Canada is enormous, and its culture is far from centralized; in fact, it’s spread in pockets all over the country. So it’s easy to overlook a few gems when planning a Canadian getaway.
Often, these skipped destinations are the medium-sized cities that you blow by on the highway, or briefly stop at to gas up in, or don’t really consider at all. But these 11 underrated Canadian cities are certainly worth making time for.
Thunder Bay, Ontario
Right on the bank at the top of Lake Superior, Thunder Bay boasts one of the most unique and character-rich cultures in all of Canada. With a strong indigenous presence (admire some of the local native art at the Thunder Bay Art Gallery), and some of the best Northern European cuisine in the country (sample a Finnish breakfast at The Hoito), this city is way more interesting than people let on. Plus, just look at that waterfront!
As the largest city in Saskatchewan, it’s a wonder Saskatoon doesn’t get more tourist attention. It has a great downtown core with some beautiful bridges, a gorgeous, riverside park system, and fun neighbourhoods that give off west coast vibes (looking at you, Broadway Street). Stay at the historic Delta Bessborough hotel and cycle or cross-country ski (depending on the season) through the Meewasin Valley Trail. And of course, if there was one place to eat Saskatoon berries, it’s got to be… Regina. Just kidding!
There’s a reason Hamilton attracts so many film crews, and it’s because the city is so diverse, not to mention beautiful in its special, blue-collar fashion. On a sunny day in Hamilton, stroll through the Niagara embankment and marvel at the numerous falls, or, on a rainy day, wander the halls of Dundurn Castle. To sip a cocktail with the coolest kids in Canada, head to The Ship on Augusta.
As far as major cities go, Winnipeg doesn’t get a whole lot of love — but it deserves it. It features bison-spotting at FortWhyte Alive, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the Royal Canadian Mint and polar bears to check out at the zoo. This has family vacation written all over it.
Fredericton, New Brunswick
As you most likely already know, Fredericton is the capital of New Brunswick. What you might not know is that it has an amazing arts scene and the cutest downtown core (pop into city hall for a free, three-day parking pass). The Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival is a worthy investment this time of year, but the truth is it’s a great city all year long. If the sun’s shining, walk around the waterfront parks and over the Fredericton Railway Pedestrian Bridge. The Maritime city also has a lively pub scene, with a local fave being the James Joyce Pub in the Lord Beaverbrook Hotel, which, incidentally, has some great waterfront views.
Nanaimo, British Columbia
Nanaimo bars and the Nanaimo Bar Trail (a confectionary pub crawl of sorts) should be enough to make you want to visit this city, but there are also a ton of other reasons to stop by Nanaimo. It’s a welcome contrast to Vancouver’s bustle and may be the quirkiest city in Canada. (Have you seen their $100,000 bronze waterfront statue of the former pirate mayor?) You can also do some island hopping by ferry, indulge in the local beer scene at White Sails Brewing or go for a hike.
Brandon’s the second-largest city in Manitoba, and it’s home to many historical buildings like Daly House Museum, which is in the home of Brandon’s very first mayor. In addition, there’s a marsh perfect for birdwatching, and the Westman Reptile Gardens is a great place to have a unique animal experience (especially if your little ones are into the creepy crawlies). Got a plane fixation? To the Commonwealth Air Training Museum!
Kamloops, British Columbia
Kamloops’ semi-arid desert climate makes the city very versatile. In the summer, bask in the heat at one of the beaches along the Thompson River, or, if you’re feeling bold, drive upstream and float down like a local. It’s a short trip to Sun Peaks Resort for some world-class skiing, golfing, biking or hiking, and the city itself is surrounded by hills that are great for sledding or mountain biking. Interestingly, the region is having a wine boom, with several great wineries having popped up in the valley.
St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador
On the eastern tip of Newfoundland Island, and not to be confused with Saint John, New Brunswick (although Saint John is also a great city), St. John’s is a must-see spot on the east coast. The city itself is a medley of Maritime charm and big city buzz. Tour around Cabot Tower on Signal Hill, eat some fresh Atlantic seafood, and visit The Rooms, an awesome museum and art gallery. To get a feel for how the islanders throw down on a Friday night, head down George Street and take your pick from the liveliest spots and join in on the fun.
Whitehorse, Yukon Territory
A lot of people seem to be afraid of travelling into the territories, but Whitehorse should be on everyone’s itinerary. Ever seen a mammoth skeleton? Go to the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre and you can check that particular item off your bucket list. The Yukon Wildlife Preserve is, in itself, worth the journey north — its stunning arctic and boreal vistas are like no other. There’s also the Takhini Hot Pools if you’re looking to unwind. Plus, every self-respecting Canadian has to see the Northern Lights once in their lives, and Whitehorse is a beautiful place to do it.
Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario
Hugging the border of Michigan and sandwiched between Lake Superior and Lake Huron, Sault Ste. Marie is a great city full of history. There are several historic sites to visit, and beautiful shorelines along St. Mary’s River and the bottom of Lake Superior. Take a stroll on the boardwalk while the sun goes down or hop on the Agawa Canyon Tour Train for some stunning views.