Growing up in a suburb of Detroit, I would visit Canada every few months as a kid — and have continued visiting periodically every since. All of my trips have been to eastern Canada, but I aim to explore the western region sometime soon. Since it would take a very long time to cover a country so large, beautiful, and diverse in any depth, I’ve just noted a few personal highlights below.
Further north, I recommend stopping by Sault Ste. Marie, just across the U.S. border. It has a pleasant boardwalk with restaurants and shops, and you can stop by and see the famous canal, adjacent to the U.S. Soo Locks. About two hours north on a scenic drive Highway 17 along Lake Superior are the Agawa Rock Pictographs— Ojibwe rock paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries– on the side of a sheer cliff along the water in Lake Superior Provincial Park. This site provides a good overview of the hike and the Pictographs.
To the east are the famous Niagara Falls, along the U.S.-Canada border. The city of Niagara Falls is popular with tourists and has many attractions, chief among them being the Hornblower Cruises, which gets up close and wet with the famous waterfalls. You can also take a journey behind the falls, providing a chance to experience the waterfalls from another perspective. If you’d like to admire the view from afar (from a rotating circular restaurant, perhaps?) then head to the Skylon Tower for a bird’s eye view of the area.
Toronto is major city with plenty to do and see. I will just note that it has a great Chinatown, and the adjacent Kensington Market has some excellent restaurants and shops, as well. It’s also home to the CN Tower, which was the world’s tallest freestanding structure until it was overtaken by the Burj Khalifa (in Dubai) in 2007. Old Toronto (the historic center of town) has several notable markets, museums, restaurants, etc– and will likely be a focal point for any visit to the city. I also have many fond memories shopping at the Eaton Center Mall, next to the City Hall and lively Nathan Phillips Square.
Quebec City should be on everyone’s Canada itinerary! It is a majority French-speaking city and has a continental European feeling, particularly in the Vieux Carre (old city). It’s divided into an upper and lower city, with several sets of staircases, including the famous 1600s ‘breakneck stairs’, connecting the two parts of town. (You can also take a funicular). I stayed at the historic Chateau Frontenac (owned by Fairmont), which is a massive castle featured in many photos of Quebec. Even if you don’t stay here, it’s worth stopping in for lunch or a coffee to see the grounds! The nearby terrace walkway offers great views over the city. Other famous sites include the city’s citadel, Notre Dame Cathedral (dating to the 1600’s), and the old fortifications. The Petit Champlain quarter has many bistros and gourmet restaurants, with old world atmosphere. I remember the street vendors had some exceptional French Vanilla ice cream– so I’d try getting that if you’re there in the summer. If you’re lucky enough to be there in the winter, then make plans to visit the Winter Carnival (usually in February). I’ve never been to the winter carnival, but I’ve heard it’s a blast!
Montreal is another highlight of the Quebec province, with its French-influenced old city. The Old Port has plenty of attractions and great restaurants, including L’Auberge Saint-Gabriel, which dates to 1754 and I believe is the oldest inn in North America. The Notre Dame Basilica is quite spectacular, and don’t miss sprawling Atwater Market. Another popular shopping area is the Underground City. One interesting thing I tried in Montreal is dragon’s beard candy, a finely-spun halva-tasting candy floss that looks like fuzz and melts in your month.
Canada’s capital city of Ottawa is a vibrant, user-friendly destination, with an abundance of attractions. It’s massive, Gothic-styled parliament building offers tours, and the Centennial Flame out front dates back to 1967 and commemorates the 100th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation. When I was there in the summertime, they had an impressive light show projected on the Parliament at night. The National War Memorial at Confederation Square is a large arch and statue commemorating World War I — and is guarded around the clock by soldiers.
I recommend visiting the ByWard Market, which had many artisan shops, souvenirs and other vendors. Connected to the market is Le Moulin De Provence, which President Obama visited in 2009. There was also a well-stocked farmer’s market nearby (ByWard Fruit Market). I also enjoyed walking on the path along the Rideau Canal Locks and the nearby Bytown Museum, which offers a digestible history of this part of the city.
For winter travelers — local friends have told me the Ottawa River freezes over during the winter and people ice skate down the river — sounds like a great morning commute!
In terms of food — the Occo Kitchen & Bar is great — I recommend trying the candied bacon! I also really enjoyed the Absinthe Cafe, on Wellington Street, which is a cozy bistro with a great absinthe selection. Finally, while in Ottawa (or anywhere in Canada), don’t miss trying Poutine — a calorie bomb of fries, cheese curds, and gravy! There are several great Poutineries throughout town, and many of them serve multiple variations on the classic model.
For nature lovers, I recommend going up to James Bay, just south of the Hudson Bay. I went camping there twice when I was younger with my family. We drove to the city of Timmins (famous for its connection to Shania Twain) and continued on to Cochrane, where we took a four-hour train up to the small town of Moosonee on the mouth of James Bay. From there, motor boats ferry travelers to the nearby islands. We took a boat to the island of Moose Factory and went to a Pow Wow hosted by the Cree First Nation. It provided a fascinating glimpse into the Cree traditions, including local songs, dances and a free buffet meal with local food (fry bread, vegetables, sturgeon fish). There was also a gift dance, where the performers would come around and offer all the spectators a large basket from which they could choose a gift (I got some wool socks : ) We camped on the nearby Tidewater Provincial Park (rustic tent camping), which offered great hiking opportunities. (Note– allow plenty of time to get off the island, as there’s no set ferry, so you have to hike to a side of the island, wave down a passing motorboat, and settle on a price to get where you’re going. Sometimes this can take a while and you may have to load the boats from muddy conditions). On our second visit, my dad contacted the Cree tribe’s pipe-holder and arranged to visit a sweat lodge ceremony on the island of Moose Factory. He said it was very hot, but well worth the experience!
Next time I hope to venture further north to the city of Churchill on the Hudson Bay, which is famous for its polar bears.
Something for Next Time: I’m eager to explore western Canada — as I’ve often heard people rave about Vancouver. I’d also like to spend a week hiking in the mountains at Banff National Park. Another bucket list item is to visit the raucous Calgary Stampede in Alberta. Shifting back east, I’d eventually like to get to Nova Scotia and go rafting on the Tidal Bore at the Bay of Fundy— where the tide comes back strong enough to make the rivers reverse course. I used to be interested in the Oak Island treasure mystery, but the TV series has made me more circumspect about the legend.
Finally — don’t forget to pick up some maple syrup!