Photo: Jody Robbins
If ever there was a year to travel in Canada with your family, this is it. We’re blessed with jaw-dropping landscapes, thrilling outdoor adventures and a trove of diverse cultural experiences. I should know—I’ve spent the past year criss-crossing the country in search of the top destinations for families for my book 25 Places in Canada Every Family Should Visit. So grab your suitcase, indulge your sense of adventure and start crushing on Canada.
Squamish, British Columbia Conveniently situated between Whistler and Vancouver, the outdoor recreation capital of Canada is the perfect spot for active families. Get your bearings on the Sea-to-Sky Gondola, where misty views of the Howe Sound and Coast Mountains will set your Instagram feed on fire. Amp up your adventure with a float down the river and count how many bald eagles you see. And don’t forget to put the Britannia Mine Museum on your trip to-do list. Here you can pan for real gold, have a multi-sensory experience with BOOM! and rumble underground on a mine train. At the end of the day, disconnect at Sunwolf Resort, a rustic hideaway with cosy riverside cabins (and no TV).
Revelstoke, British Columbia Most people think of Revy as a serious ski destination along B.C.’s famed powder highway but, come summer, this mountain resort town morphs into one of Canada’s most invigorating family playgrounds. Fairytale figurines and B.C.’s tallest treehouse delight youngsters in the Enchanted Forest, while at SkyTrek Adventure Park a forest jungle gym lets children test their limits. And forget city rollercoasters! A mountain coaster whooshes down a steep slope, but at speeds you control. Nearby natural hot springs soothe sore muscles and are best visited right before afternoon nap time.
Victoria, British Columbia You’d be hard pressed to find a city with more kid-pleasing attractions situated so closely together. The Inner Harbour is where it’s at with the Bug Zoo, Miniature World and the Royal B.C. Museum—all within walking distance. Mini marine biologists will relish hopping aboard a harbour ferry to spot wildlife such as orcas, sea lions and porpoises. Be sure to visit Oak Bay. At this seaside neighbourhood, you can wave at the friendly resident seals at the Marina (no feeding please!) before strolling over to a lovely independent book store and toy shop.
Vernon, British Columbia Less busy than the Okanagan region, Vernon also boasts a staggering number of orchards and is surrounded by three lakes, giving water-loving families plenty of recreational options. The O’Keefe Ranch is worth a visit to see the rare Jacob Sheep, which can have six horns. You’ll find equally exotic animals at nearby Kangaroo Creek Farm. Go from farm to table with a stop at Davison Orchards, where little ones love riding the Johnny Popper tractor to pick their own fruits and veggies in the field.
Canmore, Alberta Just minutes from the gates to Banff National Park, this mountain resort town sports all the wildlife and unspoiled wilderness you dream of, but with fewer crowds. Grassi Lakes is an easy day-hike that won’t tire out the tots. More ambitious families can rent bikes and cycle along the paved Legacy Trail all the way into Banff. Cool off with the locals by plunging into Quarry Lake, or opt for a condo with an outdoor pool. Canada Day is celebrated with a pancake breakfast and a sweet parade, where candy is tossed off floats into eager hands.
Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta Canada’s own Jurassic Park lies two hours outside of Calgary. Amidst the hoodoos of the Canadian Badlands, petite palaeontologists dig deep into the prehistoric past on fossil safari tours. You could haul the tent and trailer, or make it easier on yourself and bed down in the Park’s safari-like comfort camping suites. Make your visit truly memorable by saddling up to the salon at the Patricia Hotel, where families are welcome every Sunday. On Canada Day, everyone flocks to the nearby village of Rosemary for a small-town celebration like no other.
Edmonton, Alberta You’ll find much more than “the Mall” in Alberta’s capital city. (Athough Galaxyland is one of North America’s largest indoor amusement parks, so you may want to add West Edmonton Mall to your to-do list.) Outside the city, kids get an immersive glimpse into the past at Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village. Warning: kids love helping role-playing pioneers with their chores—behaviour not guaranteed to be replicated at home. Camp at nearby Elk Island National Park in a site already set up for you, just beware of the likelihood of encountering a bison traffic jam.
Regina, Saskatchewan The Queen city is so quintessentially Canadian and crazy affordable, you’ll wonder why you didn’t visit sooner. Begin with a tour of the RCMP Heritage Centre to learn what it really takes to become a Mountie. After saluting the RCMP, go geocaching (catered by age group) in the Edwardian gardens at Government House. Then, take it indoors at the Saskatchewan Science Centre, a science museum loaded with awesome hands-on exhibits that costs a fraction of what they charge in larger cities. Got a sports fan in your brood? Introduce them to Rider Nation (and the fine art of watermelon hat carving) during a CFL game at Mosaic Stadium.
Waskesiu Wilderness Region, Saskatchewan You don’t need a time machine to imagine what Canada was like 150 years ago. Simply step into the boreal woodlands of the Waskesiu Wilderness Region in Northern Saskatchewan. Travel by horse-drawn wagon à la Little House on the Prairie to view Canada’s only free-ranging bison herd on their historic range, before settling into your tent for the night. Or how about bedding down in a yurt, surrounded by forests, warm swimming lakes, hiking trails and organic gardens? Whatever you decide, you’ll find yourself immersed in a wilderness experience that harkens back to a bygone era.
Winnipeg, Manitoba An under-the-radar family fun zone, Winnipeg is a city on the rise, especially with the opening of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Set on The Forks, this museum is no snoozer, with scavenger hunts and kid-appropriate exhibits that foster discussion. Jet to the other side of town to play at the Streuber Children’s Garden, inspired by the board game Snakes and Ladders and nestled within Assiniboine Park. At Assiniboine Park Zoo, make a beeline for the Journey to Churchill exhibit, where the world’s most comprehensive northern species are on display.
Churchill, Manitoba What kid wouldn’t be on board with taking an arctic safari? This northern Manitoba town is the polar bear capital of the world, and one of the few human settlements where you can observe these bears in the wild. Take a Tundra Buggy out on the sub-Arctic terrain to view polar bears, arctic fox and other northern creatures during summer and fall. From June to August, over 3,000 beluga whales make their way from Hudson Bay to the warmer waters of the Churchill River. Families can kayak or snorkel with these naturally curious creatures and experience the rush of a lifetime.
Ottawa, Ontario Forgot what you learned about Ottawa on your junior high field trip? There’s no better time for a refresher. Even if your kids say they hate museums, the ones in Ottawa will convince them otherwise. Best for youngsters are the Canadian Museum of Nature and the Canadian Children’s Museum, which resides inside the Canadian Museum of History. Rent bikes and pedal along the Rideau Canal, or get really wet at Calypso, the country’s largest themed waterpark.
Niagara Region, Ontario You know about the falls and hotel waterslides, but did you know this lush pocket of Ontario is considered the daffodil capital of North America? Revive your senses with a visit to Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens, where wee ones can burn off some energy in the garden that's just under 100 acres. Or, take a tranquil stroll in the rainforest environment of the Butterfly Conservatory. As spectacular as Niagara Falls is, the White Water Walk is better suited to families allergic to crowds. The 1,000-ft boardwalk that runs along the rapids is suitable for both toddlers and strollers, and is strewn with interesting factoids.
Long Point, Ontario Craving the feeling of sand squishing beneath your toes? Instead of joining the hoards in cottage country to the north, head south to experience laid-back summer days punctuated by meandering bike rides and refreshing ice-cream breaks. Make your way to Long Point, a 40-kilometre sweep of golden sand anchoring the warm waters of Lake Erie. Rev up your holiday with a zip line or forest canopy tour. Best is staying overnight in one of Long Point Eco-Adventures's camping pods, which allow families to get comfortably close to nature without having to rough it.
Montebello, Quebec Looking for a restful rural retreat without sacrificing big-city pleasures? You’ll find a good mix in Montebello, a charming village chock-a-block full of gourmet shops and glamping options. Troop pleasers include tackling an aerial ropes course and trekking underground in the largest cave in the Canadian Shield. Animal lovers will want to cruise through Parc Oméga on an outdoor wildlife safari. At the Parc, you can feed deer directly from your vehicle and sleep overnight in a yurt or treehouse. Artisanal chocolatier ChocoMotive occupies Montebello’s historic train station and crafts high-quality treats that are worth bringing home as a souvenir (if they last that long).
Saguenay, Quebec Families looking for outdoor adventure should head straight to the dramatic Saguenay Fjord region. Village Vacances Petit-Saguenay is a Club Med-style family resort, where parents can participate in camp activities, too. Or perhaps you’d rather camp with caribou at Zoo Sauvage Saint Félicien? Kids over 14 can hang out with wolves at Aventuraid, while all ages can spend the night in a yurt next to the enclosure. Families won’t want to miss sea-kayaking along the fjord, where there’s a good chance you’ll come face-to-face with the resident beluga whales.
Montreal, Quebec Montrealers love their entertainment, and families do well catching oodles of free shows (think tightrope walkers and aerialists) during July’s Cirque Festival. Kids enjoy the thrill of being grossed out by all the creepy crawlies inside the Montreal Insectarium, and the nearby Biodome replicates the four ecosystems found in the Americas. For a rip-roaring good time, hop on board Saute Mouton. You’ll get drenched on this jet boating experience that leapfrogs over whitecaps in the St. Lawrence, but the littles love it.
Tadoussac, Quebec We all know about the trade between the First Nations and European explorers, but few realize that this is where it all began. Considered one of the prettiest villages in Quebec, Tadoussac is the oldest European settlement in the province, established eight years before Quebec City. Check out Chauvin Trading Post, one of the oldest First Nations’ trading and archeological sites in Canada, before taking advantage of all the children’s programming at Hotel Tadoussac. The town is a prime spot for whale watching, so hop aboard a Zodiak to view some of the 13 species that call the St. Lawrence home.
Fredericton, New Brunswick With a good mix of city and country pleasures, Atlantic Canada’s riverfront capital is an affordable escape (especially for seafood lovers). Science East and the Beaverbrook Art Gallery are tops for city slickers, while the Mactaquac Beaver Ponds offer accessible hiking and nature viewing just outside the city. The bombastic beats belted out during summer’s daily Changing of the Guard Ceremony provide a historical touch without being boring.
St. Andrews, New Brunswick Your quintessential seaside resort town, St. Andrews also sports one of the most fantastic outdoor playgrounds in the country. Engage the senses with a refreshing stroll through Kingsbrae Garden, a lush 27-acre paradise where children can plant their own flowers and play inside fancy playhouses. It’s worth the splurge to stay at The Algonquin Resort. Despite the external grandeur, it’s remarkably family-friendly, with a three-storey indoor water slide, 24-hour sundry shop and coin-operated washing machines. Experience a maritime kitchen party by heading into the Red Herring Pub, where children are welcome until 9 p.m.
Lunenburg, Nova Scotia A contender for the prettiest town in the maritimes, Lunenburg is perhaps best known for building and launching Bluenose, Nova Scotia’s famous racing schooner. You can climb aboard Bluenose II in the harbour, or view it from The South Shore Fish Shack, while sampling fish and chips and (for the more adventurous) cod tongues. At the Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic, families can chat up a real seafaring ship captain and learn how to shuck a scallop. Those not squeamish should plunge their hands into the touch tank to get a closer feel for creatures of the sea.
Cavendish, PEI The ultimate family playground, not only is Cavendish the home of Anne of Green Gables, but also four world-class golf courses. Both Avonlea Village and Green Gables Heritage Place (where the Haunted Woods and Lover’s Lane really exist!) are worthy stops for Anne fans. Kids won’t mind being stuck with dinner duty when they’re in charge of digging for it. Learn the finer points of clamming with Tranquility Cove Adventures, and you’ll be rewarded with a beach boil-up afterwards. Affordable lobster suppers can be found at community centers and churches throughout the region, but you can guarantee yours at New Glasgow Lobster Suppers.
St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador With their unique time zone set 30 minutes ahead of Atlantic Daylight Time, your day begins before the rest of North America. Setting time for centuries, the firing of the Noon Day Gun (a real cannon) at Signal Hill keeps busy families on schedule. Just outside the city, Cape Spear Lighthouse is a must-visit spot, as is the Petty Harbour Mini Aquarium, one of the few catch-and-release aquariums in the country. In the capital, stroll along Jellybean Row, admiring the candy-coloured Victorian homes as you lick an ice cream from Moo Moo’s. Lovely green spaces with outdoor pools can be found at both Bowring and Bannerman Park.
Viking Trail, Newfoundland and Labrador Way before John Cabot sailed in Canada, Vikings recorded landfalls in Western Newfoundland. Journey along the Viking Trail, where icebergs float off the coast and families step back in time, learning to live like these fierce Norse adventurers. You’ll want to spend significant time in Gros Morne National Park, especially hiking around the Tablelands Trail. The rust-coloured rocks make it seem as though you’re walking on Mars. The big draw is L’Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site. At this Viking village, children gather round the fire listening to Viking sagas and play warrior inside reconstructed sod huts.
Yukon If your family likes wide-open spaces and deep forests populated by wildlife, the Land of the Midnight Sun is definitely for you. Long hours of daylight make summer stretch that much further. Take advantage of longer days by starting hikes such as the Spruce Beetle Trail mid to late afternoon. Got a Frozen fan on your hands? Over half the landscape in Kluane National Park and Reserve is permanently draped in snow and ice. Warm up with a dip in the thermal, mineral-rich waters of the Eclipse Nordic Hot Springs, an odourless hot spring with pristine camping spots nearby that offer spectacular views of the Northern Lights.