Deciding where to go with your kids in Canada can be a daunting decision. Mountains, prairies, beaches and easygoing cities are strewn across six time zones. Luckily, between wildlife sightings, cowboy encounters, hands-on pirate history, hunting for dinosaur fossils and ice-skating on mountain lakes, it's impossible to make a bad choice.
Best Regions for Kids
No kid on the planet can be ho-hum about seeing T-rex and his friends brought vividly to life, or yawn about finding real-life dino fossils in the multicolored clay hills.
Sandwiched between sea and mountains, build a sandcastle one day and go snowboarding the next while enjoying the comforts of the city.
- Canadian Rockies
Hike, ski, camp or snowshoe while looking out for moose, bear, elk and whistling marmot.
Get a taste of Québecois bonheur in the historic streets, year-round ice-skating, inner-city beach and the Biôdome full of critters.
- Maritime Provinces
Climb a lighthouse, sail on a pirate ship, whale-watch and beach hop in summer; see the trees turn red, orange and gold in fall.
Chase through parks in summer, ice-skate in winter and don't forget to visit nearby Niagara Falls!
Canada for Kids
As if seeing moose, eagles and whales or running around in the snow, on the beach or in the woods all day isn't fun enough, everywhere you turn, those crafty Canadians have cooked up some hands-on learning experience, living history lesson or child-oriented theater.
Museums & Monuments
Most large Canadian cities have science museums that specialize in hands-on activities, while at historic sites strewn across the country, costumed thespians get you right into the period and often give demonstrations of everything from blacksmithing to cooking. At some of these places there are also puppet or theatrical performances for children and other events, such as hayrides. Teens usually enjoy these sites as well, since they are often large and diverse enough for self-exploration and they touch on subjects studied at school.
Canada is all about open spaces, fresh air, rivers, lakes and mountains, snow, sand and wildlife. Kids are often admitted free or at reduced prices.
- Most Canadian cities are endowed with parks and promenades set up for even the tiniest cyclists, but finding a child-sized bike rental can be hit or miss. For a cycling-oriented holiday, try the mostly flat Confederation Trail, which traverses bucolic Prince Edward Island, or the traffic-free Kettle Valley Trail (KVR; British Columbia) that's one of the least strenuous stretches of the Trans Canada Trail. You will likely want to bring along your child's bike helmet.
- The Canadian National Park system contains easy strolls as well as longer hiking trails that teens might enjoy. Horseback riding is widely on offer and can be especially fun in cowboy country around Calgary.
- Most lake areas offer canoe rentals perfect for leisurely family outings, while seafront regions are packed with kayak outfits. For a bigger adrenaline rush for older kids, try white-water rafting or 'playboating' spots, particularly on the Ottawa River in Beechburg.
- There are plenty of fishing lodges, but you'd be surprised at how lucky you can get just casting into any lake or river. Likewise, try clamming (Prince Edward Island and British Columbia are tops) – ask locals where to go and bring a shovel and a bucket.
- On the coasts and the Bay of Fundy, whale-watching can be thrilling, but be prepared with seasickness pills, extra snacks, sunscreen and warm clothes.
- The tiny summer waves on the east and west coast are an excellent way to start learning to surf; rent a board or wet suit or take a class.
- Heading out skiing or snowboarding is an obvious family choice. Children under six often ski for free, ages six to 12 usually pay around 12% to 50% of the adult price and ages 12 to 18 pay a little more, 33% to 75% of the adult price. Then, of course, there's also ice-skating, sledding and snowshoeing.
Everywhere you turn in Canada you'll find fast food and fried fare. If you're health-conscious, a hurdle can be finding more wholesome options in small towns; however, you can usually find at least one cafe with sandwiches and wraps or you can self-cater. Fortunately, there are plenty of cabin- and family-suite-style options that allow you to cook for yourself, and some B&Bs will also let you cook. In cities, every restaurant option is available from vegan to steakhouses.
Easy-to-find Canadian foods your kids will love if you let them include poutine (French fries topped with brown gravy and cheese curds), fish and chips, Montréal-style bagels (wood-fired, dense and slightly sweet), pancakes or French toast with maple syrup, bear-claw doughnuts, butter tarts, and Nanaimo bars (crumb crust topped with custard and then melted chocolate). You may all gain a few kilos on this trip!
Most Canadian restaurants offer booster seats and child-friendly servers as soon as you steer your progeny through the door. However, families with even the most well-behaved children may not feel comfortable at fine-dining establishments.
A History Lesson
- Dinosaurs Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, Drumheller (Alberta), Dinosaur National Park (Alberta)
- Indigenous Peoples Haida Gwaii (British Columbia), Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump World Heritage site (Alberta), Indigenous Experiences (Ottawa), Wanuskewin Heritage Park (Saskatchewan), Huronia Museum (Ontario)
- European Colonization L'Anse aux Meadows (Newfoundland), Louisbourg National Historic Site (Nova Scotia), Fort William Historical Park (Ontario), Fort Edmonton (Alberta), Ste-Marie among the Hurons (Ontario), Fort Langley (southern BC)
- Winter Carnivals Québec City Winter Carnival, Cavalcade of Lights (Toronto), Vancouver Festival of Lights
- Ice-skating Rideau Canal (Ottawa), Lake Louise (Alberta), Harbourfront Centre (Toronto), Lac des Castors (Montréal)
- Skiing, Snowboarding & Sledding Whistler-Blackcomb (British Columbia), Norquay (Banff), Mont-Ste-Anne (Québec)
- Dogsledding Yellowknife (Northwest Territories), Iqaluit (Nunavut)
Critters of the Great North
- Moose Nearly everywhere but especially Algonquin National Park (Eastern Ontario), Gros Morne National Park (Newfoundland), the Maligne Lake area in Jasper National Park (Alberta)
- Polar Bears Churchill (Manitoba)
- Whales & Orcas Vancouver Island (British Columbia), Québec, Bay of Fundy (New Brunswick and Nova Scotia), Newfoundland
- Bald Eagles Brackendale (British Columbia), Jasper and Banff (Alberta), southern Vancouver Island (British Columbia), Cape Breton Island (Nova Scotia)
Wet & Wild
- Beaches Prince Edward Island, British Columbia
- Surfing Lawrencetown Beach (Nova Scotia), Tofino (British Columbia)
- Kayaking Salt Spring (British Columbia), Georgian Bay (Ontario)
- Canoeing Algonquin National Park (Ontario), Bowron Lakes (British Columbia), Kejimkujik National Park (Nova Scotia)
- Fishing Lunenburg, Nova Scotia (lobster), Point Prim, Prince Edward Island (clams), Northern Saskatchewan (freshwater fish), Maritime Provinces (deep-sea fish)
- Snorkeling Fathom Five National Marine Park (Ontario)
- Vancouver's outside action Capilano Suspension Bridge Park, Stanley Park
- Ottawa's museum mission Canada Agricultural Museum, Museum of Nature, Science & Technology Museum, Canadian Museum of History
- Toronto's heights & depths CN Tower to the subterranean corridors connecting downtown
- Montréal's culture infusion Old Montréal, Little Italy
- Halifax's Titanic connection Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Titanic graveyards
- Saskatchewan's discoveries Wonderhub Children's Discovery Museum, Saskatoon
Theme Park Delight
- Canada's Wonderland (www.canadaswonderland.com) Amusement and water park, Toronto
- Galaxy Land (www.wem.ca/play/attractions/galaxyland) World's largest indoor amusement park, Edmonton
- La Ronde (www.laronde.com) Amusement park, Montréal
- Calaway Park (www.calawaypark.com) Amusement park and campground, Calgary
- Playland (www.pne.ca/playland) Oldest amusement park in Canada, Vancouver
Traveling around Canada with the tots can be child's play. Lonely Planet's Travel with Children offers a wealth of tips and tricks. The website Travel For Kids (http://travelforkids.com) is another good, general resource.
Extras By Age
Babies & Toddlers
- Kids' car seats: car-hire companies rent them for high rates; in Canada babies need a rear-facing infant safety seat, while children under 18kg (40lb) must be in a forward-facing seat.
- A front or back sling for baby and toddler if you're planning on hiking and a stroller for city jaunts (nearly everywhere is stroller-accessible).
- Sandcastle- or snowman-making tools.
- Kids' car seats: children between 18kg (40lb) and 36kg (80lb) should have a booster seat. Seat belts can be used as soon as a child is either 36kg, 145cm (4ft 9in) tall or eight years old.
- Binoculars for young explorers to zoom in on wildlife.
- A bear bell for hikes.
- Field guides about Canada's flora and fauna.
- A camera to inject newfound fun into 'boring' grown-up sights and walks.
- Kite (for beaches).
- Bike helmet that fits well.
- Canada-related iPhone or Android apps.
- Canada-related novels (find a list of Young Adult Canadian Book Award winners at www.cla.ca).
- French-Canadian phrasebook or translation app.
The Fine Print
Children who are traveling to Canada without both parents need authorization from the non-accompanying parent. Sometimes this is enforced and other times not, but to play it safe you're better off with a notarized letter. Divorced parents should carry copies of legal custody documents.
When to Go
Festivals fill Canadian calendars year-round and most are very family-oriented. Summer is the most festival-heavy time, with lots of outdoor get-togethers from jazz festivals to rodeos. Fall is a lovely time to visit Canada if you can arrange it around your children's school schedule. At this time the trees are changing colors, daytime temperatures are still manageably warm and most of the crowds have gone.
The best time for fresh snow and snow sports is January to April. Santa Claus parades usually kick off the holiday season in November and early December. Around the same time or just after, you can expect fireworks, parades and Christmas tree lightings at the festivals of light.
Hotels and motels commonly have rooms with two double beds. Even those that don't have enough beds may bring in rollaways or cots, usually for a small extra charge. Some properties offer 'kids stay free' promotions, while others (particularly B&Bs) may not accept children. Ask when booking.
Another good option is cabins, which are usually rented out by the week and come with kitchens, any number of bedrooms, and other perks such as barbecues. You can find full listings with each province's visitors' guides online and in print (order them for free at each province's tourism website).
Camping is huge in Canada and many campgrounds also offer rustic cabins (bring your own bedding) that sometimes have kitchens, fire pits or barbecues. Some grounds offer exotic options such as tipis or yurts, while others have swimming pools or mini-golf, or might be located on a lake. Bring bug spray.
What to Pack
Canada is very family-friendly so anything you forget can probably be purchased in-country. Breastfeeding in public is legal and tolerated, although most women are discreet about it. Most facilities can accommodate a child's needs; public toilets usually have diaper-changing tables.
What you will need is layered clothing for everyone, as it can get spontaneously cool even during the summer months. Sunscreen is a must – you'd be surprised how much you can burn on the greyest of days – as are rain gear and bug spray. It's also a good idea to bring activities for lengthy car rides, since getting anywhere in Canada can involve very long distances.