Where to Go in Canada According to Locals

Influential Canadians reveal their favorite under-the-radar places in the Great White North.

Where to Go in Canada According to Locals

The Bow River in Alberta’s Banff National Park

Photo by Bill Tyne/Flickr

We asked prominent Canadians from coast to coast to tell us about their “secret Canada”—an under-the-radar place or activity they adore, that travelers can enjoy as well. Their recommendations reveal Canadians’ profound exploratory spirit, whether it’s driving for miles to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, attending under-sung cultural happenings, mountain biking on beautiful backcountry trails, or paddling at dawn on a misty lake. As one resident says, “The ‘secret’ places in Canada are everywhere; you just have to get out there and find them.”

Haida Gwaii | “Canada is on another scale; you can’t help but be impressed from coast to coast. I had some memorable fishing experiences in Haida Gwaii, the westernmost island in the country. Another time, I was trout fishing a frozen lake on the Kenauk Game Reserve and realized everything around me was overflowing with life. Completely east, the cod from Fogo Island is incredible. Our land is rich and full of respectful artisans who know how to bring out the flavor of our terroir. In every province you find treasures alternating between large stretches of land and small pockets of population. The whole country is the best-kept secret and we are still discovering it.” —Normand Laprise, chef and co-owner of Toqué!

Keno City | “My ‘secret’ place is Keno City (population: 15), an alpine tundra wilderness combined with a treasure trove of historic mining claims and operations, located in the geographic center of Yukon. After driving up to a signpost at the top of Keno Hill, visitors can enjoy an incredible mining museum, a drink in one of the town’s two bars, and then a slice of Mike Mancini’s delicious pizza.” Kim Winnicky, executive director of Music Yukon

Blackcomb Glacier | “If there’s one place that epitomizes Canada for me, it’s standing at the top of Blackcomb Glacier on a cold, clear winter day. You have to put in a bit of effort to get there, but it’s worth it. The vista is vast and beautiful. The air is clean and sharp. The thought of the fabulous ski down the slope is tantalizing.”Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, mayor of Whistler

Grouse Grind | “As true Vancouverites, we live in nature surrounded by oceans, mountains, and forests. One of my favorite starts to any spring or summer day is a hike up the Grouse Grind. We fuel up on my famous Power Cookies at the top, while looking out across our incredible city.” Ned Bell, executive chef of Ocean Wise

Kamloops | “The mountain biking in Kamloops, B.C., is fast and varied with some spectacular views. My favorite track is Pineview Valley, where the Mine Trail offers rocky, technical climbs and a steep descent.” Catharine Pendrel, cross-country mountain bike racer and Olympic Bronze Medalist

Kelowna Farmers’ Market | “As a chef owning and operating restaurants in the Okanagan Valley, I embrace my part of Canada as the ‘chef’s ultimate playground.’ One of my favorite things to do after a bike ride through the amazing southeast Kelowna hills is visit the Kelowna Farmers’ Market. Becoming a regular, you learn who produces the finest heirloom tomatoes, peppers, and winter squash, who makes the best homemade preserves, and where to find the chewiest cheesy pretzels.” Rod Butters, chef of RauDZ Regional Table and micro bar

Nisga’a Memorial Lava Bed Park | “This remote place in northern British Columbia is reserved for quiet contemplation and discovery of the Earth’s power and majesty. The ability to hike up to the cone of the last known active Canadian volcano is not only remarkable and inspiring, it also provides perspective on our place within this ever-changing planet.” Darrin Martens, Gail and Stephen A. Jarislowsky Chief Curator at the Audain Art Museum

Owl Street Café | “Nestled in the heart of the Chainsaw Carving Capital of Canada (that’s Hope, B.C., to those of you who don’t follow the sport), this quirky café occupies a classic A-frame house and is filled to the rafters with owl tchotchkes. In the summer, happy road-trippers pack the patio to savor a pint in the sunshine.” Erin Cebula, reporter for ET Canada

The Slow Food Cycle | “An August tradition amongst long-time Pemberton, B.C., locals, the Slow Food Cycle is an annual jaunt of foodies, farmers, and laid-back cycling enthusiasts through the lush, growing Pemberton Valley. It’s an all-round family affair that mixes relaxing social recreation with the promotion of local farming, sustainability, and community.” Isabel Chung, executive chef at Fairmont Chateau Whistler

Whistler Blackcomb | “I’ve yet to find a ski town that combines huge mountains with such a great pedestrian village. Not only are the on-hill views spectacular, but the Christmas lights throughout the village are a sight to see.” Mercedes Nicoll, Olympic snowboarder

Banff National Park | “The Mount Fairview hike in Lake Louise is the best bang for your buck in terms of views and a work-to-reward ratio. A secret climbing spot, Paradise Wall, is the greatest place for a picnic—if you don’t mind sitting on the edge of a 2,000-foot drop. It stares right at the glacier of Mount Temple. The river beach on the Hoodoo Trailis a total family favorite. The kids can play in the water and, if you’re brave enough, you can swim to the rock.” Larkin O’Connor, business development manager for Canadian Rocky Mountain Resorts

Mount Engadine Lodge | “This secluded Rocky Mountain retreat in the heart of Alberta’s stunning Kananaskis Country has all the charm, warmth, and adventure of a backcountry lodge. Guests stay in private cabins or yurts and participate in seasonal outdoor adventures like hiking and helicopter tours. It’s all-inclusive, too, with delicious breakfasts, afternoon tea, and cozy family-style dinners provided throughout a stay.” Matt Mosteller, aka Powder Matt, adventure blogger and author of The Adventurer’s Guide to Living a Happy Life

Trans-Canada Highway | “I love little towns nestled off the Trans-Canada Highway. Driving down their main street, they seem sleepy and quiet, but all you have to do is visit their local community center, coffee shop, or curling rink to realize they’re anything but sleepy and quiet. Some of the strongest, most driven, most passionate people I have ever met call these towns home. For them, community building and volunteerism aren’t trends, they’re a way of life.” Jennifer Jones, world-champion curler and Olympic Gold Medalist

Silver Heights Peony Garden | “My love of history and fondness for the flower brings me to this magical little place in Edmonton every June. My children love running around and often stop to smell the ‘big ball flowers,’ as they call the peonies. Dr. James Brander first planted the garden in 1921, as a hobby garden for his father, and it grew to become the major supplier of peonies to all of western Canada. Many of the 300 varieties first planted almost a century ago are now here at Fort Edmonton Park on 1920 Street; you could say they’re living artifacts. There’s even a hybrid peony native to Edmonton called the Claude Loussier, named for Dr. Brander’s best friend.” Erin Isfeld, news anchor for CTV Edmonton

Boualouang Laos & Thai Cuisine | “This restaurant is my favorite under-the-radar spot in Edmonton. From a technical standpoint, the sauces are amazingly balanced. I also enjoy going to Riverdale in the fall, picking rose hip berries and cooking with them.” David Leeder, chef and founder of Get Cooking Edmonton

Mill Creek Ravine | “My secret places in Edmonton are the unbelievably good single-track mountain biking trails through Mill Creek Ravine. The scenery is beautiful and the ride technical, with a nice section of flowing hills that get the heart rate up and adrenaline flowing.”Blair Lebsack, chef and owner of RGE RD

The Palomino Smokehouse | “If you’re looking for an authentic live music experience, look no further than the basement of the Palomino Smokehouse in Calgary. The proximity of the band to the audience is so intimate, you can feel the music’s energy go right through you. It’s located in a building that’s over 100 years old, so it’s steeped in local history.” Andrew Mosker, president and CEO of the National Music Center at Studio Bell

Milk River | “I love hiking here. It’s crazy to think that there are kilometers of hoodoos in southern Alberta. It’s very cool to explore, and rafting down the river is also a blast!” Michelle Salt, Paralympic snowboarder

Black Fox Farm and Distillery | “I like to stop at this cool Saskatoon spot tucked into our beautiful prairie landscape for free tours of their farm-to-still distillery and to gather colorful flowers at their U-pick farm. I always try to hit up their annual Pumpkin Festival.” Joelle Tomlinson, Saskatoon Global TV Morning News anchor

Park Cafe and Diner | “My go-to place for comfort food in Saskatoon’s revitalized Riversdale neighborhood uses quality ingredients made in-house and offers some of the best customer service, especially by the renowned Tivy twins, who most of us can’t tell apart. The Bridge Party breakfast is my favorite.” Dale MacKay, Top Chef Canada Winner and co-owner, Grassroots Restaurant Group

Exchange District | “Winnipeg’s Exchange District is full of secret charms. I love strolling around and taking in the architecture, which has led to the neighborhood’s designation as a national historic site. You can visit boutiques, museums, and art galleries, especially during First Fridays in the Exchange, or see a performance at The Cube, one of more than 10 area theaters. There’s a sense of urban adventure every time you visit—all you have to do is look around.” Debra Zoerb, executive director of Folklorama

International Peace Garden | “There is an absolutely astounding cactus collection inside the interpretive center at the International Peace Garden that straddles the Manitoba–North Dakota border. Few people are aware of its existence, yet it’s one of the largest international collections of cacti and succulents in North America, with over 6,000 plants. I was there in spring when many were in bloom—and it was not only beautiful, but gob-smacking in the sheer variety of colors and shapes.” Dr. John Young, president and CEO of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Riding Mountain National Park | “Located in the southwest portion of Manitoba, my cabin is situated in pristine wilderness. I am in awe of this ecological treasure. The park rises like an aberration out of a sea of prairie. A boreal forest catapulted to great heights, surrounded by fluorescent yellow canola fields as far as the eye can see. Home of the wolf, black bear, elk, moose, and the great gray owl (just to name a few). Many magnificent hiking trails and camps. The townsite of Wasagami surrounds the crystal clear lake and hosts an all-log movie theater like no other.” Wanda Koop, artist

Blyth Festival Theatre | “Founded in 1975 in a rural hamlet of Ontario, this summer rep is unwaveringly dedicated to new Canadian theater that speaks directly to the surrounding agricultural community. The work is extremely good by any standards, but it’s the sophistication and commitment of the audience that makes a visitor feel like they’ve stumbled into a world they didn’t know before. Arts from a hole in the ground.” Jack Blum, executive director of Reel Canada

French River Provincial Park | “My ‘secret’ Canada is a stretch of river rock, carved thousands of years ago, that forms a point in French River Provincial Park in Alban, Ontario. Paddling here, it’s hard not to feel the history that shaped our great nation. You can almost see and hear the Voyageurs in their massive boats, hurtling themselves against strong winds and currents, singing while they worked. About an hour canoe ride from the marina is a series of soft, round, sun-baked rocks that form a point where two rivers intersect. This is campsite #617, my heaven on earth. The rocks are warm, the water sparkling and deep, and there is even a ledge shaped like a bench carved into the very edge of the point—a perfect spot to read, to watch the sunset, and to contemplate how beautiful our planet is.” Sarah Jeffrey, principal oboe in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra

Bon Echo Provincial Park | “My secret Canada is the backcountry campsites of Joeperry Lake at Bon Echo Provincial Park. It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly brings me back, but it could be the crazy-high lake-side echoing cliffs, the wildlife (peregrine falcons, skinks, turtles, deer, and raccoons), the ancient cliff drawings from visitors long before me . . . or maybe it’s the cliff jumping, great swimming, paddling, and awesome hikes. There’s so much to love!” Jody North, Hinterland Who’s Who host for the Canadian Wildlife Federation

Georgian Bay | “When the waters are calm, pre-dawn, and mist slides across the horizon, I slip my kayak into the cool, early summer waters of Georgian Bay. As the rising sun brushes the bottoms of the clouds lightening the eastern sky, I head west—and I am away.” —Marianne McKenna, partner at KPMB Architects

Mount Pleasant Cemetery | “The history of Toronto is buried in this expansive cemetery established in the 19th century on a hill overlooking the city. It offers miles of walking paths, rare trees, and glimpses of the personalities who shaped Canadian history.” Henry Kim, director and CEO of the Aga Khan Museum

Oyster Boy | “As a small-town boy from the Arctic hamlet Igluligaarjuk, aka Chesterfield Inlet, on the coast of Hudson’s Bay in Nunavut, I grew up loving seafood: whales, seals, walruses, fish. Now, whenever I visit downtown Toronto, I often eat at Oyster Boy. The seafood platters are wonderful—raw, fried, I like it all! For a landlocked city, the seafood is exceptional.” Johnny Issaluk, Inuit Games Gold Medalist, founder of Nurraq Outfitting, and a Canada 150 ambassador

Midfield Wine Bar | “This Toronto bar has a great selection of wine, tasty food, and easygoing vibe.” Brian Cheuk, owner of Blue Button Shop

Studio.89 | “This nonprofit hub in Mississauga offers a homey ambience and positive space for community get-togethers. Try the café’s fair-trade, organic menu, read from the book selection or play board games, or catch some cool, free events like writing workshops, open mic nights, and language classes (pratiquez votre français!).” Tariq Syed, event director of MuslimFest

Peter’s Woods Provincial Park | “I was born in Port Hope, Ontario, and my family has deep roots in Northumberland County. It’s not only a beautiful part of the country, but also home to Peter’s Woods Provincial Park, named after my father, which protects a small but spectacular swath of old-growth forest and a wonderfully wide selection of birds and wildlife. It’s one of my favorite places to visit and to share with others.” Albert Schultz, artistic director of Soulpepper Theatre Company

Sherwood Park | “The valley of Sherwood Park is a secluded, wooded area that can be enjoyed by anyone looking for tranquility and beauty. The walking and running trails take you through the heart of Toronto but make you forget the concrete jungle and the sound of traffic.” Sahar Zaidi, project coordinator for the Canadian Council of Muslim Women

Torrance Barrens Dark-Sky Preserve | “Three hours north of Toronto, in Muskoka ‘cottage country,’ this geological wonder of Precambrian shield is a stargazer’s delight. As darkness descends and the Eastern whip-poor-wills come out to sing from their perches, the Milky Way emerges in all of its shining glory.” Julia White, sculptor

Haugen’s Diner | “1950s diners and drive-ins are, sadly, a largely diminished breed in Canada, but what few classic gems remain are, thankfully, thriving. I do a pilgrimage to Haugen’s, just outside of Port Perry, every summer for their famous ribs and strawberry pie. Another favorite example is Gibeau Orange Julep in Montreal, which offers nostalgic cheeseburgers, fries, and their patented orange julep. Dreamy.” Jeff Stober, founder and CEO of Drake Hotel Properties

Art Souterrain | “Each March for nearly three weeks, Art Souterrain showcases a program of art installations, interventions, and talks over the 32 kilometers of Montreal’s Underground City. It kicks off the night of Nuit Blanche and completely transforms the subterranean network of shopping malls, subway entrances, and food courts into a dazzling and energizing temporary art gallery. It makes us look at familiar locations through an artist’s eye and think about the secret potential of a place. I love exploring it in the middle of the night and resurfacing for a good Montreal-style breakfast with bagels.” —Julian Sleath, CEO of The Bentway

Club Jazz Casino de Montreal |
“One of my favorite spots in Montreal is located south of Rue Sainte-Catherine during the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal. This open-air oasis combines great music, good food, cocktails, and picnic tables, to create the festive environment of an outdoor jazz club.” Laurent Saulnier, VP of programming of the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal

Saguenay–St. Lawrence Marine Park | “Kayaking with the biggest animals in the world in the Gulf of St. Lawrence outside Baie-Sainte-Catherine, Québec, has to be one of the most memorable moments of my life. My friend Dave and I went in late August and saw so many blue whales and belugas, as well as fin and minke whales—it was breathtaking. The ‘secret’ places in Canada are everywhere; you just have to get out there and find them.” Dr. Martin Haulena, veterinarian at the Vancouver Aquarium

Expo ’67 | “Montreal has amazing sights. My favorite is walking around Île Sainte-Hélène, one of the two islands of Parc Jean-Drapeau, and discovering the old Expo ’67 pavilions: France, Québec, Canada, Jamaica, USA.” —Byron Peart, cofounder of Want Les Essentiels

La Chronique | “Established in 1997, this Montreal restaurant is every bit as good as any other fancy restaurant in Canada. With its unique creative and local menu, you’ll never leave this place hungry.” Roxane Vincent, team manager at Ubisoft Montreal

Parc de la Cité-du-Havre | “My two girls and I love spending our summer afternoons at Parc de la Cité-du-Havre. It’s ideal for bringing a picnic or hosting a barbecue with family and has one of the best views of the city. When it’s too cold to go there, we spend the afternoon at the Canadian Centre for Architecture library, looking for rare inspirational books.” Dexter Peart, cofounder of Want Les Essentiels

Patati Patata | “This Montreal institution is conveniently located in the heart of the Plateau neighborhood. Whether you want a quick snack after a couple of beers or to do some people-watching over lunch, this cheap and unpretentious spot is the place to do it. I always recommend the burger with poutine and salad on the side.” Ali Inay, Montreal-based travel and lifestyle photographer

Saint-Laurent Boulevard | “Montreal’s street artists tend to hibernate in their studios during the winter months. The long-awaited arrival of spring leads to an explosion of colorful artworks on every street corner. This annual phenomenon creates an ever-changing open-air museum along Saint-Laurent Boulevard (the Main), accessible for free and 24/7.” André Bathalon, cofounder of Festival MURAL

Le Festival de Lanaudière | “Whilst not exactly a secret, this incredible summer music festival in Joliette deserves to be much more famous outside Canada: Its gorgeous outdoor amphitheater, nestled in a secluded meadow, has some of the best acoustics I have ever heard. It’s one of my favorite places to be on stage—or in the audience! It is where the poetry of music meets the harmony of nature.” Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor and pianist

Dungeon Provincial Park | “Dungeon Provincial Park in Newfoundland and Labrador is where I’ve felt the most calm and content: Time stands still and all worries go away for a few days. Not only is the ‘dungeon’ absolutely breathtaking, but everyone in Bonavista is as friendly as it gets.” Louis-René Sénéchal, Hinterland Who’s Who host for the Canadian Wildlife Federation

Torngat Mountains National Park | “You need a permit to travel to this remote park on the northeast coast of Labrador, and when you arrive, your first few minutes are spent getting oriented to the potential for polar bear activity. But once you get the chance to safely explore this stark jewel of Canada’s national parks, you will see why it was named for the Inuit word for ‘place of spirits.’ A truly magical place filled with adventure.” Mike Jensen, program developer for the Manitoba Museum’s Science Gallery

This article was originally published in celebration of Canada’s 150th birthday in 2017.

>>Next: The Tiny Island Just Minutes From Québec City That’s a Food-Lover’s Paradise

Ashlea Halpern is a contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler and cofounder of Minnevangelist, a site dedicated to all things Minnesota. She’s on the road four to six months a year (sometimes with her toddler in tow) and contributes to AFAR, New York Magazine, TIME, the Wall Street Journal, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Bon Appétit, Oprah, Midwest Living, and more. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @ashleahalpern.
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