I just returned from a 2-week trip to visit relatives in different parts of Ontario, Canada and to take a side trip into the province of Quebec. My husband and I got to experience Canada’s Independence Day on July 1, before returning to the U.S. on July 4 to celebrate our Independence Day. I’ve been to Canada several times over the years, mainly to visit relatives and sightsee. Below are my suggestions for where to go and what to see in the cities I’ve visited, based on my experiences. And in the spirit of writing about Canada, I’ll even touch on Vancouver and Victoria in British Columbia, where I’ve traveled in the past.
view of Niagara Falls from Maid of the Mist boat
Ridgeway – Fort Erie – Niagara Falls
Flying into Buffalo, NY, renting a car, and driving across the border turned out to be the most cost-effective way for us to enter Canada. Sometimes the line can be long at the border checkpoint, but we lucked out and got behind only a few cars on the way to Canada and on the way back. We spent the first night with my uncle at his self-built country house in Ridgeway and did a driving tour of Fort Erie.
Dinner was at The Keg, a steakhouse overlooking Niagara Falls. The view of Horseshoe Falls (the larger falls on the Canada side) was incredible and surreal. A closer view is a must from the railing on the ground overlooking Horseshoe Falls, American Falls, and the smaller Bridal Veil Falls. For an even closer encounter, take a cruise on the Maid of the Mist, a boat that takes you right up to all three falls, where passengers on the deck get soaked by the mighty mist of the roaring water falls. The souvenir poncho provided by the boat company doesn’t cover every inch of your body, leaving your face and lower legs and feet exposed. Gift shops, an ice cream shop, and Table Rock House also kept us entertained on shore.
view of Hamilton and Lake Ontario from Sam Lawrence Park
Visiting the former house of my late maternal grandmother, the home of one of my aunts, and my late uncle’s alma mater McMaster University were part of our itinerary in Hamilton, a small city of industry and beautiful views. For scenic nature excursions, visit the escarpment at Sam Lawrence Park, which overlooks Lake Ontario and the city of Burlington across the water. Also take a stroll through King’s Forest to see Albion Falls. Lunch at Williams Fresh Cafe comes with outdoor seating overlooking the lake and marina.
One of my cousins and his adorable daughter played host to us in Canada’s most populous city. Toronto boasts a seemingly endless array of restaurants, shops, and other businesses on almost every downtown street. From Little Italy to Chinatowns (yes, plural) to Koreatown to Little Tibet to Greektown, you can travel the culinary world and pick up accessories, clothing, and home decor along the way. Enjoy dim sum at Casa Imperial, a Chinese restaurant in a Victorian-style mansion, where the waitresses dress in French maid outfits. For a view from above, dine at CN Tower‘s revolving restaurant.
Eaton Centre, a downtown mall now famous for a recent deadly shooting, is also known for its global-cuisine food court in the basement of the multi-level shoppers’ paradise. For a multi-cultural culinary tour, try Moroccan stew with tofu and black & brown rice, Thai green curry beef, and a Mediterranean salad plate. Head upstairs for an Orange Julius or bubble tea drink.
From Eaton Centre, you can head into The Path, an underground world of tunnels connecting more restaurants, shops, and businesses like hotels and office buildings throughout a large area of downtown. We also took the subway and walked for hours around the city, seeing diverse neighborhoods, from Queen West to Queen West West West, up and down Bloor Street, through the colorful “Gay Ghetto,” and many kilometers in between. Conveniently located bike rentals peppered throughout downtown are an affordable alternative mode of transportation.
For a break from the hustle and bustle, step into the serene greenhouse of Allan Conservatory, admire the grand and varied architecture on the campus of University of Toronto, or learn some new things inside the Ontario Science Centre.
Mississauga – Scarborough – Markham
Moira River, Belleville
Some of the best Chinese food can be found in these cities surrounding Toronto. Tasty Cantonese fare abound in Mississauga and Scarborough. Feast on dumplings and xiao long bao at the famous Ding Tai Fung in Markham. Get lost in Pacific Mall, also in Markham, where you can find an extensive food court and shops selling everything from music and qi pao to toys and teas. It’s where I found (and bargained) my Chinese-style gown for my wedding reception several years ago. Our visit coincided with the weekend-long Taste of Asia food, vendor, and performing arts festival. Stinky tofu, lamb skewers, and spicy, cold noodles were some of my favorites.
Another of my cousins and cousin-in-law live in the charming city of Belleville, which is on the way from Toronto to Kingston. The Moira River runs through quiet neighborhoods and downtown. We enjoyed dinner at a Thai restaurant and an evening stroll by old houses with unique architecture.
near Fort Henry, Kingston, Ontario
A picturesque college town on Lake Ontario, Kingston is home to Queen’s University, where one of my husband’s cousins works and attends graduate school. The Princess Street area is a shopper and diner’s heaven, with gourmet pizzas of unique flavors at Woodenheads and homemade chocolate maple ice cream. Step back in time at Fort Henry, a commanding limestone fortification used after the War of 1812 by the British to protect Canada against an American invasion. Now it’s a tourist attraction with a 10,000-sq. ft., interactive Discovery Centre and a sunset closing ceremony complete with a canon firing, lowering of the flag, and soldiers’ marching in formation. You can walk through the rooms of the 2-level fort to see where the soldiers slept, ate, and trained. Items from that era, including weapons and uniforms, are on display.
Canada’s capital city has both modern structures and old buildings that tell the story of the country’s history. The Parliament Buildings in Ottawa are open for tours, but inside tours are hard to come by, especially during peak holiday weekends, when tours are quickly booked by groups. Still, you can see Parliament Hill from just about every angle — by walking its grounds or cruising the adjacent Ottawa River on Paul’s Boat Lines. Choose the departure from Hull Dock at Jacques Cartier Park to get a longer cruise for the same price. The narrated boat tour also takes you by the statue of explorer Samuel de Champlain holding an astrolabe upside down (the artist’s mistake), Museum of Civilization (where you can spend hours viewing all the different sections which could each stand alone as a single museum – art, religion, children, postal, famous Canadians, settlers), Justice and Confederation Buildings, National Gallery of Canada, Supreme Court of Canada, Royal Canadian Mint, Residence of the Prime Minister, Rideau Falls, Rockcliffe Park, several embassies (including American, Japanese), and the famous Chateau Laurier hotel (a popular wedding venue because of its ornate design).
water display on Canada Day at Parliament, Ottawa, Ontario
The Alexandria Bridge takes vehicles and pedestrians between Ottawa and the Quebec province. It’s an easy route to take to experience Canada Day (July 1) from both sides. Food and souvenir vendors, face painters, street artists, and buskers performing different acts and stunts line the streets and lawns. Parliament turns into a backdrop for a concert stage by day and fireworks show by night. This year a powerful marketing campaign debuted on bodies of water in several Canadian cities, Ottawa included. An image of the Canadian flag shone almost eerily above the Ottawa River on a fountain spraying up from the water in a 3D/holographic show. The effect was like a spotlight projecting the image onto rapidly moving water (as pictured). After the 10 p.m. fireworks show with no music, the crowd sitting on the hill outside the Museum of Civilization suddenly heard intense music and the rumbling of a car zooming around a lighthouse projected onto the same water fountain that previously showed the Canadian flag. The car appeared to be driving on water and plunging freely into and out of the water. The captivating motion picture ended with a reveal that it was the 2013 Nissan Altima. I don’t think any of us spectators will ever forget that commercial.
Rideau Canal, Ottawa, Ontario
Walk through downtown Ottawa, bike along scenic Rideau Canal, and rent a canoe, paddleboat, or kayak at Gatineau Park. Find locally grown produce, buy an Obama cookie (made famous when the U.S. President bought one at the bakery Le Moulin de Provence), and have a meal indoors or out, all in the busy Byward Market. Explore the East End, one of North America’s biggest Ikea stores in the Kanata area, and Chinatown and Little Italy. Come back in the winter to skate an iced-over Rideau Canal and try the Nordik Spa (which will relax and freeze you all in the same day).
Don’t leave Canada without trying the iced cappuccino at Tim Horton’s or poutine (french fries with gravy).
architecture in Montreal
You’ll feel like you’ve entered another country when you arrive in Montreal, a few hours’ drive from Ottawa and where French is the dominant written and spoken language. It’s good I’m multilingual, can figure out new languages quickly, sang French operas, and danced ballet (all steps are spoken in French). The subway can get you around the city, but it’s old and slightly trashed. The streets are a bit tattered and dirty, making this one of our least favorite cities. But we enjoyed crepes and shopping the French boutiques along St. Denis, St. Laurent, St. Catherine streets near the center of town. Chinatown — with wide streets for pedestrians only and inviting bakeries, cafes, and retail stores — is definitely worth a visit. There were as many non-Asians as there were Asians wandering through its blocks.
Vancouver – Victoria
Some people say Vancouver has the best Chinese (specifically, Cantonese) food in the world, even surpassing Hong Kong. I’m sure some folks in my parents’ Eastern homeland would argue with that, but either way, you can bank on satisfying your taste buds on this side of the world. I have an aunt and more cousins in this Western Canadian city.
I went to British Columbia in 2000, sailing to Victoria Island, seeing The Empress Hotel, Queen Victoria statue, and Royal British Columbia Museum. The most beautiful part of the trip was spending time in Butchart Gardens, with colorful flowers of every kind. Afternoon tea made the day even more delectable.
The Spirit of Vancouver Island took us by water to Vancouver, where we rode a gondola up the mountain at Whistler/Blackcomb Resort and watched skiers go by.
Whistler Blackcomb, Vancouver, B.C.
Overall, Canada is a laid-back country, where people are friendly and take it easy. I was very pleasantly surprised that on Canada Day, despite the crowds, no one was pushing, shoving, or jockeying for a good position to view the festivities. In certain other countries I’ve been, people rush to try to get ahead or even cut in line. For a relaxing, low-key vacation, Canada is a good destination.