Top 10: Things to Do in Ontario

Canada's most populous province can keep a visitor busy for months with its attractions, both natural and man-made. Here are our picks for the top ten must-dos.

By National Geographic
Niagara Falls
The Maid of the Mist takes visitors on a spray-soaked ride to the base of Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.
Photograph by Richard Olsenius, National Geographic

Niagara Falls
Honeymoon clichés notwithstanding, this is a don't-miss spot. The true essence of Niagara Falls has been the same for centuries—it’s simply an awe-inspiring spot to experience the raw power of nature. “It would be harder for a man to stand nearer to God than he does here,” Charles Dickens once remarked. Like Dickens, modern visitors not only see and hear but even feel the power created each second when 739,682 gallons of Niagara River water roars over the edge of Horseshoe Falls and plummets to a violent pool some 13 stories below. Tunnels lead visitors behind the falls for intimate encounters with the wall of falling water, and no trip here is truly complete without a ride on the legendary Maid of the Mist. The ship has plied a spray-soaked route to the base of the Horseshoe Falls since 1876.

Algonquin Provincial Park
Algonquin Provincial Park is a sublime, sprawling 7,800 square miles of lakes and forests that’s home to a quintessentially Canadian ecosystem of bears, brook trout, moose, and wolves. The park, founded in 1893, begs exploration by foot or via 1,000 miles of canoe trails that wander through an area of natural transition between northern Ontario’s coniferous forests and southern woodlands of maple, birch, and beech. Camping is de rigueur here in a land of dark night skies and crackling fires. But those who prefer to be pampered a bit can check into Arowhon Pines and enjoy a lakeshore resort located within the boundaries of the park.

The regal buildings of Parliament Hill, perched on a bluff overlooking the Ottawa River, leave no doubt that Ottawa is the seat of Canada’s government and an exceedingly attractive capital to boot. Visitors to “The Hill” can tour Gothic government buildings and, in summer, see Mounties and the time-honored Changing of the Guard ceremony. Ottawa is also renowned for its museums, which include the National Gallery, the Canadian Science and Technology Museum, the Canadian War Museum, the Museum of Civilisation, and the Canadian Museum of Nature. The city is a cultural hub, with something happening all year long. Notable highlights include the Canadian Tulip Festival each spring and the Winterlude Festival, during which the downtown section of the Rideau Canal is billed as the world’s largest skating rink.

Muskoka Cottage Country and Georgian Bay
The pine forests, blue waters, and clear skies of “cottage country” are familiar even to those who’ve never visited Muskoka—thanks to Canada’s iconic Group of Seven artists who immortalised the area on canvas. Today the 2,500-square-mile region remains chockablock with creative types who are equally inspired if perhaps less accomplished. As weather and water warm each year, the inhabitants of ubiquitous summer cottages search for their spot in the sun. Luckily, with more than 8,000 miles of shoreline there is room to accommodate everyone. Georgian Bay alone is dotted with more than 30,000 scenic islands. Historic towns and villages offer charming amenities for locals and tourists alike.

Thousand Islands
For dozens of miles downstream from Kingston, the wide, blue St. Lawrence River is dotted with more than a thousand tree-filled islands. The result is an idyllic environment for boating, swimming, fishing, and scuba diving in cold, clear waters. Explore the islands in your own boat or kayak or let others take the wheel with a guided tour from Kingston—a stately limestone city that was briefly the capital of Britain’s Province of Canada. Those who prefer to keep their feet dry can still drink in the scenery from the Thousand Islands Parkway. Remember that whether traveling by land or water the area straddles the border with the United States, so keep your passport at hand.

Toronto is a world-class urban centre and home to about four million of Ontario’s eleven million people. The city boasts a top-notch zoo, terrific theater, and unique neighbourhoods. The Lake Ontario Harbourfront is a booming district of working marinas, restaurants, and shops. It’s a good place to hop a ferry for travel to the Toronto Islands—and for stunning views of the towering downtown skyline. And when it comes to views, the iconic CN Tower stands in a class by itself. The building tops out at almost 600 metres (1,815 feet) and lets visitors look down on aircraft arriving at the city’s airport.

Stratford Shakespeare Festival
The play’s the thing in Stratford, at least from April through October when the town’s legendary theatre company performs on four different stages scattered around a community that shares more than a name with its famed English counterpart. The Stratford Shakespeare Festival is North America’s largest classical repertory theatre and boasts an impressive array of talent from the Canadian stage and screen and far beyond. The company continues to bring classical and contemporary theatre alive for an ever widening audience after more than half a century.

Ontario’s Wine Route
While not as well known as Napa or as celebrated as Sonoma, Ontario is home to one of Canada’s two major wine regions (southern British Columbia is the other). Vineyards on the Niagara Peninsula make for marvelous touring in warmer months—facilitated by a well-marked Wine Trail. A ramble along this route takes in historic sites and charming communities around the Niagara Escarpment and Lake Ontario, in addition to scenic farm landscapes and well-stocked tasting rooms. White wines predominate here, and Ontario is especially known for its German-style Eiswein, or icewines, a desert drink some call Canada’s “liquid gold.”

Point Pelee National Park
This park represents land's end on the Huron-Erie Peninsula, which divides the two Great Lakes for which it’s named and stretches out into a ten-mile sand spit at Point Pelee—the southernmost point in mainland Canada. Point Pelee has a greater diversity of flora and fauna than can be seen most anywhere else in Canada. It also hosts an enormous variety of migrating birds, thanks to its location on both the Mississippi and Atlantic flyways. More than 350 different avian species draw bird watchers from across North America and beyond to Point Pelee each spring and fall.

Scenic Drive Around Lake Superior
Ontario is as big as France and Spain combined and most of that land area is in the province’s sparsely populated northern regions. Visitors can sample the stark beauties of this wilderness by taking one of Canada’s famous scenic drives around the northern shore of Lake Superior. Between Sault Ste. Marie and Thunder Bay, Trans-Canada 17 travels through about 350 miles of scenic shoreline and forests. Jumping-off point Sault Ste. Marie, or the Soo, sits astride the end of the St. Lawrence Seaway between Lake Huron and Lake Superior. From the Soo this drive passes through Lake Superior Provincial Park, which protects some of Superior’s most pristine shorelines. Closer to Thunder Bay, at Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, the ancient granite of the Canadian Shield, northern Ontario’s dominant geological feature, can be seen pouring into the lake as a dramatic tableland of cliffs, headlands, and boulders.


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