Best Things to Do in Canada: Month by Month
What is the best place to visit in Canada right now? From driving ice roads above the Arctic Circle, to hobnobbing with Hollywood stars, to surfing off the coast of Vancouver Island, we show you how—and when—to enjoy the quintessential Canadian travel adventures, from the famous to the unique.
Pictured: Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia
Where: Ottawa, Ontario
It's one of those incomparable Canadian experiences: lacing up a pair of sharp skates and setting out for a long glide along the picturesque Rideau Canal through the heart of downtown Ottawa. Known locally as the Skateway, it's acknowledged by Guinness World Records as the world's largest naturally frozen ice skating rink, thanks to its combined length and surface area—7.8km (4.8 miles) and about 166,000 square meters (1.8 million square feet), respectively.
There are a handful of choice places where you can begin, but it's best for a first-timer to start at the top, which means at the foot of Parliament Hill. To catch all the sights—from the fairy-tale Fairmont Château Laurier hotel to galleries and museums and some of the prettiest parts of the old town, such as Confederation Square—it's advisable to skate in daylight (though evenings are undeniably romantic and the Canal has been the site of many a marriage proposal). Since the rink generally opens in mid-to-late January, picking a date late in the month means getting in before the crowds descend in February for the nearly month-long annual Winterlude festival. Getting geared up is a breeze thanks to heated changing rooms (rather grandly called "chalets") posted along the route. Check ice conditions at the city's website.
In the thick of winter, Montréal turns up the heat by hosting the Montréal en Lumière festival, a culture-packed event that blankets the city, covering all the feel-good things in life like food, drinks, music, art, and sports. The spectacular culmination of this 10-day extravaganza is the ever-popular La Nuit Blanche, which closes the show by rocking out from dusk till dawn. Don't expect to sleep, much less stay cooped up inside, when there is so much to see and do.
Nearly 200 activities and exhibits (many of them free) are offered across the central core of the island, with free shuttles ferrying revelers from one zone to the next. The colorful agenda lures vast audiences with all kinds of interests. You can spend the night deep-breathing at a yoga session, deciphering an interactive art installation, ice-skating to the tunes of a live DJ, navigating a labyrinth of fir trees, country line-dancing, swimming in a heated rooftop pool under the stars, observing a glass-blowing demonstration, mingling incognito at a masked ball, taking an after-midnight museum tour via flashlight, attending an intimate movie-screening, singing opera karaoke, and on and on. Just be sure to dress for subzero temperatures.
On the edge of the Arctic Ocean in early March, the days are slowly getting longer. The temperature in Inuvik remains below zero but it's not the bone-crunching cold of early winter. Cars and trucks ease their way along the 185km (115-mile) ice road to Tuktoyaktuk—or Tuk as it's known to locals. The treeline disappears as you head north, the blue ice solid beneath your wheels. Once the weather is cold enough, winter roads are built over rivers and lakes to provide a lifeline to isolated northern communities such as Tuktoyaktuk that are only accessible by plane the rest of the year.
To make the drive, rent a vehicle in Inuvik. The ice road is open from late December to late April, but March is the best time for the trip because the road is still solid but the weather isn't as bad. The frozen thoroughfare is usually as smooth as pavement, with some snow on the surface for traction. Watch your speed because once the sun starts shining and melting that snow, slippery glare ice can develop. Drive slowly and stop often to experience walking on the ice, taking pictures, and enjoying stark vistas that seem to go on forever. If you prefer to have your own ice road driver, Arctic Chalet offers tours.
It might surprise you to learn that Tofino, British Columbia has been hailed as one of the best surf towns in North America. While this laid-back rainforest community on Vancouver Island's west coast doesn't boast the bronzed bodies of, say, California's Huntington Beach, Tofino gets big and amazingly consistent waves. Water temperatures hold steady year-round at 10 degrees Celsius (50 Fahrenheit) along 35km (22 miles) of coastline. Surfing in April on spacious Long Beach or underrated Cox Bay lets you beat the high-season tourists. A number of businesses have sprung up to supply gear and lessons for surfers of all skill levels. Live to Surf (1184 Pacific Rim Hwy.) has been at it since 1984.
In mid-May, as the landscape of western Canada emerges from its wintry cover of snow, the world-renowned Rocky Mountaineer train begins operation for the season, running along captivating routes between Vancouver and the Canadian Rockies. It's one of the world's best journeys by rail, and the luxury train's glass-domed cars allow passengers to fully appreciate the mountains, lakes, and rivers scrolling by. The undisputed highlights: Banff, Jasper, and Lake Louise.
Where: Newfoundland and Labrador
A century after an iceberg put a tragic end to the maiden voyage of the Titanic off the coast of Newfoundland, viewing floating mountains of ice is a major springtime attraction in Canada's easternmost province. Newfoundland's Iceberg Alley, along the island's northern coast, is one of the most reliable and accessible places in the world to view icebergs. Though there are no guarantees as to where and when you'll find them, set the second week of June as a target date. By then, the sea ice has melted a bit. The 'bergs come in a wide range of sizes—from as little as a compact car to as big as a multistory high-rise—in every color between blinding white and deep blue.
Reached by road from the provincial capital of St. John's in five or six hours, the village of Twillingate promotes itself as the "iceberg capital of the world." This historic fishing village of 2,000 souls is well prepared for the springtime onslaught of visitors, with several inns, boat tours leaving regularly from the town dock, and even an art gallery devoted to icebergs. St. Anthony, another popular berg-watching destination, is more remote than Twillingate, but a visit here allows the flexibility of catching a ferry between nearby St. Barbe and Labrador, then driving up the Labrador Straits, where shore-based viewing is usually more productive than on the island of Newfoundland.
Where: Ottawa, Ontario
July 1 is a day to celebrate all things Canada. That means music, fireworks, fine food and drink, dancing in the streets, parades, marching bands, and Mounties. Music rings out all over the nation's capital city, with free orchestral, choral, and cultural concerts offered at Confederation Park and other public spaces. This is also a good time to check out the city's top museums, since most offer free admission for the day (be prepared for lines). Rideau Street keeps a street party humming with sports demonstrations, skateboard competitions, crowded patios, street food, and live music. The holiday closes with a spectacular fireworks show over the Ottawa River. The best views are from across the water in Gatineau at the Canadian Museum of History or Jacques-Cartier Park. Partying continues into the night on both sides of the river—in open parks, restaurants, and clubs. July 2 is a good day to plan on sleeping in.
Where: Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia
Late August is prime time for whale-watching as the migrations from southern waters are complete. Lured by the ample food supply, 15 whale species stay until the fall when, like human snowbirds, they again seek the warmth of the south. The highlands of Cape Breton are one of the few places where you can spot whales from land. From the viewing decks on the headland cliff at the end of the Skyline Trail, you can often see whales spouting in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Lakies Head and Green Cove are other good spots to set up a stakeout.
The ultimate viewing experience, however, is up close and personal from a whale-watching tour vessel. There are numerous tours to choose from, located at communities along the Cabot Trail, including Chéticamp, Pleasant Bay, Bay St. Lawrence, and Ingonish. Some operators include other shoreline highlights such as sea caves, cliffs, and waterfalls, and you might see seals, dolphins, leatherback turtles, and eagles in addition to whales. Depending on your preference, you can hit the water on a zippy, fast-moving Zodiac or a calmer catamaran.
Where: Toronto, Ontario
The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is a must for any serious cinephile. And because of the infectious buzz it brings to town, it makes for one of the most exciting times of year to visit Toronto. There's the thrill of being among the first viewers anywhere to see the latest megawatt Hollywood flick, as well as the chance to glimpse its leading stars or maybe attend one of the myriad parties around town. TIFF screens more than 300 films from 60 countries in only 11 days, with red-carpet galas every night. While big premieres hog most of the media attention, the majority of the titles are lesser known, ranging from American indies to truly obscure and often rewarding work from far-flung corners of the globe.
Being here during the festival can also mean hanging out in some of the city's trendiest bars and restaurants (openings are often timed to coincide with festival parties), waiting to catch glimpses of VIPs before they're whisked off to . . . wherever it is VIPs are whisked off to. Visiting TIFF requires some advance preparation. Visit the official website for the full lowdown.
Where: Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia
Cape Breton's Cabot Trail, a 300km (186-mile) circle tour of Nova Scotia's northernmost peninsula, is one of the best scenic drives in the world. Winding around the protected wilderness of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, the Cabot Trail is your gateway to the wonders of nature. At this time of year, woodlands, tundra, and bogs are a vibrant showcase of autumn reds, golds, yellows, and greens. Along the jagged coastline, mountains plunge up to 300m (984 ft.) into the gulf below. Swells endlessly hammer cliffs, creating headlands and dramatic sea stacks. Coastal communities offer sea excursions for whale, seal, and wildlife viewing. Headland lookouts on both the Gulf and Atlantic sides are ideal for spotting fishing boats, sea birds, or perhaps a pod of whales. Pull over frequently and indulge yourself in a visual feast.
Where: Vancouver, British Columbia
Film critic Roger Ebert once noted, "Almost every suspension bridge in the history of the movies has failed while the heroes were trying to cross it." Fortunately, you won't encounter that scenario at the Capilano Suspension Bridge or the Lynn Canyon Suspension Bridge in North Vancouver. But you will get a one-two punch of thrills and education at both sites. November rains often create wild water below the North Shore Mountains, amping up the experience.
Feel your heart pounding as you step out on the Capilano Suspension Bridge. Built in 1889, its 137-meter (450-foot) span teeters 70 meters (230 feet) above the surging Capilano River. You can also roam on smaller bridges between giant Douglas firs in the Treetops Adventure, or brave the Cliffwalk, featuring glass-bottomed decks and narrow walkways over a canyon. Though narrower and lower, the bouncy Lynn Canyon bridge (pictured above) has one big advantage: free admission. Striking views of pools, waterfalls, and second-growth forest abound on nearby trails. Kids can learn about black bears, mushrooms, and slugs at the Lynn Canyon Ecology Centre.
Where: Whistler, British Columbia
It's an experience so magnificently intense that it can bring tears to your eyes. That might sound like hype—until you actually ride Whistler's Peak 2 Peak Gondola, one of the world's longest cable car journeys. Connecting Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains at Canada's top ski resort, the gondola shows off a panorama of snowy trees, icy lakes, and deep valleys surrounded by coastal peaks. Some cars have glass floors, upping the visual ante. The crossing takes just 11 minutes. That's remarkable, seeing as how the total distance covered—4.4km (2.73 miles)—is three times longer than the Golden Gate Bridge. Skiers ride free with their lift tickets.