the city of tadoussac and the saint lawrence river from the sky

When people think of Canada, they often picture the cities. The soaring spire of the CN Tower in Toronto, or the glassy seaside skyline backdropped by snow-capped mountains in Vancouver. But this country’s greatest charm — and in many ways, its truest nature — can be found in small towns.

So from coast to coast to coast — Atlantic to the Pacific to the Arctic — discover the true north, strong and free, by going small. Along the way, you’ll encounter gold, and whales, and polar bears, and hot springs, and so much more. Plus lovely local meals and snug and character-filled places to stay. Here a collection of Canada’s best, most beautiful, and interesting small towns.

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Clinging to the Wild West coast of Vancouver Island, this tiny cold-water surf town is surrounded by the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve (part of the bigger UNESCO Clayoquot Sound Biosphere). You can fly, but driving is the best way to arrive. Roll through lush, green, temperate rainforest, climbing over a ridge of mountains on the spine of the island, then dropping down to those rugged, driftwood-strewn beaches, right to the very finish of the Trans-Canada Highway. You haven’t arrived at the end of the world but it feels a little like it. 

Where to stay: The Wickaninnish Inn stretches out along Chesterman Beach. Rooms take in the beauty outside through massive windows, many with fireplaces and deep-soaker tubs big enough for two people. Recognized multiple times as one the best hotels in North America, there’s no bad time to visit — in the rainy winter, they provide slickers and galoshes, so you can do some storm-watching from the beach. 

Where to eat: The culinary culture is strong here. Tofino is home to a number of award-winning restaurants, including perennial favorite Wolf in the Fog, which focuses on fish, forage, and feast. But if you’re looking for something really simple and delicious, an albacore tuna burrito from Tacofino is just perfect — now a small chain of restaurants, it all started at this small original food truck. 

Sights you can’t miss: Several boat tours showcase the best things to see in the area, from bears and whales to hot springs. At the latter, wear your swimsuit, and ride a small cabin cruiser out to an island located in a marine park — keep your eyes peeled for aquatic life along the way. They’ll drop you at a wooden boardwalk, which leads to a natural rock pool where the waters reach over 120 degrees Fahrenheit. And you can’t leave town without taking a surf lesson. While the water is cold, the waves are amazing, roaring in from Japan all the way across the Pacific.


polar bear migrating to the small town of churchill in manitoba canada
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This small town is the Polar Bear Capital of the World. And while that title is self-proclaimed, it’s well-deserved — every autumn, the area around Churchill is just filled with these huge, white marine mammals. Migrating to Hudson Bay, sometimes these bears walk right down the main street, and there’s even a “polar bear jail” where animals removed from town serve a sentence before being helicoptered to a safer, more remote place. 

Where to stay: In town, the log-cabin-style Lazy Bear Lodge is a cozy and comfortable option. But if you have the time (and the resources) add a visit to nearby Seal River Heritage Lodge. A short flight away on a Twin Otter aircraft, Seal River (run by a company called Churchill Wild) sits right on the migration route. So you can watch bears saunter by while you eat your morning eggs, then take a walking safari outside the wire with well-trained guides to get a closer view of these massive animals.

Where to eat: Ptarmigan offers everything from solid comfort food to elevated fare. The best dishes take advantage of local ingredients, including the Manitoba pickerel, a lovely fish dish, and the hearty bison burger. Opening times are a little limited so be sure to check first before heading over. 

Sights you can’t miss: No big surprise — most of the activities here revolve around polar bears. You can enjoy scenic flights on a float plane or take a tundra-buggy out on the land to spot them. And in later summer, belugas come to spawn in the mouth of the Churchill River. Snorkeling with these adorable, surprisingly big mammals is an unforgettable experience. You don a heavy wetsuit and float through the murky water until they’re (in some cases) close enough to touch.

Dawson City, Yukon

Sitting just a notch below the Arctic Circle, the gold rush never really ended in Dawson. This Northern town boomed in the late 19th century when “Sourdoughs” (someone who can survive the Yukon winter) discovered a fortune, drawing prospectors from all over the world. Today, the entire town, with its wooden false-fronted buildings and millions of good stories, is preserved as a Parks Canada Historic Site. 

Where to stay: Once upon a time, Bombay Peggy’s was a brothel. Now a martini bar, they continue to play off that original sexiness. Have a few drinks downstairs — the Bloomer Remover is a favorite. Then retire upstairs. Each room is named and lightly themed, including the Lipstick Room, which features a claw foot tub, black velvet bedding, rich red walls and leopard-print accents. 

Where to eat: The restaurant at the Aurora Inn is small and family-run, with a menu that adds a gourmet touch to its rough-and-ready surroundings. Sit inside or on the patio and order up Far North delicacies like Arctic char or Alaska salmon. 

Sights you can’t miss: Start with a step back in time, on a tour led by a costumed Parks Canada interpreter, who will walk you through the Palace Grand Theatre, the Red Feather Saloon, and other historic buildings. Take a trip to the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers on the SS Keno, a classic sternwheeler. And there’s still gold in the hills — and in Bonanza Creek, where the first nuggets were discovered more than a century ago. Rent a pan for a few bucks and try your hand at Free Claim #6. Then try your luck at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s, Canada’s oldest gambling hall, followed by a visit to the Downtown Hotel, to drink the toe. (Google the latter for more details.)

Tadoussac, Quebec 

the famous hotel tadoussac in québec canada
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Here, where the Saguenay empties into a very wide St. Lawrence River, marine mammals thrive. This is one of the world’s great whale-watching destinations, where you can go out in a boat and spot 13 different species, from harbor porpoises and belugas to humpbacks and blue whales. And the village itself is filled with French Canadian charm, a lovely place to return after your cetacean encounters. 

Where to stay: The Tadoussac Hotel is an institution, right in the heart of town. A beautiful, classic building with dormer windows and a red roof spreading out above the water, they’ve been welcoming guests since 1865. Walk to the marina, then return to this waterfront hotel for a swim in the heated pool and a nice dinner in the pub or restaurant. 

Where to eat: Small, simple, and lovely, Bistro Le Bar Raye specializes in seafood. Grab a table outside, overlooking sailboats tied up at the docks. And enjoy everything from salmon tartare to scallop ceviche to a lobster roll. Fish, seafood, meat, and vegetables are all sourced locally. 

Sights you can’t miss: Before your whale-watching trip, learn more about all you’ll be seeing at the Marine Mammal Interpretation Centre. Under the 40-foot skeleton of a sperm whale, exhibits offer loads of useful information through sound recordings, videos, and hands-on games. And the interpreters posted around the place are super-passionate, and more than happy to answer all your questions. 

Trinity, Newfoundland 

Just a perfect Newfoundland seaside town on the Bonavista Peninsula, Trinity has a year-round population of only 76. Settled in the 18th century and filled with bright, historical buildings, it bustles in the summer. If you’re a film buff, you might recognize its bright Saltbox houses from The Shipping News, The Grand Seduction, or last year’s Disney movie, Peter Pan and Wendy.

Where to stay: The Artisan Inn couldn’t be any closer to the water — in fact, the patio here juts right out into Trinity Bay. Accommodations range from simple, comfortable rooms to big suites to two-story vacation homes with their own barbecues and fire pits. 

Where to eat: The Twine Loft (part of the Artisan Inn) offers two seatings nightly for their candle-lit, three-course meals. Local farmers and fishermen supply the ingredients, and the fresh cod is definitely a highlight on the menu. For something a little simpler, the Dock Marina serves up really good fish and chips.

Sights you can’t miss: Just walking around town is a lot of fun. A number of historic sites welcome visitors, including the Green Family Forge, a working shop where the blacksmiths are happy to chat while they work away over the fire. And out there on the Bay, there’s so much to do, from puffin-viewing trips to iceberg cruises.

Banff, Alberta 

moraine lake in banff canada with glaciers and mountains and canoes
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Ok, yes, Banff is touristy, and remains one of the most-visited towns in the Rocky Mountains. But it really is an amazing place. Set inside Canada’s oldest national park, you can appreciate roaring waterfalls right in town, then hike up into the ridge lines all around. And along the main streets, you’ll find galleries and distilleries and restaurants and plenty to keep you busy, and well-fed. 

Where to stay: The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel is an absolute icon, Canada’s castle in the Rockies. Originally opened in 1888 as one of Canadian Pacific’s original railway hotels, it has grown over the years into the impressive Chateauesque, French Renaissance hotel that stands today. Some rooms look out to Mount Rundle, and you can relax in the pools downstairs, which are fed with hot springs water.

Where to eat: The Juniper Bistro combines small sharing plates with excellent mountain views, and the brunch here is legendary — think, salmon Benny with a bloody Caesar. Right downtown, Maple Leaf Steak and Seafood elevates Canadian cuisine, from Alberta beef to fresh fish to Indigenous cuisine. And Park Distillery makes small-batch spirits with local glacier water and aromatics, as well as a menu of (delicious) mesquite-grilled meats. 

Sights you can’t miss: There’s a lot to do here. Hike right from town to the top of Tunnel Mountain. Snap photos of the crashing cascades of Bow Falls. Tour through museums and galleries. Take the Banff Gondola to the 7,500-foot peak of Sulphur Mountain, and look out over six different ranges. Or just relax on a boat tour out on the crystal waters of Lake Minnewanka. 

Waskesiu, Saskatchewan 

Arriving in this tiny town is a bit of a revelation. After driving north through the country, winding along pastoral hills, you enter the Canadian Shield, with its lakes and islands and rugged-rock outcrops. Waskesiu sits within Prince Albert National Park, and it is a popular summer playground. The beach on its namesake lake is busy with sunbathers and swimmers. People stroll with ice cream, or ride their bikes to the cinema. And the charms of the park — and its big herd of bison — await, just nearby.

Where to stay: All stylish stone and wood, Elk Ridge, a little outside of town, offers elevated resort pleasures. There’s a lovely spa, swimming pool, an upscale restaurant, and an 27-hole golf course carved right out of the boreal forest. 

Where to eat: For something simple and delicious, head to Hecho en Waskesiu, a cool taco truck in an Airstream-style trailer that blends Saskatchewan ingredients with Mexican techniques. (Think: fish tacos made with Northern Pike.) And for upscale dining, you can’t beat the pasta, seafood, and steak at Restaurant Pietro. 

Sights you can’t miss: Right in town, learn more about the wildlife nearby at the Prince Albert National Park Nature Centre. Golfers can tee off at the 18-hole Waskesiu Golf Course, designed by renowned architect Stanley Thomson (who also designed courses in a number of other Canadian national parks). Then, the wonders of the wilderness await, including trails to hike, lakes to kayak and canoe, birds to watch, plus a big herd of free-roaming wild plains bison.

St Andrew’s by the Sea, New Brunswick

A visit to this Bay of Fundy town feels like a step back in time. United Empire Loyalists settled here in 1783 and laid out the grid work of streets that stands to this day. Walk the docks and piers along the waterfront, pop into some charming boutiques, then visit an old-time tavern for a frosty pint and fish and chips. 

Where to stay: Tourists have been coming to this bayside village since the 19th century, and The Algonquin Resort (Autograph Collection) opened its doors in 1889 to welcome them. Sitting on a hill above the village, it’s now a destination in itself. New developments have added a spa, an indoor and outdoor pool, and even a water slide. Their golf course, first opened in 1894, has been ranked amongst the best in the country.

Where to eat: While both the restaurant and pub at the Algonquin are good, you’ll probably want to walk down the hill, into town, for a meal. Seasons by the Sea Bistro has super-fresh seafood, while Lumberjacks Cafe has hearty portions equal to its name. And you won’t soon forget your meal at the Red Herring Pub, whether you order the fish and chips or the lobster roll, paired with poutine and a locally made pale ale.

Sights you can’t miss: While just browsing the shops along Water Street and strolling the Market Wharf are fun enough, it’s worth exploring a little out of town. On the water, to watch whales in a jet boat or tall ship; and on land, too, to stroll through beautiful Kingsbrae Garden, or learn more about what lies beneath at the Huntsman Marine Science Centre. Just a half-hour up the road in St Stephen, take a delicious little trip (with free samples) at the family-owned Ganong Chocolate Museum. 

Featured image courtesy of Alex Guillaume via Unsplash