We round up the country’s finest urban hubs - from the most liveable to the city with the yummiest poutine.
With vast landscapes stretching from the U.S. border to the Arctic Circle, you wouldn’t immediately assume that urbanites and city lovers would find much to do in Canada. The country is famed for spots like Banff National Park, Lake Louise, and Niagara Falls, but over time, this wealth of natural land has given way to thriving urban centres. In recent history, Canada’s most populated cities developed in the regions which had the best agricultural land. Today, around 90% of the population lives within a small strip of land along the U.S.-Canadian border.
Without ever having previously visited Canada, you might have made certain assumptions about its cities. Toronto has its futuristic skyline with the towering CN Tower, and Quebec is where it curiously feels like you are in the heart of France. But if you are ready to dive a little deeper, allow us to paint a portrait of the country’s urban highlights. Here are the best cities to visit in Canada:
If you came to Canada to mainly immerse yourself in nature but you would still like to dip a toe in big city life, then float Vancouver to the top of your list. This city is oh so easy on the eyes. With dramatic peaks to the north and the sprawling Pacific Ocean to the west, flying into the city is a scenic experience of its own.
A visit to Vancouver is a fantastic way to strike a balance between natural delights and city lights. You could spend the day getting some air on the 17-mile Seaside Greenway cycling trail between Stanley Park and the Spanish Banks, then take to one of Vancouver's eight atmospheric ice rinks after dusk. Or for a more relaxing time, you could check out one of the city’s beautiful beaches - try Jericho Beach, a relaxing sandy expanse between the Kitsilano and West Point Grey neighbourhoods - and wind down with a drink or a shop on Commercial Drive - known to the locals as The Drive - a bustling hub of 21 blocks.
Of course, we could not discuss Canadian cities without suggesting this big hitter. Toronto lies on the northern shores of Lake Ontario, one of the five Great Lakes of North America. Despite it being the largest, busiest urban centre in the country, it still frequently tops lists of the world’s most liveable cities. Even in the 1970s, American reporters often hailed Toronto as “a city that works.” The comfort and ease of the city can be attributed to its green spaces, variety of cultural events, and varied public transport - all elements that will surely make your stay in Toronto a breeze.
Toronto is divided into distinct neighbourhoods which are rooted in the city’s different ethnic influences and settlements. So if you consider yourself a culture vulture, make Toronto a must-visit on your Canadian travels. Feel free to leisurely wander through Chinatown, Greektown, Little India, Little Italy, Victorian Cabbagetown, and Yorkville on foot, and leave plenty of room to sample all the diverse and delicious culinary offerings.
Once you have seen it all from below, it’s time to go sky high. Make your way to the famous CN Tower and prepare to make your ascent to 447 metres above the city. The SkyPod is one of the highest observation platforms in the world. If you are lucky and visit on a clear day, you will be rewarded with views up to 100 miles away! This means you could catch a glimpse of New York State or even Niagara Falls. If you are looking to heighten the romance of your Canadian odyssey, head up at sunset - it’s a golden view not to be missed.
Calgary is the place to be if you want a peek into a different side of Canada. A relatively young city, Calgary is the financial centre of western Canada due to it being a base for the country's petroleum industry. It is also known historically as a cattle-ranching hub, and still hosts the annual Calgary Stampede - an event which can be traced right back to the late 1800s when the Calgary and District Agricultural Society had its first fair. This rodeo is locally known as "The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth" and is a celebration that lasts for 10 whole days.
Québec is one of the most unique cities to visit in Canada. With 95% of its residents being of French background, Québec City has a long history of French influence. In 1608, French explorer Samuel de Champlain built a fortress at what is now Québec. To this day, it’s the only North American city to still retain French-built fortress walls. It’s also interesting to note that the city’s Old Town is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site listed and is perfect for walkers.
Ultimately, a trip to Québec might not even feel like a holiday in Canada at all - the French Canadians have always had a vested interest in preserving their unique culture and traditions. In 1974, French was named as the official language of the city, even though English is the official language throughout the rest of Canada.
Foodies rejoice - Québec is a destination where you cannot miss the local culinary delights. If you are in the mood for comforting indulgence, order yourself a plate of poutine. Poutine is a dish that originated in central Québec during the late 1950s and comprises fries with cheese curds and a French Canadian take on brown gravy. It’s simple and it’s irrésistible!
Tired of your average hotel breakfasts of fruit and muesli or bacon and eggs? Then it’s time to try a Quebecois classic. Cretons is a cold meat spread made up of ground pork seasoned with salt, cinnamon, and cloves. Consider it the haggis of Canada, if we might be so bold! Eating it is simple, just smear it (generously) on your toast and enjoy.
Montreal is a city characterised by its historic architecture. The city’s structures reflect a fascinating combination of colonisation, with French and British influence. Be sure to visit the Notre-Dame Basilica, which was completed in 1880, and was the first neo-Gothic church in all of Canada. Fort de la Montagne is also worth the trip, as it is one of the oldest buildings in Montreal.
Of course, there’s no going to Montreal without watching a jazz gig. Montreal’s jazz roots stretch way back but were solidified during prohibition. As Montreal was the only major North American city where drinking was legal, the city truly became a centre of revelry. Back in the day, you could always have a good time in Montreal. Musicians were flocking to the city and nightclubs were popping up all over town. The presence of music is still strong in Montreal, with the city hosting the world’s largest jazz festival, the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal for 40 years.
Whether you’re heading to the Rockies to hike, snowboard, or unwind in the hot springs, we have some practical tips, including the best time and places to visit.
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