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Guide to Canada's Top Cities

It’s official: Our neighbor to the north has never been more deserving of the world’s attention. T+L brings you the lowdown on four urban hot spots, from Montreal and Quebec City to Toronto and Vancouver.

By Alysha Brown, Stirling Kelso, Suzanne Mozes, Kathryn O'Shea-Evans

Vancouver

A coastal playground basks in its post-Olympics glow.

Stay

Opening just in time for the 2010 Winter Games, the Great Value Fairmont Pacific Rim (doubles from $229) couldn’t have asked for a more auspicious debut. Spacious guest rooms with subtle Asian touches, plus a top-notch spa, are hallmarks of the Shangri-La Hotel, Vancouver (doubles from $384). Great Value The St. Regis Hotel (doubles from $152) has one of the best locations in town, across from the Holt Renfrew department store and in walking distance of most city sights.

Eat

No-nonsense trattoria La Quercia (dinner for two $76) showcases made-to-order risottos and an unusual grappa list. In Yaletown, regional ingredients—from porcini mushrooms to Qualicum Bay scallops—get star billing on the menu at Cioppino’s Mediterranean Grill (dinner for two $137), where med student turned much-lauded chef Pino Posteraro runs his open kitchen like a master surgeon.

Shop

Flanked by art galleries, the design shop 18Karat carries covetable goods at reason-able prices—handwoven baby alpaca throws from $186 and mouth-blown glass candleholders for a mere $10. Fashion stylists and Kitsilano trustafarians flock to Gravity Pope Tailored Goods for clothing and accessories that range from streamlined menswear by local label Wings + Horns to leather-wrapped chain necklaces by Natalia Brilli.

Nightlife

The Diamond at Maple Tree Square (cocktails for two $17), an izakaya-style lounge in Gastown, doubles as a cocktail bar in the wee hours of the morning, when everything else is shutting down. The second-floor former brothel evokes a Prohibition-era watering hole, thanks to stripped brick walls and 1920’s chandeliers. Bartenders pride themselves on off-the-cuff concoctions.

Biggest Adrenaline Rush

Why hike up north Vancouver’s infamous “Grouse Grind” with the masses when you can soar 4,100 feet above sea level, straight off grouse mountain’s peak? book a 30- to 40-minute tandem flight from First Flight Paragliding($235).

Top Sights by Foot

Vancouver Art Gallery
Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden
BC Place Stadium
Granville Island Ferry terminal —Suzanne Mozes

Toronto

Sprawling and diverse, this fast-paced commercial capital harbors an edgy, artistic soul.

Stay

Modern art gallery meets 1940’s Hollywood at the 77-room Hazelton Hotel (doubles from $472), in the posh Yorkville neighborhood. Interiors are full of luxe details—suede-paneled walls, Italian granite floors, and private dressing rooms lined with floor-to-ceiling mirrors. Great Value Close to the city’s rowdy nightlife district, Hôtel Le Germain (doubles from $235) is nevertheless a haven of quiet contemplation, with Zen-like display shelves and cream-colored sofas in the airy, split-level lobby. Great Value New on the radar: Thompson Toronto (doubles from $220), the first foreign outpost of New York City’s decidedly downtown brand.

Eat

Toronto has its share of excellent Chinese food, but the haute dim sum at the Metropolitan Hotel’s Lai Wah Heen(dim sum for two $55) might just be the best in town. On the new restaurant row of Harbord Street near Spadina Avenue, chef Cory Vitiello of the Harbord Room (dinner for two $90) serves up creative interpretations of bistro standards—Ontario lamb three ways; a saffron pot de crème—on his small, ever-changing menu.

Shop

Home to local food purveyors for most of the week, the St. Lawrence Market becomes an antiques fair on Sundays, with more than 80 vendors hawking everything from rare prints and Bakelite bracelets to kitschy secondhand treasures. Quirky paraphernalia—stag-topped shot glasses, Canadian Mountie cocktail napkins, and the like—make up the merchandise at Drake Hotel General Store.

Nightlife

For an evening of offbeat camara-derie, replete with dive-bar staples (pickled eggs; an eclectic jukebox), it’s worth seeking out the slightly off-the-beaten-path Communist’s Daughter (drinks for two $11), where the barkeep sings gypsy jazz tunes while pouring pints for a roomful of regulars.

Hot Ticket

Cannes and Sundance get much more of the hype, but serious cinephiles know that the Toronto International Film Festival (Sept. 9–18) is the place to preview indie releases from all around the world. It’s also a good indicator of future Oscar buzz (past winners: Slumdog Millionaire, Precious).

Top Sights by Foot

Royal Ontario Museum
Queen’s Park
Kensington Market
CN Tower —Alysha Brown

Montreal

Discover culinary hot spots and a lively street culture.

Stay

The eight-year-old Hôtel Le St.-James (doubles from $407), with 60 polished guest rooms and an exceptionally attentive staff, has fast become Montreal’s grande dame. Book a treatment in the underground spa, if only to see it—one side of the former bank vault was part of the original 1725 city wall. Great Value Housed in two buildings, including an old leather factory from the 19th century, the 24-room Le Petit Hôtel (doubles from $160, including breakfast) appeals to young entrepreneurs with its tech-savvy touches like free Wi-Fi and plasma TV’s outfitted with Wii Fit stations. Great Value Another new hotel with a piece of the past: Le Westin Montréal (doubles from $185),which consists of a 22-story tower and the former headquarters of the city’s Gazette newspaper. The indoor glass-bottomed pool, seemingly suspended over the hotel’s main entrance, makes an indelible first impression; a basement corridor connects to the city’s famous subterranean shopping mall.

Eat

Decadent foie gras and raw-milk cheeses are staples in every Québécois chef’s kitchen. Both are on hand at La Salle à Manger (dinner for two $90), where chef Samuel Pinard and his gang of six make almost everything in house—from pastas and bread to the cured sausages hanging in the glass meat locker. At Kitchen Galerie (dinner for two $70), just steps from the Jean-Talon farmers’ market, diners sit at a counter and watch chef-owners Mathieu Cloutier and Jean-Philippe St.-Denis cook up whatever’s freshest. (With only one other employee, the chefs are also the restaurant’s servers, sommeliers, and dishwashers.) Celebrating its 30th anniversary this December,L’Express (lunch for two $70) is still the spot for expertly prepared French classics such as the generous pot-au-feu or the citrusy octopus-and-lentil salad.

Shop

Independent bookstores thrive on downtown streets. Librairie Drawn & Quarterly, in the booming Mile-End neighborhood, specializes in underground comics and illustrated novels, including titles written and produced by the store’s own publishing house. Fans of vintage clothing shouldn’t miss the 15-year-old Friperie St.-Laurent, in the Plateau district, for its well-curated selection of designer hats, scarves, and party dresses from the 40’s to the 70’s. Stop in at the new boutique Instock to pick up cult clothing brands Supra and Elm, plus works by up-and-coming Montreal artists.

Nightlife

Residents take happy hour (referred to as “5 to 7”) very seriously. These days, a cheerful after-work crowd heads to La Buvette Chez Simone (drinks for two $8.50) for locally brewed McKeown cider and tasty bar snacks like grilled calamari and olives marinated with fennel.

Insider Tip: Looking for the Canadian equivalent of a 7-Eleven? Ask for a dépanneur—a word derived from the verbdépanner, or to troubleshoot. Most of montreal’s english speakers refer to them simply as “the dep.” —Stirling Kelso

Quebec City

Find a francophile mecca, with fairy-tale turrets and cobblestoned streets made for romance.

Stay

Built in 1893 as an ode to Loire Valley châteaux, the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac (doubles from $266) is one of the city’s major landmarks. Aristocrat-worthy furnishings, such as carved headboards and antique tapestries, make up for the minuscule size of some rooms (ask for one with a view of the St. Lawrence River). Great Value Loews Hôtel Le Concorde (doubles from $178), just outside Old Town’s storybook walls, gets top marks for its views. Great Value A formerly gritty Holiday Inn, Hôtel Pur (doubles from $155) fits right into rapidly gentrifying St.-Roch. Interiors are awash in charcoal grays and stark whites, with graffiti-inspired art, mod Japanese soaking tubs, and windows that look out onto surrounding steeples.

Eat

Don’t be put off by the waitstaff outfitted in period style—even local taxi drivers swear by Aux Anciens Canadiens(dinner for two $75) for home-style Québécois dishes such as duck braised in maple syrup sauce and pheasant served with pork and beans. In a town brimming with boulangeries, Paillard (lunch for two $22) stands head and shoulders above the rest: manned by a Parisian master baker, it turns out whisper-light patisserie, sandwiches on crusty baguettes, and irresistible vanilla-pear jam.

Shop

The oldest grocer on the continent, J.A. Moisan stocks English teas, French soaps, and picnic fixings (our favorites: wild boar sausage and a wedge of locally made Cumulus cheese). Clothing boutique Blank is Quebec’s answer to American Apparel—a source for eco-friendly basics like perfectly fitting tees and baby-soft hoodies, all made in the province.

Nightlife

In the heart of St.-Roch, the warehouse-like restaurant Le Cercle morphs into a dynamic performance space after dark. Events range from poetry slams, film screenings, and DJ sets to concerts by folk and indie bands from around the country.

Sidewalk Attraction

Cirque du Soleil began as a humble group of street performers from a small town in Quebec. See them pay homage to their roots when troupe members perform for free under a Highway overpass five nights a week this summer (June 24–Sept. 5; quebecregion.com).

Top Sights by Foot

Musée de la Civilisation
Basilique-Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Québec
Fairmont Le Château Frontenac
La Citadelle de Québec — Kathryn O’Shea-Evans

5 Quintessential Canadian Experiences

Wilderness excursions, a railroad trip, and a wine region on the rise.

Train Travel

The four-day, four-night transcontinental journey on Via Rail’s Canadian is a truly epic ride. Less well known, however, is the Jasper–Prince Rupert route (888/842-7245; viarail.ca; from $193 per person), a two-day trip that speeds you from the Rockies to the Pacific Coast, with an overnight stop (hotel not included) in Prince George. What you’ll see out your window: pioneer settlements and fishing villages, not to mention bald eagles, totem poles, and almost more waterfalls than you can count.

Cruising

Inuit-owned and operated Cruise North Expeditions specializes in trips to the Canadian Arctic on a simple, comfortable 116-passenger ship staffed with naturalists and historians. The Arctic Safari itinerary (July 13–23; 866/263-3220; cruisenorthexpeditions.com; from $4,478 per person) delivers on its name, with wildlife viewings of ringed seals, walrus, Arctic penguins, and polar bears. Visits to native communities and meetings with elders afford a rare glimpse of traditional Inuit life.

Vineyard Tour

In southern Ontario, picturesque Prince Edward County has recently emerged as a gastronomic capital, with a flourishing wine industry and boutique farms tucked amid pastoral villages and freshwater beaches. Stay on a vineyard at the 21-room Huff Estates Inn & Winery (doubles from $174, including breakfast, tour, and wine tasting), in Bloomfield, then follow the self-guided wine tour—details available for download at tastetrail.ca.

History Lesson

A Unesco World Heritage site in the prairies of southwestern Alberta, Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump provides a fascinating look at the culture and traditions of the Blackfoot people. Herds of bison were stampeded over the cliffs for thousands of years, a form of communal hunting and a primary source of food and clothing. An interpretive center built into the sandstone foothills presents exhibitions on ecology and archaeology.

Adventure Lodge

Snorkel or kayak amid belugas or get up close and personal with a polar bear at Lazy Bear Lodge (doubles from $134, including transfers and breakfast). Located in Churchill, Manitoba, a remote Hudson Bay community reachable only by plane or train, the lodge consists of 33 rooms in rustic yet cozy log cabins and a restaurant serving local game. Daily excursions give guests unparalleled access to the animals in their own habitat.