Sprawling, massive Canada contains everything from six time zones to a series of ecosystems so diverse you could conceivably encounter polar bears and grizzly bears on the same trip. With its untamed wilderness, it’s easy for any travel guide to focus on Canada’s rugged mountains, craggy coastlines and wide expanses of Great White North. And while those natural wonders are certainly part of the nation’s charm, Canada is also a cosmopolitan affair, offering everything from world-class food to vibrant local art scenes. It’s one of those rare places you can kayak the wilds in the morning and then down artisanal cocktails into the night.
Evidence suggests North and South America were the final continents to experience human migration, and while there’s some debate over the exact timing, roughly 16,000 years ago, glacial melt finally enabled humans to travel from Beringia to Canada. Some of the earliest archaeological sites include Queen Charlotte Islands, Bluefish Caves and Old Crow Flats. Due to massive glacial ice sheets, the majority of groups during this Archaic period were mobile hunter-gatherers.
According to various oral traditions, the Iroquois Confederacy (centered in northern New York) began in 1142. The group’s influence reached as far as southern Ontario. In the north, the Arctic archipelago housed the Paleo-Eskimos, who were subsequently replaced in 1500 by today’s Inuit people.
First European contact with the First Nations is thought to have been as early as 1000 with the Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows. In 1497, Italian explorer John Cabot became the first to land in Canada after the Vikings. French interest in the area began in 1524, when Francis I sponsored Giovanni de Verrazzano to navigate between Newfoundland and Florida. Jacques Cartier then attempted to create permanent settlements, and although these attempts failed, the French activity in the area cemented their influence.
By 1604, a fur trade was established in North America, and this proved a pivotal economic venture for the area. Four years later, Samuel de Champlain established Québec City, the named capital of New France and one of the first permanent Canadian settlements.
Although the French settlements were well established by 1700, English and Scottish settlers actually far outnumbered the French. War also marked this era, including four French and Indian Wars and two battles between the colonies of America and New France.
After the Treaty of Paris (1763), France officially renounced claims to its North America territory, and New France was dissolved. Great Britain then acquired this territory. From the Napoleonic Wars to approximately 1850, nearly 800,000 people immigrated to British North America, with the Irish Famine greatly contributing to these numbers. Aided by higher populations and more stability, the Dominion of Canada was officially established on July 1, 1867.
In the more modern era, fighting by the Canadian Forces in World War I forged a greater sense of nationhood between Britain and Canada, and in 1931, the Statute of Westminster was passed. This granted Canada equal political and legislative footing as other British commonwealths. (Full sovereignty came with the Canada Act in 1982.)
After struggling through the Great Depression, Canada played an important part in World War II and enjoyed a return to prosperity in the post-war years. Following the war, Canada developed several comprehensive social programs, including a universal health care system, veterans’ pensions and old-age pensions. In 2005, Canada became just the fourth country in the world to legalize gay marriage.
Today, with its pristine wilderness, lively metropolitan scene and reputation for safety, Canada remains a popular tourist destination for travelers across the globe.
Due to its geopolitical ties to both Britain and France, Canada and its cultural expressions have largely been influenced by those two nations. Immigration has also constituted a cornerstone of Canadian society, and their federal government has historically been a proponent of multiculturalism. This embracing of the various groups that make up the Canadian identity make for a varied, rich and interesting culture.
Visual art ranges from the early works of indigenous peoples to the modern works of William Ronald and Jack Bush. Many literary talents have come from Canada, including the Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro, the singer-songwriter and novelist Leonard Cohen, The English Patient author Michael Ondaatje, Life of Pi author Yann Martel, The Stone Diaries author Carol Shields, the incomparable Margaret Atwood and many more.
Many Canadians dominate the film and television industry, from the mainstream (James Cameron) to the more avant-garde (David Cronenberg).
In the world of sport, ice hockey, curling, lacrosse and Canadian football dominate.
Good to Know
When traveling in Canada, keep some of the following in mind:
Canada uses the Canadian dollar, but it’s not unheard of for retailers—particularly those in large, populated areas—to accept US dollars. If you’re not paying in the local currency, however, expect to receive a less-than-favorable exchange rate. Border crossings and towns very near to the border are the most likely to accept US dollars, and the exchange rate will likely be decent in these places.
It’s always still a good idea to have Canadian dollars on hand, and remember that credit cards are widely accepted throughout the country as well. Of the major credit cards, Visa and Mastercard are the most commonly accepted. Keep in mind that your foreign-issued debit card might not work for retail purchases, and a foreign transaction fee will likely be assessed for every use.
ATMs are readily available throughout Canada, and can regularly be found in banks, shopping malls, grocery stores, gas stations, restaurants and more. Just make sure to call your bank before you leave to confirm there won’t be any issues using your US-issued card in a Canadian machine. Calling ahead to inform your bank of your travel dates also limits the chance of your Canadian transactions being flagged as suspicious.
While tipping is always a voluntary gesture, it’s customary to do so in Canada. In restaurants, gratuities aren’t often included in the bill, and adding an additional 15 to 20 percent is common. As in any country, if the service is particularly poor, many choose to leave no tip or a smaller tip. If you’re in a large group (typically eight or more), some restaurants will add an automatic gratuity. Tipping is not required if this has been added already.
In hotels, it’s a nice gesture to tip porters, cleaning staff, valets and any concierge who helped you.
Canada is a developed, Western country, and any traveler from the United States will likely feel quite at home in Canadian society.
While no generalized statement can apply to every citizen of a nation, there is some truth to the stereotype of the “polite Canadian.” Canadians tend to be open and friendly people who value honesty and humility. There’s also a strong respect and desire for privacy, as well as an attempt to respect the privacy of others in turn.
Being outspoken and independent, even from a young age, is generally encouraged, and this can lead to children speaking to adults (even teachers or authority figures) as casually as they speak to friends. This shouldn’t be construed as a lack of respect.
Senior citizens are generally treated with extra politeness and deference, and authority figures, such as police officers, are also usually given extra courtesy. Canadians, however, have significant legal latitude to question—or even to disobey—any authority figure who appears to be acting improperly.
Canada’s voltage is 120 volts, and the frequency is 60 hertz. (This is the same as the United States.) The sockets are either Type A (two flat and parallel prongs) or Type B (two flat and parallel prongs and an additional prong for grounding).
If you’re traveling from the United States, you won’t need a converter or adapter. If you’re traveling from another country, consider throwing a universal adapter and converter into your luggage, just to be safe.
Public bathrooms are widely available throughout Canada and aren’t likely to baffle any Western visitor to the country. The terminology, however, might present a small stumbling block. In Canada, shared public restrooms are known as “washrooms,” and “bathroom” is reserved for the facilities in your home. In the French-speaking regions of Canada, you might encounter “toilettes” or “WC.” Expect the facilities to be relatively clean and to provide toilet paper and a means to wash your hands.
Water throughout the vast majority of Canada is safe to drink directly from the tap. It’s treated to a quality standard that means the water doesn’t require filtration, sanitation or boiling before drinking.
The only possible exception to this is on certain Canadian reserves. As recently as 2017, water treatment plants were failing on nearly one hundred reserves, including the Serpent River First Nation Reserve. If you’re traveling through or staying on reserve land, all water advisories should be well publicized and clearly marked.
When to Visit
Canada is a sprawling nation with widely different climate patterns. Therefore, the ideal time to visit Vancouver won’t necessarily be the best time to visit Montreal. Keep your specific itinerary and intended destinations in mind when planning the dates for your trip.
In general, though, summer months, such as July and August, offer the best and warmest weather, so if hiking and outdoor adventuring are on your to-do list, consider a summer stay. If, however, you’re interested in any number of Canadian ski resorts (or even the famed Québec Ice Hotel), winter would be a more appropriate time to travel.
Read our When to Visit Canada article for more info.
Read our When To Visit Banff article for more info.
- Canada is the world’s second-largest country, in terms of landmass. Russia is the largest, and the United States comes in third (just 1.5 percent smaller than Canada).
- In 1947, Canada endured its lowest recorded temperature: −81.4 degrees Fahrenheit, or −63 Celsius.
- Want to go for a dip? Well, you’re in luck. Canada contains more lakes than the rest of the world’s countries combined.
- The border between Canada and the United States is the longest international border in the world.
- Canadian (as well as Mexican, Indian, Russian and Israeli) currency has Braille-like bumps for the blind.
Full Article Coming Soon!
Regions and Cities
Looking for an almost unfathomable number of lakes and postcard-perfect mountains? Then head to Alberta. Where else can you get everything from horizon-to-horizon wheat fields and stunning Lake Louise to otherworldly hoodoos and sacred native sites?
Calgary: Stunning beauty. Buzzy nightlife. A vibrant culinary scene. Gone are the days of Calgary being little more than a business hub. The city has a lot to offer tourists who venture through today—including a healthy dose of cool.
Banff: Resting just on the edge of untamed wilds, Banff (the town) is a resort filled with everything you’d expect—fine food, boutique shopping and nightclubs. It’s not, however, your average tourist trap. It’s a haven for the writers and artists who are drawn to these pristine wilds, as well as a jumping off point for the many tourists who flock to the national park every year.
Jasper Town: If you want even more serenity than Banff can offer, make Jasper Town (also commonly known simply as Jasper) your jumping off point for Jasper National Park. You’ll find more land to explore, fewer tourists to battle and more bears, elk and moose to spot.
Not everyone thinks to make Nova Scotia a stop, but those who head this way find a mecca of hiking, rafting and outdoor adventuring. It’s also long been considered the seat of artistic and cultural expression, from fine arts to the silver screen. (Ellen Page and Donald Sutherland both call Nova Scotia home.)
Halifax: Breathe Halifax in. The salty sea breezes accent perfectly manicured green spaces, and anyone who’s a fan of theater, craft brews and lively local bands will find something to love in this idyllic spot.
Mahone Bay: Sunny, chic Mahone Bay offers up opportunities to kayak, bike or even just explore the lively Main Street. Whether you’re looking to nab a painting from a local gallery or to enjoy some outdoor sports, Mahone Bay can accommodate.
To visit Quebec is to feel transported to another country within the country. This province proudly displays its distinct linguistic and cultural identity, and nowhere else in Canada quite embraces its North American and European lineage with the same gusto and chic as Quebec.
Montreal: Food lovers rejoice. Montreal is a diverse and fascinating gastronomical journey. It’s also a shameless and joyful proponent of the arts—seen most clearly in its some 250 theaters and over 90 annual festivals. There’s simply no denying Montreal is Canada’s cultural beating heart.
Quebec City: Montréal might make most of the headlines, but Quebec is history come alive. Firmly rooted in its French Canadian identity, this town is one of the continent’s oldest settlements. Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and passing all those bistros and sidewalk cafes, it’s easy to imagine you’re actually walking the cobblestoned lanes of Europe.
Tadoussac: It might be small, but Tadoussac consistently draws droves of visitors. What’s the attraction? Whales. From behemoths of the deep to relatively small minke whales that can be seen with the naked eye from shore, these majestic animals keep people coming back year after year.
North Hatley: “Charming” hardly scratches the surface when describing North Hatley. Nestled at the northern edge of Lac Massawippi, the town boasts historic buildings converted to quaint inns, leisurely swimming and more galleries, antique stores and craft shops than you’ll know what to do with.
This westernmost province is perhaps best known for its stunning natural beauty and almost indescribable hiking, kayaking and biking, but don’t miss out on its surprisingly cosmopolitan side too. Vancouver is fast cementing its reputation as an international city, and even midsize towns—Victoria and Kelowna, for example—offer vibrant, unique scenes.
Vancouver: When it comes to Vancouver, amazing food is just the beginning. It also features a dizzying array of distinct neighborhoods, cultural events (Shakespeare by the waterfront, anyone?) and vibrant music. And when the city gets to be too much, those beautiful mountains you spy in the distance are less than an hour away. Go from urban biking to mountain biking in the span of an afternoon in this city that seamlessly transitions from outdoor haven to cosmopolitan hub.
Victoria: Dubbed the “most English” city in North America, kitschy pubs have slowly given way to increasingly bohemian cafes and restaurants—all thanks to the influx of youth and energy in the town. Don’t forget your bike either. The town boasts more biking routes than any other Canadian locale.
Worth a Visit
Banff National Park
In this untamed wilderness, the Rockies rise from meadows, glaciers punctuate the vistas, and impossibly turquoise lakes invite everyone to take a dip. With its crowning jewel, Lake Louise, and litany of wildlife, Banff consistently awes its visitors—whether it’s their first or hundredth time.
Jasper NATIONAL PARK
Adjacent to Banff—but no less stunning—Jasper National Park was established in 1907, just 22 years after Banff. It offers the full range of untamed Rocky Mountain wilderness, and its stunning scenery can be enjoyed while hiking, paddling, relaxing lakeside or even backcountry skiing.
Waterton Lakes National Park
The Canadian half of the International Peace Park (along with Glacier National Park in the United States), Waterton is a collision of iconic wildlife, historic Prince of Wales Hotel and flat prairies that yield dramatically to the Rockies. While many tourists get diverted to Banff and Jasper, Waterton often provides a quieter, more subdued way to enjoy the Canadian wilds.
Kicking Horse River and its glacier-blue waters race through this dramatic and stunning national park that simply shouldn’t be missed. Imposing mountains and waterfalls make this the playground of any photographer—or adventurer.
The Butchart Gardens
Located in Brentwood Bay, Vancouver Island, this lovely collection of floral displays spans approximately 55 acres and draws over one million visitors each year. A National Historic Site of Canada, the gardens also contain an impressive array of statues and offer seasonal events, such as fireworks, open-air concerts and ice skating.
Things to See and Do
Full Article Coming Soon!
How to Get to Canada
US citizens don’t need a visa to visit Canada for stays less than 180 days. If, however, you plan to study, work or immigrate to Canada, the relevant visa is required. To legally enter Canada, a US citizen needs proof of both citizenship and identity. This means a valid passport, NEXUS card or passport card is required.
Backroads Pro Tip
If you possess a criminal record, you can be denied entry into Canada. This includes misdemeanors, as well as driving offenses that involved alcohol. Visit this website to learn how to obtain approval for rehabilitation and to educate yourself about how to cross the border with a record.
If you’re entering Canada by air, there are 13 international airports across the nation. The busiest five are as follows:
- Toronto Pearson International Airport (Greater Toronto)
- Vancouver International Airport (Metro Vancouver)
- Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport (Great Montreal)
- Calgary International Airport (Calgary Region)
- Edmonton International Airport (Edmonton Metropolitan Region)
Getting Around - Transportation
Public transportation is prevalent in most major Canadian cities, the most common form being bus systems. In limited cities, there are rapid transit systems (Montréal, Toronto and Vancouver), light rails (Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa) and commuter rails (Toronto, Montréal and Vancouver).
To get from city to city, there are many long-distance bus companies, including Greyhound Canada.
While Canada has an extensive railway network, the majority of the tracks today are used for freight transport. Passenger transport from city to city is very limited.
Various ferry services run from different island locations to the mainland. If you’re looking into the ferry, just make sure to double-check whether you’re booking a passenger or automobile ferry.
If you want to cover large swaths of land in a short amount of time, consider car rental. Here are a few things to keep in mind, however, before you start planning your road trip:
- You must have a valid driver’s license. A license issued in Canada or the United States qualifies.
- You have to satisfy the minimum age requirement, which ranges from 18 in Saskatchewan up to 24.
- You must possess a clean driving record. What constitutes “clean” varies from car rental agency to agency, so check with your provider.
- You usually have to present a credit card at the time of rental. It should have enough credit to cover the entire trip, or you must pay for the full amount in cash.
Both English and French have federal status in Canada and are the predominant languages you’ll encounter. However, there’s more linguistic diversity in Canada than many people expect. There are, for example, a multitude of aboriginal languages still spoken, as well as the mother tongues of various immigrants. There are 11 unique indigenous groups of languages, all of which encapsulate approximately 65 different languages. Of these languages, the three most spoken are Cree, Inuktitut and Ojibwe.
The majority of those who speak French as their preferred language reside in Québec, but large French-speaking populations reside in New Brunswick and Ontario as well.
Despite this wealth of linguistic variety, any tourist coming to Canada should have no problem navigating the nation with English alone.
However, if you find yourself in a French-speaking region and you want to attempt a few basic phrases, here are a handful to get you started:
- Hello: Bonjour
- Good-bye: Au revoir
- Thank you: Merci
- Please: S’il vous plaît
- How are you: Ça va (informal); Comment allez-vous? (formal)
- What’s your name: Comment t’appelles-tu?
- I’m sorry: Je suis désolé
- Can you help me?: Peux-tu m’aider?
- Do you speak English?: Parlez-vous anglais?
Food and Drink
No Canada travel guide could get by without mentioning some classic staples of Canadian cuisine, including maple syrup, Canadian bacon and poutine (french fries covered in cheese curds and topped with gravy).
In the food department, you’ll also see lots of products familiar to those found south of the border—but with a twist. For example, chips can be found in just about every department store, but you’ll notice some new flavors, such as ketchup and All Dressed (salt, vinegar, ketchup, barbecue, sour cream, onion and a variety of other seasonings).
Some drinks of Canadian origin include Canada Dry ginger ale and Red Rose tea, as well as the time-honored hangover cure, the Caesar. That’s tomato juice, clam broth, vodka, Worcestershire sauce and hot sauce—all in a salt-rimmed glass and finished off with a celery stalk and a wedge of lime.
Read our Canadian Food - What to Know and Eat article for more info.
Canada is a very safe country with low instances of violent crime. According to recent rankings from SafeAround, it currently sits at the eighth-safest country in the world. Like anywhere, though, you still want to take common-sense precautions when traveling here, so don’t leave unattended valuables in plain sight, and make sure to lock your bike. (Bike theft can be a particular problem in Vancouver and Montréal.)
Tourists should, however, be cognizant of natural and environmental dangers in Canada. Winters can be extremely harsh, especially the farther north you go. Blizzards, ice and dangerously low temperatures can pose serious risks if you aren’t properly prepared. If you’re traveling by car, always have a stocked emergency kit in the back. During the warmer months, bear encounters can turn dangerous. Make sure you know proper protocol to avoid problems, and always carry bear spray if there’s the possibility you’ll run into bears.
If you do need emergency services, simply call 911. In certain areas, 311 will connect you to non-emergency services. On mobile phones, 112 will redirect to 911.
What is Backroads
Established in 1979, Backroads is a pioneer in active, immersive and off-the-beaten-path travel. Now operating adventure tours in over 50 countries, our passion for discovery and our desire to experience the world in original ways continue to inspire our pursuit of new adventures. Explore all our Canada tours here, and we hope this guide will be enlightening as you plan your next great adventure!