Canada is as varied as it is expansive, and its vibrant cities are a whole lot more than gateways to the great outdoors, says Daniel Neilson
Main attractions: Vancouver is like a black hole for many Canadians; people go from the east coast to visit and never come back. And it’s little wonder. The Economist Intelligence Unit ranks it as the most liveable city in the world. Sure, it rains a lot (for Canada), but the city is more likely to bask in summer sunshine and suffer from winter rain than be buried beneath months of impenetrable snow. Its setting, snug between the Rockies and the Pacific coast, is one of the world’s most beautiful, comparable to that of Cape Town or Istanbul. Wandering Vancouver’s bohemian neighbourhoods, eating wonderful seafood and spending the evening in a cocktail bar are among the highlights of this relaxed city.
Best-kept secrets: The neighbourhood of East Van is full of independent shops and coffee bars, while Stanley Park, the city’s biggest green space, is great to cycle around and escape the city. The Museum of Anthropology at UBC holds a fascinating collection celebrating Canada’s First Nations culture.
Out of town: Vancouver is the gateway to the Rockies and some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. There’s world class skiing, mountaineering, whitewater rafting, hiking, mountain biking and almost every other outdoor sport imaginable. The centre for these activities is the nearby town of Whistler, where many of the Winter Olympics sports were held. It’s full in every season with Gore-Tex-clad outdoorsy types. Elsewhere, Vancouver Island is a short ferry journey or even shorter seaplane ride away, while the state capital, Victoria, is a very pleasant little city.
Main attractions: Montreal is the cultural heart of Canada. It’s a predominantly Francophone city, although English is understood and spoken almost everywhere. Its music scene is among North America’s most vibrant — indie band Arcade Fire is one of its most famous exports — and there are gigs every night of the week. It also has the most exciting nightlife in Canada, with a young, sociable population filling the many bars around the Plateau neighbourhood. Similarly, its culinary scene is the best in Canada. But it’s the Old Town that attracts most visitors, with its cobbled streets, well preserved, French-style colonial buildings and restaurants offering menus in five languages.
Best-kept secrets: To get a feel for Montreal’s happening scene, head to the Plateau and Mile End neighbourhoods. Saint-Laurent Street is full of bars, cool clothing stores and ethnic restaurants and is the place for alternative bands, skinny-jean-clad hipsters and vegan couples.
Out of town: Beautiful, old cobbled Quebec City is an important tourist destination and it celebrated its 400th anniversary in 2008. It’s built along the St Lawrence River and in winter you’ll see business people with briefcases skating along canals on their way to work. The Laurentian Mountains are cottage country in the summer, with much of Montreal’s populace heading to the forests and hills for a weekend of canoeing and barbecues. In the winter, the town of Mont Tremblant is one of the country’s most popular skiing destinations.
Main attractions: The provincial capital of Ontario, with more than 2.6 million residents — 5.5 million if you include the whole metropolitan area — Toronto is Canada’s most populous city and one of the world’s most diverse. It takes time to get under the skin of Toronto, but once you do, the rewards are great. For many, the most interesting area is Queen Street West, full of designer stores, quirky bars and world-class restaurants. Key attractions are the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Royal Ontario Museum, as well as top-flight sports teams playing ice hockey, baseball, basketball, Canadian football and soccer.
Best-kept secrets: Queen Street West has long held the hipster crown, but Queen Street East is now catching up, with a lively scene of its own. Other emerging neighbourhoods include the area around Roncesvalles and along Ossington Avenue. Kensington Market, meanwhile, offers a fascinating mix of vintage stores and ethnic food stalls.
Main attractions: It’s boom time in Calgary. Once known for saddles, steaks and steers, it’s now oil, oil, oil. And with oil comes cash. The annual rodeo festival, the Calgary Stampede, is the biggest event in the calendar — just ask Wills and Kate. Meanwhile new hotels, attractions and museums are popping up all the time. The Glenbow Museum remains as excellent as ever, but there’s a lot of excitement around the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, due to open in a couple of years. The site of the 1988 Winter Olympics has activities all year round, including mountain biking and a zip-wire from the top of the ski-jump hill.
Best-kept secrets: Calgary’s culinary scene, once derided, is now gaining a reputation with restaurants such as the Boxwood Cafe and Charcut Roast House. The arty Inglewood area is full of interesting galleries, while upmarket Sunnyside is beginning to attract boutique shops and designers.