5 Must-Visit Cities In Canada

Quebec City's Quartier Petit Champlain. Photo by Amber Gibson.

There are plenty of reasons to visit Canada this year both for vacation and to explore our amicable neighbor to the north as a potential emigration option. Everyday life is similar enough that you won’t experience jarring culture shock (except maybe in predominantly French-speaking Québec City), yet people seem nicer, and dare we say, happier?

A very favorable exchange rate between the US and Canadian dollar means that everything in Canada is pretty much 30 percent off for visiting Americans. Whether you’re looking for outdoor winter adventures, exquisite dining, vibrant contemporary art or rocking live music, these Canadian cities deliver in spades.

TORONTO

Direct flights with United, American, Porter, WestJet and Air Canada

Flights to Canada’s most populous city and economic capital are plentiful, inexpensive and shorter than many Chicagoans’ daily commute. Like Chicago, this cosmopolitan city’s food scene is soaring to new heights and art, from indie galleries to large museums, is around every corner. This fall, Toronto gets a new Museum of Contemporary Art and the Aga Khan Museum showcases a selection of Islamic art and artifacts from ancient civilizations to modern cultures.

Stay at Four Seasons Hotel Toronto, the brand’s impressive flagship in glamorous Yorkville, for the most sumptuous rooms in town. Come summer, buzzy boutique hotel Bisha opens with five restaurant concepts from the same restaurateurs behind hotspots Figo and Byblos. Smokey eggplant manti, housemade labneh, and whole grilled branzino with chermoula are standouts at the latter. Taste a modern tribute to Canadian cuisine beyond peameal bacon and poutine at Canoe and Antler. You’ll find woodsy ingredients like venison, wild boar, black walnuts, and cedar-infused cocktails on both menus. Canoe is more formal with skyline views while Antler embodies the ethos of laid-back fine dining.

Venture from the city center to West Queen West and spend a day perusing the ever-evolving boutiques, galleries and cafes that line 19 blocks from Gladstone Avenue to Bathurst Street. Craft Ontario’s new shop and gallery feature an array of textiles, pottery, jewelry, artwork and much more by regional artisans. Shop for exquisite Korean handmade paper at Hanji, Peruvian alpaca blankets at Cambie, and locally designed shoes and accessories at Brodawka & Friends. Each small storefront surprises and delights. Just around the corner in Parkdale there are loads of antique shops and Made You Look custom jewelry studio, home to 20 different local designers.

5 Must-Visit Cities in Canada: Toronto

For a break from the city, spend a couple nights at Langdon Hall, a country house hotel with magnificent gardens just an hour outside the city. The Valmont spa was renovated last May along with eight new guest rooms, and the delectable menu reflects the agricultural abundance of the region, with many ingredients coming from the chef’s own garden and greenhouse.

MONTREAL

Direct flights with United, American, WestJet and Air Canada

Canada may be 150 years old as a country, but Montreal is celebrating its 375th birthday this year and planning loads of parties and special exhibitions to commemorate the milestone. Cité Mémoire is one of the biggest, inviting guests to travel back through time to meet the characters that made Montreal the city it is today.

If you visit in the summer, tasting your way through a public market is a must and Marché Jean-Talon is the most impressive — it’s the largest open-air market on the continent. Some of the city’s top chefs shop here, and you can taste the bountiful produce on your plate at restaurants like Bouillon Bilk and Restaurant Lili.Co. For light bites and great wine, Le Vin Papillon is a must and you can’t leave without trying a Montreal bagel.

5 Must-Visit Cities in Canada: Montreal

Le Vin Papillon light bites. Photo by Amber Gibson.

New boutique hotels are taking the city by storm and Hotel William Gray has quickly established itself as one of the best with modern design in the heart of Old Montreal. Take a customized tour with Spade & Palacio for a non-touristy insider’s look at the city, including a street art tour. If you love graffiti, visit in June for MURAL Festival.

QUÉBEC CITY

Seasonal direct flights with United

The walled city of Old Québec is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with cobblestone streets that seem straight out of Europe. Patisseries, majestic cathedrals and plein air painters may remind you of Paris, and many Québécois don’t speak much English, but you’ll rarely find yourself with a real language conundrum. Start with a stroll down the touristic but charming Quartier Petit Champlain before venturing beyond the walls to the Plains of Abraham, where the French and British faced off in 1759, and the Musée National des Beaux-Arts.

5 Must-Visit Cities In Canada: Quebec

Quebec skyline. Photo by Amber Gibson.

The Fairmont Le Château Frontenac is the iconic castle in every skyline photograph but Auberge Saint-Antoine is a more intimate and luxurious family-owned boutique hotel right on the waterfront. Hundreds of archaeological artifacts excavated during the hotel’s construction are displayed throughout the public spaces and guestrooms. Just around the corner is the city’s premier dining destination, Restaurant Initiale, where you’ll enjoy a thoughtful and decidedly French-Canadian tasting menu.

This city seems to always be throwing a party, from the Winter Carnaval to the summer music festival to the New France Festival (read my recap from 2015) in August. Summer is also an excellent time to cross the Saint Lawrence River and discover the bucolic Île d’Orléans, with its cheesemakers, vineyards, and impossibly sweet strawberries and apples.

VANCOUVER

Direct flights with United and Air Canada

Vancouver is the gateway to all of the natural wonders in British Columbia, and a city well worth exploring in its own right. It’s rare to find a city this sophisticated that shares such an innate connection to nature, as evidenced by local love for Stanley Park and the myriad cyclists you’ll spot on bike paths and greenways. Fresh seafood and luxury hotels are plentiful. You won’t go wrong with either Fairmont Pacific Rim or Four Seasons Vancouver and both properties have excellent restaurants showcasing the best local seafood.

Skiers and snowboarders are just a 90 minute drive from Whistler and more than 8,000 acres of skiable winter wonderland. Even in the summer, the mountains are worth visiting. Ride the Peak 2 Peak Gondola for 360-degree views and retire to Nita Lake Lodge.

5 Must-Visit Cities in Canada: Vancouver

Sonora Resort. Photo by Amber Gibson.

If you’re staying more than a few days, you’d be remiss not to take the ferry or hop on a plane to Vancouver Island. Tofino is an adorable surfer’s haven (stay at the Wickaninnish Inn) but real adventurers can go even further afield to Sonora Resort on a private island, where you can salmon fish, whale watch, river raft and go on a grizzly bear safari.

CALGARY

Direct flights with United and Air Canada

Calgary has a laid back, western vibe that immediately puts you at ease. The new National Music Centre at Calgary’s Studio Ball is a great place to explore Canada’s rich music culture (hint: there’s more than Justin Bieber and Celine Dion) through interactive exhibitions, live performances and the country’s most comprehensive collection of musical instruments. Head to Music Mile after dinner one night and choose from 20 live shows each weekend, including a strong folk rock scene.

5 Must-Visit Cities In Canada: Calgary

Speaking of dinner, there are several great new restaurants to try including veggie-centric Ten Foot Henry (named for a beloved cartoon character) and Japanese yakitori at Shokunin. And you won’t go wrong with any of restaurateur Sal Howell’s eateries, including her newest Deane House at Fort Calgary.

There’s an impressively delicious healthy eating scene too. At Nourish Bistro the nachos contain 27 ingredients, including strawberries. Calgary and the Canadian Rockies have long been pioneers of the wellness movement. You’ll find hundreds of kiteboarders chasing the winds on Alberta’s lakes and reservoirs and you can join them by taking a lesson at Glory Kiteboarding. Rest your head at Hotel Arts for a quirky and affordable boutique experience.

 

Find tips for reducing the carbon footprint of your travel, as well as your home, wedding, office and more, at carbonfund.org.