With exchange rates solidly in America’s favour and Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations kicking off in 2017, now is definitely the time to visit the Great White North. Whether you’re looking for a laid-back beach break (yes, we have sandy beaches!), an adventure in the great outdoors or a chic city escape, Canada’s got you covered. For the past 18 months, I’ve travelled from coast to coast while researching my book, 25 Places in Canada Every Family Should Visit. Here are my five favourite family-friendly spots.
Ottawa is our nation’s capital and host to the biggest party Canada’s seen since our centennial in 1967. There’s way too much free action to mention taking place at Parliament Hill — just situate yourself there on any given weekend or summer day, and you’ll be entertained for hours. Ottawa is home to the majority of our national museums, and let me tell you, these aren’t snoozers. The Canadian Museum of History, our most popular museum, houses a fantastic selection of totem poles. It’s also home to the Canadian Children’s Museum, a full-on interactive play space that deserves several hours (if not half a day).
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You’ll also want to hit up the ByWard Market. This is the city’s most historic neighbourhood, brimming with speciality food shops and restaurants. There are a whopping 1,100 farms within Ottawa city limits (for real!), and the ByWard outdoor farmer’s market is one of the best spots to sample their wares, like fresh maple syrup tapped from trees mere miles away.
You’ve heard of the world-class city of Vancouver, but did you know it’s not located on Vancouver Island? The latter is home to the provincial capital of Victoria, a clean, quaint, walkable small city that’s well set up for families. Check out the Victoria Bug Zoo, Miniature World and the Royal BC Museum, all situated along the inner harbour. Just outside the city, you can’t miss the Butchart Gardens, a national historic site brimming with blossoms throughout its 55-plus acres.
Further along the northeast coast of Vancouver Island lies Parksville. This gem is one of those rare, affordable seaside resort towns that offers an excellent mix of accommodation options at every price point. What makes it so appealing to families, however, are the tides, which recede more than half a mile from the shore. That means warm, shallow water, ideal for little ones to frolic about without parents having to helicopter over.
Canada’s smallest province is also our most precious. Prince Edward Island, or P.E.I., boasts red sand beaches, master sand sculptors ready to teach the kiddies on the beach, lobster boil-ups and more. There are plenty of opportunities to camp, but it’s also quite nice to chill at one of the many B&Bs dotted around the coast. An easy drive from the capital city of Charlottetown, Victoria-by-the-Sea is a postcard-pretty village where you can take a hands-on chocolate making class after strolling along the many shops and galleries that are set in Victorian homes. In Charlottetown, you won’t want to miss going to see Anne of Green Gables – The Musical™. Anne is like Canada’s version of Laura Ingalls Wilder, but with fiery red hair and a dash more spunk. This performance is the world’s longest-running annual musical, and kids adore it.
You don’t need to jet across the Atlantic to enjoy some European ambiance. Simply head north and aim for Quebec City. The only fortified city in North America, with nearly 3 miles of walls and gates surrounding the old town, it’s oh-so-atmospheric, especially when wandering down to Place Royal. You’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time to 17th-century New France with all its period buildings lining the cobblestone streets.
Fairmont le Chateau Frontenac is a great base, as it’s situated right in the old town. Wander your way to the The Plains of Abraham, where the most epic battle in Canadian history took place in 1759. This is a fantastic green space for picnicking and burning off energy, and come summertime, it’s the site of many performances. This part of Canada is well-known for its outdoor nature spas. Siberia Station Spa makes it easy for families to unwind together by granting potty-trained children access every Sunday morning and during the mornings of school vacation (spring break, summer and Christmas). That’s one way to wrap up your holiday feeling rested and refreshed!
Not only is Calgary the gateway to Banff National Park, but it’s one of Canada’s most family-friendly cities. (Full disclosure: It’s also my hometown.) The city sports Canada’s second-largest zoo, home to tigers, penguins, lions and a wide variety of species native to the Rocky Mountains (think cougars, bears, bison). Families will also want to suss out Heritage Park, Canada’s largest living history museum. It’s a historical village with an antique midway and good old-fashioned activities to tire out the tots. On your way to Banff, make a pit stop at Calaway Park. This is Western Canada’s largest amusement park and sports a wide variety of rides to suit all ages (including toddlers!).
Banff is certainly on everyone’s bucket list, and you should visit this picturesque mountain town at least once in your life … just maybe not this summer, as it’s going to be so, so crowded with Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations. Far better is to situate yourself in Canmore, a lovely mountain resort town a 20-minute drive from Banff. In Canmore, there are loads of accommodation options, better restaurants and a quaint main street dotted with an independent book and toy store, plus an old-fashioned candy shop. For easy day hikes with young ones, I recommend Grassi Lakes, Grotto Canyon and Heart Creek. If it’s super hot out, cool off at Quarry Lake with the locals.
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I love these suggestions! My family enjoyed visiting Ottawa, and I’m keen to give the kids a sense of Europe with a visit to Quebec City. My husband and I were in Banff in October but it was very cold – I’d like to go back to Calgary and Banff in the summer when it is warmer and we’re able to do more hiking.