First time visitor to Canada, eh?

Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise with the famous lake and the Rocky Mountains

Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise with the famous lake and the Rocky Mountains

Getting to know Canada: Two ideal itineraries

INDIA HAS THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE, a well-travelled tourist route between Delhi-Agra-Jaipur. Most first-time visitors to India choose this itinerary because it’s easy, and because with very little travelling time between destinations, you get to see some of the country’s top cultural highlights including of course the Taj Mahal. But for Indians, and others, venturing to Canada for the first time, where should you go to get a glimpse of all that Canada has to offer?

It’s a vast country, but I am suggesting two itineraries that visitors to Canada who land in either Toronto or Vancouver could take. Instead of the “Golden Triangle,” think of these routes as the “Maple Key” (starting in Toronto) and the “Rockies Road” (starting in Vancouver). The Maple Key route includes the Taj Mahal of Canada — Niagara Falls of course. And the Rockies Road route includes another natural Taj Mahal: Lake Louise, pictured above. Here’s what you need to know to start planning a trip to Canada to see one, or both, of these natural wonders.

The Taj Mahal of Canada: Niagara Falls. Photo courtesy Canada Keep Exploring.

The Taj Mahal of Canada: Niagara Falls. Photo courtesy Canada Keep Exploring.

Canada: The basics

Canada has four very different seasons

Where I live, in Toronto, it can be as hot and humid as Bombay in the summer; and the winter can be the other extreme, with virtually Himalayan-temperature winds sweeping across the province. There are not that many cities that range from -30 C. to +40 C., as Toronto does. But over on the other side of the country, in Vancouver, winter is damp and cool, and it rarely snows.

Summer is a great time to visit Canada, as it is warm and you can get out into the wilderness and enjoy hiking, boating, camping and other outdoor pursuits. In Autumn, the colours of the changing leaves are glorious. In winter you can experience snow — as long as you are okay with the cold and are warmly dressed.

Explore travel in Canada

Canada is vast

The vastness of Canada cannot be overstated; it is the world’s second largest nation. Vancouver is further away from Toronto (4,300 kilometres) than London, England (3,500 kilometres).

So, two things you need to keep in mind when you plan a trip to Canada are the distances and the seasons.

Canada also has two distinct cultures and two official languages (English and French) and the cities — especially Toronto — are extremely multicultural. Both Toronto and Vancouver are home to very sizeable Indo-Canadian populations: in Toronto, Punjabi is the fourth most common language spoken. English is spoken across the country, and predominates in every province except Quebec, which is largely French speaking. But you don’t need to speak French to get by in Quebec. Montreal, especially, has a large English-speaking population.

Hiking a mountain trail in western Canada. Photo courtesy Canada Keep Exploring.

Hiking a mountain trail in western Canada. Photo courtesy Canada Keep Exploring.

Visitors from India require a Visa to visit Canada

You can get information here: Canada’s International Gateway. Indians can apply for tourist, business or family Visas; check out this site: Find out if you need a Visa, India. I have helped people I know in India apply for the family Visa, to visit children or grandchildren and here’s my advice: make sure you follow every step and supply every piece of information needed, exactly as outlined, and you will greatly increase your chances of obtaining a Visa.

You will find that Canada is a clean, safe, friendly country to visit with an abundance of outdoor activities, a unique culture and vibrant, diverse urban landscapes.

Maple Key Canadian Itinerary

If you land in Toronto, the Maple Key route takes in Canada’s biggest city — Toronto — and the country’s number 1 tourist attraction, Niagara Falls. But that’s not all. The route can take you into Canada’s famous wilderness, for hiking and/or camping adventures in Algonquin Park; along Lake Ontario to the quaint historic town of Kingston; north to the nation’s capital city, Ottawa; and east to “La Belle Province,” Quebec, for cities that have a distinct European flavour. Quebec’s largest city, Montreal, and the most historic, Quebec City, are on this route, so you can make it an entirely urban adventure if you’re not ready for the rugged outdoors. A significant percentage of Canada’s total population lives along this corridor, so you will never feel far from civilization! And the Via Rail train can take you along most of this route (except for up to Algonquin Park).

Canada Toronto Niagara Falls Ontario Quebec Montreal map

You can completely customize an itinerary based on this route, depending on the season and your interests. My suggestion is to spend at least three days in Toronto, and take a one-day side trip to Niagara Falls. You can drive there and back, or take a bus tour, in one day, easily. Toronto is my hometown and Canada’s largest city, the economic engine of the country, and an exciting, vibrant city. There is no end of things to see and do, but my top suggestions for Toronto are:

  • Taking the ferry to Toronto Island
  • Spending an afternoon at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Royal Ontario Museum
  • Visiting the various neighbourhoods of Toronto and sampling the cuisines, from the Greek Danforth to Chinatown to Little India
The Toronto skyline as seen from a harbour cruise. Photo courtesy Canada Keep Exploring.

The Toronto skyline as seen from a harbour cruise. Photo courtesy Canada Keep Exploring.

If it’s summer, you may want to head north up to Algonquin Park from Toronto and stay in a cabin, lodge or even go camping. Outfitters have everything you need to rent when you get up there. Or, you can drive along the north shore of Lake Ontario towards Ottawa and Montreal, and stop in Kingston. Historic Kingston is the gateway to the 1,000 Islands, a picturesque tourist destination with lots of boating and lodging options.

After Kingston, you can head to the nation’s capital Ottawa, or choose to go directly into the province of Quebec. Ottawa is a small city with tons of options for cultural visits to museums, the House of Parliament and art galleries. You can also get out into the beautiful countryside surrounding Ottawa, such as the Gatineau Hills, very easily.

The European flavour of old Quebec City. Photo courtesy Canada Keep Exploring.

The European flavour of old Quebec City. Photo courtesy Canada Keep Exploring.

In Quebec, make sure you spend some time in Montreal. It is a fun, culturally rich city with great shopping, dining and festivals. Quebec City is very old, with an historic quarter that will make you feel you are in Europe.

Resources for planning your Maple Key itinerary:

Skiing in Banff National Park, Alberta

Skiing in Banff National Park, Alberta. Photo courtesy Canada Keep Exploring.

Rockies Road Canadian Itinerary

If you land in Vancouver, the Rockies Road itinerary takes you through the country’s most spectacular scenery, from the Pacific ocean to the jagged, spectacular Rocky Mountains. This itinerary can include taking the ferry over to Victoria on Vancouver Island or taking a drive up into the mountains outside of Vancouver to see Whistler, one of Canada’s most famous, and charming, ski resorts. From Vancouver, you can drive or take the Via Rail train right across the mountains and into the Rockies to Calgary. Stops at Banff and Lake Louise are a must! Lake Louise is probably the most photographed lake in Canada — and it really is as spectacular in real life as it is in the photos. You actually feel you are in a picture postcard.

Rocky Mountains, Vancouver, Canada, map, travel, Banff, Lake Louise

Vancouver is set between mountains and sea, so it offers vistas and recreation options like no other city in Canada. My favourite Vancouver activity is walking the seawall in Stanley Park. Though an urban park, you can really feel at one with the wild elements of ocean and forest. From Vancouver, you can drive just about an hour or two south to get to Tsawwassen where the ferry terminal is. I love taking the ferry through the Gulf Islands and over to Vancouver Island. You can stop at any of them, or keep going and drive to Victoria, a quiet city on the ocean known for a temperate climate and lush gardens.

Going the other direction from Vancouver, I personally thinking taking the train through the Rockies is probably one of the most romantic and exciting things you can do in Canada! The train runs from Vancouver to Jasper, Alberta; from there you can drive to Lake Louise and Banff. Treat yourself and stay at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, one of the grand old hotels built by the railway about 100 years ago (see top photo). Lake Louise is arguably THE most picturesque spot in Canada — and you will have a never-ending view of it from the hotel.

Walking the seawall, Stanley Park, Vancouver.

Walking the seawall, Stanley Park, Vancouver.

Banff is a small town in the mountains surrounded by a national park. It is gorgeous all year round and offers a very wide range of recreation opportunities from hiking, horseback riding and skiing to soaking in hot springs, dining and shopping. A sojourn in Banff is an immersion in the Canadian experience. Finally, you can end your itinerary in Calgary, home of the famous Calgary Stampede, and annual summer festival that celebrates cowboy culture. Calgary has an international airport that can connect you to your onward flight.

Resources for planning your Rockies Road itinerary:

Chalet in the mountains, Banff.

Chalet in the mountains, Banff. Photo courtesy Canada Keep Exploring.

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37 Responses to First time visitor to Canada, eh?

  1. Renuka November 28, 2013 at 2:56 am #

    Thank you so much for such detailed coverage on Canada. I think it’s very helpful. I’m definitely going to keep it handy if I plan to visit Canada in the future.
    Renuka recently posted..The Resonance Of UdaipurMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward November 28, 2013 at 8:36 am #

      Hi Renuka, I hope you visit! This is a beautiful country, so much vast, pristine wilderness — and exciting cities too 🙂
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..50 ways to celebrate CanadaMy Profile

  2. Sol Danmeri November 28, 2013 at 7:45 am #

    I am scared to visit the Rockies. I am frightened that I might not want to leave. Looking at your photos, I just felt enthralled with the beauty and majesty of the place. Simply breathtaking. Feel very drawn to Algonquin Park, as it has always been my dream to stay in a log cabin.

  3. Ceci November 28, 2013 at 9:17 am #

    Great job on highlighting some of the wonderful spots in this vast land we call home. Don’t forget the east coast, though. We have a great deal to offer too. 🙂

    • Mariellen Ward November 28, 2013 at 9:52 am #

      I love the East Coast Ceci! But I had to design itineraries around Toronto and Vancouver because that’s where all the Indian people land: each city has a huge Indo-Canadian population and Indians often come to visit relatives.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..50 ways to celebrate CanadaMy Profile

  4. Sara @ The Let's Go Ladies! November 28, 2013 at 10:31 am #

    This is such a great idea Mariellen!

    I remember when I travelled to visit family in England for the first time – my aunt was trying to explain to my 8-year old cousin how big Canada is by explaining how many countries they would have to travel across to equal travelling from one side of Canada to the other. I had never thought of it that way!

    I think you’ve proposed two very ideal routes that offer a great snapshot of Canada and our culture!
    Sara @ The Let’s Go Ladies! recently posted..The Ultimate California Road Trip for Animation GeeksMy Profile

  5. Leigh November 28, 2013 at 11:32 am #

    On your eastern itinerary I’d suggest including at least a few hours in Niagara-on-the-Lake just because it’s so pretty. And if you’ve made it that far then why not stop at a minimum of one winery to see what the Canadian wine scene looks like.

    On the west coast I’d recommend the one day Rocky Mountaineer trip between Vancouver and Whistler. And if I was driving to Banff/Lake Louise from Vancouver and I had the time I’d include at least a night in the Okanagan.

    You have done a great job with your suggestions.
    Leigh recently posted..A Visit to Rincon de la Vieja National Park in Costa RicaMy Profile

  6. Henry | @fotoeins November 28, 2013 at 3:12 pm #

    Great job, Mariellen, summarizing the vastness of our country, and two good “cross sections” to begin. Have you and others thought about a similar “road” for the Maritimes? The other thing that might be interesting to slip in a side visit within the Golden Horseshoe to the Stratford (Shakespeare) festival. Thanks for your post, Mariellen!
    Henry | @fotoeins recently posted..Vancouver Eastside Thanksgiving on InstagramMy Profile

  7. Sam November 29, 2013 at 8:32 am #

    I did the Maple Key Route, more or less, about ten years ago with my family and I really enjoyed it (except for the town of Niagra – seriously tacky!) I’d love to go back to Canada, and see more, especially Vancouver and the Rockies!
    Sam recently posted..Best Cafés in Cuenca for Digital Nomads through FoursquareMy Profile

  8. Lesley Peterson November 29, 2013 at 10:41 am #

    This is really excellent, Mariellen. I find people I meet in other countries really have misconceptions about Canada, especially the distances, the clothes they will need (or not need) and what they will experience. If I may suggest an additional link: http://www.parkbus.ca/
    In season, Parkbus provides transportation from Toronto up to Algonquin, Killarney, and other ‘wild’ places–a great idea for visitors unable or reluctant to drive in an unfamiliar country.
    Lesley Peterson recently posted..Atlantic City’s cool new Arts GarageMy Profile

  9. Witty_Levitating_Buddha November 30, 2013 at 3:37 pm #

    Great post with breath-taking pictures.

    I would say:-

    Vancouver is my favorite city in North America.

    San Francisco being 2nd,

    Toronto being 3rd ( in the summer !)

  10. Robert December 1, 2013 at 5:58 pm #

    I loved Lake Louise. Such an amazing place!

  11. Amanda December 2, 2013 at 12:11 am #

    Awesome Canada coverage! It reminds me that I really need to explore more of my neighbor to the north!
    Amanda recently posted..The Greek Islands: NaxosMy Profile

  12. Red Hunt December 2, 2013 at 9:23 pm #

    Great post Mariellen! Love the “Maple Key” route. It’s very simialr to the tours I guided around Ontario and Quebec last year….just add in Mont Tremblant for more nature or Tadoussac for whale watching and it’s golden!
    Red Hunt recently posted..Wildlife Photo: Polar BearMy Profile

  13. Mihaela December 3, 2013 at 8:13 am #

    Very useful article, made me think about going to Canada 🙂
    Mihaela recently posted..Israel: a mix between the expected and the unexpectedMy Profile

  14. Hannah December 5, 2013 at 3:35 am #

    Will definitely go on a road trip when we end our RTW trip. Thanks for the useful tips. We will definitely put them to good use. 🙂
    Hannah recently posted..Kiwi Krawl Day 11: Able TasmanMy Profile

  15. chantalmcculligh December 7, 2013 at 10:16 pm #

    Great post! there are so many people that ask where to go to see Canada and it’s truly a hard thing to sum up!

  16. Shalu Sharma December 11, 2013 at 4:57 am #

    Canada is certainly a very beautiful place. I have been there once to Calgary and Edmonton. Hope to visit once more. There was a time when I wanted immigrate to Canada. Even sat the IELTS test.
    Shalu Sharma recently posted..20 life lessons I learnt living in IndiaMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward December 16, 2013 at 3:10 pm #

      I did not know that Shalu! You will have to come back and see more of the country. There is lots more to Canada than Calgary and Edmonton 🙂
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..50 ways to celebrate CanadaMy Profile

  17. Shereen December 12, 2013 at 10:29 am #

    Although being from the Toronto area I have not seen much of Canada other than Ontario and Quebec. I’ve been considering taking the train out west. Has anyone done this before or has any recommendations on the best way to do it. Thanks!

    • Mariellen Ward December 16, 2013 at 3:11 pm #

      Shereen, Taking the train from Toronto to Edmonton/Jasper or even Vancouver is one of my dreams! There is a Via Rail train called “The Canadian” that travels this route and it would be the trip of a lifetime. Check the Via Rail website.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..First time visitor to Canada, eh?My Profile

  18. Rashad Pharaon December 16, 2013 at 3:35 am #

    Vancouver reminds my hands-down favorite city in the world. thanks for the route ideas – the country can certainly seem overwhelming! Victoria is next on my list!
    Rashad Pharaon recently posted..How To Start Saving Money To Travel The WorldMy Profile

  19. sureshas December 27, 2013 at 6:21 am #

    Great list of information you provided. i’m very happy to read these things. it’s surely helpful tips. thanks for sharing this article..

  20. Sofie January 2, 2014 at 5:05 pm #

    I’m planning my first trip to Canada in March, but it’ll be a short one.
    Would love to go back in summer after that though, to do a longer trip.
    Maybe one of the above:)
    Sofie recently posted..Why you shouldn’t make new year’s resolutions on January 1My Profile

  21. Adelina @ PackMeTo January 7, 2014 at 1:40 pm #

    I love the names that you gave these routes! I agree with the choices – they’re probably the ones that I would recommend as well for a first time visitor. Maybe with a bias more so to the west coast of course 🙂
    Adelina @ PackMeTo recently posted..Victoria – A City of BrunchMy Profile

  22. Ian January 22, 2014 at 12:16 am #

    Thanks for this post! Now I know what to do when I visit my relatives in Canada.

  23. Shrinidhi Hande February 2, 2014 at 11:34 am #

    This has been very useful- thanks
    Shrinidhi Hande recently posted..Bullock carts rally to raise awareness on organic foodMy Profile

  24. Morvarid June 15, 2014 at 11:52 am #

    Thank you so much for this amazing article. I really love to visit Canada someday and live there. I am working on my English for IELTS now.
    Wish me luck 😀

  25. Deepak July 5, 2014 at 5:22 am #

    Great write up! Just one thing though: London is much father from Toronto (5700 km) than Vancouver (4300 km).

  26. Marlies June 19, 2015 at 10:43 am #

    I am going to Canada for a working holiday in November so thank you for these tips! I will definitely check it all out 🙂 😉

  27. Amit Vaidya March 29, 2016 at 7:57 am #

    Hi Mariellene,
    Thanks for a superb and focused details on itineraries. Only one question : (I know this is going to be very subjective but still…..). if i have to choose any one route, which one should i prefer.
    I am anyway staying in Calgary for 7-8 days as Friendship Exchange Program. So should i prefer Maple Key Route or Rockies Road.?

  28. dilip September 5, 2016 at 9:24 am #

    HI Mariellen ward,
    i am very inspire by u.,
    and i will go to Toronto Ontario Canada in september 2016 as a visitor visa.
    so please guide me what i have to do before go and which is nessessary for me.
    please reply

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