Made up of ten provinces and three territories, Canada is an enormous country for travelers to tackle. Stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific and deep into the Arctic, this vast nation is home to vibrant modern cities and large tracts of pristine wilderness.
When planning any trip to Canada, it’s important to not bite off more than you can chew. Because of the country’s sheer size, it’s better to focus on a single province or territory in order to get a thorough experience of what each region of Canada has to offer.
Alternatively, you could opt for a bit of city-hopping tour to get a sampling of the highlights, with Canada’s major cities all well-linked by flights with the country’s main airline Air Canada.
Whether you wish to gaze at the mighty Niagara Falls, hit the ski slopes in winter, or seek out wildlife along the west coast, there are a number of things to be aware of when planning your Canadian holiday.
Here is my ultimate beginner’s guide to travelling in Canada which will offer you helpful advice and planning tips for choosing your Canadian destinations and mapping out your itinerary.
A Beginner’s Guide to Travelling in Canada
Canada graciously allows travelers from more than 50 nations to visit visa-free. Included on that list are citizens of Australia, United Kingdom, United States, Mexico, Japan, and much of Europe.
If coming by air, you’ll simply need to get an Electronic Travel Authorization (eTA) when traveling on a passport from one of the visa-exempt countries. Travelers on cruise ships or those traveling by road across Canada’s border with the United States do not have to obtain an eTA.
Because Canada is so large, it should come as no surprise that the weather can vary greatly depending on the region and season.
While the coastal regions, especially coastal British Columbia, experience mild summers and winters, the interior of the country sees extreme weather. During the winter you can expect frigid temps and snowfall at least six months of the year in the interior, while this same region can see temps rise above 40 °F with humid conditions during summer.
Up in the northern reaches of Canada, permafrost and cold conditions can persist year-round, with the coldest temperature ever recorded being an impressive -81 degrees Fahrenheit.
If you’re traveling to Canada’s interior during winter, you’ll definitely need to pack appropriate warm clothing including boots, hats, and heavy jackets, and you may want to make sure your rental vehicle is equipped with snow tires or chains to deal with snow and ice if planning a winter road trip.
While summer may offer more ideal warm weather, you should still be aware of potential tornadoes, forest fires, and landslides after heavy rainfall depending on where you choose to travel.
Also keep in mind that long daylight hours during the summer months will allow you to pack in a lot more to your itinerary than in the very short days of winter.
A lot of travelers are lured to Canada for its wilderness and wildlife. The country’s vast boreal forest is said to be the largest pristine forest on earth, with a wide range of large mammals called the forests home.
In the Arctic regions, you have polar bears, musk ox, caribou, and Arctic fox, while the coasts are home to whales, seals, sea otters, walrus, and orcas.
Encounters with black and brown bears are common throughout the country, making it wise to always securely store food while camping and carrying bear spray when hiking through bear territory.
Most Canadian wildlife is harmless when viewed from a distance and treated with respect. Avoid approaching any animal too close and never feed wildlife.
You are more likely to get injured by wildlife during road collisions, so always pay attention to animal road crossing signs. I once came across a vehicle that had hit a large moose in Canada, and both the moose and the vehicle along with its driver suffered severe consequences from the collision.
Your chances of spotting wildlife are best around dawn and dusk when they are more active. Most animals are also usually best spotted outside of the winter months.
Some of Canada’s other iconic animals not yet mentioned include wolves, lynx, wolverines, beavers, mountain lions, deer, coyotes, and the unique white-colored black bears of coastal British Colombia known as Spirit Bears.
Getting Around in Canada
You’re likely to fly into either Toronto Pearson International Airport or Vancouver International Airport as these are two of the busiest Canadian international airports.
There are however several other international airports in places like Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa. While a number of airlines service international flights to Canada, you are likely to use Air Canada for domestic flights.
Most major Canadian cities offer travellers decent public transport options, especially in cities like Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver which are equipped with rapid transit systems. Alternatively, you can opt to rent a car if you’re looking to explore the national parks and wilderness areas outside of the cities.
Renting your own car is often the cheapest way to get around if you are planning a longer trip and wish to explore the more off the beaten path gems. Of course, you need to be prepared for driving in Canada, especially if travelling during the winter months.
Roads are generally well maintained but there are a number of gravel roads in remote areas and fuel stations may be few and far between in certain regions. Remember that traffic in Canada drives on the right hand side of the road.
When it comes to travelling great distances across the country, you can opt for Greyhound buses or trains if you wish to avoid air travel. Greyhound buses can take you all the way from Toronto to Vancouver or vise versa, as it travels along the Trans Canada Highway.
The government-run VIA Rail is a train service that offers up “The Canadian” rail journey which also runs between Toronto and Vancouver. The 4,500km trip takes 4 days and 3 nights, passing through a number of provinces and the Rocky Mountains.
Booking a Sleeper Plus Cabin or Prestige Cabin offers the most comfort during the train journey since you get a bed and private en suite bathroom.
Top Things to See and Do in Canada
Trying to cover everything to see and do in a country as big as Canada would be an impossible task, but there are some things to highlight which will help you narrow down where to focus your attention.
The fishing villages and calm seas of the east coast around Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island are known for their beauty, lighthouses, and delicious fresh seafood that includes lobsters, oysters, and mussels.
In Canada’s west, both British Columbia and Alberta are the best places to spot an abundance of wildlife. Vancouver Island is especially known for being a wildlife hotspot, with bears, wolves, eagles, mountain lions, and more calling the island home.
No trip to Canada is complete without seeing the impressive Niagara Falls, the Canadian side being the much better side to view the falls as opposed to the American side. Experience the falls from the various viewpoints, get a bird’s eye view with a helicopter ride over the falls, or get real close to the thundering power of the falls with a jetboat tour.
Foodies will want to check out Montreal which is considered to be Canada’s culinary capital, offering up more restaurants here than anywhere else in the country. Be sure to sample some poutine or maybe some pancakes and smoked bacon doused in maple syrup.
Ottawa is Canada’s capital and home to beautiful architecture that includes Parliament Hill and the 19th century Notre-Dame Cathedral. There are also numerous museums in the city and you can ice skate on the Rideau Canal in winter. You can enjoy even more winter sports by heading to the ski slopes of Whistler, Lake Louise, and Banff.
Another winter highlight is the chance to see the stunning natural phenomenon known as the aurora borealis or northern lights. The colourful night-time sky display is best seen in the Northwest Territories’ Yellowknife, which is regarded as North America’s “Aurora Capital”.