Image: Getty Images/Roderick Chen | Certified Organic English Lady Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) Fields, Stanstead, Fitch Bay, Quebec
The slower pace in these 22 Canadian towns is perfect for those trips that demand exploration and relaxation.
We’re all about visiting Canada’s big, bustling cities—the skylines, cultures, the availability of public transportation, restaurants, shopping—yeah, we’re definitely into spending time in the downtown cores of the capital cities across the country. But there’s something to be said for those smaller places—the towns, villages, hamlets (and yurts) where there are fewer folks and not as many takeout options but still plenty to offer. We picked some of our favourites that are full of personality, history, small-town hospitality and stunning landscapes with gems to discover.
1. Town of Beaver Creek, YT
Population: About 100
Driving distance: Whitehorse, about five hours
Go for: Experience; wilderness
The most westerly community in the country, Beaver Creek is a border town about a half-hour away from Alaska. With only 100 people, the town is clean and quiet and you’re sure to be welcomed by friendly residents (White River First Nation people) who are no strangers to tourists showing up (either on their way into Alaska or just to experience the area). Consider staying at the Beaver Creek RV Park and Motel, a fixture in the area since the ’50s (the motel opened in the ’80s). It’s about halfway between Whitehorse and Fairbanks, Alaska, and the surrounding wilderness is pristine, but the real bonus is meeting Beat, the owner and town historian.
2. Town of Dawson City, YT
Population: About 1,400
Driving distance: Whitehorse, about six hours
Go for: History; culture
Yukon’s original capital and today a National Historic Site, Dawson City used to be booming back in the 1800s during the gold rush. And if you’re into the territory’s golden history, catch the discovery claim and take a mine tour. No matter what you end up doing when you’re in town, get to the Downtown Hotel and become a member of the infamous Sourtoe Cocktail Club—go to the saloon, ask for Captain River Rat, buy a shot (most people order the Yukon Jack, a shot of whiskey), take the oath, watch a mummified human toe get dropped in your glass and drink up.
3. Town of Inuvik, NWT
Population: About 3,200
Driving distance: Yellowknife, you’ll need to fly—about two-and-a-half hours
Go for: Culture; experience; education
Inuvik has one set of traffic lights and a handful of cars during rush hour. There’s plenty of hunting, fishing, handmade crafts to buy from talented artisans, drum dancing and even a community greenhouse run by residents. The Igloo Church is a marvel, as are the rows of colourful houses (built on stilts or piles because of the area’s permafrost) and the Western Arctic Regional Visitor’s Centre. If you go in the summer, during the Land of the Midnight Sun, there are more than 50 days of 24-hour sunlight to enjoy—a stark contrast to the monthlong darkness that covers the town in the winter.
4. Town of Norman Wells, NWT
Population: About 800
Driving distance: Yellowknife, you’ll need to fly—about 90 minutes
Go for: History; hiking trails
You can spend a couple hours checking out the first oil town in the north (there’s a museum and restaurants) before making your way to the Canol Heritage Trail, dubbed one of the continent’s roughest backpacking trails. This isn’t for the novice hiker—it can take three weeks to make it across the 355-kilometre-long trail from Norman Wells to the Yukon border.
5. Town of Golden, BC
Population: About 3,700
Driving distance: Calgary, about three hours
Go for: Scenery; adventure; history
This mountain town is about as outdoorsy as it can get. Not only can you visit six gorgeous National Parks (Banff, Jasper, Kootenay, Yoho, Glacier and Mount Revelstoke) that aren't super far away, depending on the season you can do everything from heli-skiing and paragliding to white-water rafting and wildlife-viewing. Foodies will need to add Eagle’s Eye Restaurant to the must-see list—it offers Canada’s most elevated dining experience, which basically means you can eat your order of maple-bacon poutine from the top of the world.
6. Village of Keremeos, BC
Population: About 1,700
Driving distance: Penticton, BC, less than an hour
Go for: Orchard visits; hiking
Keremeos is east of the Greater Vancouver metropolitan area, in the Similkameen Valley and on the edge of the Sonoran Desert. It’s an agro-village—a third of its area is orchards, and the area’s weather (lots of sun) and growing conditions makes it fruitful farmland (pun intended). Ask locals where best to see the Keremeos Columns—these tall columns of basalt were formed thanks to volcanic activity 30 million years ago.
7. Town of Killam, AB
Population: About 1,000
Driving distance: Edmonton, less than two hours
Go for: Authentic small-town experience
Killam is in Alberta’s grain belt so there’s certainly a focus on agriculture throughout the town (complete with a scarecrow festival in the fall and lots of hogs and cattle), but there are other reasons to visit the area. The locals are super community-focused and welcoming, so feel free to ask for recommendations while you’re strolling Main Street. You’ll probably be sent over to Jam Tarts, a local café that’s open all day and has great pie. Make reservations to stay overnight in advance—there’s one hotel, one motel and a guest house.
8. Town of Legal, AB
Population: About 1,300
Driving distance: Edmonton, less than an hour
Go for: Culture
Legal offers plenty of interesting things to do for a small town—they have a demolition derby, trade fairs, sports tournaments, live concerts and farmers’ markets, among other activities and events throughout the year. But it’s a special title the Francophone community holds that brings tourists from around the world. Awarded the French Mural Capital of the Word per capita in 2011, you can wander around town and find more than 35 murals depicting their strong culture and heritage. L’Association Canadienne-Française de l’Alberta régionale Centralta offers guided tours.
9. Town of Gravelbourg, SK
Population: About 1,100
Driving distance: Regina, about an hour
Go for: Culture; architecture
Not only is it known as the “cultural gem of Saskatchewan,” it’s also been dubbed as the town with “a touch of Europe in the Prairies.” The area is full of culture and personality—there are stunning heritage homes and beautiful parks (there’s even a heritage walking tour), and Main Street boasts a museum, boutiques and cafes where you can people watch. Cool fact: There’s a community radio station and two newspapers for Gravelbourg’s townspeople.
10. Village of Forget, SK
Population: About 60
Driving distance: Regina, about an hour and a half
Go for: Small-town vibes
There isn’t too much going on in Forget (pronounced “for-jay”). It’s surrounded by farmland, there’s no infrastructure or paved roads, and the only people who call the village home are farmers (which makes sense), artists and musicians. Most people make the trip in to visit the Happy Nun Cafe, where local meat and produce are showcased, and they can enjoy live music, open mic nights and other fun events (think: interactive screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show”).
11. Town of Neepawa, MB
Population: About 4,600
Driving distance: Winnipeg, about two hours
Go for: History
Fans of renowned Canadian author Margaret Laurence can see where she grew up and visit the Margaret Laurence Home, a designated provincial heritage site and museum. The town’s other claim to fame is Neepawa’s Riverside Cemetery, which has been called the most beautiful cemetery in the world, thanks to its sculpted spruce trees and the more than 2,500 graves that are completely covered in flowers in the summer. Interesting monuments to visit not only include Laurence’s, but the only victim of the Titanic buried in western Canada, Lewis Hickman.
12. Town of Minnedosa, MB
Population: About 2,200
Driving distance: Winnipeg, about two-and-a-half hours
Go for: Cycling trails; hiking
The rolling hills and flowing water is what Minnedosa is known for—it’s even called “Manitoba’s Valley Paradise.” Those who take their cycling seriously can get in touch with Prairie Mountain Cycling when they’re in and join the group on a road or trail ride (they ride in both the warm and colder months). For visitors who love walking trails, the flag walk runs by the lake and features flags from countries around the world. You can also walk the around the bison compound, along the marsh walkway, through Heritage Village, across Swinging Bridge and take the stone building walking tour.
13. Town of Goderich, ON
Population: About 7,500
Driving distance: London, about an hour and a half
Go for: Architecture; beaches; history
Hey, if Queen Elizabeth II thinks it’s the prettiest town in Canada, we’re sold. Goderich is a port town, overlooks Lake Huron and more than one-quarter of the area is parkland (most overlooking the lake), so you’re pretty much guaranteed a beautiful view wherever you are. Spend some time in the octagonal-shaped downtown—known as Courthouse Square—where there are lots of shops, restaurants and outdoor concerts and farmers’ markets in the summer. Take in the town’s three beaches—one is really sandy and shallow, making it a favourite spot for families.
14. Town of Smiths Falls, ON
Population: About 8,800
Driving distance: Ottawa, less than an hour
Go for: Outdoor activities
So Smiths isn’t the most popular falls town in Ontario (yes, that distinction goes to Niagara Falls) but Smiths Falls is home to the Rideau Canal (the province’s only UNESCO World Heritage site), which flows through the centre of town. The waterway brings in plenty of tourists for a variety of activities—not only are there parklands and trails to explore, there’s canal fishing (it’s famous for bass fishing, but you can also catch pike, trout, walleye and perch), campgrounds and boat docks and the locks (there are five stations that give visitors a glance into life on the canal).
15. Town of Stanstead, QC
Population: About 1,500
Driving distance: Montreal, about two hours
Go for: Lavender
Yup, lavender. If you’re particularly smitten with this flower, Bleu Lavande field is a must-visit. The farm and estate is open from the beginning of May to the end of October, and it’s all about heightening your senses and relaxing. Go with a group of friends and take the tour, get massages and dine at the bistro (almost every dish incorporates the flower, including lavender ice cream and lavender brownies for dessert). Another cool bit of Stanstead: Canusa Street is the only part of our shared border with the States (Vermont) that runs down the middle of a street. (The house at the end of the street has doors that open to both countries—the old owners held dual citizenships.)
16. Village of Tadoussac, QC
Population: About 800
Driving distance: Quebec City, about three hours
Go for: Animal encounters
Tadoussac likes to party. The village, nestled on the Saint Laurence, hosts several festivals throughout the year, including the gastronomic food fest in October. But the village’s biggest draw is their claim to fame—Tadoussac is arguably the best place in North America to see several whale species up close. Go on a whale-watching expedition and you’re pretty much guaranteed to see majestic humpbacks, belugas and blue whales (the largest animals on the planet). Animal lovers will also want to catch the black-bear-watching experience, where you’ll see black bears in the wild just 130 feet away. (There’s nothing between your observation area but a valley, and the tour guide is quick to explain black bears can run about 50 kilometres an hour, so stay quiet!)
17. Town of Petty Harbour-Maddox Cove, NFLD
Population: About 900
Driving distance: St. John’s, about 15 minutes
Go for: Scenery
Petty Harbour is so picturesque it’s actually been dubbed the most photographed town in Newfoundland. It makes sense—the town sits on the shore of the Avalon Peninsula, it’s full of rolling green hills and there are killer ocean views. Take in the sites while ziplining (they have the longest zipline course in the country), then eat at Chafe’s Landing—the “Chafe’s Hook Up” includes fish, scallops, clam, calamari, shrimp, fries and onion rings.
18. Town of Ferryland, NFLD
Population: About 400
Driving distance: St. John’s, about an hour
Go for: A love of the Irish
The Irish settled in the area in the 18th century, and if you’ve always wanted to visit Ireland but can’t make the trip, Ferryland boasts the country’s traditions, culture, music, art and accents. (It’s not called the “Irish heart of Newfoundland” for nothing.) The Shamrock Folk Festival, full of Irish tunes, is a big draw, as are the lighthouses and areas you can check out along the East Coast Trail.
19. Town of Annapolis Royal, NS
Population: About 500
Driving distance: Halifax, about two hours
Go for: History
Canadian history buffs, this one is for you. This designated National Historic District is often called “Canada’s birthplace”—it was the home of the Mi’kmaq before the 1600s, when early settlers from Europe arrived. There are more than 130 historic buildings, homes and other sites, including Canada’s oldest house on Canada’s oldest street. The town also has a pretty happening culture scene and is a favourite place to visit among artists, performers and craftspeople.
20. Town of Pictou, NS
Population: About 2,700
Driving distance: Halifax, about 90 minutes
Go for: Outdoor activities
Pictou is where the country’s first Scottish immigrants landed in the 1700s, and the town has kept that old-world charm. There are interesting attractions (cultural centres and a museum, etc.) and a port where boaters are easily accommodated. For those who crave activity, Short Line Trail is a nearly 13-km trail that’s great for walking, cycling, running, skiing and even snowmobiling, while the Fitzpatrick Mountain Trail is best for skilled mountain biker and trail runners.
21. Town of Caraquet, NB
Population: About 3,000
Driving distance: Moncton, about three hours
Go for: A love of all things Acadian
There’s been a lot of growth in Caraquet’s tourism industry, thanks to its dedication to Acadian culture. The Acadian Historical Village, Festival Acadien and the huge event residents throw celebrating Acadian National Day in August are just a few examples of how serious Caraquet is about preserving the culture and history of the early settlers. There’s also a ton of seafood to be enjoyed—if you’re visiting in the summer, go for lobster, shrimp and scallops; in the spring have the crab—and eat as many oysters as you can in the fall.
22. Town of North Rustico, PEI
Population: About 600
Driving distance: Charlottetown, about 30 minutes
Go for: Fishing; beaches; lobster
While the anglers in your family fish for cod and mackerel, you can grab a spot on one of the area’s beautiful sandy beaches, watch the waves and beach comb. If there’s one thing you have to do when you’re in town, it’s to go to the world-famous Fisherman’s Wharf Lobster Suppers restaurant, which features an all-you-can-eat salad bar (no limits on steamed island Blue Mussels) and the fresh lobster in the shell (go for the two-pounder).