Who doesn’t like to drop in on a friendly neighbor every now and again? So, why not Canada?
Our neighbor to the north is home to several A-list cities, such as Montreal and Vancouver, plus nearly 50 national parks and reserves and three coastlines. Need more reasons? A favorable exchange rate, the better half of Niagara Falls and spirit bears (officially, the Kermode bear). Plus, with its English and French influences, parts of Canada still retain an Old World character.
When to go: Canada is an anytime destination, and each season has its draws. For example, spring is abloom with tulips in Ottawa, cherry blossoms in Vancouver and wildflowers from coast to coast. In the fall, the leaf peepers come out, as do the salmon and storm-watchers. Winter attracts snow-and-ice sport enthusiasts as well as festival-goers who brave the cold like Jacques Frost. In summer, there are gobs of free events in Toronto, plus surfing in a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve on Vancouver Island and swimming with beluga whales in Churchill. Note: Summer is peak season, so brace yourself for crowds and higher lodging prices.
Logistics: Major and budget airlines serve more than 500 nonstop routes between the United States and Canada. You can also drive across the world’s longest undefended border, though you will have to show proof of citizenship at any of the nearly 120 crossing points. Once in the country, set your car on autopilot and drive through all 10 provinces on the Trans-Canada Highway. Or let the conductor take the wheel on VIA Rail. Several ferry lines transport passengers on both coasts, including seasonal service between Maine and Nova Scotia.
Money: The currency is the Canadian dollar, and $1 and $2 coins are charmingly called loonie and toonie. Some larger businesses and tourist facilities, especially along the border, might take U.S. dollars. Credit cards are widely accepted.
Paperwork: Americans need a valid U.S. passport, passport card or NEXUS card to enter. No visa is required for stays of up to 180 days.
Language: English and French are the official languages. French is the primary language in Quebec, but residents in the main cities speak English fluently.
Prevailing myths: Canada is always cold, and dog sleds are the main mode of transportation. Not true. Canada has four distinct seasons, and in some regions, winters are mild. (Vancouver, for instance.) The Royal Canadian Mounted Police patrol the streets on horseback. Nope: Law enforcement drives police cars, but Mounties still demonstrate their equestrian skills on special occasions. All Canadians say, “Eh.” Neh to that. Usage depends on the province and the person. Hockey is the national sport. Yes, but just for winter; lacrosse is the national summer sport. Canadians understand – and enjoy – curling. Shocking but true.
Itinerary for first-timers: Pick an urban destination – Toronto, Montreal, Halifax or Vancouver – and deep dive into its culture, food, art and nature. Or combine cities, such as Montreal and Ottawa or Quebec City.
Itineraries for repeat visitors: Use the city as a base and fan out. For example, from Vancouver, catch a ferry to Vancouver Island or the Gulf Islands, or fly to Whitehorse, Yukon, known for its gold mining history, hot springs and foraged cuisine. From Toronto, slip on a rain poncho for Niagara Falls, then dry off in Niagara Peninsula’s wine country. In Quebec’s Eastern Townships, poke around Victorian towns brimming with vintage general stores, century-old churches, country inns, antiques stores, gourmet restaurants and farmers markets. For the ultimate cheese course, visit all 14 stops on the Cheesemakers Circuit Les Têtes Fromagères.
Eat this: Poutine, a mound of french fries and cheese curds smothered in brown gravy, and maple syrup in any form, including beer, another Canadian staple. You can also eat your way across the country, from east to west: cod tongues in Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Isle mussels and potatoes, Nova Scotia lobsters, New Brunswick oysters, Montreal bagels and tourtières (meat pies), Ontario butter tarts, Saskatoon berries (like fat blueberries), Alberta beef and British Columbia spot prawns, wild Pacific salmon and Nanaimo bars, which are named after a city in Vancouver Island. Gulp down a cup of Tim Hortons coffee, a Canadian rite of passage.
Special events: Several biggies of world renown include Quebec Winter Carnival, Winterlude in Ottawa, Montreal International Jazz Festival, Just for Laughs in Montreal, Calgary Stampede and Vancouver’s Honda Celebration of Light, the world’s largest offshore fireworks competition. But there are also smaller events that capture Canada’s quirky side, such as the Hair Freezing Contest, part of the Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous, the Great International World Championship Bathtub Race in Nanaimo and the Rock Paper Scissors World Championships in Toronto.
Reading list: Louise Penny’s mysteries starring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, who solves capers in the Eastern Townships. “Souvenir of Canada” by Douglas Coupland, a collection of one-page essays arranged alphabetically from Baffin Island to Zed. “The Great Canadian Bucket List” by Robin Esrock, a catalogue of offbeat attractions and activities. “Alone Against the North: An Expedition Into the Unknown” by Adam Shoalts, who solo-paddled the Again River in the Hudson Bay Lowlands. Joseph Boyden’s “Through Black Spruce,” an award-winning novel about a Cree bush pilot. Any short stories by Alice Munro, who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2013.
Playlist: “A Case of You,” by Joni Mitchell; “Fireworks,” by the Tragically Hip; “Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” by Gordon Lightfoot; “Hallelujah,” by Leonard Cohen; “In Canada” by Chris and Dave Hadfield (sample lyric: “Our milk comes in a bag, mosquitoes eat at leisure”); and “Tears Are Not Enough” by the Northern Lights, Canada’s version of “We Are the World.” Also a shout-out to Celine Dion, Neil Young, Arcade Fire and that YouTube sensation who unleashed “Beliebers” on the world.
Cultural sensitivities: Don’t treat Canada like an extension of the United States. Don’t call a Newfoundlander a “Newfie”; some locals find the term offensive. If a Canadian apologizes and says “sorry,” they genuinely are. It’s one of the friendliest countries in the world, so expect people to say hello, and respond in kind.
Souvenirs: A bottle of maple syrup, the country’s original sweetener. Indigenous art by First Nations, Métis and Inuit artists, who collectively inhabit all 10 provinces and three territories. Hudson’s Bay blankets, which Europeans traded with the First People for beaver pelts.
Fun quote: “I believe the world needs more Canada,” said U2 frontman Bono during a political convention in 2003.