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Canada is one of the largest countries in the world, second only to Russia. Being that big means even most Canadians haven’t seen all that the Great White North has to offer, never mind a tourist who is only able to visit for a couple of weeks. But if you have a bit of time—and a lot of money—you’ll be able to see at least the main highlights.
Start off on the west coast, in the city of Vancouver. This beautiful city sits on the beaches of the Pacific and enjoys mild temperatures even in winter. You‘ll want to pack a rain jacket though, as Vancouver gets a lot of the wet stuff. Book a room in the Yaletown or West End district, where you’ll be close to the action. Begin your day with a walk through Stanley Park, a 400-hectare national historic site which has rainforest, great sea views, restaurants and beaches. There is always action down here, and it’s a great introduction to the west coast lifestyle.
If you’re up for a thrill, head over to the Capilano Suspension Bridge, located across the Lions Gate Bridge. It’s only a couple miles from the park, and there is also a free shuttle from downtown. Not for the faint of heart, the Cliffwalk is 91 metres high above a granite cliff, offering incredible views of the rainforest and canyon below. The 70 metre high option takes visitors into the rainforest.
Now that you’ve worked up an appetite, head over to Granville Island for lunch. The quaint area has a market where you can pick up flowers, fresh fish, baked goods and crafts, among other things. If you’re not in the mood for a picnic there are also a number of restaurants that have great views of the water.
Wander down Robson Street to give your credit card a workout with the great shopping, before heading back to your hotel and getting ready for a night on the town.
Optional add-ons: Jump on the ferry and head to the picturesque city of Victoria, or hit the hills and enjoy a luxury getaway in Whistler. A weekend in the vineyards of Kelowna is also fantastic!
The drive between Vancouver and Calgary is a stunner, and if you time your trip right you’ll touch down in time for the the Calgary Stampede. This annual 10-day party takes place every July and showcases the best of the Wild Wild West.
People around the city don cowboy hats and blue jeans, skip out of work to have a beer at 10 a.m. and head down to the Stampede Grounds where there are exhibits, concerts, nightly fireworks and of course, a rodeo.
This is rated among one of the best parties in the world, and even if you’re not a partyer you can still get in on the fun. Make sure you book a room downtown so you can stumble home.
READ MORE: The best things to do in Calgary, Alberta
While Calgary is a city of over one million people and has lots of activities to entertain any tourist, its real draw is its proximity to the Rocky Mountains. Banff National Park is just a 45 minute drive away, meaning you can escape the hustle and bustle of the city and be in a suite with a mountain view looking down at deer within an hour.
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The townsite of Banff is incredibly popular, with a number of souvenir shops, restaurants and spas to entertain you. There are also hundreds of hiking trails nearby including backcountry routes for thrill-seekers, and a number of ski hills. Mount Norquay and Lake Louise even offer the chance to tube down the hill, which is among the many fun winter activities. Soothe aching muscles by relaxing in the Banff Upper Hot Springs.
There are a number of accommodation options in Banff and nearby Canmore, including the Rimrock Resort which is perched on a mountain, or the stunning Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel. Rent a car to get out there or book through Brewster Charter Services, which has buses that run from Calgary to Banff and offers tours and vacation packages.
Optional add-on: Head to Alberta’s capital of Edmonton, for a weekend at West Edmonton Mall.
Next, hop on an Air Canada or WestJet flight for the four-hour flight to the Big Smoke, aka Toronto. Toronto is the business hub of Canada and many companies have their headquarters here. It is also Canada’s most populous city, and has sprawling suburbs (called the Greater Toronto Area, or GTA) to accommodate everyone. Try to spend at least two or three days in the city to see the highlights.
Book a room along Yonge or Dundas Street, and you’ll be within walking distance of the major sites including the Eaton Centre, which has great shopping. Many visitors make a stop at the Hockey Hall of Fame, which houses the largest collection of hockey memorabilia in the world and is one of the best things to do in the city with kids.
Canadians are crazy about hockey, so make sure you at least know who the Toronto Maple Leafs are before you go—it’s bound to come up some time!
If you happen to be puck crazy, head to Wayne Gretzky’s for lunch. The restaurant has a dining room and sports bar paying tribute to #99—one of the greatest hockey players of all time. Even if you don’t know who Gretzky is, you’ll appreciate the beautiful rooftop patio which is somewhat of an urban oasis.
Head back to your hotel for a quick siesta, before getting dolled up and heading over to the CN Tower—you can’t miss it! Standing 553 metres high, a trip to the top will give you a view of the entire city. There is even a glass platform you can stand on that looks straight down to the pavement below. Have dinner at the 360 Restaurant, which will set you back about $40 just for an entrée but is worth the price tag. Not only is it delicious, but the restaurant rotates, meaning you’ll get to check out every angle as you eat.
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On day two of your trip, relax by spending the day on Toronto Island. The park features beaches, volleyball courts, a lighthouse, gardens, cafes, an amusement park and boat moorings, and is a great way to spend a sunny afternoon. Ferries leave from Bay Street and cost $7 return.
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You can’t visit a country without a trip to the capital, now can you? Ottawa doesn’t disappoint, and the political hub is a great mix of history and culture. All the main government buildings are here including Parliament Hill, which is where federal politicians meet to make decisions that affect the entire country. Stopping here is a must, and visitors can take advantage of free guided tours which can last up to an hour. You’ll get to check out the House of Commons and the Senate—as long as politicians aren’t in session.
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Be sure to come back at night in the summer, when the side of the building is lit up with a sound and light show highlighting Canadian history.
From there, you can wander along the beautiful Rideau Canal then head to the Canadian Mint, to see how Canadian currency is made. Keep an eye out for the huge, solid gold bricks! Another popular stop is the Canadian Museum of Civilization, which walks visitors through the history of the country with a number of exhibits, including ones dedicated to early settlers and former prime ministers. There is also an IMAX theatre and children’s museum. Admission is $13 and up depending on how much you want to see, and it is open every day except during select holidays.
Hop onboard VIA Rail and head to Montreal for one of your last stops. While part of Canada, the province of Quebec is markedly different from the rest of the country in that the main language is French. You can expect your server at dinner to not speak English, and for the menu to be completely written in French, so dust off your language skills before you go.
Montreal is an absolutely beautiful city, especially in the neighbourhood of Old Montreal located along the St. Lawrence River.
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Explore the historical area by foot, BIXI bike or on a horse-drawn carriage. Montreal is also full of cute cafes and restaurants where you’ll want to order poutine (french fries with gravy and cheese) as well as trendy boutiques. Try and get up to Mount Royal Park at some point, to take in the city views.
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Optional add-on: Travel to Quebec City for the annual Quebec Winter Carnival
The East Coast
Your last stop should be a trip to Canada’s east coast, which includes four small provinces: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island. The region is most famous for its seafood—especially lobster—as well as picturesque lighthouses along the Atlantic and rugged coastlines. P.E.I. was made famous in the novel Anne of Green Gables, and millions of fans have visited the island to take in the Anne-related attractions.
READ MORE: The best beaches on Prince Edward Island’s north shore
New Brunswick and Nova Scotia are also popular destinations, thanks to the breathtaking Bay of Fundy. Both provinces are dotted with tiny fishing villages and quaint bed-and-breakfasts, and visitors can enjoy activities like whale watching and kayaking.
As you can tell, this whirlwind itinerary has skipped over a number of destinations including Churchill, Manitoba where you can see polar bears, and the prairies of Saskatchewan and Manitoba. To really get to the heart of Canada, rent a car and drive the Trans-Canada highway. It will take you a few weeks, but there’s no question it will be an experience you’ll never forget.
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I’m visiting Montreal/Quebec City at the end of this month with my family, and none of us have spoken French in years! I’m definitely practicing with an app (Duolingo) and getting excited! 🙂
Wow good for you, have a blast! Montreal is so beautiful, especially in the summer!
I’m exhausted just thinking about this. Although so far this summer I’ve done Vancouver, Banff, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Churchill and Toronto. Wait – I’m exhausted just thinking about that, too.
I know, Canada is SO BIG! It sounds like you have been rather busy this summer, good for you!