What a country! People used to say this about the good ol’ USA but I’m referring to our friendly neighbors to the north, Canada. Last year I spent a week exploring the western part of Canada and this year I wanted to visit Eastern Canada. The two sides of Canada are equally beautiful, but the eastern side of Canada is unique in that it seems far more “European” than than its western half. The cities are intriguing and the countryside is simply beautiful. For this trip we’d be visiting the four eastern cities of Toronto, Ottawa, Quebec City, and Montreal. But is one week enough time to really see them all?
First Stop, The Bustling City Of Toronto
Our adventure began in the city of Toronto. As we drove towards the downtown along the Gardiner Expressway it was evident this metropolis is vibrant and full of energy. The sides of the highway were beautifully landscaped with green grass and white flowers that spelled out messages like “Welcome to Toronto”. People were jogging along the Lake Shore path. Everything looked so clean and new. The city was just glistening.
A bit of advice. Don’t always plan activities on the first day you travel. After the plane ride, the luggage and the rental car, we were completely out of energy to explore that first day. We could have easily added another day to our vacation to take a Bus Tour of Toronto. This city tour has big red buses that will drop you off at 21 different points of interest. One of the stops worth mentioning is the CN Tower shown in the picture above. Completed in the 1970’s, it held the title as the world’s tallest free-standing structure and world’s tallest tower. Views from the tower’s observation deck must truly be out of this world, especially at night!
I truly think you can spend an entire vacation in this one city and not get bored. If your a sports fan you can visit the Hockey Hall of Fame. Toronto also has its fair share of zoos, museums and amusement parks to choose from. As for shopping and food districts look no further than the St. Lawrence Market. In 2012, National Geographic named it the world’s best food market.
Another interesting place you might want to visit in Toronto is Casa Loma. This museum and Toronto landmark in midtown was once home of the financier Sir Henry Mill Pellatt. Constructed in 1911 this home looks more like a castle! Its unique Gothic Revival architecture makes it a popular film location for both movies and television.
A Visit To Niagara Falls
On our second day we set out for the one place that had been on my bucket list for a long time, Niagara Falls. The drive from Toronto took only 1-1/2 hours since we were traveling on a weekday. After we found parking on crazy Clifton Hill, we walked down the street to see “The Falls”. The view of the falls from the Canadian side is absolutely magnificent. Anywhere along the railing you’ll get a panoramic view of American and Bridal Veil Falls that flow over the US side of Niagara. Just around the corner you can hear the thunderous roars from the mighty Horseshoe Falls.
If you visit Niagara Falls you must, I repeat, MUST take the boat tour. Believe me it truly will make your visit an experience of a lifetime. We took the Hornblower Niagara Cruise and were talking about how crazy it was all the way back to our hotel. You will get very wet as would be expected from getting so close to such immense waterfalls. It’s an absolute rush and it’s no wonder that Niagara Falls is one of the seven natural wonders of the world. If you want to see more incredible pictures of the boat ride and our experience in Niagara read this article Make Niagara Falls Your Bucket List Destination.
Take A Side Trip To Niagara-on-the-Lake
After the excitement of Niagara Falls we decided to wind down by spending the afternoon in the quaint little town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. It’s only a 25 minute drive north from Niagara Falls and definitely worth a visit. The town is known for its beautifully landscaped gardens, art galleries, antique shops, and golf courses. As I strolled along admiring the gorgeous display of flowers that lined the street, I got a sense of the much slower and very comfortable pace of life here. It would be a fantastic place to spend a quiet weekend at.
This town is incredibly pristine and interesting. We saw remarkably preserved hotels from the 1800s such as the Prince of Wales Hotel (shown above). If you visit early enough you could explore Fort George and learn why it was such an important location in the War of 1812. Oh and they have a Cows Creamery if your in the mood for some delicious ice cream!
Cruising Through The Thousand Islands
The best way to break up the 5 hour drive from Toronto to Ottawa is to stop at one of the towns along the Saint Lawrence River and take a boat cruise. I had read that the Gananoque Boat Line would be a great way to see The Thousand Islands. Did you even know there were roughly one thousand islands along the Saint Lawrence River? Neither did we. Soon we’d be cruising through those islands to see the homes and a few castles that were built on them.
The highlight of the cruise was a stop off at Boldt Castle. Are you familiar with the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City? Well George Boldt who was the general manager there decided to expand his vacation home on Hart Island. The story is that he wanted to build a huge castle for his beloved wife Louise. No expense was spared in building the castle and other buildings on the island. He even had the island reshaped to resemble a heart and renamed the island Heart Island. Unfortunately his wife died before completion of the project. The buildings fell into ruin for many years but have been wonderfully restored by the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority. We were able to walk up the dock and wander around the grounds of the castle. We also took an audio tour inside the castle to learn about all the rooms and the history of the island. It was a remarkable and enjoyable way to spend the day.
Taking A Bus Tour Through Ottawa, Canada
Are you guys still with me? I know this seems like a long trip but things are really starting to get exciting now. As we arrived in Ottawa we began to see more evidence of Canada’s history. In the center of town sits Parliament Hill with its Gothic Revival government buildings standing tall and proud. Don’t you think the clock tower looks strikingly similar to Big Ben in London?
While in Ottawa we decided to keep our driving to a minimum and instead take the red double decker bus tour. That way we could just hop on or off the bus all day long. The best part is the bus stops are all major points of interest within the city. It’s actually a pretty convenient way to travel and see the sites. Some of our stops included visiting The Royal Canadian Mounted Police Stables and The Canadian Museum of History. There is really too many things to see in just one day. I think in Ottawa you really need at least two days to be able to see it all.
Enjoying The Beauty Of Old Quebec
Arriving in Quebec City is like taking a trip back in time. A stone fortified wall surrounds Old Quebec so you must enter via one of four gates. We drove in at night and were completely blown away by the incredibly beautiful architecture everywhere.
At the forefront of Old Quebec is the magnificent Fairmont Frontenac Château. This grand hotel is largely recognized as the most photographed hotel in the world and it’s easy to see why. It was designed by American architect Bruce Price and first opened its doors in 1893. The Frontenac Château is by far the most prominent feature in the Quebec City skyline especially at night! In fact it is very similar to the equally impressive Banff Springs Hotel in the Canadian Rockies.
The true charm of the city can be seen during the day when the town bustles with activity. One of the best ways to witness this is by taking a romantic ride in one of Quebec City’s horse-drawn carriages. While you sit back and enjoy the views your carriage driver will often share with you history and interesting stories about the city. Right away you’ll notice that the primary language is French. However many people do speak English too.
There are a few other ways you can get around town in Quebec. We drove a rental car and found it easy to find metered public parking spots. The parking wasn’t too expensive especially if you’re only going to be at a location for a few hours. Even though there are some steep cobblestone streets in Quebec we found it relatively easy to walk around. And because everything is so close in Old Quebec you could easily take a walking tour to see the sites. For example Place d’Armes, the public park that dates back to the mid-1600s, is surrounded by important buildings that are easily reached by walking. Musee du Fort is a museum that recounts the military history of Quebec through a 30-minute sound-and-light production. On another side of the park is The Château Frontenac. You’ll see a few important monuments and statues nearby such as the Samuel de Champlain Monument which pays homage to the founder of Quebec City. Across from the monument is a visitors center where you can ask questions, get city maps, or just use the bathroom.
Just in front of the Frontenac is the Dufferin Terrace. This boardwalk stretches along the cliff walls of the old city and offers wonderful views of the lower old town and the St. Lawrence River. We were surprised to find there is a funicular (cable car) that takes guests from the top of the terrace down to the Quartier Petit-Champlain, one of the older neighborhoods in Quebec City. You could also attempt to walk down the “Breakneck Stairs” to get to the lower town. After seeing how steep they were, we decided not to chance it and instead drive to lower town.
There is a small parking lot at the base of Place-Royale, a small square area that began as a trading post then became a bustling town marketplace. Today it’s a popular visitors attraction with lots to offer. We found super cute shops with unique goods, a few trading posts with animal furs, and several inviting cafes and restaurants. At the heart of the Place-Royal is The Notre-Dame-des-Victories church. Built in 1688 it remains the oldest stone church in Quebec. Across from it is The Maison Chevalier a historic home and museum that is open free to the public. Inside you’ll find decor from the 18th and 19th centuries as well as information on Quebec’s architectural history. Want even more history about this area? You can find that a few steps away at the The Interpretation Centre just in front of the bronze bust of King Louis XIV.
The Final Leg, Montreal
Finally we’ve made it to our final city Montreal, the largest city in the province of Quebec. French Canadians are very proud of this city and for good reason. It’s a city that boasts elements that are both old and new. Montreal is set on an island in the Saint Lawrence River. The name is derived from Mt. Royal, the triple-peaked hill at the heart of the city. We drove over The Jacques Cartier Bridge into Montreal and were surprised to see an amusement park named La Ronde just below the bridge. Apparently it is owned and operated by Six Flags. I would have loved to have ridden a rollercoaster or two but we only had a short amount of time in Montreal.
Our first stop after checking in at our hotel was the sprawling grounds of Olympic Park. I wanted to see the stadium that was built to stage the 1976 Summer Olympic Games. You got it right…that’s the one where the former Bruce Jenner won his gold medal in the men’s decathlon. Although the grounds are noticeably dated and in need of upgrades, they are still worth a visit. Among the attractions at this park you’ll find The Montreal Olympic Tower (the tallest inclined tower in the world!) and The Montreal Biodome (a facility where visitors can walk through replicas of four ecosystems found in the Americas).
No visit to Montreal is complete without visiting the Notre-Dame Basilica. It seemed there was a church named Notre Dame in every major city in Eastern Canada. Well this is the one to rule them all in terms of beauty. The five dollars they charge you to enter the basilica almost kept me from witnessing the most magnificent interiors to a church that I have ever seen. My mom had to convince me not to be so cheap and just pay the fee. Sometimes I become too much of a Scrooge McDuck. But thank god she convinced me. The inside of the church is unparalleled. Let me give you a quote from Wikipedia: “The church’s Gothic Revival architecture is among the most dramatic in the world”. Wow! You will be completely blown away. It’s no wonder Celine Dion chose this church for her wedding. In fact it is so popular that there is a two year waiting period to get married here. We were fortunate just to see it. As part of your $5 fee, inside you receive an informative tour of the history of the church.
After visiting the Basilica we drove up to Mount Royal to catch views of the city from atop the hill. The parks were so green and the trees were in full bloom. Everyone was out enjoying the good weather. On the way down from Mount Royal we spotted Saint Joseph’s Oratory, a Roman Catholic minor basilica and national shrine. It’s not only Canada’s largest church but the world’s largest sanctuary dedicated to St. Joseph. It’s also the largest dome in the world after Saint-Peter’s in Rome.
Wow, four major cities completed in just seven days. I’ll be honest it was tough to squeeze everything in. I think a couple of extra days would have made it a little easier on us. But we managed to see the main sites and learn a whole lot about Eastern Canada. Although it’s all in the same country, it is a world apart from the West. If you want to experience the most European cities without traveling all the way to Europe, then make Eastern Canada your destination. Hey and you can learn a little French while your at it! Au revoir!