Ontario is Canada’s second-largest and the most populous province. It is home to the Canadian Capital City of Ottawa, and Toronto, which is Ontario’s capital and Canada’s largest city. In addition to being Canada’s most populous province, it is also a major tourist destination, especially around the Niagara Falls.
While most of the people live and work in the southern Ontario, the north is mostly boreal forest extending to the Hudson Bay and the Arctic.
Due to its massive size, Ontario can provide the visitor with access to Canada’s most populous city, Toronto; the world’s largest freshwater lake, Lake Superior; and even a polar bear park in the Subarctic.
While English is the first language of most people, one will find historic French speakers and some signage in French, many other immigrant languages in the greater Toronto area, and First Nations peoples’ native tongues still being spoken, though dwindling.
A Brief History
Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, the region was inhabited by Algonquian (Ojibwe, Cree and Algonquin) in the northern/western portions, and Iroquois and Wyandot (Huron) people more in the south/east.
The French explorer Étienne Brûlé explored part of the area in 1610–12. Samuel de Champlain reached Lake Huron in 1615, and French missionaries began to establish posts along the Great Lakes.
The British established trading posts on Hudson Bay in the late 17th century and began a struggle for domination of Ontario with the French. After the French defeat during the Seven Years’ War, nearly all of France’s North American possessions were ceded to Britain in 1763, including most of what is now Ontario.
The first big wave of European settlement occurred in 1782–1784 when 5,000 American loyalists arrived following the American Revolution. The British also set up reserves in Ontario for the Mohawks who had fought for the British and had lost their land in New York state.
Things To Do
The Greater Toronto Area, Hamilton and the Niagara Peninsula are usually described as the Golden Horseshoe.
- Toronto — Canada’s largest city and capital of Ontario, a globalized international hub and the media and cultural metropolis of English Canada
- Ottawa — Canadian federal capital, home to Parliament and the main national museums of art, military history, and nature
- Niagara Falls — once the honeymoon capital of the world and still a major draw for sightseers
- Kingston — briefly a major military base and colonial capital of Canada from 1841 to 1844, it is now known mostly for its universities and historic ambience
- Hamilton — a former industrial town of just over half a million inhabitants, now gentrifying and therefore perfect for urban trend spotting
- Kitchener — the capital of German culture in Canada, but centre of a larger region including tech hub Waterloo sprawling Cambridge
- London — a leafy mid-sized city, formerly industrial, now known for insurance
- Windsor — directly across the river from Detroit
- Thunder Bay — the gateway to Ontario’s north
Niagara Falls will be at the top of the list for many travellers. More water goes over the three falls here per minute than over any other falls in the world.
The city of Niagara Falls has many other places of interest, from beautiful gardens, to butterfly conservatories to ticky-tacky tourist traps. The Niagara region is the most important of the Wine Regions of Ontario.
Read: Toronto Travel Guide
Toronto is a busy, cosmopolitan, multicultural city with theatre, museums, galleries, shopping, professional sports, and restaurants offering the cuisines of the world (half of Torontonians were born outside of Canada).
If the view from the observation deck of the CN Tower, which was the tallest tower in the world from 1975 to 2017, doesn’t take your breath away, you can take a step outside (with a harness), and walk around the edge of the building 356 m above the city.
Read: Ottawa Travel Guide
Ottawa, Canada’s capital city, is rich in historical buildings and museums, including the the National Gallery of Canada, Canadian War Museum, and the Canadian Museum of Nature. The city comes alive with festivals in the summer.
Old Fort William
Further afield, Old Fort William in Thunder Bay, is a historical fort with the best historical reenactments available in Ontario. The lighthouses and beaches along the Lake Huron coastline makes for a relaxing summer vacation.
Sainte-Marie among the Hurons: 1½ hours north of Toronto on Hwy 12. French Jesuits settled here for 10 years until they fled in 1649 after attacks from the Iroquois.
Explore the Historic Nipissing Road now part of the Great (Trans Canada) Trail. You can drive the road as well as hike it. See Magnetawan.
Ontario offers many outdoor activities every season of the year. In the northern part of the province, you can hike the Sleeping Giant, a series of mesas that resemble a human figure, near Thunder Bay, hike through Temagami’s Old Growth Forest, or climb the Fire Tower and canoe Lake Temagami.
Fathom Five National Marine Park
At Fathom Five National Marine Park at Tobermory, you can dive around or take a boat tour of shipwrecks.
Bruce Peninsula National Park
Nearby Bruce Peninsula National Park has great camping opportunities.
The neighboring Manitoulin Island is the largest freshwater lake island in the world.
Freshwater Sandy Beaches
Visit one of Ontario’s freshwater sandy beaches:
In Southwestern Ontario
- Wasaga Beach
- Sauble Beach
- Grand Bend
In Northern Ontario
- Pancake Bay Provincial Park
Furthermore, visit these Ontario Parks for great beaches as well:
- Lake Superior
- Charleston Lake
- The Pinery
Hiking & Nature
The province’s extensive provincial parks provide many opportunities for camping, hiking, canoeing, and rock-climbing. Many cities and towns, such as Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto, offer extensive biking and hiking trails with beautiful views of trees, birds.
Then you have the Bruce Trail which offers 850 km of hiking from Niagara Falls to Tobermory.
If you still have some energy left, try the Ontario sections of the Trans Canada Trail.
Algonquin Park is a great place to start.
There are several heritage railways in Ontario operated by rail-fans using vintage rail equipment.
Wine Regions of Ontario
Wine lovers can explore the Wine Regions of Ontario, starting with the Wine Road from Exit 78 on QEW to Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Ontario makes some excellent cold-climate wines, including the spectacular ice wine, and many wineries have excellent restaurants and B and Bs.
Ontario is an enthusiastic participant in the craft brewery craze, too.
Try Walleye and Bass fishing in Ahmic Lake in Magnetawan.
- Bruce Peninsula — southwestern Ontario’s last major forested area, home to a national park, and endpoint of the Bruce Trail
- Algonquin Provincial Park — a huge, isolated expanse of rugged backcountry forests and lakes, but near the main cities
- Thousand Islands — countless stop-offs, some with castles, on the St Lawrence River bordering New York
- Rideau Canal — historic waterway, now used for pleasure craft, connecting Kingston and Ottawa
- St. Joseph Island — a pretty place to break up the 24-hour drive across northern Ontario
- Prince Edward County — an island in Lake Ontario that is like the whole province in miniature with beaches, wine growing, and quaint villages
- Bruce Trail — the oldest and longest marked footpath in Canada
- Rideau Canal — a scenic waterway linking Kingston and Ottawa
- Windsor-Quebec corridor
English is the official language of Ontario, and is widely spoken throughout the province. French is spoken in some parts of the province especially along the border in eastern and northern Ontario, and has been officially recognized as a minority language by the provincial government.
Services are available in both English and French at all federal and provincial government offices, and some municipal government offices. Many businesses, especially in Ottawa, offer services in French although this is not mandated by law, so don’t expect it.
The closer one gets to Quebec, the more likely one is to be able to receive service in French in stores, restaurants and other businesses. Some banks and ATMs also offer service in Chinese, particularly in Ottawa and Toronto.
More than 95% of the Ontarian population is fluent in one or both of English and French; more than 91% of the population is fluent in English.
Ontario is a large province and, as a result, the car is nearly the most convenient way to explore it. If you are arriving by plane, cars are easily rented if you are over 23, but easiest if you are over 25 years of age. There is more to Ontario than Southern Ontario and Toronto (or Hamilton, or Niagara), and driving to and through the vast and varied regions of Ontario can be an adventure. Coming from the USA, your options are numerous.
In Northern Ontario, the car is a must if you wish to get from place to place. In most cases, you will be driving the Trans-Canada Highway (a cross-Canada network of highways, often offering more than one route), either on Highway 17 or Highway 11.
Even by car, you will be unable to access the northern half of Ontario. Roads are the exception, not the rule, and you will rely on plane and train nearly anywhere north of Lake Nipigon.
Speed limits are posted in metric. Roadways are usually in good condition. Controlled-access highways (numbered 400-427,and the QEW) have posted speeds of 100 or 110 km/h (62 or 68 mph). Other provincial highways (numbered 2-148) generally have posted speeds of 80 km/h (50 mph).
You will likely find that the average speed of traffic exceedsvtgese limits by 10-20 km/h when conditions are good as drivers do not expect to receive a speeding ticket at these speeds.
Fines for spped escalate rapidly at higher speeds. Anyone caught exceeding the speed limit by 50 km/h or more, or making certain undesirable driving manoeuvres such as racing, preventing others from passing or rushing to turn left on a fresh green light before the oncoming lanes have moved, can be hit with an automatic fine between $2000 and $10,000, a seven-day licence suspension and a seven-day vehicle impound. Ontario outlaws radar detectors.
Lane discipline by drivers is considered mediocre at best. Although it is widely known that passing should be only done on the leftmost lanes, drivers routinely pass on the rightmost lanes, mostly due to slower drivers failing to change lanes to the rightmost lanes.
Ontario has High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes on Highways 403 and 404. Cars and even motorcycles require at least two occupants per vehicle to use them around the clock. Motorcycles without passengers are banned from Ontario HOV lanes.
Within and near the Greater Toronto Area, GO Transit buses serve many cities and towns near Toronto. GO buses often complement GO Transit rail service for destinations or time periods not covered by GO trains. A few GO bus terminals are at stations along Toronto’s subway system.
Ontario contains many excellent recreational waterways including: the Great Lakes, the Rideau Canal, the Trent-Severn Waterway, the Ottawa and St Lawrence Rivers. The St Lawrence River includes the Thousand Islands region and the St Lawrence Seaway system.
The Niagara River is one of the wonders of our natural world although it is most definitely not a recreational waterway! The river includes the great cataract, Niagara Falls, and is bypassed for navigational purposes by the Welland Ship Canal.
The Pelee Islander: Daily trips to Pelee Island and mainland Ontario, Canada. Service from Sandusky is limited to once daily during the summer months, and is further restricted during the spring and fall. Advance vehicle reservations.
The MV Jiimaan, Jackson St., Sandusky Ohio. The largest passenger ferry along the Lake Erie route to Pelee Island. Leaves from the foot of Jackson St., Sandusky. To Leamington, Canada, Kingsville Govt. Dock, Ontario, Canada and Pelee Island, Ontario, Canada.
VIA Rail services many areas of Ontario, from small towns to the largest cities. Many of the larger stations are served by several trains each day. Stations are often in the downtown area of some cities, and are sometimes served by local public transit. In Toronto, car rentals are available from within Union Station.
Within and near the Greater Toronto Area, GO Transit offers train service on several routes radiating from Toronto’s Union Station. There is daily train service (including evening service) between Burlington and Pickering with more limited service to other destinations, some having only rush-hour, peak-direction service. GO Transit bus service often complements the rail service for destinations or time periods not covered by GO trains. On Weekends year-round, GO Transit runs the Niagara Weekend GO Train Service between Toronto and Niagara Falls.
The big exception to the above is if your destination is Northern Ontario (such as Moosonee or Lake Superior Provincial Park). There are train services to these areas that are your only options, excepting planes.
Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ IATA), as the province’s largest airport, is a major hub for most Canadian air carriers with regular service to regional airports throughout Ontario. More locations are served by Toronto’s City Centre Airport.
Ottawa has the Macdonald Cartier International Airport (YOW IATA) for destinations in Eastern Ontario and the Ottawa Valley.
In Southern Ontario, there are airports at Windsor, Sarnia, London, Hamilton, Kingston, and Kitchener.
If you plan to travel to Northern Ontario, airports include Thunder Bay, Sudbury (Ontario), Timmins, Sault Sainte Marie (Ontario), and many smaller airports. The larger carriers serving Northern Ontario from airports in Toronto and Ottawa include Air Canada Express, Bearskin Airlines, and Porter Airlines.
The Greater Toronto Area, Ottawa, Golden Horseshoe, and Niagara Falls/Niagara Region each offer you a wide variety of Indian, Chinese, Thai, Italian, Latin American, Japanese, fast food, and French cuisines (all formal and informal).
Toronto and Ottawa have large immigrant populations, and have an unusually high variety of quality specialty cuisines, that cater to Western, Asian, European palates.
Visit Gluten-Free Ontario for a list of restaurants/bakeries in Ontario that offer gluten-free food.
In Ontario, the legal drinking age is 19. In Southern Ontario, you will find a great variety of beer and spirits at your disposal, while in Northern Ontario your options are usually limited to the most common North American standards. Drinking in public is discouraged by law in Ontario and most parts of Canada, exceptions being licensed patios and the like.
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September 9, 2020 12:18 pm
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