Planning a trip to Canada but don’t know where to begin? Montreal Ottawa Toronto?
Canada is a vast country (the second largest in the world) with a wealth of amazing places to visit. So, it’s understandably hard to pick just one city to visit in Canada!
Rather than trying to weigh the benefits of Ottawa vs Montreal vs Toronto, why not visit all three?
These three top Canadian destinations are close enough geographically to make it easy to travel between them by train.
And since all these cities are very walkable and have good public transit, this eliminates the need to rent a car for your Canada trip. This will save you quite a bit of money!
(I got a bit of sticker shock when pricing car rentals for my trip to Canada last year! That became the deciding factor in choosing to travel between these cities by train.)
Here are my favorite things to do in Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto – plus tips for getting around.
Lace up your shoes and let’s go!
Montréal is the largest city in the Canadian province of Québec, located on the St. Lawrence River.
Montréal is a bilingual city, so you’ll hear a lot of French being spoken. Don’t worry, English is widely spoken so you won’t have any problems with communication.
Of the three cities, I’d have to say that Montréal is my personal favorite. I love all the historic buildings in Vieux Montréal and the distinctly French feel of the city. (Plus, I’m a sucker for French pastries!)
Getting to Montréal
Begin your journey in Montreal and fly to the Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport.
I recommend choosing a hotel in downtown Montreal. That way you’re within easy walking distance of historic Vieux Montréal and other top attractions.
If you’re traveling light, a budget-friendly transit option from the airport to downtown Montreal is to take the 747 bus – it runs 24 hours a day.
A ticket for this bus is a 24-hour pass for Montreal’s public transit. You can buy additional daily passes for the rest of your stay, depending on which sites you want to visit and how much walking you want to do.
Best things to do in Montréal
Montréal is a beautiful city with much to see and do outdoors when the weather is nice.
One of the must-see attractions in Montreal is its historic center, Vieux Montréal (Old Montreal). You’ll love exploring the cobblestone streets and admiring the architecture, such as the stunning Notre Dame Basilica with its twin towers and vibrant stained-glass windows.
Spend some time exploring the Vieux Port, which is chock full of restaurants and shops. This is where you’ll find La Grande Roue de Montréal – the tallest Ferris Wheel in Canada! Take a ride to enjoy gorgeous views of Montreal and the port area.
But the best views in Montréal are to be had from Mont-Royal Park, the highest point in Montréal. From downtown, climb the wooden staircases to reach the top of Mount Royal. Your reward is the panoramic views of Montréal and the St. Lawrence River from the terrace of the Kondiaronk Belvedere.
Visiting the Montreal Botanical Garden is the perfect way to enjoy a sunny afternoon in Montréal. You’ll love walking through the Rose Garden, watching the butterflies in the Insectarium, and admiring the pagodas in the Chinese Garden. The Montreal Botanical Garden hosts many special events throughout the year, such as the Chinese Lantern Festival and summer concerts.
Montreal is a multicultural city, and its culinary scene reflects these diverse influences. There is a mouth-watering array of cuisine to enjoy, from Montreal-style bagels and poutine to Portuguese chicken and dim sum. Taste your way through the city’s best dishes on a walking food tour of Montreal and visit local favorite foodie hotspots.
Best museums in Montréal
If you’re like me, you’re not a fan of being outside when it rains. But you certainly don’t want to just sit in your hotel room – it would be a waste of your travel day.
Visiting a museum is the perfect solution for a rainy-day activity. And fortunately, Montreal has many top-notch museums to choose from!
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is one of the top museums in Montreal. It is known for its focus on Quebec and Canadian art and boasts an impressive collection of decorative arts and graphic arts. The Museum of Fine Arts is spread across multiple buildings, connected by underground tunnels.
Pointe-à-Callière is Montreal’s Museum of Archaeology and History. It’s located in the Vieux Port and is easily recognized by its tall circular tower. The museum features interactive archaeology exhibits and temporary ones ranging from Ancient Egypt to Vikings.
When I visited last year, the museum was having a Viking-themed festival with booths set up outside the museum and some great ‘Dragons of the Northern Seas’ street art!
The Montreal Science Center is a great choice for families, with interactive exhibits on science and technology. There’s also an IMAX theater where you can be immersed in 3D worlds filled with dinosaurs and other fascinating topics. Be sure to check the schedules to find out when the English versions are playing!
Ottawa is in the Canadian province of Ontario. It’s the capital of Canada, so some of the city’s top attractions are the impressive Parliament Buildings and world-class national museums.
I was a bit surprised to overhear a lot of French being spoken in Ottawa. I guess I shouldn’t have been, as Ottawa borders the French-speaking province of Quebec. (The Ottawa River forms the boundary between Ontario and Quebec.)
Getting to Ottawa
It’s a quick 2-hour train ride from Montreal’s Gare Central to the Ottawa train station. There are several trains every day along this route, so you can pick the time that works best for you.
Tip: It is cheaper to book a ticket from Montreal all the way to Toronto with a stop in Ottawa than to book separate tickets from Montreal to Ottawa and then from Ottawa to Toronto. See your friendly ticket agent for help with booking.
Once you’ve arrived in Ottawa, take the metro from the train station to downtown Ottawa. Note there can be a lot of disruptions on this line, but if the metro isn’t running, there will be a bus service from the train station to downtown.
Ottawa is very walkable, so I didn’t use their public transit other than to get to the train station.
Best things to do in Ottawa
There are many great things to do in Ottawa, but the capital city’s top attraction is Parliament Hill. The Parliament Buildings are stunning, and you can book a free tour to get a behind-the-scenes look at the seat of Canada’s government.
In the summertime, come back at night and enjoy the Northern Lights. This sound and light show is projected onto the buildings of Parliament.
The Rideau Canal is one of the most popular locales in Ottawa. This UNESCO World Heritage site cuts through the heart of the city and is a favorite spot for a stroll on a sunny day. You can even take a scenic sightseeing tour of Ottawa along the canal. And in the winter, the canal becomes the largest natural outdoor ice-skating rink in the world!
Sample the flavors of Ottawa with a visit to the ByWard Market. You’ll find everything from fresh produce in farmers’ market stalls to specialty food shops and locally produced crafts. Look for the bright red BeaverTails stall to sample Ottawa’s favorite sweet pastries!
Best museums in Ottawa
As the country’s capital, Ottawa boasts many world-class national museums. So, no matter your interest, you’re sure to find a museum you’ll enjoy!
One of the top museums in Ottawa is the National Gallery of Canada. This stellar fine arts museum is home to one of the best collections of Canadian and indigenous art in the world. And the building itself is a spectacular creation of glass and granite, illuminating the gallery with natural light.
The Canadian Museum of History is one of the most popular museums in Canada, with over 1.2 million annual visitors. This history and anthropology museum’s top exhibits showcase the major milestones in Canada’s history as well as the art and culture of the First Peoples. It’s located just across the Ottawa River in Gatineau.
One unique museum in Ottawa is the Royal Canadian Mint. This museum educates visitors on the process of minting currency and the history of Canada’s currency. You’ll be astounded by the ‘Million Dollar Coin’. This massive 100-kilogram gold coin — the world’s largest — has a value of one million Canadian dollars. For a fun souvenir, purchase a commemorative coin from the Mint’s boutique.
Toronto, located in the province of Ontario, is the largest city in Canada, with over 2.7 million residents.
Toronto has a much more cosmopolitan feel than Montreal, and its skyscrapers and entertainment districts give it a vibe akin to the energy of New York City.
Getting to Toronto
It takes nearly 4.5 hours to travel by train from Ottawa to Toronto, with several trains per day providing service between the two cities.
Since it’s a fairly long trip, be sure to plan ahead and bring along some snacks. There is typically food available for purchase onboard the train in Canada, but the prices can be steep (they’ve got a captive audience, after all!).
You’ll arrive in Toronto at Union Station. Union Station is also one of Toronto’s metro stations and is where you can catch the Union-Pearson Express to the Toronto Pearson International Airport for your flight home. (Note: the UP Express does require a separate ticket – it’s not covered by the other transit passes.)
Toronto’s attractions are a bit more spread out than those in Montreal and Ottawa, so you’ll want to leverage public transit to cover more ground and save wear and tear on your feet. Toronto’s public transportation includes buses, streetcars, and the metro/subway, and there are a variety of passes to choose from.
Best things to do in Toronto
One of the most iconic buildings decorating Toronto’s skyline is the CN Tower, which stands an impressive 1815 feet tall. The high-speed glass-fronted elevators will whisk you to the top in less than a minute, zipping along at speeds of 15 miles per hour. Revel in the panoramic views of Toronto from the CN Tower’s main observation level (114 stories from the ground).
One of Toronto’s top public spaces is Nathan Phillips Square. The square is adjacent to the majestic City Hall building and is home to a signature fountain and its giant TORONTO sign. This is a popular spot for Toronto’s many festivals throughout the year. And in winter, the fountain becomes a massive ice-skating rink!
Be sure to visit the St. Lawrence Market, the oldest public market in Toronto. You’ll find all kinds of tasty foods here, from vibrant local produce to cheeses to freshly baked pastries. Try the signature peameal bacon sandwich, a Toronto favorite!
Toronto is also a popular starting point for a trip to see the world-famous Niagara Falls. Many tour companies offer day trips from Toronto if you want to check Niagara Falls off your travel bucket list while you’re in the neighborhood!
Best museums in Toronto
Looking to soak up some culture while you’re visiting Toronto? There are plenty of excellent museums to choose from!
The Royal Ontario Museum is the biggest and best museum in Toronto and one of the most visited museums in Canada. This museum’s collections range from natural history to art and culture, so you can see everything from decorative arts to statues to impressive dinosaur fossils. Admire the dramatic modern architecture on the museum’s north side.
Since hockey is one of the official national sports of Canada, it comes as no surprise that there is a Hockey Hall of Fame. Located right across from Union Station, this museum is the go-to place for any hockey fan. It’s filled with hockey records, gear, memorabilia, and the famous Stanley Cup.
Art aficionadoes will definitely want to visit the Art Gallery of Ontario. This incredible museum boasts a huge collection of nearly 95,000 works of art. The artworks range from European masterpieces to superb modern and contemporary works and include an extensive Canadian collection. The AGO is also the first building in Canada designed by the renowned architect Frank Gehry, a Toronto native.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON THIS ITINERARY FOR MONTREAL OTTAWA & TORONTO
Canada has it all – beautiful scenery, world-class museums, and a diverse culinary scene. And by using Canada’s convenient train network, it is easy to visit several of Canada’s best cities in one amazing vacation.
Enjoy the historic French charm of Montréal, the stately seat of government in Ottawa, and the contemporary city of Toronto.
So, what are you waiting for? Start planning your trip to Canada today!
Although she works full-time in the semiconductor industry, Lisa fits in as much travel as possible throughout the year. Her travel blog, Waves and Cobblestones, is chock-full of city guides and destination tips to help you make the most of your vacation time. Lace up your shoes and let’s go!
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