are extensive and well-maintained and their pathways offer an escape from the hustle and bustle of the city. These gardens even include an Insectarium.
Visitors to the city should prepare for a visit by brushing up on French, since the official language of the province is French, and the ongoing controversy between Anglophiles and Francophiles has created a noticeable division of the city in this regard. Some establishments will speak and write only in French while others are more accommodating.
5. Toronto, Ontario
Toronto, Ontario, is Canada’s largest city, and, as might be expected, has an extensive variety of attractions. Perhaps the most impressive is the CN Tower, considered the tallest free-standing structure in the world, at 1,815 feet. The views from the Observation Deck (1,465 ft) are stunning. On a clear day the observer may see Niagara Falls (or at least the spray from the falls) and the city of Buffalo, New York. The city lies on Lake Ontario and marinas and docks line the shore. Beside the CN Tower is the Toronto Skydome, home of the Toronto Blue Jays, a major league baseball team.
Ontario Place, which also lies along a section of shoreline, is basically an amusement park/city park whose major venues are enclosed in modernistic pods suspended over the lake. A tremendous variety of activities are available from water rides to miniature golf to an IMAX theater. There is even an amphitheater which offers outdoor concerts.
Here in winter and the temperature outside is in the single digits? Don’t worry!
The Path, accessed from a number of well-marked, above ground locations, provides visitors and residents with shops, restaurants, hotels, and entertainment without ever being exposed to Toronto’s frigid cold. It is virtually an underground city with over 15 miles of tunnels.
Toronto has a number of city parks, some along the Lake Ontario shoreline, which provide inviting locations for a picnic and to admire the city’s skyline.
6. Victoria & Vancouver, British Columbia
Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, is located at the southeastern tip of Vancouver Island. The city is equidistant from Seattle, Washington, and the city of Vancouver, on the British Columbia mainland. There are ferries which carry visitors to and from Victoria from either location. Victoria is a quintessential British city and is a delight to walk, especially around the Parliament Buildings which are regal and impressive, and throughout the area which includes Thunderbird Park, a spot that contains a number of totem poles recalling Victoria’s far distant past.
Also in Victoria is the Royal British Columbia Museum and the nearby Crystal Gardens. To the north of the city, in the community of Brentwood Bay are the world-famous Butchart Gardens.
The Royal British Columbia Museum is a great starting point for an exploration of Vancouver Island and British Columbia, in general. It documents the history of the province, the ecology of the environment, and the culture of the native inhabitants, with artifacts and displays. The Main Street Exhibit details what life was like in the city in the 19th century. Other exhibits inform visitors about the explorers, primarily from Europe, who discovered and eventually settled the province. There is even a National Geographic IMAX Theater on site.
Butchart Gardens, in the town of Brentwood Bay, not far from Victoria, has numerous landscaped and flowering gardens and is open year round (winter brings holiday lights in place of the flowers). On the grounds, a former limestone quarry, are Japanese Gardens, a Rose Garden, ponds and statuary.
Just across the Strait of Georgia from Victoria is the vibrant city of Vancouver. Vancouver is a thoroughly modern, clean, and prosperous urban center as well as an important Pacific Ocean port. Its setting, between the Pacific Ocean and British Columbia’s majestic Coastal Range, is magnificent. Most of the major attractions of the city are located along the waterfront. Canada Place, which was the Canadian pavilion for the World Fair, held in the city in 1986, has come to symbolize this emerging superstar. Also along the waterfront is Stanley Park, one of the world’s best urban parks. There are also world-class museums, and several distinct neighborhoods, particularly Chinatown, which should be experienced. Vancouver is also an embarkation point for numerous cruise ships which explore the nearby Alaskan Inside Passage.
Pacific Rim National Park, on the southwestern shore of Vancouver Island, northwest of Victoria, provides great views of the Pacific Ocean and numerous offshore islands, with their sea lions, seals, and seabirds. Extremely varied habitats can be explored, from tidal marshes to sandy beaches to rain forests to rocky headlands with small offshore islands. Perhaps the most significant hiking trail is the West Coast Trail which extends some 77 km (48 miles), but is for experienced hikers only.
7. Cabot Trail & Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia
The Cabot Trail, which traverses the coastline of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, and also crosses the highlands of its interior, is another of Canada’s spectacular scenic drives. Entry and exit points for the drive are near the city of Baddeck. The drive can be started either on the east or west side of Cape Breton. Visitors should note that the larger Visitor Center is on the western side of the drive, at Cheticamp. The southerly parts of the drive are not particularly special, but the northerly sections provide not only spectacular scenery but steep climbs and hairpin turns as well. This upper section is within the boundaries of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, which extends from Ingonish on the east to Cheticamp on the west. Also within the park are numerous trails or hikes, scenic overlooks, and several villages and detours to explore.
Not far from the eastern entrance to the Cabot Trail, actually on the eastern coast of Cape Breton is the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site. This wonderful open air museum allows visitors to embark on a journey back in time to a French colonial city in the year 1744. Much of the original settlement has been restored and costumed residents provide information about the times and their particular station in life. Demonstrations and exhibits reveal the practices of the time and visitors are even invited to sample the food of the era. Shuttle buses provide transport from the Visitor Center which offers information and displays concerning Louisbourg. Guided tours are offered in English and in French.
The King’s Bastion is a must-see location on the site. It was the royal residence and the Governor’s quarters are about as posh and elegant as the colony could muster. Many of the homes and other buildings are not only open, but they function as they might have long ago.
8. Waterton-Glacier Independence Peace Park (with USA)
Waterton-Glacier Independence Peace Park is an international effort by Canada and the USA to combine two national parks, in close proximity to one another, together into one joint enterprise. It emphasizes the ability of these two nations, who share a 3000+ mile border, to work cooperatively. The entry into Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada is about 50 miles north of Glacier National Park in Montana, USA. The two parks share a common boundary, and both parks preserve the same type of geology and wildlife, so it is quite logical that they make connections. While in Waterton Lakes, stop at the famous Prince of Wales Hotel, which harkens to an earlier time when grandiose hotels in special locations were the rule in Canada.
Similar outdoor activities are available at both parks and, due to their proximity, both can be incorporated into a trip to the area.
9. Halifax & Vicinity, Nova Scotia
Halifax, Nova Scotia, is a delightful city that makes the visitor feel that it is a small town. It became prosperous because of its harbor and access to the Atlantic Ocean, and this attribute has been lovingly exploited with the development of its waterfront. There are boardwalks and shops and restaurants, as well as boating opportunities and museums. The visitor may stroll many blocks, adjacent to the downtown area without worrying about traffic.
Besides the waterfront area, there are neighborhoods to explore and historic properties to check out. For instance, at the top of the hill which slopes steeply down to the harbor, the Halifax Citadel National Historic Site presides over the city. The fortress was built in the early 1800’s to protect the city and its harbor. There are restored rooms and exhibits to explore, and demonstrations, especially in the summertime. There are also great views of the city and harbor from the ramparts.
Near the Citadel are the Halifax Public Gardens, an oasis of greenery and flowers just minutes from the city’s high rise office buildings. Numerous paths allow access to many different types of trees and plantings. Ponds and sculptures add to the ambiance. Most importantly, this attraction is free! Walking tours of the downtown area are available at the Visitor Centers.
There are a number of excellent excursions which are available from Halifax. For instance, a drive along the Lighthouse Route takes the visitor to Peggy’s Cove, the quintessential provincial fishing village. Its lighthouse occupies a dramatic location on a prominent jetty of weathered boulders. A few shops and restaurants complete the scene. There is a visitor center which offers information about the geology and a map of the area. A short walk from there brings the visitor to the lighthouse area.
Just opposite the Visitor Center at Peggy’s Cove is the William E Garth Memorial Park which displays a beautiful sculpture in granite begun by the namesake when he was 70 years old, and subsequently completed after his death in 1988. The sculpture depicts fishermen and their families.
Further south along the route is Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which preserves a typical British colonial settlement of the 1700’s. Obtain a map and walking tour of the town at the Visitor Center and stroll the streets, admiring the restoration of the many vintage homes and buildings. A few of the notable sights along the walk include the Lunenburg Academy, recently restored and still in use, and the beautiful and unusual St John’s Anglican Church. Walk along the harbor and enjoy a lunch, dinner or a drink in one of the waterfront restaurants or take a boat ride. For much of the year, Lunenburg is the home of The Bluenose, probably the most famous schooner in the world.
Just north of Lunenburg is the community of Mahone Bay which is a beautiful and tranquil example of a classic Nova Scotia seaside village.
For great views and photos of Lunenburg, travel out of town toward the golf course which faces the harbor. Just before the entrance, are picnic tables along a causeway which offer unobstructed views of the harbor. Go up the hill to the right of the picnic tables for a view from above.
10. Hopewell Rocks & Bay of Fundy National Park, New Brunswick
Hopewell Rocks, New Brunswick, are the symbol of the province, seen on all its advertisements, and a fitting tribute to the Bay of Fundy which boasts the highest tides on earth. The rocks themselves are basically sea stacks which are partly covered during high tide, but are totally exposed during low tide. The literature invites visitors to “walk on the ocean floor”. A well maintained trail leads to a metal stairway down to the water. Time your visit to coincide with low tide or 3 hours before or after to be able to walk out to the rocks. They are often referred to as “flower pot rocks” because of vegetation which grows on their tops. The road into the area also showcases the tremendous tidal heights because large areas of land are exposed at low tide.
St John, New Brunswick, is a thriving port on the Bay of Fundy which offers the visitor historic walks and a pedestrian waterfront area bustling with restaurants, concerts and other activities. It is ideal as a staging area for visits to Fundy National Park and Hopewell Rocks.
Between St John and Hopewell Rocks is Fundy National Park. This area in New Brunswick showcases the largest tides in the world with hiking trails, beaches and viewpoints, as well as many other activities. Route 114 provides auto access to the park’s regions.
11. Prince Edward Island
Prince Edward Island, the smallest of Canada’s provinces, is located within the Gulf of St Lawrence, off the northern coast of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. There is access to the island from the mainland by a bridge, the Confederation Bridge, from Cape Tormentine, NB, and by ferry. The island is quaint and largely agrarian (potatoes are the most important crop) and a trip to the island is all about drives. The center or Queens section can be explored via the Blue Heron Drive, which begins and ends in Charlottetown, the provincial capital, with its elegant wooden buildings, gaslights and Canada’s oldest drugstore. This drive is the most popular since it evokes memories of and visits sites associated with the book, Anne of Green Gables, about an young, orphan girl. The house itself can be visited as well as other settings mentioned in the book, particularly Avonlea Village, which has preserved the schoolhouse where Lucy Maud Montgomery, the author, taught, the church she attended, etc. This route also can be used to explore Prince Edward Island National Park, which preserves much of the best beachfront on the Gulf of St Lawrence.
The eastern section of the island is accessible along the King’s Byway, while the major route on the west is known as Lady Slipper Drive.
Newfoundland, the easternmost province in Canada, and, in fact the easternmost location in North America, is actually closer to Ireland than it is to Toronto. It is a totally different world from the rest of Canada because of its isolation, yet its capital, St John’s, is one of the oldest cities in North America. Its economic importance lies in its proximity to the Grand Banks, the most important fishery in the Atlantic Ocean. Newfoundland was first settled by the Vikings (they called it “Markland”), but these settlements did not survive, paving the way for Europeans. The island is huge, more than three times the size of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island combined. A car and plenty of time is definitely needed to see much of the island.
St John’s is located at the easternmost tip of the island, and is closer to France than it is to Nova Scotia. Of note in the city is Signal Hill Park, which was the location where the first transatlantic message was received by Marconi, although its name was derived from the fact that flags on this hill were used to signal villagers that ships were approaching the harbor.
Gros Morne National Park lies along the west coast of Newfoundland, and boasts numerous fjords. It is best experienced by boats which are available in the town of Western Brook. This park has a plethora of wildlife, including caribou and moose on land and whales, seals, and occasionally polar bears on the water. Its geology, shaped by plate tectonics and glaciers, is so significant that it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. Hiking and fishing are two of the most popular park activities.
13. Calgary, Alberta
Calgary, Alberta, a former cattle town, has become a modern city. Its proximity to Banff National Park (see #1 above) and the Canadian Rockies has assisted its development and modernization. The Calgary Tower, for instance, offers views to the mountains from its perch, over 600 feet above the ground. Calgary is a pedestrian-friendly city. The Steven Avenue Walk offers people an area to stroll, shop, eat or drink without automobile interference. The “plus-15’s”, an elevated (hence the name) walk which connects many of the city’s buildings allows visitors the chance to stroll much of the city no matter what the weather is like outside.
There are also numerous museums for those so-inclined. In addition, the Canada Olympic Park, constructed for Calgary’s hosting of the 1988 Winter Olympics, has become a major sports activity venue for residents and visitors alike.
14. Ottawa, Ontario
Ottawa, Ontario is the capital of Canada. As such, it is the center of government, although this city formerly known as Bytown, surprised the world and all of Canada when it was chosen. It lies along the Ottawa River in eastern Ontario about 160 kilometers (100 mi) west of Montreal. The most impressive sights in the city are the Parliament Building and the Art-deco Supreme Court Building which lie along the river. There is even a ceremonial Changing of the Guard, daily, during the summer months at 10:00 A.M. The river itself gives the city a pleasant ambience. In the winter, there is skating on the Rideau Canal, while, in the summer, the canal is filled with boats and canoes. There are many world-class museums in the city and the Arts also flourish here.
Other interesting attractions include the Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica, and the nearby Royal Canadian Mint.
15. Edmonton, Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta, is the provincial capital and has grown into a modern city despite its remoteness, just east of Jasper National Park, (see #1 above). It is located in the valley of the Saskatchewan River and the riverbanks have been exploited through the creation of an urban park system which is the envy of many similar-sized cities.
Fort Edmonton Park, which claims to be Canada’s largest open-air museum, illustrates several of the most important periods in the history of the city. The West Edmonton Mall is positively huge and includes, besides shopping, the Galaxyland Amusement Park, which offers an incredible variety of entertainment opportunities, such as water rides, roller-coasters, and even an NFL-sized ice rink.