13 Iconic Things to Do in Canada

Build your Canadian street cred with these classic experiences  

Maligne Lake, Alta./Photo by Jeff Bartlett

Canada’s 150th anniversary is less than one year away. As the big day nears, expect an increase in chest-thumping boasts as we proud Canadians try to out-do each other in proving just how Canadian we are. Sporting a maple leaf tattoo? Eating poutine on ice skates while getting a maple leaf tattoo? To boost our collective national street cred, we asked travel writer Robin Esrock, author of The Great Canadian Bucket List, to choose one iconic experience in each province and territory guaranteed to sharpen anyone’s Canadian chops.

British Columbia 

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Photo by Albert Normandin/Destination BC

Stroll the Seawall Around Stanley Park

Among the hundreds of gorgeous urban parks found throughout Canada, Vancouver’s Stanley Park is the shining star. This massive downtown green space truly has it all—pretty beaches, mountain views, ancient forests, Native art. Spending time in Stanley Park is a must for every Canadian, and first-time visitors should begin with a stroll along the seawall that traces the park’s perimeter. Whether you start in English Bay or at the bottom of West Georgia Street, walking is no easy task with views that will constantly stop you in your tracks. Keep an eye out for the signs leading to lakes, totem poles, restaurants, and the world renowned Vancouver Aquarium. 

Vancouver Island side-trip: 

Less than a two-hour ferry ride from Vancouver, epic adventures await on Vancouver Island. Bike the twisty single-track trails in the Comox Valley, hike the wind-sculpted coastline of the Wild Pacific Trail, or take in the gardens and beaches around Victoria, B.C.’s lovely capital city.

Alberta

Visit the Rockies

Place yourself among snow-capped mountains, turquoise lakes, shimmering glaciers, carved canyons, crystal waterfalls and impenetrable boreal forest and you’ll understand why the Rockies are among Canada’s crown jewels. Each summer, glaciers transform Lake Louise, along with Moraine, Maligne, Peyto and other lakes, into magically bright hues. Part of Canadian Rocky Mountain Parks—a UNESCO World Heritage Site—Banff and Jasper national parks are the linchpins of our federal parks system and both remain outdoor paradises for adventurers and mountain lovers. Drive the stunning Icefields Parkway, stop at bucket-list roadside attractions that include the Athabasca Glacier and Glacier Skywalk and brake for wildlife. Every Canadian should see the Rockies, if only to understand and appreciate that, yes, this is indeed some of most stunning country on Earth.

Five musts in the Rockies: 

1. Take a photo in front of Lake Louise.

2. Paddle a canoe on Moraine Lake.

3. Ski the “Big 3” hills: Lake Louise Ski Resort, Sunshine Village Ski & Snowboard Resort and

Mt. Norquay.

4. Ride the renovated Banff Gondola.

5. Take a Brewster bus out to the Columbia Icefield.

Saskatchewan 

Cheer for the Roughriders

In a country crazy for sports, fans of the Saskatchewan Roughriders are perhaps the craziest of all—in the best possible way. It doesn’t matter whether you support the team or can even follow the rules of the Canadian Football League—if you visit Regina during football season, “Rider Nation” will embrace you in the bosom of their open-air Mosaic Stadium, and, before you know it, you’ll be swept up in a frenzy of face paint, cheers and watermelons fashioned into helmets. Even when the temperature drops well below freezing, some of the friendliest folks in Canada radiate with warm-hearted Prairie passion. 

Manitoba 

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Photo courtesy of Frontiers North Adventures 

See the Polar Bears in Churchill

More polar bears live in Canada than in any other country in the world—consider seeing one up close. Each fall, you can join scientists, media and tourists on a trip to the remote northern town of Churchill—the starting point for tours that take you to see the bears as they migrate to nearby Hudson Bay. Watch them safely from custom-built tundra vehicles. The bears will sleep, spar and occasionally pop up on their hind legs to sniff you out. Nothing quite prepares you for the hot breath of a wild polar bear.

Ontario 

Feel the Mist of Niagara Falls

Hotels, theme parks and souvenir shops surround Canada’s most popular tourist attraction. So do wedding parties, tour buses and sticky kids with stickier fingers. But none of these factors will diminish the awe you’ll feel when gazing at one of the most powerful waterfalls on the continent. Brace yourself on the outdoor deck of a Hornblower Niagara Cruises boat as it steers into the thunderous white mist below the mighty Horseshoe Falls (the most recognizable of the three falls that make up Niagara Falls, and the one that is primarily located within Canada). Feeling Niagara’s spray while clad in a waterproof poncho is a quintessentially Canadian baptism.  

Five more things to do in Ontario: 

1. Go up the CN Tower.

2. Spend some time in the province’s cottage country.

3. Cheer for the Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre.

4. Explore the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa.  

5. Tour the wineries in the Niagara region.

Quebec 

Join the Winter Carnival Party

When sub-zero temperatures might flash-freeze a cheese fondue, you know what they do in Quebec City? They hold the world’s largest winter festival, complete with an outdoor theme park, ice palace, canoe races on the frozen St. Lawrence River and night-time street parades. Dating back to 1894, this historic party celebrates the joys of winter and draws revellers from near and far, all of whom are happily embraced by the city’s warm-hearted joie de vivre. Layer up, load up on the local liquor called Caribou, and toast the costumed, marshmallow-like ambassador, Bonhomme. You can’t do Canada if you can’t do cold. 

Celebrate in Montreal: 

Canada may be turning 150 in 2017, but one of its most vibrant cities, Montreal, is marking a major milestone next year, too. Celebrate its 375th birthday by taking part in the many parties and events that will be held throughout the city, from special exhibits to epic outdoor festival. 

New Brunswick 

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Photo by Dan Sedran

Walk the Ocean Floor

You don’t need a scuba diving certificate or a submarine to explore the ocean floor. The world’s highest tides rush in and then recede out of stunning Bay of Fundy (located between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia) twice each day, allowing you to wander the  “flower pots” and arches of the bay’s Hopewell Rocks. There’s just a six-hour window to explore the muddy seabed before up to 46 feet of water gushes in. Don’t worry: there are plenty of signs in the area to ensure you don’t find yourself dashing back to the rocks to beat the tides. (Though an annual race, called the Not-Since-Moses run, does just that.) 

Magnetic Hill explained: 

For a different sort of natural wonder, one that seems to defy gravity, visit Moncton’s Magnetic Hill.  On gravity hills like this one, the sloping terrain creates an optical illusion that can make cars in neutral look like they’re rolling backwards up the hill. 

Nova Scotia 

Explore The Cabot Trail

An iconic 298-km road that loops the northern shoreline of Cape Breton Island, the Cabot Trail offers you more than just gob-smacking coastal views. As you explore the trail by car or bicycle, venture off the road for hikes in Cape Breton Highlands National Park and stop at the various towns along the way to experience the Gaelic culture that permeates the area—the legacy of the thousands of Scots and Irish who immigrated to the island centuries ago. Step-dance at a festive ceilidh, foot-tap to a fiddle performance at the Celtic Music Interpretive Centre in Judique or wet your whistle at Glenora Distillery, North America’s first single malt whisky distillery, in Glenville.  

Annapolis Valley wineries: 

Another one of Nova Scotia’s can’t-miss road trips is a scenic drive through the Annapolis Valley to explore the burgeoning wine region. Here are three wineries that are well worth checking out along the way: Benjamin Bridge, Avondale Sky Winery, and Luckett Vineyards.

Prince Edward Island 

Celebrate Confederation

Canada’s history as a unified nation truly began with the Charlottetown Conference in 1864, when diverse political entities first came together to discuss the notion of Confederation (which officially happened three years later). To pay tribute to the country’s political roots and connect with its history, visit The Story of Confederation exhibits at the Confederation Centre of the Arts located next door to Province House, which hosted the Charlottetown Conference 152 years ago. You can further celebrate Confederation on the Confederation Trail, a decommissioned rail-track that crosses Canada’s smallest province from tip-to-tip.  

Newfoundland and Labrador

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Photo by Dave Brosha

Get Screeched in on George Street

Chances are high that, when you meet locals in Newfoundland for the first time, they won’t ask if you’re going to visit Iceberg Alley or Gros Morne National Park (though you should absolutely do both of those things). Instead, they’ll ask if you’ve been “screeched in”—a spirited ritual born in the bars of St. John’s. Here’s how it usually works: a barkeep will regale you with a little history before challenging you to become an honorary Newfoundlander. Then you must recite a tongue twisting phrase, shoot back a glass of Screech (a.k.a. throat-scorching rum) and, depending where you are, kiss the lips of a frozen cod or the backside of a toy puffin. It’s all in good fun. 

One-stop Screech shop: 

Consider getting screeched in at Spirit of Newfoundland Productions’ The Screech Room, housed inside St. John’s historic Masonic Temple. Discover the history of Screech with a tour of the museum, filled with artifacts like the original Screech rum barrels, then settle in for Screech-inspired fare and cocktails. 

Yukon 

Go Dogsledding up North

Before snowmobiles roared across the Great North, dogsledding was a main form of winter transportation for many First Nations groups and European explorers. The epitome of teamwork, dogsledding sees mushers and their dogs work together to ensure maximum efficiency and chances of survival (the 1,600-km Yukon Quest, the toughest sled dog race on earth, still celebrates this legacy). Outside Whitehorse, join dogsledders for a run amid majestic northern surroundings. Dress warmly, learn how to “gee!” and “haw!” your team forward and take part in a transportation tradition that stretches back centuries. 

Northwest Territories 

See the Northern Lights

Yellowknife and its surrounding areas are considered among the best places in the world to see the aurora borealis. The city lies beneath a halo-like ring known as the aurora oval, which means your chances of witnessing multi-coloured celestial fireworks here are very good. With few geographical obstructions, and many clear winter nights, the northern lights above Yellowknife are particularly visable from mid-November to mid-April. Commercial aurora-watching cabins let you cuddle up with hot chocolate and a warm blanket, so you can stay cozy enough to witness the magic in the wee morning hours.  

Nunavut 

Hike the Arctic Tundra

For those lucky enough to visit one of the five magnificent national parks in Nunavut, a simple walk into the tundra becomes one of life’s instant highlights. The alien-like landscape is impossibly stark, yet undeniably alluring. Soft underfoot, flecked with white puffs of Arctic cotton or snow buttercups, the terrain here, with its lack of trees, creates a sprawling landscape of desolate beauty. Parks Canada and Arctic eco-lodges like Arctic Watch invite visitors each summer to camp, hike and explore the tundra, energized by 24 hours of sunshine. There’s nothing quite like experiencing that endless light of summer.  

Quiz: See our complete list of 50 classic Canadian experiences. Test your street cred by checking off the ones you've done and see how many you still have to accomplish before Canada's 150th birthday. Don't forget to share your results on social media using #HowCDNAreYou.