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I'm going to Canada for the first time in my life. I can choose between Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa. I want to see a place that is very typical for Canada and that also differs from the things I can see in Switzerland.

If that are my only requirements, which of the three cities should I choose to go to?

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How long are you visiting for? And are you hoping to see museums / galleries / old-ish buildings / open spaces / visit restaurants / cafes / do outdoor sports / etc ? –  Gagravarr Jun 7 '12 at 12:12
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Vancouver? Vancouver? Come to Vancouver! :) –  Mark Mayo Jun 7 '12 at 16:32
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I don't know yet how long I will be there, but we're talking about some days. I'm not interested in museums, galleries and stuff like this. but landmarks, etc. would be cool. And @MarkMayo I'm also coming to Vancouver ;) –  RoflcoptrException Jun 8 '12 at 7:45
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If you're into landmarks, Montreal is where you want to go. It's a much older city than Ottawa or Toronto and has fantastic architecture in many styles. Remember, this was at first a French and then a British city. Also there are impressive modern structures such as the Olympic Stadium, St Joseph's Oratory (ok not that modern), and downtown buildings. –  Imray Mar 7 '13 at 23:18

6 Answers 6

up vote 16 down vote accepted

Ottawa we can pretty safely drop from the list -- as a planned city populated mostly by government bureaucrats, it's got a few good museums but very little else to interest the casual visitor, and it's quite hard to get around without a car.

Montreal vs Toronto is a more interesting showdown. Personally, I'd cast my vote for Montreal: it feels a bit smaller and more approachable, with an incredibly vibrant cultural scene, and the presence of French everywhere gives it quite a unique flavor for a North American city. However, if you're keen on something that's less "European" and more like New York or Chicago, then Toronto may fit the bill better.

All that said, my favorite big city in Canada is actually Vancouver, which also has the most scenic location by a long shot and arguably the best climate as well.

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I'm also going to Vancouver ;) –  RoflcoptrException Jun 7 '12 at 11:50
    
But there you have the mountains, just as in Switzerland ;-) –  user766 Jun 7 '12 at 15:15
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But also the sea, which they DON'T have in Switzerland :) –  Mark Mayo Jun 7 '12 at 20:25
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But we have some lakes ;) –  RoflcoptrException Jun 8 '12 at 7:45
    
@user766 The mountains in Canada are far, far more impressive than the ons in Switzerland. At least, that is my opinion. –  Bernhard Mar 8 '13 at 6:45

If those are your three choices, I'd suggest Montreal. Montreal and Ottawa are a less than two hours from eachother, so you can easily take a morning train and spend the day there, before returning to Montreal.

Ottawa is a beautiful city, and is home to some of the best museums in the world (see Museum of Civilization, Air and Space Museum, and more). Also if you are going in the winter, skate through the city on the longest ice rink the world. In the summer, Ottawa is where the Canada Day parties are, and they have one of the largest tulip festivals in the world.

Montreal has a lot to offer too. The nightlife there is one of the best in North America, and there is lots to do at the waterfront (Vieux Port).

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If you mention museums in Ottawa, you should also mention the Canadian War museum. This is really one of the most interesting museums that I ever visited. There is a combined ticket for the Museum of Civilization and War Museum, if you visit them on the same day. –  Bernhard Mar 8 '13 at 6:44

Toronto is the most "typical" Canadian city. It's big (with over 15% of Canada's people), and broadly representative of the country.

As an English-speaking American, I found Montreal to be interesting, because of the interaction between English and French. Of the three, it is most reminiscent of Switzerland, which judging from the question, is not the best thing in the world for you.

Ottawa is the least interesting; it's main interest is as the capital city, and not much else, somewhat like Bonn in the former West Germany.

In Swiss terms, Toronto is "Zurich," Montreal is "Geneva," and Ottawa is "Berne."

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Toronto is an interesting base from which to see things outside of Toronto as well as the city itself. For example Niagara Falls is just about an hour away from Toronto. In the fall, there are bus tours north of the city to see the leaves turn - Montreal may offer that as well. Toronto is also close to Stratford (for Shakespeare etc) and Niagara on the Lake (for Shaw), which are world famous. Depending on the time of year, you might want to see a professional basketball or baseball game - hockey you can see in both cities.

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Definitely Montreal. The best cuisines: wonderful food, fabulous shopping, the unmatched culture, the best shows (Grand Prix, Jazz festival etc), the music, the theaters, Catherine St., the numerous cathedrals, famed walkways, the "Mont Real" mountain, biodome, insectarium, the fashion and the most beautiful women in Canada. Multilingual. Ottawa: tulip festival, the one real Theatre, the museum of civilization. Mainly straight laced Brits. Pretends to be bilingual Toronto: CN tower, the theatre distict, the great lakes, royal Ontario museum. Multicultural but mainly British in culture.

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Canada is in my opinion pretty close to Switzerland: it is mostly interesting for its nature, the mountains. It differs thanks to its immensity, its wilderness.

If you want to explore it and not only the mountains, since Switzerland has a lot, I would recommend you remote areas like Vancouver Island (I really remember this feeling of small, isolated communities) or the Prairies, very, very flat. I have not visited them but I suppose Newfoundland or the Northwest (north of Edmonton, basically) are probably really different from Switzerland. In general, take a car and find a relatively remote area, I suppose Switzerland has few of them.

Regarding cities, it is harder to tell which one is most different from Switzerland, as cities do not really have the specificities of Canada. I have visited all of these cities so I can still describe how I feel about them, regarding how they reflect Canada.

Ottawa

Ottawa is sometimes seen as not appealing as some described. It really has good museums, including the Civilisations/History museum (if you're curious about Canadian history), the National Art Gallery. Compared to Europe, these museums will just be fine. Ottawa offers in winter the Rideau Canal Skateway, a 7.5km long rink. In summer, it hosts the celebrations of Canada Day on July 1st, it also has a lot of festivals (Jazz, Blues, franco-ontarian festival) like other Eastern Canada cities, as Canadians really enjoy their summer. Ottawa is a bilingual city, but speak in English, you will feel more challenged. Apart from these few sights, there is little to do in Ottawa.

Ottawa Parliament, by Sergey Ashmarin CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Montreal

Montreal is French-speaking, and has a big French community (meaning from France) so if you are a French speaker, you might feel too much at home, not very challenged. In summer, it has great festivals, like the International Jazz Festival, the Francofolies, or O'Sheaga. Montreal also has buildings in the Quebec style, and in general enough tourism activities (not necessarily Canadian). Montreal also has a good hockey team (les Canadiens/the Habs)

Montréal, Québec, Canada, by Dickbauch~commonswiki (GFDL)

Toronto

Toronto has never been appealing to me, but there are still interesting sides. It is a very large city, and in fact the decor of many movies supposed to happen in large American cities. I found this city cold, in the meaning that there are not that many people on the streets, it is not at all a pedestrian city (compared to Montreal, Ottawa or espeecially Quebec). There are also some festivals in summer, including a Jazz festival. It has good museums, like the Royal Ontario Museum or Art Gallery of Ontario (including Canadian art), but none specifically on Canada. One thing that is very Canadian is the cosmopolitan side of the city. I find that Southern Ontario really is populated by open-minded people, a population coming from a bit everywhere in the world, and if you have the chance to really immerse in the Ontario population, that's the part of Canada where you will feel a real tolerance to any culture.

Skyline of Toronto viewed from Harbour, By John Vetterli (originally posted to Flickr as Skyline) CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Québec city

I would add another city to the list: Québec city. It is very European, so this might not interest you. It is still very Canadian (or very Québécois to be precise). This city has way more space for pedestrians, with a tinier city center, like European city. It is very charming. It is also where the Québec accent is thick and where the Québec culture is more present, so if you speak French and are attracted by the Québec, that could be a good idea. It also hosts the Québec national celebrations, on June 24th, with concerts. There are probably other festivals as well.

Château Frontenac, By Mustafa Ozturk (Mdozturk) (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

If you go to Eastern Canada, it is also interesting to go to a sugar shack. The best season is at the end of Winter to try maple taffy (~March) but you can visit any maple place in Quebec or Ontario any time and try some maple products. For accessing most of these, you will need a car though. Another thing about Eastern Canada, weather is extreme: winter are cold (-20, -30 Celsius degrees) and summer are hot (30-35 Celsius degrees).

Tire d'érable

Tire d'érable, By Gachepi (Own work) GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Vancouver

Let's move to the West to Vancouver. It is very different, and most Canadians do not move from East to West or vice-versa. Vancouver is very uncommon in Canada because it is set along the ocean (the only other city like that is Halifax). Vancouver also has a less extreme weather, not too cold and not too warm. It is close to the mountains as well as Vancouver Island. It has some museum on aboriginal history, probably interesting.

English Bay, Vancouver, BC, by No real name given CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Oh and a last thing. If you get a chance to try that in summer, Canadians are fond of going camping near lakes. If you want to feel Canadian, find a car, some friends if you are a solo traveller, and head to a park with a lake, camp there, eat s'mores, canoe on the lake or hike in the park.

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