Canada, “The true north strong and free” is the second largest country in the world spanning over 3,000 miles from east to west, and is replete with picturesque forests, mountains and lakes and some of the most multicultural cities in the world. With all this land to visit it’s no surprise more than 18 million foreigners chose to visit Canada each year. If visiting for your first time, this vastness can seem intimidating so it is important to plan how long to stay and most importantly, with four different season, what time of year to go.
I. Canada – An Overview
Lay of the Land: Three oceans line Canada’s borders: the Pacific Ocean in the west, the Atlantic Ocean in the east, and the Arctic Ocean to the north and United States lie on the South. Canada is divided into ten provinces and three territories – the provinces are all located on the Southern side of Canada, most of them bordering United States. The territories are all on the North, spread across the Arctic Circle.
The provinces and territories are grouped into Atlantic (orange in the map), Central(light blue), Prairies (maroon), The West Coast (deep blue) and the Northern Territories (dark cream). Each region offering a very different atmosphere and landscape. Unless you have a lot of time to spare, you will most likely want to focus your trip to a single region. The distance between Victoria in one end to St John’s in the other, is a whopping 7000 km by road.
II. Highlights of Each Region in Canada
1. The West Coast
The West Coast consists of just one province – British Columbia, known for having some of the country’s most spectacular landscapes: bordered by the Pacific ocean and the Rocky Mountains. It is abundant in natural beauty from soaring snowcapped mountains to forests that are home to thousand year old trees and glacier-fed streams running through valleys. It’s the only province in Canada where you can ski at world renowned resorts and golf championship courses in the same day!
Vancouver: The largest island on the Pacific Coast of North America is the most populated city in British Columbia. Due to its mild, year round coastal climate it is a draw for surfers and it’s landscape is one of mountains, lakes, rainforests, and rugged coastline lines with small towns and villages.
Victoria: The province’s picturesque capital located in Vancouver Island, can be reached by ferry or flight from Vancouver and offers old world charm and some lovely natural areas with great hiking including the famous West Coast Trail. This trail is one of Canada’s most famous and it’s known for fabulous coastal scenery and treacherous conditions.
Tofino: This quaint little fishing village is the main destination for those wishing to visit the Pacific Rim National Park and Clayoquot Sound, a designated UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. As one of the oldest settlements on the West Coast it has a pleasant remote feel with small surf shops, restaurants and hotels offering spectacular views over the ocean.
Whistler: Sitting at the base of two immense mountains, Whistler and Blackcomb, whose peaks form the largest winter sports area in North America. Whistler village received international fame in 2010 when it hosted the winter Olympics with Vancouver. Nature lovers will find an abundance of recreational sports to keep you busy regardless of the time of year as well as variety of accommodations and pedestrian only paths lined with restaurants, shops, bars and galleries.
Okanagan Valley: A lush, sunny valley with sandy beaches, ski resorts and wide reaching lakes. Thanks to its more than 2000 hours of sunshine a year and mild climate it is considered Canada’s orchard. Roadside stands offer the local fruit produce which can be seen planted throughout the valley floor and terraced slopes.
Canadian Rockies: Part of the North American Rocky Mountains, the Canadian Rockies mountains straddle the bordering province, Albert and Southeastern British Columbia. This is best visited as part of Alberta trip. Five National Parks of Canada, namely Yoho and Kootenay in British Columbia and Banff, Jasper, and Waterton Lakes located on the Rockies, make a great visit anytime of the year.
2. The Prairies:
From British Columbia you cross into Alberta along the scenic Canadian Rockies. Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan are the prairie provinces, a 2,000km valley of plains, forests and farmland. This region, rich in oil, mining and farming serves as the country’s breadbasket and rural life is still an important part of the region’s identity. Flatness is by far the defining feature of the region with spectacular vast fields of wheat, barley and other crops worthy of many photo stops.
Though, internationally not known as a must visit destination, Manitoba and Saskatchewan have unique landscapes and boast of a limitless horizon of wheat, barley, canola, sunflowers and flax. Some of North America’s last wilderness frontiers and parkland and an infinite chain of lakes making it a terrific fishing, canoeing and wildlife watching destination.
Banff National Park: One of Canada’s greatest national treasures, encompassing a portion of the Rocky Mountains and home to beautiful turquoise lakes, snow capped peaks, glaciers and forests. Included in UNESCO’s list of protected natural and cultural monuments since 1985. The main hub is Banff, the only township in the park and one of the most awe-inspiring mountain destinations. If Banff National Park is a treasure, Lake Louise is its crown jewel. Shimmering turquoise green water surrounded by snowcapped mountains offer postcard perfect views and can be enjoyed by canoe or on one of the paved trails running along the water’s edge.
Jasper National Park: Connected to Banff National Park by the Icefields Parkway, one of the most scenic highways in Canada whose route offers the world-famous Lake Louise, Chateau Lake Louise and Columbia Icefield. Inside the park itself encounter a large number of Canada’s wildlife like black bears, elk, caribou, wolves, beavers and grizzly bears.
Calgary: Made famous for the Calgary Stampede held in July, its proximity to the well-known national parks make it the perfect choice for skiing, hiking or sightseeing vacations and it offers a great mix of fun and entertainment right in the city including spectacular views from the Calgary Tower.
Canadian Badlands: You will be travelling through the graveyard of the dinosaurs and the moonlike landscape carved by the Red Deer River.
Edmonton: The capital city of Alberta – Edmonton, is a vibrant cultural centre, home to historical sites, modern – city type attractions and a plethora of outdoor activities.
Grasslands National Park: Nothing gets you closer to the authentic Saskatchewan experience than Grasslands National Park. With rolling hills, seas of waving grass, endless prairie, mysterious badlands, and a unique history, Grasslands will take you back to a time of untouched lands.
- Unusual Places to visit in Saskatchewan
- Top Places to Visit in Saskatchewan
- 15 Great Places to Fish in Saskatchewan
Churchill: The far north is legendary for beluga whale viewing and one of the world’s best places to see polar bears.
3. Central Canada:
Known for its lively cities like Toronto and the nation’s capital Ottawa, the province of Ontario is largely the most populated province with 1 in 3 Canada’s living there. It’s no surprise then that this is where you will find Canada’s parliament, the largest cities, national stock exchange, the biggest universities, almost every Canadian newspaper and television station, corporations and banks not to mention the tallest building and biggest waterfalls. Beyond that, however it is also made up of prairies, lakes and forests that make up the Canadian Shield and sandwiched between two massive bodies of water. Hudson Bay in the north and four of the five great lakes in the south which all together contain a fifth of the planet’s fresh water. Whether your interest is to connect with nature or lose yourself in the excitement of the most multicultural region in the world Ontario has it to offer.
The second province in this region Quebec is Canada’s largest province in terms of landmass and is also North America’s only French-speaking region and very unique to anywhere else. This vibrant and fascinating place is mostly uninhabited with barren arctic wasteland in the extreme north, home to polar bears, caribou and arctic wolves and dense forest in the central region. However, the southern region, around the St. Lawrence River, is where you will find Canada’s second largest city Montreal, a modern, stylish, cosmopolitan city with some of Canada’s top cultural attractions and Quebec City, an older city with a pronounced European flavour and designated by UNESCO as the only North American city with preserved fortification walls surrounding the historic old town.
Toronto: The country’s largest city and Ontario’s capital is a dynamic, multicultural mix of attractions from museums, galleries, the world-famous CN Tower, high end shopping, five star dining and the latest musicals, performing arts and entertainment.
Ottawa: Canada’s capital has developed itself into a lively intellectual and cultural city. Best known for the Victorian Gothic Parliament buildings and 200km Rideau canal which connects Ottawa with Kingston on Lake Ontario and is a hub for recreational activity including skating and festivals.
Niagara Falls: Canada’s most visited attraction and one of the world’s most stunning natural wonders. Located along it’s banks is a quirky town with a Carnival atmosphere by the same name as well as Canada’s largest wine region and prettiest town, Niagara-on-the-lake.
Bruce Peninsula: This magical 100km area of pristine freshwater, limestone “flowerpots” and cliff-edge woodlands is the place to be for serene backcountry camping, hiking and the best scuba diving in Canada. Sandwiched between Georgian Bay and Lake Huron with Tobermory being the reward at the top of the peninsula.
Algonquin Provincial Park: Ontario’s oldest and second largest park is a great escape from the city with more than 7600sq km of dense pine forests, craggy cliffs, thousands of lakes with crystal clear streams and mossy bogs. This outdoor gem is a must see for all nature enthusiast or anyone wanting a breath of fresh air.
Quebec City: With a sweeping view of the St Lawrence River and a story that began over 400 years ago, Quebec City is an intriguing destination. The stunning Chateau Frontenac dominates the scenery, but equally as fascinating are the old stone buildings and narrow streets that transport you to another time and place. Transport your tastebuds as well with exquisite classic and modern cuisine.
Montreal: An obvious choice for its rich cultural mix, historical architecture and avant garde food scene. Every year thousands of tourists flock to Montreal to partake in a host of year round festivals and events, musical performances, theatre shows, and fireworks competitions.
Tadoussac: Located on confluence of the Saguenay and St. Lawrence Rivers, Tadoussac is the place to be for whale watching. From May to October you can see anything from a small minke whale to the massive blue whale.
4. Atlantic Canada
Commonly referred to as the Maritime provinces or Atlantic Canada***, this region offers endless Atlantic shorelines, quaint coastal villages and a friendly small-town atmosphere with a proud century-old culture and a distinct mix of British, Scottish, Gaelic and French traditions. The landscape of the four provinces, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland Labrador and New Brunswick are comprised of a small group of islands and peninsulas and is one of the most recognizable with pine forests, hills and dramatic rocky cliffs.
***3 Provinces, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick together are known as the Maritimes and add Newfoundland and Labrador to the three, then the region is called Atlantic Canada.
Halifax: The capital of Nova Scotia and the commercial hub of the Maritime provinces as well as an important center for research. Locals, know as “Haligonians” are happy to share their fabulous city with visitors Nestled between heritage buildings and a historic waterfront you will find a thriving arts and theater scene, culinary scene and love for bands.
Peggy’s Cove: Regarded as a must see in this region, iconic Peggy’s Cove is a delightful little bay along the Atlantic coast with colorful houses, rolling granite bluffs and a historic and well photographed lighthouse.
Cape Breton Island: Located on one of the finest natural harbours in the world this city is undisputedly the oldest “European” town in North America and is a heavenly forested world of bald eagles, migrating whales, history and foot-tapping celtic music. But the jewel is the 297 km Cabot Trail which twists and climbs its way through and around Cape Breton National Park.
Charlottetown: Canada’s birthplace is a vibrant and historic seaside capital city that exudes charm and feels as though you are walking through a beautifully preserved local history museum.
Gros Morne National Park: Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987 this supernatural playground is an area of great natural beauty and offers special significance to geologist as a blueprint for the planet. With a rich variety of scenery, wildlife and recreational activities offer endless possibilities for an outdoor adventure.
Bay of Fundy: Home to the highest tides in the world, a thriving community of humpback whales and dolphins and iconic “flowerpot rocks”, the Bay of Fundy is one of the 7 wonders of North America.
5. Northern Canada
A fundamental part of our heritage and national identity the North constitutes nearly 40 per cent of Canada’s total landmass and is home to many Inuit and Aboriginal peoples, igloos, icebergs, polar bears and the iconic Norther Lights. The three territories which are Nunavut, Northwestern Territories and the Yukon are the most isolated parts of the country and often overlooked due to their location, harsh terrain and extreme weather.
Whitehorse: Owing its existence to the Klondike gold-rush which saw the development of a small settlement on the river’s right banks it is now the capital of the Yukon Territory. It is home to half the population of the Yukon and is developing as a major centre for arts and culture.
Yellowknife: Set in a landscape of dwarf firs, birch and poplar it is the largest community on the shores of Great Slave Lake spurred by some of Canada’s biggest gold and diamond mines. This spirited, multi-cultural town will make you feel like you’re standing on the edge of a large, undiscovered and incomprehensible wilderness.
Nahanni National Park Reserve: Located in Fort Simpson, the centerpiece of this park, which translates as wilderness, is the Nahanni River and the four canyons called First, Second, Third and Fourth which line the spectacular whitewater river.
III. Planning Your Time
How much time is required: A weekend, a week or a month?
If you have only a weekend to visit Canada it would be best to focus on one of the key cities like Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal. All of these cities are major hubs with regular flights from many destinations around the world. Arguably, Vancouver is the most beautiful city in Canada, while Toronto is the best place for arts, entertainment and a day trip to Niagara Falls. Montreal is an incredibly city known for its vibrant French culture, shopping and trendy Old Town.
See for itineraries to
If you find yourself with more than a weekend, here are some suggestions based on region and you can customize them to fit your length of travel.
1. Trip Plan for Western Canada: Alberta + British Columbia
A week: Most likely you will fly into Vancouver so begin with a couple days of sightseeing there. After, rent a car or catch a local bus to the resort town of Whistler for a day or two which is a fun destination for outdoor recreation any time of year. Return back to Vancouver and head over to Victoria on a scenic ferry ride. Depending on how much time you spend in Vancouver and Victoria, this might be enough to fill a week. However, if you still have more time, there are some great side trips from Victoria like Salt Spring Island, or visiting local farms and artisan studios. With a few more days available, drive up Vancouver Island to Tofino for a few nights stay in a seaside lodge and spend some time surfing or walking along the beaches in Pacific Rim National Park, and enjoying the pristine coastal forest all along this remote stretch of the island.
If you have two to three weeks, return to Vancouver and end your holiday with a drive to Calgary along the dazzling peaks of the Canadian Rockies. This scenic drive take you from along the beautiful Lake Okanagan, and on to Banff National Park. From here, you can take a side trip up the Icefields Parkway to Jasper and end your trip in Calgary.
This route runs through some of the most spectacular scenery in Canada. Banff and Jasper National Parks, including the area around Lake Louise, are highlights of this route, and offer some incredible day hikes. Even if you are not interested in being active, there are many scenic places to pull over, particularly along the Icefields Parkway. The town of Banff is a beautiful mountain town with all kinds of accommodation, dining, and countless stores and shops.
Just an hour and a half east of the park is the city of Calgary, home to the famous Calgary Stampede held in July. A car makes this trip simple and is the best way to see the attractions and enjoy the area’s natural beauty. Flights run regularly between Calgary and Vancouver or another option for returning to Vancouver is a train trip on the Rocky Mountaineer, an unforgettable high end rail journey through the mountains.If you decide to add on a trip to Tofino a car is almost essential (though there is bus transport available).
2. Trip Plan to Central Canada: Quebec + Ontario
A week to 10 Days: Toronto being a major point of entry for many travelers to Canada, this is the best place to start a tour of Central Canada. Spend a few nights in Toronto to see the sights and take a day trip to Niagara Falls. There are several tour operators offering day trips to the falls, which usually include a stop at the lovely little town of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
After that, you can drive or take a train to Ottawa, Canada’s capital, to see Parliament Hill, some national museums, and the Rideau Canal running through the city. If you are visiting in winter take the opportunity to skate on the frozen canal and enjoy and Canadian favorite, Beavers Tails!
Montreal is another must-see city in Central Canada and it’s easy to get there from Ottawa, or directly from Toronto if you choose to skip Ottawa. Trains run regularly from both cities to Montreal or by car, it is quite an easy drive (4.5 hours from Toronto to Ottawa, 5.5 hours from Toronto to Montreal, and two hours from Ottawa to Montreal). With more time available, you can continue on to Quebec City to tour this historic and charming French city. It’s definitely worth visiting, and may even serve as an alternative to visiting Montreal if you only have time to visit one. If you will be coming for a longer amount of time, a journey to the north can’t be missed. From Toronto you can rent a car and easily drive up to Tobermory through the Bruce Peninsula and cottage country spending at least a week with all the fantastic stops along the way.
3. Trip Plan for a Taste of Atlantic Canada:
2 to 3 weeks: There are countless possibilities for travel in Eastern Canada. The most practical way to tour this area is with a car.
Begin in Halifax, the major hub, with some sightseeing around the city, and then spend some time exploring the surroundings, with visits to Peggy’s Cove and historic Lunenburg, before making your way to Annapolis Royal. From here, drive up along the Bay of Fundy (taking the ferry to Saint John, New Brunswick), making your way to the Confederation Bridge and over to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island.
Take your time exploring the island, with a trip to Prince Edward Island National Park and Green Gables, the fictional home of Anne of green Gables (famous book by Canadian author Lucy Montgomery) as well as some of the area’s lovely beaches if weather permits. When you are ready to keep moving, take the Wood Islands Ferry to Caribou, Nova Scotia and drive up to Cape Breton Island. There is plenty to see and do here, but the most popular activity is driving the scenic Cabot Trail, which winds and twists through Cape Breton Highlands National Park. If you have any extra time, make your way out to Louisbourg to see the Fortress Louisbourg National Historic Site. From here you can return back to Halifax or continue your journey by touring Newfoundland.
Spend some time in the lovely downtown area of the provincial capital, St. John’s, and Signal Hill National Historic Site. Leaving St. John’s, take the scenic drive along Conception Bay and over to the Bonavista Peninsula to the charming town of Trinity. This scenic little seaside village with colorful houses looks out onto oceanfront cliffs. Explore some of the historic buildings to get a feel for the culture, take a whale-watching tour, or go for a hike. You may even see an iceberg if you are visiting in the late spring. From here, continue driving up the coast through Terra Nova National Park and onto the village of Twillingate to experience a quaint maritime community. After a few nights in Twillingate drive to Gros Morne National Park for a boat tour or some hiking through this spectacular landscape. Spend a few nights in the park at Rocky Harbour, Norris Point, or at nearby Deer Lake. If you still have time left, consider making a trip up to L’Anse Aux Meadows, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to see some Viking history. Afterwards, return back to St. John’s. Be aware that driving in Newfoundland may take longer than you expect, with winding roads and last-minute decisions to turn off the highway and visit coastal towns or scenic areas.
A month: If you have a month at your disposal – you can cover both Atlantic and Western Canada, by dedicating two to three weeks to each side.
IV. Trip Planning
1. When to visit:
Canada is hugely varied depending on the region and with four season, winter, summer, spring and fall, it’s very important to understand the climate to know when the best time of year is to go depending on what activities you would like to do.
- Generally areas near the coast see milder winters and cooler summers while areas in the north see harsh winters and practically no summer.
- Late spring and early fall are wonderful times to visit when the temperature is comfortable and nature is at its best with new blooms in the spring and changing colors in the fall. It’s the best time for outdoor activities like hiking, camping, canoeing and cycling.
- July and August are typically the warmest months across the country with the longest days and when most visitors tend to come. This is an especially good time to take advantage of swimming in one of the 250,000 lakes in Canada, suntanning on the beautiful beaches, lake cruises and picnics in the parks. September is also a warm busy month especially in the south and central region but days will be starting to get shorter.
- Winter is no concern for Canadians who are geared to the challenge of the conditions and if you enjoy winter sports like skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing and ice fishing, November to March are great times to visit especially for the resort towns likes Banff, Whistler, Blue Mountain and Mont Tremblant. However in Newfoundland, the Maritime provinces and the northern region most of the tourist infrastructure shuts down completely from October to May.
2. Getting around:
Due to its vast size traveling through Canada can often require long distances. Flights are notoriously expensive with an average cost of $400 plus taxes as the country has only two national carriers, Air Canada and Westjet, so it’s best to limit your flying, if you are budget conscious.
Train travel played an important role in the growth of Canada and it offers you time to admire the spectacular Canadian wilderness. Via Rail is the main carrier with service across the country but specialty trains like Rocky Mountaineer are also available for those wanting a more luxurious experience.
Driving is definitely the best option for getting around and there are many rental car agencies to chose from who offer great rates when picking up from the airport. An international driver’s licence is recommended but not required, if you hold a valid driver’s licence from your country. In Canada driving is on the right hand side and signs are often in English with the exception of the Quebec province where they will be in French. Driving is very safe with well paved and marked roads and highways.
Public Transportation is fairly sophisticated in the major cities with buses, streetcars, monorail and subways that make it inexpensive and easy to navigate the downtown core and surrounding areas.
3. Before You Go:
Most people need a visa or an Electronic Travel Authorization to travel to Canada. Some people may only need their valid passport like United States of America citizens. See Visa Requirements here.
Currency & Money:
Canadian Currency is Canadian Dollar – Currency Exchange Rate Calculator.