Global travel. On local public transportation.

Canada: Eastern must-sees in a week

July 5, 2010 Markus Seppälä

Canada: Eastern must-sees in a week

The great country of Canada is best seen in regional chunks. Visit Montreal’s botanical gardens, Toronto’s underground shopping malls, and the Niagara Falls in a relaxed week of travel.


During one week, my trip took me via London to Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport (YUL) on Air Canada, on VIA Rail Canada to Toronto, by bus from there to Niagara Falls, and finally on a shuttle bus to Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ). Aside from rather long names, Canadian airports also have weird IATA codes, most of them beginning with a Y. While there are almost as many explanations of the naming convention as there are airports, the one with the weather stations seems to be the most accurate.

Montreal, Quebec: Friendly and French-speaking

Flying in from Europe, Montreal is the most eastern of Canada’s big cities and serves as a natural first stop. The first thing you may be wondering about is the language. While a majority of the inhabitants here, the major center of Quebec province, have French as their main language, I am happy to report that getting by on English is no problem at all. Even as I tried to order something with my broken French the merchants were more than happy to switch to English as they realized French wasn’t my first language.

The city of Montreal is indeed large, at 3.6 million people in the metropolitan area. But at the same time it’s also quiet in some ways. The skyscrapers are not as tall as in nearby Toronto or New York, and you can easily walk through the downtown core. The Saint Lawrence River, which sweeps around the island on which Montreal is built, provides for some relaxing walks as well.

My favorite attraction was the Montreal Botanical Garden, which is within easy reach by subway. The Japanese garden is, as they are all around the world, definitely worth a visit for some peace and quiet and a break from the big city. Short of the mountain view, the Alpine garden with its petite flowers on the rocks will bring you back to an Austrian summer landscape. And if you take a long enough walk through the Chinese gardens, you may just be lucky enough to catch the two semi-tame foxes that I saw merrily wrestling with each other. You always learn something when you’re in a botanical garden. One of the things that impressed me was the garden’s 20 species of lilacs, especially since I didn’t know there were 20 species of lilacs.

Train from Montreal to Toronto

Ticket check on Canadian train

"Please keep this check in view so that you will not be disturbed again for your ticket."

The VIA Rail Canada train service from Montreal to Toronto was perfectly comfortable and a good way to travel between the two metropolises and see some of the countryside. Though the trip was quite uneventful, it did provide me with three new experiences. Firstly, it was my first ride on a diesel train. Secondly, the train crew came by every hour or so with an airplane-style cart with snacks and drinks for sale. I liked the idea; I was not impressed by their cheese platter. Thirdly, the ticket collector hung these checks above your seat to indicate that they’d checked your tickets and could safely let you sleep. I suppose it’s also a way to indicate which seats are occupied.

Toronto, Ontario: World-class city. Underground

CN Tower, Toronto, ON

The CN Tower

Toronto, Canada’s largest city with a metropolitan population of over 5 million, is a true global city. It’s halfway between New York and Chicago and its tall office towers are just as impressive. But it’s their iconic non-office tower, the CN Tower that dominates the skyline much like an Empire State Building or a Sears Tower. I personally have previously not been a fan of communications and observation towers, but took a liking to this one. For example, the CN Towers is orders of magnitude more attractive than the horrid Westfield Centrepoint Tower in Sydney, though perhaps not as pleasing as the Space Needle in Seattle. What would make it even more awesome? Crawling babies, of course. 

Much of Toronto is underground. That was the most surprising, pleasantly so, fact about the city, and something that wasn’t immediately apparent. Many shopping malls stretch and connect below ground level and form an intricate, slightly disorienting but incredibly efficient network of city blocks. If you visit in winter, the benefits are obvious: you don’t have to put up with the snow and cold to do your shopping. But the underground network also provides easy, traffic-free access to many of the downtown office buildings as well as the subway system. Having lived in equally cold Sweden for many years, I’m a little surprised that this ingenious city planning scheme hasn’t spread. I am told, however, that its spread wasn’t planned even in Toronto, but that the system grew organically without central control. This may well be the reason it’s sometimes a little difficult to find a map that covers more than your current block/mall down there.

Niagara Falls, Ontario: Still worth a visit

Niagara Falls, ON

See the boat in the middle of the waterfall mist?

If you’re already in Toronto and haven’t seen the Niagara Falls, now’s a good time to visit. The waterfalls on the US-Canadian border are of course best viewed from the Canadian side, and Niagara Falls, Ontario, is no more than two hours from Toronto, on the other side of Lake Ontario. You’ll probably not want to spend a week in this hotel-and-casino resort town, but there’s no denying that the waterfalls are a spectacular natural phenomenon worth seeing. After spending the night here in a room with a view over the falls, I caught a very convenient shuttle back to the airport in Toronto. This touristy excursion provided a perfect end for my tour of the great eastern cities of Canada.

View from Niagara Falls Hilton Fallsview

The Hilton is a great place for watching the fireworks at night.

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