Plan Your Trip to Canada: 7 Great Itineraries
Planning a trip to Canada and figuring out an itinerary may seem monumental due to the size and geographical layout of the country. Bordered by three oceans, the Canadian motto "from sea to sea to sea" becomes more relevant when you start planning a cross country tour. Most travelers with a limited amount of time tend to focus on one area of the country. This is a good idea unless you incorporate some long distance internal flights. Canada stretches more than 5,500 kilometers from east to west, and much of the remote north is all but inaccessible.
The best option, unless you have plenty of time, is to focus on Western, Central, or Eastern Canada. Western Canada is home to some of the country's most spectacular scenery, with mountains, glaciers, alpine lakes, and Pacific coastline. Central Canada is most well-known for its vibrant cities, including Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa, but also consists of prairies and the forests and lakes of the Canadian Shield. The eastern Maritime Provinces are known for their seemingly endless Atlantic shorelines, quaint coastal villages, and friendly small-town atmosphere.
1 Western Canada: Sightseeing Through the Mountains
Highlights: Vancouver, Kelowna, and the Okanagan Valley, Banff National Park, Jasper National Park, Lake Louise, Calgary
The best way to see the Canadian Rockies is by car, beginning either in Vancouver and ending in Calgary, or doing it in the reverse order. A scenic seven-day trip will take you from Vancouver to Kelowna for a stop along the beautiful Lake Okanagan, and on to Banff National Park. From here, do a side trip up the Icefields Parkway to Jasper and end your trip in Calgary.
This route runs through some of the most spectacular scenery in Canada. Kelowna is a pleasant city that caters to skiers in the winter, with nearby ski hills of Big White and Silver Star. In summer, this is a popular area for renting a cottage, golfing, or exploring the lakes by houseboat.
Banff and Jasper National Parks, including the area around Lake Louise, are highlights of this route, and offer some incredible day hikes. Even if you are not interested in getting active, there are all kinds of scenic pull outs, particularly along the Icefields Parkway. The town of Banff, in the park of the same name, is a beautiful mountain tourist town with all kinds of accommodation, dining, and too many stores and shops to count.
Just an hour and a half east of the park is the city of Calgary, home to the famous Calgary Stampede held in July. Flights run regularly between Calgary and Vancouver. Another option for returning to Vancouver is a train trip on the Rocky Mountaineer, a high end rail journey through the mountains.
2 Vancouver and the West Coast
Highlights: Vancouver, Whistler, Victoria, Salt Spring Island, Tofino
Spend a couple of days seeing the sights of Vancouver. Drive or catch a bus up to the posh ski town of Whistler for a day, a fun destination any time of year, and head back down to Vancouver where you can catch a ferry to Victoria. For some people, depending on how much time you allow in Vancouver and Victoria, this might be enough to fill seven days. However, if you find you still have more time, there are some great side trips from Victoria. For a day trip from Victoria catch a car ferry to Salt Spring Island for a day of sightseeing, or visiting local farms and artisan studios. With a few days available, drive up Vancouver Island to Tofino for a night or two, where you can stay in a seaside lodge. Spend some time surfing or walking along the beaches in Pacific Rim National Park, enjoy a day hike near the village of Ucluelet, and see the pristine coastal forest all along this remote stretch of the island.
A car makes this trip simple and is the best way to see the attractions. If you are using public transport, it will be cheaper and include a bus to Whistler and walk-on ferries to Victoria and Salt Spring Island. With a car, be aware that taking a car ferry may require some wait time, especially around holidays. If you add on a trip to Tofino a car is almost essential.
3 Central Canada: Toronto, Montreal, and Beyond
Highlights: Toronto, Niagara Falls, Ottawa, and Montreal
With Toronto being a major point of entry for many travelers to Canada, this is the best place to start a tour of Central Canada. Spend a few nights in Toronto to see the sights, take in a Broadway show, and do a day trip to Niagara Falls. There are several tour operators offering day trips to the falls, which usually include a stop at the lovely little town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. From Toronto, you can drive or take a train to Ottawa, Canada's capital, to see Parliament Hill, some national museums, and in winter, you may even be able to skate along the Rideau Canal running through the city.
Montreal is another must-see city in Central Canada. You can get there easily from Ottawa, or directly from Toronto if you choose to skip Ottawa. Trains run regularly from both cities to Montreal, and by car, it is quite an easy drive (4.5 hours from Toronto to Ottawa, 5.5 hours from Toronto to Montreal, and two hours from Ottawa to Montreal). With more time available, you can continue on to Quebec City to tour this historic French city. This is a city definitely worth visiting, and may even serve as an alternative to visiting Montreal if you are unable to visit both.
4 Eastern Canada: Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island
Highlights: Halifax, Lunenburg, Charlottetown, Cape Breton Island
There are countless possibilities for itinerary options in Eastern Canada. The most practical way to tour this area is with a car. With eight to 10 days, you can easily see the highlights of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Begin in Halifax with some sightseeing around the city, and then spend a day touring the surroundings, with visits to Peggy's Cove and historic Lunenburg, before moving on to Annapolis Royal. From here, continue up and along the Bay of Fundy, making your way to the Confederation Bridge and over to Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. Take a day to explore the island, with a trip to Prince Edward Island National Park and Green Gables, the fictional home of Anne of green Gables. If the weather cooperates, take some time to enjoy the beaches. When you are ready to leave, take the Wood Islands Ferry to Caribou, Nova Scotia and head up to Cape Breton Island. There is plenty to see and do here, but the most popular activity is driving the scenic Cabot Trail, which runs through Cape Breton Highlands National Park. If you have time, make your way out to Louisbourg to see the Fortress Louisbourg National Historic Site. If this is the end of your time, head back to Halifax.
If you have another seven or 10 days for exploring the Maritimes, tack on a tour of Newfoundland.
5 Newfoundland: Explore the Rock
Highlights: St. John's, Gros Morne National Park, coastal towns
Begin in St. John's, the provincial capital, to explore Signal Hill National Historic Site and the lovely downtown area. When you leave St. John's, take the scenic drive along Conception Bay and over to the Bonavista Peninsula to the charming town of Trinity. This scenic little seaside village with colorful houses looks out onto oceanfront cliffs. Tour some historic buildings to get a feel for the culture, take a whale-watching tour, or go for a hike. If you are visiting in the late spring, you may even see an iceberg. From here, continue up the coast through Terra Nova National Park and on to the village of Twillingate to experience a quaint maritime community. After a night in Twillingate make your way to Gros Morne National Park for a boat tour or some hiking in this spectacular landscape. Stay in the park at Rocky Harbour, Norris Point, or at nearby Deer Lake.
If you have more time, consider making a trip up to L'Anse Aux Meadows, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to see some Viking history. Afterwards, make your way back to St. John's. Keep in mind, driving in Newfoundland may take longer than you expect, with winding roads and last-minute decisions to turn off the highway and visit coastal towns or scenic areas.
6 Exploring Canada's North: Polar Bears, Arctic Landscapes, and Culture
Highlights: Churchill, Whitehorse, Yellowknife
There is no easy way to see all of Canada's north in one trip. The region is extremely remote, and the highlights are, in many cases, geographically distant from one another.
Here are some options for seeing the north:
If your goal is to see wildlife you should consider a trip to Churchill, Manitoba in the late fall to see the polar bear migration. Many different tours leave from Winnipeg, offering multi-day stays that include options to see the bears in a Tundra Buggy and stay in a Tundra Lodge. Most tours involve a flight from Winnipeg to Churchill, but it is also possible to take a train to Churchill.
The two main cities of the north are Whitehorse, in the Yukon, and Yellowknife, in the Northwest Territories. Both of these cities are accessible by car. Many people incorporate the Yukon into a driving trip to Alaska. This route typically involves driving up through northern British Columbia and runs from Haines, going through Skagway, Carcross, Whitehorse, Dawson City, and into Alaska to the cities of Fairbanks and Anchorage, then back into the Yukon to Haines Junction and back to Haines. This route will give you a chance to experience some of the characters and cultures of the north, learn about the history of the Klondike Gold Rush, and see some of the beautiful landscape.
To reach Yellowknife, most people drive up the Mackenzie Highway from northern Alberta, to Highway 3 running through Fort Providence. To see more of the north from Yellowknife, flights are in order. Possible options include side trips to Nahanni National Park, one of the jewels of Canada's north, or to the northern community of Inuvik, just 200 kilometers from the Arctic Circle, to see what life is like in the far north.
7 City Hopping Across Canada
Highlights: Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal (Optional: Calgary, Halifax, St. John's, Quebec City)
If you are looking for a cross-Canada cosmopolitan adventure, the key cities are Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal. But if you want to probe a little deeper, you could easily add on Calgary, Halifax, St. John's, and even a side trip from Montreal to Quebec City. There are regular flights to all of these destinations and quick and convenient train connections that run between Toronto and Montreal. Flights to the eastern cities of Halifax and St. John's are generally more expensive.
Vancouver is arguably Canada's most beautiful city, while Toronto is a great place to see a show, take a day trip to Niagara Falls, and enjoy the view from the CN Tower. Montreal is an incredibly vibrant city known for its French culture, shopping and fashion, and trendy Old Town. With extra time, you could add on a trip to Ottawa, between Toronto and Montreal, to see the nation's capital and tour some of the best museums in Canada. Nature lovers could make a stop in Calgary for a quick trip out to Banff National Park and Lake Louise. For a more complete picture of Canada, catch a flight to either Halifax or St. John's to enjoy some seafood and experience the culture and friendly people of the Maritimes.