10 best cities in Canada for family travel

10 best cities in Canada for family travel

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amusement park for kids

For a country home to 35.5 million people with the vast majority living on a narrow string along the 49th parallel, sorting out the ‘best of the best cities’ could get tricky since many hubs boast their own claims to fame. Besides, plenty of organizations do a very good job scouring for the best. Take the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) which tracks cities around the world assessing them on a myriad of points.  In this year’s hotly anticipated report the EIU Safe Index report pegs Toronto and Montreal among the best cities to live in. Families on the other hand look for enjoyable urban outings, interactive activities, hands-on exhibits and of course good old fashioned fun. So with this in mind, here’s a look at our 10 best cities in Canada for family fun.

1-Quebec City

A city can’t get any more magical for a kid than knowing there’s a magnificent castle on a hill. The legendary Chateau Frontenac, a luxury Fairmont hotel property soars above a cliff top. It has feted and hosted too many dignitaries and families to even mention.

You don’t have to travel across the Big Pond either to feel like you’ve entered another continent.

The cobbled stone streets in Old Quebec are reminiscent of Europe so families can wander the historic streets, watch buskers, and enjoy the city’s lively charm.

The capital of Quebec, Quebec City is the seat of government but don’t expect too conservative although it’s not as brash and sassy as Montreal, but then again what Canadian city is.

best cities in canada
Photo: Québec City Tourism/Camirand Photo. Avenue Saint-Denis with the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac in Québec City, Québec, Canada.

In winter great blankets of snow cover the streetscapes and ‘Bonhomme,’ the city’s winter mascot snowman, greets winter loving guests at his annual Winter Carnavale de Quebec.

Top things to see and do include stops at the Aquarium de Quebec for close-up views of wondrous fish, sting rays and Eddy, the aquarium’s champion swimming polar bear; the Mega Parc des Galeries de la Capitale for merry-go-round and Ferris Wheel trips all part of this indoor amusement park; and walks along the Dufferin Terrace to see the ships chug along the ancient river.

2-Calgary

best cities in canada
Photo: Canadian Tourism Commission

A city that’s near the world’s largest dinosaur bone yard gets a huge thumb’s up in the family-fun department.

Take your kids to this Jurassic Park by the famous Canadian Badlands, home of the Royal Tyrrell Museum a short drive away to suss out real dinosaur bones.

And if that’s not enough, summer time turns into cowboy central with the annual Calgary Stampede where families don cowboy hats and watch rodeos over and over again.

Best Family Vacation Spots
Photo: Canadian Tourism Commission

Other top things to see and do are visiting the Calgary Zoo and the Peace Bridge.

Considered Calgary’s best attraction, this fun family spot makes for a perfect day to be with the kids. See penguins at the Antarctica exhibit, and head to watch other animals like the long necked giraffes, lions, tigers and bears.

For a cool architectural landmark see this new bridge illuminated at night. You’ll understand quickly why it won the 2014 Canadian Architect’s award for best steel design in the bridge category.

3-Vancouver

Best Family Vacation Spots
Photo: Canadian Tourism Commission

The birthplace of Greenpeace, this eco-friendly city in British Columbia rolls out a green carpet of family-fun activities, many of which you can enjoy year-round.

Head to Lynn Canyon Park for trails, and test your nerve by walking across the swingy suspension bridge then duck into the ecology centre.

Kids can get inspired at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum. Located in the University of British Columbia campus which on its own is a stunner surrounded by age-old foliage and cool sculptures, the museum is a great hot bed for inquisitive minds.

Fun thing to see: the blue whale skeleton in the atrium (it’s Canada’s largest blue whale skeleton).

By the Burnaby Village Museum coastal retro comes to mind. Tiny tykes enjoy the old fashioned charm of Burnaby’s early years when ice cream parlours and carousels were all the rage. Feel like a kid and go for a spin around the restored 1912 C.W. Parker carousel.

Best Family Vacation Spots
Photo: Canadian Tourism Commission

Then there’s more outdoor fun. Plenty of parks, one of the best is Stanley Park nice for family get-togethers, great place to watch the kids play, and fabulous terrain for cyclists, and rollerbladers.

Big hits include the totem poles, a miniature train ride, the 800-year-old hollow tree which is a red cedar stump frequently photographed, and the massive monument trees which are protected heritage trees.

Check the City of Vancouver Tourism Office for their Top 10 Family Friendly activities.

Best Family Vacation Spots
Photo: Toronto Tourism. Art Gallery

4-Toronto

One of the biggest international sporting events ready to descend upon Canada’s largest city is the upcoming summer 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games.

This means city attractions will be buzzing with visitors and a crop of neighbourhoods in the downtown will be finding their groove with fabulous seasonal festivals.

Best Family Vacation Spots
Photo: Canandian Tourism Commission

The city is comprised of many vibrant neighbourhoods which celebrate the diverse cultures of residents who have made Toronto home. So why is that fun for families?

You can take a whirlwind world tour by sampling the customs, cuisine and local festivals. Then there are the numerous urban parks, many of which, morph into backdrops for radiant summer festivals.

For instance, the city’s Beaches International Jazz Festival takes over the city’s east end in July. Located by the laidback, picture pretty neighborhood known as The Beach, this festival has a monster street fest and main stage for concerts, and it’s all free.

In Toronto families can enjoy multiple attractions and save money with the Toronto CityPass which is bundled tickets of Toronto’s top attractions.

Avoid the cues and head inside to explore some of Toronto’s favorite family-friendly spots. The list includes the CN Tower, the Royal Ontario Museum, the Toronto Zoo, the Ontario Science Centre and the Casa Loma.

5-Montreal

The EIU has anointed this famously bilingual city as one of the best cities around the world to live in. And why shouldn’t it?

Best Family Vacation Spots
Photo: Kayak Sans. Stand-up paddle boarding on the St. Lawrence River

The vibrant island city along the St. Lawrence River in Quebec has only stood as an incubator for some of Canada’s biggest artists and musical talents. Icons like Leonard Cohen, Celine Dion and Arcade Fire are just a few of the many legends who hail from there.

Best Family Vacation Spots
Photo: Sid Lee. Le Cartet Bistro Restaurant

Parents know the diverse neighbourhoods have ample child-friendly amenities, attractions including a good selection of meet up spots for new moms. Sprinkle a nice assortment of cafes too.

In Old Montreal part grocery store and part cafe, comes Le Cartet with its communal tables. The baby-friendly eatery caters to young families and hipster professionals. Regulars like the free wi-fi and brunch on weekends.

Besides the charming neighbourhoods, Montreal boasts a rich list of family attractions, many of which are free. Hang out by the Old Port, listen to the clip-clop of horse drawn carriage rides in Old Montreal, see butterflies at the Botanical Garden or soak in the fabulous panoramic vista from the city’s lofty perch at Mont Royal.

6-Niagara Falls

It doesn’t get any better than hanging out at the foot of Niagara Falls sopping wet from the thundering water crashing all around you in an out-of-this-world boat ride on a Hornblower Niagara Cruise. But then again, it’s not every day you get to hang out in Niagara Falls either.

Best Family Vacation Spots
Photo: Canandian Tourism Commission. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Famous for the mighty Horseshoe Falls, (that’s the Canadian Niagara Falls) this city has plenty of side attractions popular with families.  While a year-round destination, summer is when all the fun really happens.

Best Family Vacation Spots
Photo: Canadian Tourism Commission

Located in the Niagara Parks, crowds gather at the famous brink by the Table Rock Welcome Centre but many continue their discoveries at other Niagara Parks Commission attractions like the White Water Walk along the Great Gorge located enroute to Queenston Heights. Walk the boardwalk, see the cascading rapids, and explore the gorge environment.

Other popular stops in the Niagara Parks include the Botanical Gardens with the adjacent Niagara Parks Butterfly Conservatory, the Whirlpool Aerocar for a cable car ride across the river; and a hike down the legendary Niagara Glen popular with families who like to experience nature at its best. Be warned, some of the trails are steep along ridges by the escarpment so wear good hiking shoes.

7-Ottawa

Best Family Vacation Spots
Photo: Canadian Tourism Commission

Canada’s capital packs a capital good time for families. Besides where else can you skate along the world’s largest naturally frozen skating rink?

Ottawa’s answer to good winter fun is its annual Winterlude festival with its mega ice sculptures, races and cool places for family time like the Snowflake Kingdom, a snow playground for kids.

Located on the border of Quebec and Ontario along the ancient Ottawa River, there’s a great assortment of attractions. Bedazzle the little ones with a visit to the Canadian Children’s Museum, a giant toy box of great adventure where kids can experience hands-on learning and fun!

Between choo-choo trains at the Canada Science and Technology Museum, slithery snakes at Little Ray’s Reptile Zoo, and wet and wild times at the Calypso Waterpark, there’s no time for boredom here.

8-Whistler

So where does everybody go and play when they want to escape Canada’s big cities? Enter Whistler.

Best Family Vacation Spots
Photo: Whistler/Chad Chomlack. PEAK 2 PEAK Gondola at Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort in Whistler, British Columbia, Canada.

Only 120 km north from Vancouver along the Sea to Sky Highway that zips across undulating inlets and sky-high mountains, comes this outdoor playground.

A small population of nearly 10,000 means better chances in connecting with your loved ones without the hassle of city distractions.

Of course things change come winter when the slopes attract planeloads of skiers and boarders.

Best Family Vacation Spots
Photo: Canandian Tourism Commission

Folks might recall the 2010 Winter Olympics when Whistler was home to Nordic events, bobsleigh, skeleton and luge events.

With gold medal fever long over, the area now is home to the sprawling Whistler Olympic Park.  In summer or winter, gutsy teens and nail-biting parents can get a huge adrenaline rush heading down part of the bobsleigh slides at the Whistler Sliding Centre.

While winter is nirvana and Whistler is definitely one of the best places to ski in Canada, don’t let the green hills of summer stop you.

The snow town is a year-round resort town. In summer bask in the clean mountain air and enjoy the wide outdoors.

Pick the length of trails you like and enjoy a family cycling trip on the 40km paved Valley Trail, or paddle on a canoe trip on the River of Golden Dreams.

The Superfly zipline is pegged as the longest in Canada that soars through BC backcountry. Good for kids seven years and older.

9-Halifax

Best Family Vacation Spots
Photo: Communications Nova Scotia. Cycling along Halifax harbour with views of George’s Island in Halifax, Novas Scotia, Canada.

This maritime capital of Nova Scotia is family to the core.

When bad times happen, Haligonians rally to help pick up the pieces.

They were there when the world mourned the tragic sinking of the Titanic, and they were there when the Halifax explosion of 1917 flattened their town in an instant. Everyone wept and hugged their loved ones even closer.

The tragic collision of two ships one carrying deadly military explosives caused an unimaginable explosion and became known as the biggest manmade explosion in the world’s history before the atomic bomb.

To this day, every Christmas the city sends Boston a spruce tree as a token of thanks for the help and generosity Boston provided Halifax.

As you walk the streets of Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia, you will notice the vestiges of yesteryear, those hallmarks that reflect their past.

You will also meet good natured Haligonians, amiable folk whose ancestors resilient to hardships have passed down an indefatigable spirit that’s wrapped in good humour and the gift of the gab.

Best Family Vacation Spots
Photo: Canadian Tourism Commission

Families get a lot of joy visiting the vast family-friendly attractions and events scheduled year-round. Some favourites include the annual Royal Nova Scotia Tattoo, a week-long festival in July.

That’s when you see the proud locals showcase their tartan hardware with other international performers in the world’s largest indoor show.

Also parents need to take their children to show them Canada’s immigration history at Pier 21. Considered Canada’s version of Ellis Island in New York, thousands of immigrants who arrived by ship were processed there before later becoming Canadian citizens.

Now a museum you can see hand-written notes, personal mementoes, photographs, and listen to oral histories. My own mother Maria (nee Steiner) has a recording of her family’s arrival from Hungary after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.

Families can explore the urban parks, watch ships in the harbour, and visit other notable landmarks like the Halifax Citadel and the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.

Whether around Robie Street with its tree-fringed residential homes near St. Mary’s University or around Point Pleasant Park for its popular summer Shakespeare by the Sea festival, families can easily find good times that make for good memories.

10-Victoria

Best Family Vacation Spots
Photo: Canadian Tourism Commission

A complete 360-degree from trendy Vancouver and hip Whistler, Victoria has commonly been kibitzed as Canada’s retirement capital.

Nestled on Vancouver Island the capital of British Columbia is known for a huge senior population that’s drawn to the city’s warmer temperatures, manicured lawns, and a paean of furling gardens.

But the city is also reaping rewards for fine family living.

A pedestrian friendly city enveloped by sea and tree-fringed parks, Victoria’s landmarks are easily viewed on foot or bike.

The west coast charm brews nicely with boho shops, eclectic boutiques, and the kids will have plenty of diversions to keep them busy.

Best Family Vacation Spots
Photo: Canadian Tourism Commission

The Royal BC Museum is a good start. Packed with permanent collections wander through “Old Town” that looks akin to a film set with life size replicas of various city streetscapes depicting community scenes over 100 years ago.

Enter a wood block street and wander past a collection of shop fronts and period-style buildings like the Grand Hotel and the Port Moody Train Station.

For strange late night adventures there’s a fun sleepover with dinosaurs that gets everyone excited during the Night at the Museum.

This is a one night annual event where you spend the night at the museum and awaken to yoga stretches and pancakes. The next one is scheduled on May 23.

In the heart of Beacon Hill Park is a classic crowd pleaser: The Beacon Hill Children’s Farm.  There’s never a dull moment. Hear the farm animals and watch as they do their daily chores, which is to sleep, eat and poke their heads around.

Fun critter sightings are guaranteed. Picture ducks, a peacock, chickens, roosters, turkeys. And with this year as the Year of the Goat, spot plenty of goat action. The farm’s oldest is 16-year-old Peg and the youngest is Baby Oliver, born in January.

For some fun bonding, try the Victoria Bug Zoo.  Sounds creepy but this local bug zoo is packed with creepy crawlies and tiny six legged insects among other squirmy looking things that move in the dark.

With 40 species to choose from, here’s where you can see giant walking sticks, hairy tarantulas and Canada’s largest ant farm. Take a guided tour and don’t forget the camera for those family pix.

Discover Canada

For more ideas of things to do while in Canada see Best of Canada.

10 best cities for family travel

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12 COMMENTS

  1. I always wanted to visit Niagara and Quebec so they are on the top of my list. Ottawa seems cool too! I would love to explore more of Canada so I’m thankful for this post that gives me some idea about what to expect on those cities.

  2. I would love to go to any of these and just watch for odd looking wildlife. You say that you might have to wait around to see them, but how long typcally?

  3. I love art galleries and little cafes. I have never been to Canada, but it looks like Toronto would be my choice out of all of these.

  4. These are the types of places that I like to read about. A nice place that I can bring the entire family where each of us has something that might catch our attention. I am going to make notes of these for the next summer trip that our family plans. Thanks!

  5. Granville Markets in Vancouver in also amazing we visited last year went on the little tug boat taxi to get around.

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