Canada

Places to visit in Canada

From the Atlantic to the Pacific and up to the Arctic Ocean, this country is big! There are of course endless places to visit in Canada but we can recommend a region and itinerary that will suit your family.

Please bear in mind flight times from the UK and Europe vary considerably depending on which part of the country you are flying to. For example, it is possible to squeeze a 10-day trip to eastern Canada into a school half-term break. However, the longer 9-10hr flight to Vancouver (plus jet-lag recovery time) usually means we will recommend a minimum 2-week holiday.

Where to visit in Canada - the Rockies, Jasper National Park

The Canadian Rockies, Jasper National Park

Toronto

Toronto is a multicultural, diverse, fast-moving city. It is particularly attractive as the starting-point for family holidays to Ontario with its many direct international flights and safe, easy to navigate grid street system. Families could easily spend a week here enjoying high adrenalin activities or more serene artistic and cultural attractions.

The CN Tower dominates the skyline, the third tallest building in the world. Hold your breath as you dare to walk the glass floor or go one step further and head out on the EdgeWalk, 350m up. Downtown you will find the shopping paradise that is the Eaton Centre and even further down, the unique PATH system, an underground home to 18 miles of shops, services and restaurants, particularly useful in winter. For families, the relatively new converted Distillery District is an easy choice. Here the quaint pedestrianised cobbled streets are lined with boutique stores, restaurants and galleries.

With over 200 ethnic groups, the city contains a multitude of different districts. Hop on a streetcar and take the kids on a trip around the world from Chinatown, Koreatown and Greektown to Little Portugal, Little Italy and Little India. Dine al fresco in fashionable Bloor-Yorkville or walk (a section of) Yonge Street, the longest in the world. Head to the harbourfront and enjoy a free concert with the backdrop of Lake Ontario or book a pre/post Broadway show in one of Toronto’s many world-class theatres. Get into the cheerleading spirit watching a Blue Jays baseball game, sipping a Molson beer with hot dog in hand.

Take the scenic 15-minute ferry ride to the Toronto Islands – an oasis of calm in the heart of the city. From here you can enjoy the dramatic skyline at its best – the giant egg-like Rogers Centre (formerly the SkyDome), the numerous skyscrapers of differing heights, colours and even shapes, plus glitzy condo buildings alongside converted 19th-century warehouses and historical old harbour buildings.

With plenty of accommodation and dining options (keeping both kids and budget happy), TO – as it is affectionally known – is the perfect start to any family holiday in Ontario.

Niagara

Niagara consists of the world-famous Niagara Falls and the pretty town of Niagara on the Lake, linked by the beautiful Niagara Parkway. Niagara Falls is one of the country’s most famous attractions and a real draw for families. Whilst lacking the natural beauty of South America’s Iguazu Falls or southern Africa’s Victoria Falls, Niagara is still a breath-taking spectacle. Straddling the US/Canadian border, it consists of three falls, with Canada laying claim to the largest, Horseshoe Falls. As you approach the area, you can see the spray rising high into the sky and hear the noise of three tons of water plunging over the cliffs every second.

There are a huge number of ways for families to enjoy Niagara Falls. The Hornblower cruise takes you right to the foot of the falls or you can ‘Journey Behind the Falls’ emerging from tunnels to outdoor platforms. Also popular with children is the jet boat tour through the famous Whirlpool Rapids. Slightly drier options include ascending the Skylon Tower for 236m high views, taking a helicopter ride for sweeping views of the entire area or, for real daredevils, flying across on the Mistrider zipline. At night the falls are illuminated and a fireworks display is held – evening cruises are recommended to best enjoy this spectacle.

However, the Niagara Falls area is a little like Las Vegas on water. To escape this commercialisation, take a drive along the scenic Niagara Parkway, past the incredible floral clock to the pretty town of Niagara on the Lake. Here boutique shops and flower-lined streets provide a welcome contrast to the sheer razzmatazz of the falls area. Take lunch al fresco on the patio, browse the year-round Xmas shop and take a horse-drawn carriage ride. This is the heart of Ontario’s wine-growing country and you can easily spend a day cycling between wineries (maybe not all 40 of them!) sampling some of the local produce, including the famous Icewine for which this region is renowned.

1000 Islands

The Thousand Islands are a group of peaceful, forested islands scattered along the St Lawrence River and shared between Canada and the USA. Some are tiny with just a simple cottage or two, others have opulent mansions and castles. The largest is Wolf Island, 20 miles long, where you can enjoy seaside life alongside nature at the conservation area of Big Sandy Bay. Cruise across the border into America (passports and ESTAs required) to visit Boldt Castle, an extraordinary 6 storey edifice situated on Heart Island. Built in 1900 as a monument to love, this American equivalent to the Taj Mahal can be visited as part of a 1000 Island cruise which will also take on a scenic journey through this archipelago and visit the Thousand Island International Bridge, connecting Ontario with New York state.

Families can easily access this region from the historic city of Kingston. However we prefer the smaller, waterfront community of Gananoque which offers not only cruises but also guided kayaking tours, allowing you to picnic on sandy beaches and swim in the crystal-clear waters as well as paddling around the islands.

Ottawa

Canada’s unassuming capital is an utterly charming Anglo/Gallic blend of culture and history. Its compact size makes it extremely family-friendly and there is none of the big city noise and freneticism found in other large Canadian cities. There are numerous historical sites, including the gothic Parliament Hill and the imposing Chateau Laurier as well as some world class museums. Children may be forgiven for thinking that they are outside Buckingham Palace, watching the Changing of the Guards ceremony which takes place daily throughout the summer. Stroll, paddle or cruise along the beautiful Rideau Canal, a UNESCO WHO site which in winter turns into the world’s longest skating rink. Try a BeaverTail (a fried, sweet pastry) or poutine (fries with cheese curds and gravy) in bustling ByWard Market. Head across the river to Hull in the province of Quebec and visit the fascinating Museum of Civilization (as well as practising your French).

Outdoor enthusiasts will love the Gatineau Hills, just outside the city. Here you can immerse yourself in nature, hiking the many trails. In the fall (autumn) the foliage is renowned for its dazzling array of reds, browns and golds and in winter there is fabulous cross country skiing here. Beach lovers will be amazed to discover Mooney’s Beach, located right in the heart of the city. Music fans will love the live blues and jazz scene, especially in the buzzing Centretown neighbourhood.

From Ottawa it is just a 2 hour drive on to Montreal then continue on to Quebec City. Or you can pop across the border into America to visit Lake Placid or even travel further to New York City.

Muskoka and Blue Mountain

The Muskoka Region is known as ‘cottage country’ and is packed full of sparkling lakes, sandy beaches and forests. Being only a two-hour drive from Toronto, it is a popular year-round outdoor adventure playground for weekend escapes or family holidays.

Numerous outdoor activities are on offer here including kayaking Georgian Bay, hiking the Bruce Trail, cruising the 30,000 Islands or relaxing on the world’s longest freshwater beach at Wasaga.

Accommodation options range from cosy log cabins and boutique hotels to large resorts with enough activities on hand to keep all ages entertained (and exhausted). The most well known of these is Blue Mountain – Ontario’s main ski resort in the winter and a multi-sport paradise in the summer with ziplines, high ropes, segways and various water activities.

Muskoka is a great base for some family R&R and easy access to Toronto international airport means it can slot in at the start or end of any family holiday to Ontario.

Algonquin

Algonquin Provincial Park is a little piece of natural paradise, only 3 hours drive from Toronto and Ottawa. Its 2,400 lakes and 750 miles of rivers are home to moose, beaver, wolf, otter, mink and even bear. A haven for outdoor adventure, it has countless hiking, biking and cross-country skiing trails and a myriad of canoe routes offering the quintessential Canadian wildlife experience – without the crowds of the Rockies.

The best way to enjoy this untouched wilderness is by hiring a canoe and paddling out to a camping spot, passing moose grazing by the lakeshore or beavers scurrying around building their dams. Learn how to portage – carrying the canoe on your head between lakes – and enjoy peaceful evenings star-gazing or try howling with the wolves. If camping is not your thing then there are log cabin or hotel options available. Our favourite tour is a camping/cabin combo with three days of canoeing in the wilderness followed by two days spent hiking, swimming and wildlife-spotting from a fully-catered cosy log cabin (replete with wood-burning sauna).

Banff

The most popular town in the Canadian Rockies, the pretty chocolate-box resort of Banff is nestled beneath soaring, snow-capped mountains yet lies less than 2 hours from Calgary international airport. So you can be hiking in the morning and flying home that afternoon! The town is based on a geothermal site and you can visit the hot springs and ride the Sulphur Mountain Gondola for stunning views of the town and the national park beyond.

Banff National Park was Canada’s first national park. Over three million visitors a year come to experience its Rocky Mountain peaks, turquoise glacial lakes, mammoth glaciers and scenic drives. Wildlife abounds with both grizzlies and black bear commonly spotted along with moose, elk, bison (recently re-introduced), wolf, coyote, bald eagles and marmots. This flagship park can keep adventurous families entertained for weeks. Hiking trails (1500km of them!) range from short easily accessible paths from town to steep ascents scrambling to summits. Mountain bike routes are available for all abilities, with kids’ bikes, e-bikes, chariots and tagalongs/hitches readily available. Horse-riding expeditions for all levels allow you to channel your inner cowboy. You can also paddle a canoe along the Bow River, take a float trip, a gentle way to spot wildlife en route, or get the heart racing white water rafting from Horseshoe Canyon.

Iconic spots include Lake Louise, a picture-perfect emerald lake known as the ‘Jewel of the Rockies’ and Moraine Lake, with its brilliant blue-green water reflecting the soaring jagged peaks surrounding it. The Icefields Parkway connects Lake Louise with Jasper and is famed as one of the most beautiful drives in the world. The 232km route winds along the Continental Divide past snowy mountain peaks, vast, forested valleys and huge icefields between both Banff and Jasper National Parks. Kids will love a ride in one of the massive snowbuses enabling them to walk on to the Athabasca Glacier or why not don crampons and take an Ice Cube Ice Walk and hike out onto the ice itself.

Calgary

Gateway to the Canadian Rockies, Calgary is an easy arrival or departure point for any family holiday to Canada, located under two hours from Banff National Park. However why not stay a day or two and enjoy this compact, relaxed city whether it is for some well deserved city delights after time in the wilderness or as a place to recover from the jet lag before setting off on your Canadian road trip with kids. Known as ‘Cowtown’, Calgary is home to the annual Stampede in July which recreates the Wild West with bull riding, chuckwagon racing and bucking broncos. A brilliant day trip for families is Drumheller in the Canadian Badlands. Here, in ‘Dinosaur Valley’, a huge number of dinosaur fossils have been discovered and keen palaeontologists can visit the Royal Tyrrell Museum and join a guided walk to search for fossils and dinosaur bones.

Jasper

Like Banff, Jasper is a picturesque alpine town surrounded by aquamarine lakes, snowy peaks and glaciers. It is the base for exploring Jasper National Park and ideally combined with Banff to make a superb twin-centre family holiday in the Rockies.

Take the SkyTram to the top of Whistlers Mountain and walk the Summit Trail to the 2,463m peak from where you can see Mount Robson, the highest in the Canadian Rockies. Head out into Jasper National Park either on bike or foot. With nearly 1,000km of well-marked trails, independent hiking is easily manageable but why not take a guided tour perhaps to Maligne Canyon. Here the kids will enjoy learning about the geology of the gorge, local flora and the wildlife of the area – eagles, elk, beavers and black bears amongst others. You can also tackle the white-water of the Fraser River on a rafting trip.

Other options include retracing 19th-century explorer routes on a gentle float trip along the Athabasca River and experiencing the crystal-clear waters of Lac Beauvert by SUP or kayak. You can soak in the Miette Hot Springs then partake in some star gazing in the world’s largest dark sky preserve.

Jasper is linked with Lake Louise in Banff National Park, by the famous Icefields Parkway. Known as one of the most beautiful drives in the world, this route winds along the Continental Divide past snowy mountain peaks, vast, forested valleys and huge icefields. Kids will love a ride in one of the massive snowbuses enabling them to walk on to the Athabasca Glacier or why not don crampons and take an Ice Cube Ice Walk and hike out onto the ice itself.

From Jasper you can then head west to the waterfalls and glaciers of Wells Grey Provincial Park and across British Colombia to Whistler and Vancouver.

Vancouver

Vancouver is often ranked as the world’s most liveable city. And it is not hard to see why. With its snow-capped mountains and Pacific Ocean backdrop, there are few places with such a stunning natural setting. There are so many superb things to do for families here that you could easily spend over a week exploring.

Here are a few of our favourite activities; cycling through the forest and along the seafront in Stanley Park to the Brockton Point totem poles, keeping an eye out for beavers and raccoons. Tackling the Grouse Grind – a 3km uphill hike to the top of Grouse Mountain (or opting for the easier option via the Grouse Mountain Skyride aerial tram). Children will love taking the aquabus to Granville Island with its unique Kids Market. The Vancouver Aquarium is a fabulous showcase of Canadian marine life (and a useful rainy day option) or experience it in the wild on a whale-watching cruise through the Gulf Islands, home to resident pods of orca as well as migratory humpbacks. A low key few hours can be spent exploring Chinatown and wandering the cobbled streets of Gas Town to view the famous steam clock (think a mini-Big Ben – on steam!).

It might be strange to head to the beach when you are in a city but Vancouver boasts some wonderful seaside – as well as lakeside – options. Rent a BBQ for lunch al fresco at Sunset Beach or head to Kitsalano with its heated saltwater pools and water sports. Drive the Sea to Sky Highway to the famous ski resort of Whistler for some superb outdoor mountain activities. Walk the famous suspension Capilano Suspension Bridge spanning 137 metres over the Capilano River 70 metres below (avoid windy days!). Or hop on a ferry to glorious Vancouver Island with its quaint capital city Victoria and its numerous marine and black bear safari experiences.

Come winter or summer, Vancouver really can offer families a fantastic, fun-filled adventure. With many direct flight options from Europe, it is the perfect place to kick start your North American roadtrip – whether it is heading east along the Trans Canada Highway to the Rockies or south across the border into the USA.

Vancouver Island

Just 90 minutes by ferry from Vancouver lies this utter gem of an island, covered in lush, green forest and home to some of Canada’s most prolific wildlife. From the capital city of Victoria, you can head out on a whale-watching cruise to spot the resident orcas and (May to October) humpbacks. Or cross the island to Tofino and Clayoquot Sound where you can get even closer to whales, dolphins, sea lions and otters on canoe and SUP wildlife trips. Vancouver Island boasts a healthy population of black bears and you can view these either from the coast or by taking a 2 night wildlife safari to one of the fly-in lodges in the north of the island.

The glorious Pacific Rim National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere reserve, offers some wonderful hiking – keep your eyes spotted for wolf and bald eagles. City delights can be enjoyed in the colonial surroundings of Victoria with its historic buildings. Explore the colourful Butchart Gardens and take tea in the iconic Empress Hotel. Further up the eastern coast lies the charming waterfront town of Nanaimo where those with a sweet tooth will love following the Nanaimo Bar Trail. Here you can snorkel with seals, dine out on gloriously fresh fish at the harbourfront or take a seaplane flight over BC’s Sunshine Coast.

Ferry connections allow options to travel further north along the scenic Inside Passage (why not take the kids all the way to Alaska!) or south through the stunning San Juan Islands to Washington State – next stop Seattle then perhaps California…

Quebec

Quebec City is a stunningly beautiful historic city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its French origins are evident everywhere from the cobbled streets that wind steeply between Basse-Ville (Low Town) and Haute-Ville (High Town) to the Terrasse Dufferin from where sweeping views over the St Lawrence River can be enjoyed.

Stroll North America’s oldest streets and along the ancient fortified walls. Foodies will love the many open-air bistros of pedestrianised Petit-Champlain. Kids will love riding the funicular between high and low Quebec and watching the many street performers and artists. History buffs will relish touring the site of the Anglo-French War on the Plains of Abraham. Splurge on a Morning Glory (Buck’s Fizz) or even a stay at the landmark hotel Chateau Frontenac. Quebec City really is a little piece of Europe in North America and an utterly charming addition to any holiday.

From Quebec there are a number of places to enjoy with kids. The Montmorency Falls are only 15 minutes from the city and, at 83m (30m higher than Niagara Falls!), a spectacular sight to be enjoyed from a cable car, suspension bridge, Via Ferrata or zipline. Outdoor enthusiasts should head to Jacques Cartier National Park, a glorious plateau crisscrossed by valleys and rivers and home to beaver and moose. Ile d’Orleans takes you back to 18th-century life with ancient villages, heritage homes and local artisan stores. Or head to Tadoussac for a whale-watching cruise in the Saguenay-St Lawrence Marine Park.

Montreal

The world’s second largest French-speaking city, Montréal is known as the ‘Paris of Canada’ and is an energetic mix of modern and old European charm. Old Montreal is home to cobbled streets, the Basilica of Notre Dame, the Musee des Beaux Arts and the large green space of Vieux Port. Cruise the St Lawrence River on a Bateau Mouche, head to the Underground City and discover miles and miles of shops and restaurants or above ground, hike to the top of Mont Royal for sweeping views of the city skyline. Natural attractions that will appeal to families include the fabulous Biodome where five eco-systems of the Americas exist under one roof and the Botanical Gardens.

Montreal is known as the party city and there is a strong festival scene including the world famous Montreal International Jazz Festival. Dining out will only cause parents the headache of choice as there is a vast array of wonderful restaurants and al fresco cafes offering all types of cuisine. Snack on smoked meat and bagels in Mile End, sample the chips/cheese and gravy combo of poutine and enjoy a crepe at one of the many French bistros. Kids will love BeaverTails, the sweet, fried pastries that can be piled high with chocolate sauce or maple syrup.

Whistler

Whistler is one of the world’s top ski resorts in winter and an adventure playground in summer. Take the Sea to Sky Highway from Vancouver and 2 hours later you will find yourself amidst the mountains and lakes of this stunning region. Take the cable car to the top of Whistler Mountain or the peak to peak gondola to Blackcomb Mountain. The ski and snowboard runs of winter lend themselves to hiking and biking trails in the summer. Or there are Via Ferrata, treetop walks, kayaking, white water rafting and horse-riding. Take to the sky on a helicopter ice-cave tour or a floatplane sightseeing flight. Families will love the wildlife opportunities – eagle-spotting or bear-watching – and in the evening, with a wonderful range of resort entertainment and dining choices, parents won’t need to worry about fussy eaters or the need to charge those electronic devices up.

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