Travel is back in a big way. Business and leisure travelers are hitting the roads, rails, seas and skies in numbers not seen in several years, but some still find the prospect of venturing forth daunting.
Whether it’s contemplating a first trip out of the country or a first trip post-pandemic, the temporary pause on travel forced many to consider trips closer to home, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Canada, our neighbor to the north, offers visitors culture, scenery, food and adventure aplenty, and is easily accessible.
Ontario is a great place to start, especially for those traveling from the Midwest. One of Canada’s ten provinces and three territories, Ontario is home to Ottawa, the country’s capital city, and Toronto, its largest city. The two sit within a four-hour drive, an hour flight, and a four-and-a-half hour train ride of each other.
As you might imagine in a large city, Toronto is incredibly diverse, with half the population born outside of Canada and more than 200 languages and dialects spoken. There is something for everyone – from great museums and sports venues to booming entertainment and financial districts, great ethnic neighborhoods and lots of family friendly attractions. Outdoor activities abound; it’s located on the shores of Lake Ontario, the easternmost of the Great Lakes and there are several nearby parks and beaches.
First time visitors should get an overview of the city before honing in on what they’d like to experience/explore. Tour Guys offers a 90-minute walking tour that leaves daily at 10:00 a.m. from Union Station and ends outside City Hall. They charge a nominal booking fee, though it’s customary to tip your guide. Groups are small and you receive a personalized experience with a local expert.
When not out exploring, families can unwind at the Chelsea Hotel, a budget friendly, mid range property and the largest hotel in Canada. With 1,590 guestrooms and suites, an indoor kids’ pool complete with a corkscrew waterslide, two designated kids’ areas (one for teens and one for little ones, with babysitting available for an additional fee), and an adults-only fitness area, pool and sundeck, it can be a great place for time off from sightseeing.
Ubers are a great way to get around this sizeable city. Take one to CN Tower for a birds-eye view from the tallest freestanding structure in the western hemisphere, at 1,185 feet. You can enjoy the 360-degree views from one of two observation decks, the elegant Restaurant 360 (which rotates every 72 minutes) or, during a harnessed, nerve-wracking walk 116 stories up around the outside of the building on Edgewalk (ages 13 and up).
Nearby, Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada showcases more than 20,000 marine animals and more than 100 interactive displays, including an indoor playground and several touch exhibits. Kids can crawl through a tunnel or venture into a yellow submarine with a pop-up from which to view sharks in the surrounding Dangerous Lagoon tank. There is a 315-foot moving sidewalk past rays, eels, sharks and sea turtles you see swimming on both sides and even overhead. Planet Jellies soothes the senses with gracefully swimming translucent jellyfish such as Moon Jellies and Pacific Sea Nettles.
Don’t miss the Royal Ontario Museum, housing 13 million pieces of artwork, cultural and historic objects, including the largest collection of Chinese architectural artifacts outside of China. There are almost 3,000 exceptional specimens of minerals, gems, meteorites and rocks, hundreds of fossils and dinosaur skeletons, and nearly 2000 artifacts from ancient Egypt.
A newer attraction, Little Canada first opened in 2021 after an eight-year build. It showcases the best of Canada in miniature scale, and currently includes Toronto, Ottawa, Quebec City, Golden Horseshoe and Niagara with plans to build out other parts of the country in upcoming years. You can get a real feel for the highlights in each destination, enhanced by sound and moving parts, and offset by a lightscape that changes repeatedly from day to night. You can even have a 3D scan made of yourself and later pay to have a mini version placed somewhere in the exhibit and/or to have at home.
In between sightseeing, sit down to a meal at some of the great restaurants throughout Toronto. Take a food tour or tour on your own through Chinatown and Kensington Market, quirky and colorful, with an eclectic mix of shops and restaurants. Rol San Restaurant serves up an extensive menu of dim sum and a la cart dishes for lunch and dinner. Or, spend an afternoon or evening at the Distillery District – once home to the largest distillery in Canada with buildings dating back to the 1830s. You can stroll the cobblestone streets to shops and restaurants, but it’s great fun to take a Segway tour with Go Tours for an overview of the area (minimum age 12 and 100 lbs). El Catrin Distileria is a colorful Mexican eatery with an extensive patio – just one of several places to stop for a great meal. Downtown, Terroni on Adelaide is a special spot for delicious Italian fare. Housed inside the former York County Courthouse, which served the city from 1852 to 1900, it offers four levels of unique dining space.
Though Ottawa is not often on the top of first-timers’ lists when visiting Canada, it should be. The nation’s capital city is full of cultural attractions, with a bustling downtown. It’s situated on the Rideau Canal, with a cluster of Neo-Gothic buildings on Parliament Hill and the castle-like Fairmont Chateau Laurier serving as a central focal point in the city. It’s a smaller city, with about one million residents, but is spread out with plenty to explore. The neighboring province of Quebec is a stone’s throw away (Montreal is two hours by car) so it’s possible to see two provinces in one visit.
Built in 1912, the Chateau Laurier is one of Ottawa’s most recognizable landmarks and a great luxury property. It’s well worth the splurge to stay in a central location in well-appointed rooms and beautifully decorated public spaces but even those who aren’t staying here can stop in for afternoon tea or an evening cocktail and a stroll through the Heritage Gallery depicting this hotel’s storied history.
Get an overview of the city on a Gray Line hop-on, hop-off double decker bus tour, making 12 stops within the city and neighboring Gatineau, Quebec and departing from a kiosk on Elgin Street near Parliament Hill. Commentary is given in both English and French and on nice days you can take great pictures from the upper level while sitting outside.
Spend a few hours wandering through the National Gallery of Canada. Galleries house an extensive collection of indigenous, Canadian, European and American art. The stunning glass and granite building, designed by Israeli Architect Moshe Safdie, offers serene gardens and peaceful courtyards while soaring windows help illuminate indoor space. One highlight, the Rideau Chapel, houses a sound exhibition by Canadian artist Janet Cardiff featuring 40 individually recorded voices singing a piece by 16th century composer Thomas Tallis. The recording is played back continuously through 40 speakers throughout the chapel.
Across the border in neighboring Gatineau, Quebec, the Canadian Museum of History offers something for all ages in Canada’s largest and most visited museum, an architectural masterpiece with a Grand Hall showcasing one of the world’s largest indoor collections of totem poles. The Canadian History Hall traces the country’s history from the last Ice Age to present day, while an interactive Children’s Museum engages the youngest of museumgoers with interactive exhibits.
A short walk away, Interzip Rogers injects a thrill into your day on the first interprovincial zipline, traversing the Ottawa River between Gatineau and Ottawa. Participants between 70 and 250 pounds sign in, grab a harness, helmet and trolley and walk across the river for brief instruction before ascending nine flights of steps for quick zip back across the river. An automatic braking system makes it easy to just sit back and enjoy the ride.
Back in Ottawa, another popular attraction, the Byward Market, is best explored with a custom tailored culinary walking tour with C’est Bon Ottawa. First established in 1826, this is one of the oldest public markets in the country, full of stands selling produce, Canadian products, crafts and souvenirs. There’s a permanent building as well, housing several restaurants and shops. Sample BeaverTails – a favorite local sweet pastry from its original location in the city.
For a different take on the city, join an evening tour with Haunted Walk of Ottawa, departing from near the National War Memorial. You can even opt to end your 75-minute spooky stroll at Parliament Hill with an add-on Boo-ty cushion for the 30-minute Sound & Light Show, projected on the Centre Block Thursdays through Mondays. The free, bilingual show covers Canada’s history and heritage.
No trip to Ottawa would be complete without a walk or cruise along the Rideau Canal. Though cruises, leaving from 1 Elgin Street, can be crowded, it’s a trip along North America’s oldest continuously operating canal – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – out to picturesque Dow Lake and back.
Like Toronto, Ottawa has no shortage of great places to dine. Try poutine – French fries with cheese curds and gravy – at most restaurants (the Clarendon, the oldest building in the Byward Market, serves it topped with smoked duck). Sample and bring home some of the intensely sweet Icewine, produced locally in Ontario.
The Grand Pizzeria serves up casual fare in the Byward Market. Dine on neopolitan-style pizza on the patio while listening to street performers. Also in the Byward Market, Corazon de Maize serves amazing beef tacos, while Shafali Bazaar offers amazing chicken sandwiches served on naan bread. Metropolitan Brasserie, close to Parliament Hill and the Rideau Canal, has an extensive outdoor patio while its interior gives off an authentic French vibe (don’t miss the profiteroles). Chateau Laurier’s La Terrasse is a great place to grab a late dinner and watch the annual Les Grands Feux due Casino Leamy Fireworks Competition, held Wednesday and Saturday evenings in August.
Journey outside of downtown to the Ottawa Farmers’ Market at Landsdown on Sundays for prepared foods, produce and local specialties including all things maple flavored. Stroll through the Glebe neighborhood along Bank Street to colorful shops, and grab a sandwich made on Montreal-style bagels (boiled in water and honey and then baked in a wood-burning over) at Kettleman’s Bagelshop.
For a vacation getaway that’s both familiar and foreign look no further than our neighbors to the north. These two cities in Ontario offer some of Canada’s top attractions and are well worth paying a visit.
For more information on Toronto and Ottawa visit www.destinationtoronto.com and https://ottawatourism.ca respectively.
Cover photo credit: Ottawa Tourism
This article’s imagery was updated on 12/21/22.
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