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Our bucket-list guide to Canada for beginners

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A stand‑out travel destination, Canada should be high on everyone’s bucket list. It has everything, and you’ll soon find that Canada’s everything really is something. We don’t make that claim lightly, so read on to find out what it is about this North American country that has visitors flocking back time and again.

One thing’s for certain: Canada is as enormous geographically as it is in personality. An astonishing 41 times the size of the UK, it beats the USA and Australia to the spot of second-largest country in the world by area (behind Russia). For anyone planning a holiday, the first challenge is knowing where to start.

We’ve done our best to pick out some of Canada’s highlights, each sure to tempt and encourage you to take a deeper dive into this fascinating country – your only challenge will be choosing what and where to add to your sightseeing list. Thankfully, our local experts will make planning your first trip a breeze, so read on for the inspiration you’ll need to get started.

Why should you go?

That Canada has something for everyone is in no doubt. It offers a fantastic mix of vast, unspoilt wilderness, mountains and lakes that are home to amazing wildlife, and vibrant cities filled with heritage and architectural gems. You can tailor-make a trip around your love of nature and the great outdoors or your passion for culture, fabulous food and history.

No matter your preferred landscapes and time of year, the list of activities to explore in Canada is seemingly endless. Want to go kayaking on a pristine lake or canoeing down a forest-fringed river? Hiking across the dramatic Rocky Mountains or skiing on some of the best slopes there is? Perhaps you’ll want to push the boat out further, and if so, you could even walk on a glacier or go whale-watching. You might be surprised to learn that Canada has some beautiful beaches, too, many of them on the shores of expansive freshwater lakes where you’ll be convinced you’re staring out to sea – some Canadians will in fact tell you that one of the world’s best sunsets is from Lake Huron, near Toronto.

Take a road trip

Canada’s huge size, varied topography, cultural delights and stunning natural scenery all combine to make it perfect for a road trip. The roads are good and, in a massive country with just 40 million people (the tiny UK has 67 million), you may end up seeing more moose than vehicles. But just as you wouldn’t contemplate driving across Australia in a fortnight, it’s best not to try to cover too much in one trip to Canada, either.

For first-timers, one sensible approach is to decide whether to keep to the country’s eastern or western provinces. After all, the journey from Vancouver on the west coast to Montreal in the east is around 3,000 miles – about three-and-a-half times the drive from Land’s End to John o’ Groats. Work out what interests you most and take it from there. You should be prepared for some long drives, but in Canada, the journey is as rewarding as the destination.

Journey east

The area around southern Ontario and Quebec makes a perfect region to zone in on. In the context of scale, things are closer together, making it easier to see more in one trip. For example, from Toronto you can be on the iconic Maid of the Mist boat tour on Niagara Falls in under two hours. From historic Quebec City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a Parisian feel, you can reach Le Mauricie National Park or go whale-watching on the St Lawrence River.

City-lovers can choose between Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City and the capital, Ottawa, and with just 550 miles between them, you could even manage to see them all in one trip. Canada is a multicultural melting pot, and this is reflected in its cosmopolitan cities. Expect diversity in everything from art, music and festivals to food and shopping. All four fantastic cities are list-toppers in their own ways for culture, entertainment and gastronomy, giving many a European capital a run for their money.

A thousand lakes (and more)

We’d understand if you’ve never thought of lakes in themselves as a reason to jet across the pond, yet Canada has more of these than any other country in the world (more than 850,000, in fact), and they really have to be seen to be believed. Surrounded by spectacular mountains and forests, they are breathtaking in their scale and beauty. Many Canadians have log cabins or homes on the water’s edge where they can escape to enjoy the tranquillity and scenery, and partake in activities such as canoeing, kayaking and fishing.

Many of them are renowned for their intense blue colour, created by glacial meltwater, rich in salts that reflect the light. Some of the most photographed include Lake Louise and Lake Moraine, both found in the Canadian Rockies; to visit these, you’ll need to plan your itinerary around the western border, instead.

Venture west

Most western Canadian adventures start in Vancouver, a city that always ranks top as one of the best places in the world to live and visit. Get your bearings while exploring hip neighbourhoods such as historic Gastown or local favourite, Granville Island.

Larger than Wales, Vancouver Island is a destination in itself, given it encapsulates just about everything Canada has to offer. The charming city of Victoria is the gateway to soaring mountains and tranquil lakes, sandy beaches, and ancient rainforests. You can go wine-tasting and even surf from off the coast of Tofino.

The Rockies and Icefields Parkway

The north of Vancouver is tailor-made for an epic road trip. Expect spectacular mountain peaks, crystal-clear lakes, ancient glaciers, waterfalls and wonderful views, and wildlife such as bison, elk, moose and even bears. The stretch of road known as the Icefields Parkway is rated as one of the top drives in the world, and thousands of photos snapped by fellow share-happy visitors will tell you exactly why. 

The journey takes you between the quintessential Canadian towns of Banff and Jasper and through their national parks, which form part of the Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks UNESCO World Heritage Site. For epic views, go canoeing on the aforementioned Lake Louise or take the Banff Gondola up Sulphur Mountain. If such daytime scenery isn’t quite enough to blow your mind, the region has almost no light pollution and sits under some of the darkest skies on the planet, for incredible stargazing opportunities.

The food, glorious food

Canada is a nation of foodies, with cuisine from around the world reflecting the country’s diverse influences – from to-die-for French cuisine to some of the best lobster in the world, via Michelin-starred restaurants and a staggering array of street food. All this in spite of the national dish being poutine – thick-cut fries topped with gravy and cheese curds (it tastes better than it sounds – think cheesy chips with a twist). For dessert, why not try a sweet treat from BeaverTails who, as you might have guessed, specialise in uniquely-shaped pastries topped with all manner of exciting confections.

With over 260 wineries across the country, you won’t be short of something to wash it all down, either. Canadian wine isn’t yet common in the UK, but oenophiles should prepare to be impressed. The area around Okanagan Lake is famous for its wines as well as its beaches – two perfect reasons to visit.

When to go

Canadian weather is a tale of extremes, with western regions enjoying a temperate climate, while the rest of the country experiences the kinds of winters that make the UK look almost tropical. Unless you’re skiing or booking one of our winter escapes, this makes Canada primarily a summer destination for holidaymakers. The best time to visit for warmer climes is from May to September, when you can make the most of outdoor activities, from hiking and laid-back beach outings to simply dining al fresco. Do take note that in the eastern provinces, you should be prepared for cooler evenings even in July.

In the west, October still brings with it pleasant temperatures; the east is cooler yet also popular at this time of year for its ‘leaf-watching’, when locals gather to enjoy the stunning autumn colours for which Ontario is renowned. If a magical winter wonderland does appeal to you, then December through March unveils Canada at its snowy, enchanting best. Wintertime in Canada is not just about the weather; it’s an immersive, ever-changing experience that you should embrace along with the hot chocolate and marshmallows.

Make it happen

To discover one of the most varied countries on the planet for yourself, browse through our Canadian trips and start planning your dream holiday.

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