This year, Canadians from coast to coast to coast will be celebrating our nation’s 150th anniversary and this summer, I’ll be showing my visiting family from England around Canada for the first time. I’ve started planning for their arrival (yes, already!) and I’ve put together a list of some uniquely Canadian touristy things I’ve come across.
I can’t begin to list all the amazing things to see and do in Canada, but since Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver are where most of our overseas visitors arrive, here is a taste of some off-the-beaten path attractions in those cities and their environs. Each is a little out of the ordinary but totally worth a look, whether you’re hosting visitors for the first (or 10th!) time, or staying home this summer to enjoy the sesquicentennial celebrations yourself.
- And while we’re talking about things to do, remember that admission to Canada’s 46 national parks, 171 national historic sites and 4 national marine conservation areas is free in 2017, with a special 2017 Discovery Pass. And while some of these are about as remote as you can get, many are within easy reach of major Canadian cities.
Top things to do in Toronto
- Explore the city like a native. There are a million things to see and do in Toronto – but where do you start? The Toronto Greeters program helps tourists explore the city like native Torontonians. You can get a free tour with a Toronto Greeter by emailing and letting them know how long you have to tour the city, what sorts of things you’d like to see (restaurants, bars, secret spots, great shopping, etc.) and when you want to take your tour. Did I mention the tour greeter service is free?! Speak a language other than English? No problem – Toronto Greeters have partnered with volunteers who speak more than 100 languages.
- Get away from it all across the water. Take a super-cheap, 15-minute ferry ride right from downtown Toronto over to Centre Island. You can spend a couple of hours with your little ones on the kiddie rides at the Centreville theme park, then head to the Far Enough Farm where your kids can pet and learn about the 40 different species of animals that live there all year long. Bring a picnic for the beach, but if you forget to think ahead, don’t worry – there are plenty of options for lunch or a snack. Centreville is aimed at families with small children, but the islands are also a great destination for bicyclists of all ages, as no cars are allowed.
- Soak up some arts and culture. Where to start when describing 401 Richmond? It’s a converted warehouse that’s home to more than 100 galleries, cafés, boutiques and more. Grab a coffee and eat lunch (made with produce grown on the rooftop of the very building you’re dining in) and visit them all. This spot also provides a spectacular view of the city that you can’t get anywhere else.
Top things to do in Montreal
- Happy birthday, Montreal! Canada’s 150th isn’t the only anniversary to celebrate this year – the city of Montreal is celebrating 375 years of history with special events all year long. Events range from flash mobs, to art installations, to festivals and even trucks filled with games so neighbourhoods can create their own carnivals. Check out Montreal 375 for activities to suit your budget and interests.
- Imagine an entire neighbourhood dedicated to festivals. The Quartier des Spectacles is one of my favourite spots in Montreal because there are always events to enjoy, things to see and people to meet. When my husband and I were there last August, we sat at tables made of wooden skids, ordered drinks from a storage container turned into a makeshift kitchen and bar, and watched a lightshow projected onto the walls and the canopy above us. Visit Quartier des spectacles to see the ever-changing events schedule.
- Hit the beach. The dog-friendly beach at Village au Pied-du-Courant along the St. Lawrence River is a totally free space full of excitement, action and activities. It’s a pretty busy spot, but if you're willing to brave the crowds you can enjoy drinks, music and food as well as soaking up the sun. All summer long, take in art installations, activities for children, a small artisans’ market and even movies on the beach. Instead of making the trek to the lake this year, stay in town and hit the beach right under the Jacques Cartier Bridge.
Top things to do in Vancouver
- Follow the bouncing bridge. Capilano Canyon may be home to the most famous suspension bridge in Vancouver, but the bridge at Lynn Canyon Park in North Vancouver is usually less crowded – and even more bouncy. The Lynn Canyon bridge sways at a height of 50 meters above the canyon, providing perfect photo opportunities and a great view of the park, which offers more than 600 acres of forest to explore. While you're there, look for the twin falls and take a refreshing dip to cool down after all that hiking. If you're not into solo exploration, you can meet up with mountaineering enthusiasts Max and Molly, who host free drop-in tours of the park and will dazzle you with historical facts and stories of outrageous adventure.
- Explore the rainforest. Stanley Park is the most famous one, but it’s not the only outstanding park in the city. If you head over to Lighthouse Park in West Vancouver you’ll find 185 acres of lush, temperate rainforest. Some of the trees in the park are more than 500 years old and have grown to staggering heights. There are miles upon miles of trails to hike or stroll leisurely through, and several granite cliffs to climb. Bring a picnic and spend the day exploring.
- Eat like a local. If you’re a foodie, try an Off the Eaten Track walking tour, to take in some of the best eateries around Vancouver. For example, the brunch tour lets you start your day by eating and drinking your way through 5 unique stops, enjoying everything from eggs benny to charcuterie. (These tours are also offered in Victoria.)
Before you hit the road to explore Canada this summer, here are my top 4 travel tips:
- Check the weather report before you set out, and dress for the forecast, especially if you’re in an unfamiliar part of the country. Canadian summer days can be hot and sticky, cool and rainy or anything in between.
- It’s a BIG place – let your visitors know they won’t see the entire country (or even an entire province) in one visit.
- Get Visitor to Canada travel insurance for your visitors before they arrive, and travel insurance for yourself if you’re leaving your home province.
- If your visitors are driving, remind them that speed limits are posted in metric – that 100 on the highway sign is km/hour, or about 60 mph.