Being Canada‘s most massive province in terms of west to east width and in population, Ontario represents such a breadth of Canadian landscapes and cultural experiences that to miss it on a visit would practically be a crime. Being the central colony behind the birth of Canadian confederation, and being the home to this nation’s federal capital Ottawa, this basis alone would warrant a visit by any traveler wanting to do justice to their Canadian journey.
Ontario offers so much more than that however, whether you fancy paddling a canoe on the still waters of one of the countless lakes of Cottage Country, or shooting the raging rapids of the upper Ottawa River.
Whether you enjoy puttering your way through the utterly abundant farmer’s markets of the southwest, or poking your face into the windows of expensive boutiques of Bloor Street in Toronto.
Whether you seek the quiet solace of the wild dunes of Sandbanks Provincial Park, or the extraordinary extroverted sands of Wasaga Beach, one of Ontario’s most popular summer getaways.
No matter what experiences you are seeking, you will likely find it amidst the 13 million people and the one million square kilometres of space that defines this paramount province.
What To Do – Culture & History
No discussion of culture in Ontario can take place without beginning from the place where this gargantuan nation is governed. Ottawa is the federal capital of Canada, and as such, it is home to Parliament Hill, the place where the laws of the land have been debated, written and codified for generations.
The Peace Tower, East and West Block buildings, and the Library of Parliament stand out from the surrounding city with their distinctive Gothic Revival stylings, and the grounds are also littered with statues of important figures from Canada’s political past, making for an interesting wander. Tours are available, and include a trip onto the floor of the House of Commons when it isn’t in session.
Another significant sight in town is the Rideau Canal, an almost 200 year old canal that is still in working order to this day. It connects the Ottawa River to Lake Ontario, located 202 kilometres to the south. This was constructed to allow the British to access Montreal in case another event like the War of 1812 were to happen again. It never did, and since, it has had a long peacetime history of use by commercial and recreational boating interests. Allow three days for leisurely passage, which will give you time stop off at all the charming rural villages en route.
Ottawa contains a considerable amount of museums, which is not surprising given its status as the capital. Of all the ones to pick and choose from, be sure to spend some time checking out the Canadian Museum of Civilization (showcases the human history and culture of Canada), the Canadian War Museum (extensive exhibits and collections from the wars this nation has fought in over the years), and the National Gallery of Canada (the best of visual art from Canadian artists, with pieces from other important foreign creatives as well), among the many choices available in the capital region.
Being the biggest city in the entire country, Toronto has a great deal to offer the cultural traveler as well. For starters, the Art Gallery of Ontario hosts Canada’s largest space dedicated to creative visual expression, with an impressive selection of Canada’s finest paintings, and some of the world’s most priciest works as well. The Royal Ontario Museum is equally as impressive, with artifacts of civilizations from all around the world complementing exhibits on Ontario’s heritage handsomely. The theatre district is North America’s best outside of NYC, and the Distillery District offers dining, entertainment and more in the earthly surrounds of refurbished warehouses from the 19th and 20th centuries. Simply put, a culture vulture will have their beaks stuffed with inspiration and entertainment during the duration of their stay here.
Winos will rejoice upon stumbling across the Niagara Wine Region, which contains almost 40 wineries intermixed with country-style B&B’s, relaxing spas, and refined restaurants. One product that this area is renowned for is its ice wine, which has a very sweet flavour. Have it with dessert when you are dining out in this extraordinary region.
Fans of theatre should drop by Stratford for its famed Shakespeare Festival, which runs all spring and summer from April to October. Each year, 12 plays and musicals from the bard’s body of work are performed by performance company behind the festival, presented at four venues for your inner thespian’s enjoyment.
While Northern Ontario is famed more for its endless outdoor opportunities than its culture, Fort William Historical Park is a place of great importance in the province’s history. Being a former fur trade post for the Northwest Company back in the early 19th century, it is now a sizable living history park with 42 structures, a reconstruction of an Ojibwa village, and live actors/actresses/interpreters that bring it all to life.
What To Do – Natural Attractions
Ontario has numerous natural attractions that you probably will not be able to see completely during the course of your first trip here, given the amount of them and distance that they are scattered over. One place you should certainly not miss under any circumstances though is the Canadian version of Niagara Falls, the horseshoe shaped cataract that sees unimaginable amounts of water flow over the Niagara Escarpment every day.
There are a variety of ways to experience it: by boat cruise, walking behind the falls, or by simply standing by one of many viewpoints and taking the most epic selfie you’ve ever snapped!
Those seeking to set foot on the southernmost point in Canada can do so by going to Point Pelee National Park in the far southwest of Ontario. Beside this geographical oddity, the beaches are nice, the climate is pleasant (same latitude here as Northern California) and the birdwatching is incredible, as this place lies along a major migratory pathway for countless species.
For many, the Canadian dream is symbolized by the vacation homes, lakes, and the granite covered landscape of Cottage Country. Situated due north and east a couple hours of Toronto, this is where countless workaday folk from the big city recharge on the weekends and on holiday during the summer. Here, the watersports are lively, and the apres party at pubs in places like Muskoka and Kawartha Lakes will make for a fun weekend with a bunch determined to have a good time while away from the city.
Those seeking to have the stereotypical Canadian canoe experience will find few other places better than Algonquin Provincial Park to make it happen, as it combination of picture perfect lakes (2,400 of them), a fine mix of forests in transition to the varieties found in the north, and abundant wildlife will grant you a memory of this life experience that you will treasure forever.
Fancy yourself a diver? If so, slap on that cold weather wetsuit go descend into the crystal clear waters of Fathom Five National Marine Park. This park, situated off the north tip of the Bruce Peninsula, protects 22 shipwrecks that have slipped to their watery graves over the years. Those unwilling to freeze their neoprene covered butts off can take glass bottomed boat tours, and “sea stacks” (formed by the erosive power of the fresh water of Georgian Bay) also provide occasion for dragging out the camera.
Those wanting to get in some time at the beach will find two ideal locations at Wasaga Beach and Sandbanks Provincial Park. The former sees a flood of customer’s from the Greater Toronto Area on hot and holiday weekends, and thus has tonnes of tourist infrastructure that makes it ideal for families. The latter is not as heavily trafficked, and is often more peaceful, with high sand dunes that give it a more wild flavour.
Northern Ontario has many interesting natural attractions along its seemingly eternal length, but the Sleeping Giant in Thunder Bay is one that stands out from the crowd (quite literally). This mesa of hardened rock outlasted the weaker sedimentary stones around it over the years, leaving a massive island of elevated land amidst a surrounding landscape containing much more gently rolling terrain.