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.
That almost century-old market, sitting on the edge of Chinatown, is a sprawling culinary medina, thick with juice bars and South American or Caribbean cafes. It now also hosts an al fresco Art Fair the last Sunday of each month, May until October.
The city’s dim sum is one eye-popping parade of rolling carts. Start at the classic grand dame Lai Wah Heen and then work your way through local favorites Sky Dragon, Dynasty, the self-proclaimed Dim Sum King and Forestview in Chinatown, where you can forget about any mod vibe or stylish décor because all anyone cares about is the buffet that comes wheeling by. David Chang’s triple-decker glass cube Momofuku Toronto, which serves up a more hipstery dim sum, recently landed downtown with a big culinary splash. The best view is to be had at Pearl Harbourfront, on the waterfront, where the snaking list of dumplings alone includes the salute-to-Canada pan-fried “hockey puck” (one very fat shrimp and onion dumpling).
The biggest dining surprise, though, might be Toronto’s indigenous cuisine; looking to Canadian culinary roots, Bannock restaurant plates homegrown comfort food, including Ontario harvest venison chili and northern woods mushroom gnocchi.
If you’re in the mood for something more continental, head east. Montreal has evolved into an increasingly diverse metropolis, but its French roots mean the city is the best place this side of the Seine for supernal Gallic dishes. Consider, for starters, master chef Normand Laprise’s classic duck magret at his Toqué! Restaurant, and the coquille St. Jacques and Paris-Brest pastry at his more casual Brasserie T!
And then there is the bonus of Québécois cuisine, Montreal’s patented, meaty take on Frenchified food gone wild. Au Pied de Cochon, as close to a local legend as modest Montreal gets, is still the jammed epicenter of gonzo hungry-man French Canadian dining, with signature dishes like bison tongue, duck in a can, and the show-stopping foie gras-topped poutine (the Québécois mound of French fries and cheese curds smothered in gravy).
Joe Beef, featuring its own smokehouse, has built up a cult following as well, and Maison Publique draws the tattooed crowd. If you face foie gras fatigue, Grumman ’78, which launched the local food truck wars, comes through with lamb curry tortillas. Or grab a bagel, a legacy of the city’s vibrant Jewish community, at the Fairmount Bagel, where the masterworks roll out hot.
Any epicures intent on foraging themselves, and assembling a locavore picnic, has one sublime option. That’s Atwater Market, a photogenic collection of vendors hawking wild duck, ground cherries, smoked sausage and maple syrup pie.
For the quirk collector
Oddly, Toronto, which used to be considered the more sedate city, comes out on top for pure kink. Mayor Rob Ford, recently in the news for admitting to using crack cocaine, of course helped shift our perception of the whole country, single-handedly turning wholesome O Canada into gamy Ohhh Canada. But Toronto has been reveling in eccentricity for years, starting with the Bata Shoe Museum — the only gallery where die-hard foot fetishists can ogle Napoleon’s black silk socks (something of a disappointment; they look like a reject from H&M’s young boy’s collection), John Lennon’s mod ankle boots and Marilyn Monroe’s red high heels. Temporary exhibits feature everything from the goofy (a recent exhibit highlighting the history of the sneaker) to the sublime (an elegant circa 1840 Cherokee black buckskin beaded moccasin that any serious shoe collector will covet with a burning kind of intensity).
In Montreal the Redpath Museum, on the McGill University campus, counters with a natural history funhouse (donated by sugar baron and apparent hoarder Peter Redpath in 1882) that features shrunken heads, dinosaur skeletons and enough taxidermy, including lots of toothy wolves, to fill a Brooklyn bar.
For neighborhood explorerS
Toronto earns more credit for spawning new outlier neighborhoods on a regular basis; just about any block flaunting a tattoo parlor or two and some artisanal cocktails will eventually get anointed the latest hipster epicenter. One of the latest breakouts is the Junction Neighborhood of West Toronto, anchored by the Hole in the Wall, an all-in-one indie craft bar (with 10 taps of Canadian craft beer), performance space and art gallery.
The stalwart queen of the buzzy ’hoods, though, is still West Queen West, which bulges with vintage shops (consider the epic House of Vintage, all gauze and more gauze), indie boutiques, cafes and art spaces, including the premier photography gallery Stephen Bulger Gallery. The area’s real throbbing hub is the Drake Hotel (thedrakehotel.ca) which aims for a curated flophouse look and comes fully loaded with a rooftop and terrace patio, library lounge and a general store that stocks everything from messenger bags to fake mustaches.
In Montreal, the Little Burgundy neighborhood is filling up with antique shops, bistros and wine bars, but there is no need for new pretenders to the throne here; the perennial best ’hood is still the classic one, Old Montréal. Despite the influx of souvenir shops and way too many jugs of maple syrup, the area’s cobbled streets — lined with 18th- and 19th-century stone townhouses, iron carriage lamps, flower boxes and outdoor cafes — let you savor a Euro-like vacation without crossing the Atlantic.
A walk along Saint-Paul Street alone is worth the trip, and it turns downright chic toward its western fringe, where Olive et Gourmando dishes up perfect French tarts and Espace Pepin boutique stocks stylish housewares and clothes. You could be on some Left Bank side street if it weren’t for all the sweet shops selling blocks of maple fudge, maple chocolate and maple ice cream topped, why not, with maple sauce.
Raphael Kadushin is senior acquisitions editor at the University of Wisconsin Press. His travel writing appears in Condé Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler and other publications.