Which Canadian city makes the best vacation spot? We provide the details so you can make the call.
While it’s easy to reduce any country to a cartoon, Canada has suffered more than most. Too often patronized as a big, bland, bleached place, snowy and polite, our patient neighbor (justifying its reputation for that politeness, at least) has tended to take the condescension in stride. But smart travelers always knew the truth: That lumberjack to the north is actually one of the world’s most diverse, dynamic and percolating destinations, especially nice for a quick foreign trip minus the jet lag and stratospheric bills.
The only question is which Canada to target, particularly if you’re planning an urban escape. Toronto and Montreal offer distinct parallel universes, upending that myth of Canadian uniformity.
How to choose? Consider the following comparisons of outdoor offerings, hotel vibes, food scenes and more a quick crib sheet.
For the arty
Since its starchitect Frank Gehry, a hometown boy, unveiled his renovations to Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), anchored by a swirling Douglas fir stairwell that’s an artwork in itself, the museum has hosted one flamboyant exhibit after another. A major Picasso retrospective drew crowds, but more revealing was the recent show of power couple Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s paintings; setting them side by side underscored how entirely contemporary Kahlo’s self-eviscerating selfies were, and how dated Rivera’s dogmatic agitprop looks. The current show, running until the end of July, features another pairing of modernist greats: “Francis Bacon and Henry Moore: The Beauty and the Terror” (Bacon presumably supplying the Terror).
If you’re interested in a master class in global art, though, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts leans more on its permanent collection than passing shows for good reason; the mammoth gallery showcases everyone from Rembrandt and Goya to Gainsborough, Monet and Dali.
For the eco-active
Toronto might win the green trophy, if only by dumb geographical luck. Not many cities come framed by a chain of islands a quick ferryboat ride away, but the Toronto Islands, strung across Lake Ontario, offer an easy rustic escape. Car-free Centre Island is the most popular, for its soft dunes and four beaches, including the clothing-optional Hanlan’s Point Beach.
Montreal counters with Île Sainte-Hélène, which is more developed (there are three heated outdoor pools and a concert space) and Île Notre-Dame, which features the 25-acre Floralies Gardens as its real blooming corsage of a centerpiece. But then you don’t really need to boat off to an island. The city’s Mount Royal Park, seamed with walking paths, is such a green behemoth it’s known simply as the Mountain to locals.
For the hotel hound
For an indulgent splurge (though the price, depending on season, can be surprisingly gentle), head to Toronto and book a room at the Four Seasons, which set a five-star gold standard when it opened in 2012, partly out of hometown pride; the brand is based in Toronto. Dubbing the archaic, original Four Seasons Toronto too far gone to redeem, the company erected this gleaming 55-story glass tower a few blocks away, in Yorkville, and settled on the kind of coherent aesthetic approach — all creamy neutral interiors and regionally harvested wood — that nails understated opulence.
The reception area alone, decorated with dangling dandelion sculptures, sets the artful, naturalist vibe. The entire place is designed as a fully stocked, plush urban resort, so you can wander from the spa (there is a gold serum facial) to Daniel Boulud’s Café Boulud (signature dishes: Nova Scotia lobster salad, Ontario venison with honey poached quince, and potato-wrapped sea bass).
If you’re itchy for a more intimate boutique experience, though, Montreal offers greater range. Its old town, in particular, is studded with historic landmarks turned into one-of-a-kind bolt-holes. Consider the circa 1871 Hôtel Gault, a converted textile factory punctuated by high French windows and exposed brick, or Hôtel Le St.-James, once the Mercantile Bank of Canada, now kitted out with marble bathrooms and gas fireplaces. And then there is the determinedly arty Hotel Nelligan, named for Quebec’s poet Émile Nelligan, where the guest room walls come decorated with flowing transcriptions of her most lyrical verses, so you can fall asleep wrapped up in a lullabye.
For the gastronome
Though it started out as a largely Anglo city, Toronto has evolved into one of the world’s great melting pots, and its alphabet soup of global immigrants — including major populations of Asians, Caribbeans, South Americans and Portuguese — keep stirring up a piquant stew. The result: This is the place to come for everything from pork dumplings to paella, and you could spend a month eating your way around the world without leaving Kensington Market.