If it is your first time in Canada, this is the guide for you.
Canada is a vast country so it can be hard to decide where to start.
With the help of 20 experienced Canadian travellers, I have created a round-up of the ten best places to see in Canada and the ten best things to do to help you create the perfect itinerary
FIRST TIME IN CANADA, QUICK LINKS:
First Time in Canada Map
On this map you’ll find all of the places mentioned in the post.
The ‘places to see’ are in blue with the ‘things to do’ in purple.
Even cooler than Trudeau, and possibly even more beautiful, visiting Ottawa is one of the best things to see in Canada. And yet, it so frequently overlooked by tourists for nearby Toronto and Montreal.
Things are slowly changing, however, and word of Ottawa’s distinct charm is getting out. To me, the only surprise is this hasn’t happened sooner! Canada’s Capital of Cool has everything: beautiful nature, an intriguing food scene, oodles of history, and plenty of charisma. Not to mention some of the best museums in North America.
In winter, you can go ice skating on the historic Rideau Canal UNESCO World Heritage Site. In the summer, there are endless neighborhoods and captivating street art pieces to explore. No matter the season, the famous ByWard Market is always open for foodies who want to taste their way around Ottawa – and history buffs will want to spend at least one full day in the Canadian Museum of History.
No matter what fills your day, be sure to finish the day with a designer cocktail in a rooftop bar or watching the sunset from Parliament Hill. Ottawa is endlessly captivating with a distinctly cosmopolitan vibe, a booming high-tech sector, and a fusion of French-Canadian and Anglo-Canadian culture.
All these, and more, combine to guarantee Ottawa is not ‘just another capital’ – and ensure its place as one of the top places to see in Canada.
Vancouver on the south-west coast of British Columbia is a city not to miss in Canada. This beautiful cosmopolitan city surrounded by both ocean and mountains is a hotspot for a huge variety of outdoor experiences – from snow sports in winter to hiking, and even surfing, in summer. The modern city is also home to upscale shopping, excellent restaurants, exciting markets and a happening nightlife.
Grouse Mountain located inside the city is a sight not to miss in Vancouver.
Towering over Downtown at an elevation of 1250 metres (4100 feet) it is often called ‘the Peak of Vancouver’ with challenging hiking on the popular Grouse Grind trail and 33 ski and snowboard runs to explore in winter.
There are also plenty of awesome ocean adventures to choose from in Vancouver. Go whale watching between the months of March and October with a variety of whale species including humpbacks, orcas, minke, and grey whales that can be seen on these trips, also keep an eye out for dolphins, sea lions, and seabirds. Many ocean trips leave from Granville Island, a great place in the city to spend the day with an amazing open-air market and buskers performing in the streets all day.
The beautiful Stanley Park is a huge public park close to downtown Vancouver. The massive park is very popular with hikers, runners, bikers, families, rollerbladers, and even to go for a swim. The Vancouver Aquarium housing 300 species of fish and a large variety of other organisms is located in Stanley Park.
Don’t miss the chic Gastown in downtown Vancouver, this neighbourhood filled with a mix of contemporary fashion businesses, souvenir shops, restaurants, nightclubs and art galleries has a trendy food and drink scene. The iconic Gas Town Steam clock located near Waterfront Station is one of a handful of functioning steam-powered clocks in the world. The Steam Clock whistles and blows steam every 15 minutes.
Waterton National Park
In a country where spectacular scenery is seemingly around every corner, Waterton National Park still manages to shine. Located 260km from Calgary in Alberta, this park was first established in 1895 making it the fourth Canadian National Park to be created. Today, the park is a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site (one of my obsessions, read why here) and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. It’s also the world’s first International Peace Park.
In contrast to some of Alberta’s more famous parks such as Banff and Jasper, Waterton still feels relatively undiscovered. The small town of the same name sits within the park itself. It’s laidback and low-key, made up of just a handful of streets and family-run shops and restaurants.
One of the main reasons to visit Waterton National Park is the hiking, with Crypt Lake Trail being the most famous hike in the area. Other activities include cycling (including e-bikes) wildlife watching, horse riding and wildflowers. An annual wildflower festival is held here in June, when the park is carpeted in Technicolor blooms.
The other reason to visit Waterton is to have tea at the Prince of Wales Hotel. This enormous Hitchcockian hotel dates back to 1927 and is a popular spot for enjoying tea and cakes with stunning views over Waterton Lake.
Banff National Park
With its soaring peaks and turquoise lakes, Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada is one of the most beautiful National Parks in the world.
The entrance price for a family group of up to seven people visiting in a single car is $20 per day. If you’re just passing through on the Trans Canada Highway #1 and not stopping, you don’t have to pay the entrance fee. You will see a lot on your drive, especially on the Icefields Parkway, but you really should stop off.
Banff is easily accessible to many who aren’t into extreme hiking because most of the lakes and waterfalls are only a short walk from the car parks. This is great news for families visiting Banff with small children who aren’t up for long hikes. The downside to this, of course, is that the most iconic sights including Lake Louise and Moraine Lake are usually overrun with tourists. This is especially true during peak season which runs from the beginning of July to the end of August. To experience the beauty of the main sights without hordes of people at this time of year, you need to go early, and by early we mean pre-sunrise.
There is plenty of opportunity to get off the beaten track and away from the crowds though as there are countless hiking trails ranging in difficulty. If you’re looking for the perfect Instagram picture, Parks Canada has placed iconic red chairs throughout the park at various viewpoints which are indicated on the park map (which you will receive when you buy your entrance ticket). Some are easy to find whilst others are more of a challenge.
Vieux Montreal, which means Old Montreal, is a truly singular and special place in Canada and should not be missed! Montreal is a fabulous city, full of great cafes and gorgeous viewpoints, but Vieux Montreal is history come to life.
The cobblestone streets and beautiful architecture show off the neighbourhood’s seventeenth-century roots, but the delicious foodie scene and great shopping bring a fun modern touch.
While here, make sure to explore the Place d’Arms, Saint-Paul Street, and the Place Jacques-Cartier. You’ll also want to set aside time to tour the magnificent Notre-Dame Basilica. Dating to the first half of the nineteenth century, the church is a master of the Gothic Revival style. Make sure to bring your camera because it’s one of the most Instagrammable places in Montreal!
If you love history, plan to spend an hour or two at the Pointe-à-Callière, Montreal’s archaeology museum. You can learn about the founding of the city as well as see the archaeological remnants of the first age of French colonists in the area.
If you get hungry or just want a cocktail, step into Modavie, where you will feel like you’ve been transported to Paris. While in Montreal, make sure to try Poutine, the city’s most famous dish.
Read more at HistoryFangirl.com.
Inside the province of Ontario, you’ll find the world’s largest freshwater island. Manitoulin Island is known in the Indigenous Odawa language as Manidoowaaling meaning ‘cave of the spirit’ and as soon as you visit, you’ll understand why. It’s a truly magical place!
So what is there to see and do on Manitoulin Island?
Learn about the Indigenous Culture of the area with the Great Spirit Circle Trails. You can join guided tours, cultural workshops and more as you learn about traditions that have been passed on for centuries.
The island is home to a number of incredible museums and galleries, including the Perivale Gallery which is said to be one of the top art galleries in the province!
If you’re a lover of the outdoors, you won’t want to miss the Cup and Saucer Trail which offers breathtaking views as far as the eye can see. That’s just a little taste of what awaits you!
Chances are you’ll be hungry after all these adventures so don’t miss out on yet another iconic experience, dinner at the Old Schoolhouse Restaurant. In case you’re wondering, yes, it was indeed an old schoolhouse back in the day! After some incredible eats, you’ll want to cap off your day in Providence Bay for some of the best sunsets on the entire island.
Gros Morne National Park
Canada is home to many beautiful national parks from coast to coast. One of the best to visit on the East Coast is Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland.
Gros Morne is the perfect destination if you’re looking for outdoor adventure. It’s home to over 100km of pristine trails, with easy day hikes to multi-day treks. One of the best hikes in Gros Morne is to the summit of Gros Morne mountain. It’s a difficult16km round-trip hike, but at the top, you will be rewarded with the best views in the park.
Gros Morne is one of four UNESCO world heritage sites in Newfoundland due to its geological significance. At the tablelands in Gros Morne, you can see the inside of the earth’s mantle which was pushed up thousands of years ago. It was because of this area that the theory of plate tectonics was confirmed.
A boat ride through Western Brook Pond is another amazing thing to do in Gros Morne National Park. You’ll pass through ancient fjords with cascading waterfalls at every turn. You can also do whale watching tours in the park, which is the perfect activity to do in the summer when thousands of humpback whales migrate to the coast of Newfoundland.
Regarded as the beautiful province or la belle province, Quebec is the largest Canadian province that has French as its official language.
One of the oldest European settlements, it is sometimes referred to as the Europe of North America. For people spending their first timer in Canada, or in the province itself, one dare not miss visiting the capital city, Quebec City.
Sitting at the banks of St. Lawrence River, the place is beaming with vibrant culture and stunning architecture.
Walk around the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is Old Quebec and you’ll surely be captivated by its cobbled streets, quaint restaurants, and charming shops.
How about taking a stroll along St. Lawrence River and get mesmerized by the lovely view of the city?
Exploring the historical Citadel of Quebec is also an option – a fortress that is still used as an active military installation.
Quebec City also proudly houses some of the most exquisite buildings you’re ever likely to lay eyes on, including Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, a National Historic Site that is claimed as the most photographed hotel in the world. It’s as if everywhere is a work of art, you can further awaken your inner creative by visiting the National Museum of Fine Arts of Quebec for some impressive art pieces or get acquainted with local artists selling their crafts along the narrow alley of Rue du Trésor. As soon as you set foot in Quebec City, you’ll know why it’s hailed as one of the most beautiful cities not only in Canada but in the world.
Submitted by TravelHabeat.com
Toronto is a dynamic, creative, bubbling city, the Canadian equivalent of New York, London or Singapore.
Of course, there are cooler neighbourhoods than others and Queen St West is THE hipster neighbourhood in Toronto and in 2014 it was awarded the second most amazing district in the world by Vogue Magazine. If you’re in Toronto you really shouldn’t miss Queen St West, this is where (almost) everything happens. Cool people meet up here, mainly at the Drake Hotel and most of the cool bars and restaurants are here – try Grand Electric for the best tacos in town.
West from Queen West you will find less known districts such as Parkdale, Roncesvalles, Liberty Village and Little Portugal, each of which have their own charm and identity that make them special.
In Chinatown (which consists of two distinct districts: Chinatown and Chinatown East) you will find many Chinese and Thai shops and restaurants. For the best dumplings head to Mother Dumplings.
Then there is Little Italy, more discreet than Chinatown it has a quiet atmosphere and a seemingly unlimited choice of pizzerias. There is always something going on!
Finally, if you want a change of scenery but also a little break in the green, at only 10 minutes of crossing we find the green lung of Toronto: The Toronto Islands.
Submitted by Beaux Voyages.
Niagara Falls may have been known as a honeymoon destination, but it has so much to offer all visitors. It will definitely be a trip that the whole family will always remember.
First, walk along the boardwalk and see the three waterfalls that make up Niagara Falls – the Horseshoe Falls, the American Falls, and the Bridal Veil Falls. If you want to splurge, take a helicopter ride to get an aerial view. After you have admired Niagara Falls from a distance, take a boat tour – either the Hornblower or Maid of the Mist – to get another perspective. Next up, get even closer to the Falls on the American side at the Cave of the Winds. You will feel tropical storm force conditions on the Hurricane Deck. Then, go to the Canadian side for the Journey Behind the Falls attraction, where you can see the backside of the Horseshoe Falls.
Further down the river, there is the Whirlpool Aero Car which crosses the river high above some of the most intense rapids in the world. If you want to see the rapids up close, you can do the White Water Walk. Kids might also enjoy Niagara’s Fury, a 4-D experience or the 3D IMAX movie about Niagara Falls. In addition to the Falls related attractions, there is also an indoor waterpark, a huge arcade, a Butterfly Conservatory, and a miniature golf course. Those that plan on going to several attractions can purchase one of the Niagara passes to save on entrance fees.
Take a Road Trip in Saskatchewan
One of the most underrated provinces in Canada is Saskatchewan. While it may lack the dramatic mountains of the West Coast, it more than makes up for this with quaint little towns, seas of rolling grain and endless blue skies.
When making a road trip in Saskatchewan, there are several spots you can’t miss. Saskatchewan’s capital Regina should be the first stop on your itinerary. This lovely city was founded in 1882 and there are many things to do. From interesting museums such as the Royal Saskatchewan Museum and the Saskatchewan Science Centre, to the beautiful park around Wascana Lake and its large selection of cafes and restaurants.
From Regina, it’s a 3.5-hour drive to the West Block of Grasslands National Park, one of Saskatchewan’s two National Parks (the other one is Prince Albert National Park in the north of the province). The Grasslands National Park is an expansive protected sea of prairie, with rare native wildlife, plenty of hiking opportunities and a nice campground (Frenchman Valley campground).
Last but certainly not least, drive to Eastend (1.5-hours from Grasslands NP) to check out the large T-rex skeleton in the T-Rex Discovery Center. It’s one of the few T-rex skeletons ever found so it’s worth the effort of driving out there. Plus, you’ll get to admire some more of that mesmerizing Saskatchewan scenery.
Go Bear Watching
Canada is home to some incredible wildlife and getting to see this wildlife in person is an epic experience when you first visit Canada. Bears are one of the most iconic animals in the country and it isn’t as difficult as you might think to catch a glimpse of these magnificent creatures.
Vancouver Island is home to a large population of black bears and is even known to have a grizzly bear or two that make the long swim over from the mainland. While you may be lucky enough to see these animals just driving around Vancouver Island there are a couple of places you can go to all but guarantee bear sightings.
Tofino is a beautiful little surf town on the west coast of the island and due to its remote location, it has a lot of wild bears. During the salmon spawning season, from the middle of September, you can go to Thorton Creek fish hatchery to see wild bears feasting on salmon. There is a wooden boardwalk just above the river where you can safely view black bears in their natural habitat.
Another option is to take a bear tour from Tofino harbour. These tours run from April to October and a boat will take you into the local waterways at low tide to spot bears as they feed on the shoreline. No matter where you get to see these animals, it is guaranteed to be a special experience.
Watch an Ice Hockey Game
Ask anyone to name the first three things that most represent Canada and Ice Hockey is inevitably one of them.
This incredibly fast-paced, energetic and often brutal sport is Canada’s national pastime and an important component of their culture and national identity.
Catching a game therefore, must be on any list of things to do for first-time visitors to this fabulous country.
Despite a drought of over 50 years since their last Stanley Cup victory in 1967, the Toronto Maple Leafs will provide the ultimate Hockey experience. The ‘Leafs’ are one of the NHL’s ‘Original Six’, the Manchester United of the sport and often voted the most hated team.
Their Scotiabank Arena located in central Toronto adjacent to Union Station boasts a capacity of 18,900. As an incredible 15,500 of these are reserved for season ticket holders tickets can often be both difficult to obtain and expensive. Do not let this deter you, however.
The fast-moving action, constant line up changes and violent checks do incur raucous crowd reactions. Even with little or no knowledge of what is happening on the ice, you will quickly be swept up by the passion and soon be planning your next Ice Hockey hit.
Contributed by Paul at TheTwoThatDo.com.
One of the top things to do in Canada for first-timers is kayaking. There are so many different kayaking trips you can do, from short local outings to multi-day trips.
A top pick for a multi-day sea kayaking trip is Haida Gwaii (formerly called Queen Charlotte Islands). The trip takes you between wooded islands, with possible sightings of bald eagles, black bears and sea lions. Nights are spent camping in the woods or on the beach. It culminates in a visit to SG̱ang Gwaay Llanagaay (Ninstints in English), where there is an abandoned village filled with dozens of slowly decaying wooden totem poles.
Another unique place for kayaking in Canada is Newfoundland, where whales may breach right beside your kayak and you can get up close and personal (at a safe distance) to floating icebergs!
A shorter, but no less amazing, trip is from isolated Churchill. In summer, the river is filled with white beluga whales and kayaking on the river surrounded by belugas is a true once-in-a-lifetime experience. Churchill is also frequented by polar bears and it is possible to see them even in summer (though more common in the fall).
For a more urban experience, you can take a kayak trip on False Creek in the heart of Vancouver. This is the perfect way to experience this beautiful city from a completely different perspective.
Technically a canoe and not a kayak experience, but worth a mention due to its incredible beauty, is Moraine Lake. High in the Canadian Rockies, the teal-coloured lake is surrounded by dramatic craggy peaks. You can rent a canoe by the hour and row slowly around the lake to see the breathtaking scenery from different viewpoints. Nearby Bow River is another great place to go kayaking in the Rockies.
Whether it is a couple of hours or a couple of weeks, the city, mountains, icebergs, totem poles or whales, there is an amazing kayak trip just waiting for you to take in Canada!
Go Whale Watching
If your first visit to Canada is near the east or west coasts, then one of the most exciting activities to do during your visit is to go whale watching. Seeing these enormous animals up close is a real bucket list activity.
Depending on which area you visit and the time of year you take the trip, you will have different whales to spot. In the Bay of Fundy, you might see the Humpback Whale, known as the “clowns of the sea” and Minke whales. From Quebec, you can also see Humpback Whales, Blue Whales which are the largest animals on the planet, and Beluga Whales that are quite vocal and playful. On the west coast, you could see orcas or Killer Whales and Grey Whales out of Victoria or off Vancouver Island.
Wherever you go whale watching from, if you are really lucky you might get to see a breach, where whales leap out of the water before coming crashing back down with a mighty splash.
As well as the whales, you will no doubt see much other wildlife, both in the water and in the air from dolphins to puffins and sealions to eagles. The people who run the tours are experts at spotting and finding the wildlife and you’re sure to have an experience you’ll never forget!
Contributed by Stacey at OneTripAtATime.com
Take a Helicopter Tour
Canada is such an amazing country covered in wild nature with rolling hills, endless forests, spiky mountain peaks, mighty glaciers, and an unbelievable wildlife scene. But Canada also boasts energetic cities and crowded ski resorts.
There are so many ways of exploring Canada, but one of the most memorable things to do as a first-timer in the country is to go for a helicopter ride. With vast landscapes, Canada is the perfect country to explore from the air. Imagine flying over the Canadian Rocky Mountains with all the peaks, lakes, and forest landscapes. You can explore Banff National Park from above combined with a secluded hike in the national park.
If you are more of a city person, why not fly over the skylines of Toronto or the bustling city of Vancouver? There is nothing like getting a birds-eye perspective of a new city.
Another iconic sight that is well worth seeing from a helicopter is the world-famous Niagara Falls. The flight takes you across the river and makes a magical turn over the powerful swirl below where the falls hit the bottom with predominant strength. So close, yet so far away.
There is no doubt a helicopter flight in Canada, wherever you chose to go, will leave you with unforgettable travel memories from your first time in Canada!
Take a Food Tour
Taking a Canadian food tour is a fantastic way to sample the best produce in Canada as well as being a gateway to the local culture.
The mild west coast climate of Vancouver Island supports rolling vineyards, while the cold Atlantic waters of the Maritimes provide a bounty of lobster and seafood. In Ontario, the rich farmlands supply the colourful farmer’s markets, while the cold winters of Quebec province make poutine a favourite hearty dish of fries, curd cheese and gravy. There’s a strong farm to table movement throughout Canada but in the port cities of Victoria, Halifax and Montreal you’ll get a multicultural flavour that reflects the many nationalities that blend to make Canada.
In Victoria BC, your food tour may showcase a multicultural mix of Chinese food influenced by the Chinese immigrants who settled here, an Indian chef’s version of poutine and French-style macarons with aromatic coffee.
In Montreal you’ll dip into the local Jewish, Italian and Greek neighbourhoods, tasting the bagels or salt beef sandwiches, as well as maple syrup and the huge range of fresh produce at Jean-Talon market. In Prince Edward Island your food tour might include a tasting of fries, based on the potatoes that grow locally, and you’ll certainly get a chance to taste some lobster and oysters that are fished here.
Whichever city or region you visit, there’s a food tour to allow you to taste and sip your way through the best of the local Canadian food scene.
Visit a Glacier
If you are looking for a new and unique experience, visiting a glacier should be on your list when visiting Canada. Although most of the world’s glaciers are found in Greenland and Antarctica, the beautiful country of Canada also has many glaciers and they are truly extraordinary and found in stunning locations.
Not many glaciers are easily accessible to the public and they should always be treated with caution. Without significant knowledge and experience, glaciers can be dangerous due to their crevasses.
For many of us, this puts them out of reach. However, you are in luck as it is possible to visit and walk on a popular glacier in Canada. Better yet, the Athabasca Glacier sits along the world-famous Icefields Parkway between Banff and Jasper National Parks.
The Athabasca glacier is as deep as the Eiffel Tower is tall. How cool is that? You can take a tour up onto the glacier and walk across its blue ice. Even better, you can drink ice-cold water straight from the glacier itself.
Given that glaciers are retreating at a truly alarming rate, this is one thing you absolutely should take advantage of during your time in Canada.
Take a Wine Tour
Upon first glance, you might not think of Canada as a destination with a thriving wine industry. Well, turns out maple syrup isn’t the only thing Canada is known for! Due to its unique geography and preferable climates, Canada is home to a number of popular wine-producing regions from coast to coast.
In Ontario, the Niagara Escarpment creates the perfect conditions for winemaking in the Niagara Region. Within this area, Niagara on the Lake is the go-to region for wine with dozens of wineries large and small to visit.
If you are keen, you can visit the wineries on your own and engage in a winery tour which often includes a guided tasting. If you don’t want to navigate the region alone, you can hop on a guided wine tour that brings you to a mix of the best wineries to show off their signature vintages. A highlight of wine tasting in the region is trying ice wine – wine made in the winter from frozen grapes. This sweet wine can only be made in a few places around the world – and Ontario is a major global exporter of it!
This vast rural area of fertile fields and natural beauty is also a historically significant part of Canada given the proximity to the US border. The actual town of Niagara-on-the-Lake serves as the “capital” of this region with many historic buildings as well as shops, restaurants, cafes, and – of course – wine stores.
The iconic building of Ottawa is Parliament Hill, the house of the federal government of Canada. These are beautiful heritage buildings about 150 years old and are the must do things in Ottawa.
The Parliament Hill Ottawa consists of 3 buildings – the Center Block, East and West Block built around a huge lawn. Parliament Hill houses the Senate and the House of Commons in these buildings and are open to the public for free guided tours .
As of 2020, the Center Block is closed for major restoration work and the House of Commons has been shifted to the West Block, while the Senate to Ottawa’s historic train station one block away.
The guided tours can be reserved online or booked on the same day on a first come first serve basis from the new Visitor Center located between the Center and the West Block. Summertime is busy and the tours get booked fast. All the tours are conducted both in French and English to choose from.
The East Block tour takes around the restored rooms of important personalities of the 19th century like the first Prime Minister, Governor etc. You are surely going to get impressed by the original furniture and artistic decor. The tour lasts around 50 minutes that includes strict security screening.
The West Block tour takes around the beautiful green chamber of the House of Commons and other parliamentarian chambers that lasts for 40 minutes.
The Senate tours take around the iconic rooms of the Senate done in red color, representing the British monarchy. But the tours are not conducted when the Senate is in session.
It is advisable to keep half to a full day depending upon the time slots you get if you plan to tour all the blocks.
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