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Canada’s top attractions

In Montreal, 1.3 millionvisitors per yearenjoy La Ronde's thrill rides like the Monstre, 'the highest double wooden roller coaster in the world.'
In Montreal, 1.3 millionvisitors per yearenjoy La Ronde's thrill rides like the Monstre, 'the highest double wooden roller coaster in the world.'
/ Source: Forbes

“We’ve been told that Canada has had a kind of vanilla pudding image,” says Canadian Tourism Commission spokesperson Carol Horne. “Safe and nice, like the girl next door—not the hot chick you’d want to go on vacation with.”

Any lingering doubt about the sex appeal of the world’s second-largest country should be dispelled by a quick glance at Forbes Traveler’s list of the 25 most-visited Canadian tourist attractions. While the visitor hot spots in the nation’s 3.5 million square miles include the quaint (the narrow, restaurant-lined streets of Quebec City’s fortified old town, for example) they also encompass the exotic and awe-inspiring (the thundering falls of Niagara or the stratospheric heights of Toronto’s CN Tower).

Not surprisingly, for a country renowned for its natural beauty, outdoor destinations figure heavily on the list. Canada’s national parks draw approximately 13 million visitors annually. The system’s crown jewel, Banff National Park, in the Canadian Rockies (in the province of Alberta) attracted about 3.3 million adventure-seekers and nature lovers last year.

Ellen Sellers, a representative of Carlson Wagonlit/Encore Travel in Bolingbrook, Ill., describes Banff as “the Switzerland of this hemisphere.” She says U.S. travelers are often surprised to find the area “much different than a park like Yellowstone. Banff is glacial, very green in the summertime. It’s fresh and cool.”

The Bay of Fundy, another Canadian natural wonder, straddling the eastern provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, is also a major tourist draw. Approximately 1.2 million visitors a year come to marvel at the world’s highest tide (the sea rises 50 feet in about six hours) and to take in the myriad natural phenomena, including several species of rare and endangered whales.

“Thirty percent of visitors to Fundy come from the U.S.,” says Bay of Fundy Tourism Partnership manager Terri McCulloch. “Likely this is due, in part, to the excellent high speed catamaran car ferry, ‘The Cat,’ that traverses the coast from Portland and Bar Harbor, Maine, to the town of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy.”

Americans account for the lion’s share of visitors at many of the country’s top attractions. The Niagara Falls Bridge Commission estimates 12 million annual cross-border passages on its bridges (though they only track vehicles), and U.S. travelers accounted for more than 76 percent of the 18.1 million foreign overnight visitors to Canada in 2006, according to the CTC’s latest annual report.

But perhaps as a result of a declining American dollar, or due to confusion about new passport requirements, visitation by Americans has actually declined recently. A comparison by Statistics Canada of January-to-March visitation in 2008 versus 2007, for example, showed a 13 percent decrease in trips to Canada by U.S. residents. The same report shows that more visitors are coming from countries such as China and Mexico. At Mont Tremblant, a ski resort and village in the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal, the biggest recent increases in clientele have been coming from the U.K. and Mexico, according to spokesperson Virginie Barbeau.

Still, Barbeau adds, Tremblant is a strong draw for U.S. travelers, perhaps due to its somewhat exotic allure. To many Americans, the town feels more European than North American; the Quebec locals speak French, and the village is pedestrian-only (cars are parked in underground garages). This trans-continental charm, in addition to the world-class ski resort, golf courses and blues festival, draws more than two million visitors to Mont Tremblant annually, putting it in 16th place on our list.

Sellers agrees that the foreignness of Canada’s Eastern regions is often a draw for Americans. For travelers who’ve never left the States and who may be worried about the costs or cultural navigation required of a trip to Europe, Sellers sometimes suggests Toronto as an alternative. “We often recommend Toronto as a first European trip,” she says.

As Canada’s largest city, Toronto is home to many of its most-visited tourist attractions. Harbourfront Centre, a 10-acre site on the waterfront, includes shops, restaurants, green space, art performance venues, an ice skating rink and an extensive boardwalk. It draws approximately 12 million visitors annually, earning it the third spot on our list.

“Toronto is known as one of the world’s most ethnically varied cities,” the CTC’s Carol Horne explains. Some 110 languages and dialects are spoken among the population of 2.5 million.

Looking out from her window in the CTC’s Vancouver office, Horne offers another example of Canada’s thrilling diversity: “I’m looking up at the mountains, and Stanley Park (the forested oasis in the middle of the city) is just down the street. And all this is side by side with some incredible local culinary experiences. You can ski and dine (in the city) all in one day.”

Vancouver is a prime example of what Horne calls Canada’s “vibrant cities on the edge of nature.” In addition to Stanley Park, Vancouver’s Granville Island—an enclave of theaters, restaurants, shops and artists’ studios alongside a renowned public market—makes our list, with an estimated 10 to 12 million visitors annually.

Before we take a closer look at those sites of urban vibrancy and natural splendor that constitute Canada’s most-visited tourist sites, a word about methodology. We defined tourist attractions in Canada as discrete sites of historical or cultural interest; natural phenomena and landmarks; and delimited (or officially designated) spaces of entertainment and recreation. While we’ve included some sites that have strong commercial components, we’ve excluded standalone shopping malls and casinos. If we hadn't, Toronto’s Eaton Center, which claims one million visitors a week, would top our list.

We’ve used the most up-to-date available numbers from the tourist attractions themselves along with data from reputable media sources, government agencies, and tourism industry newsletters.

So which vertigo-inducing Canadian attraction—the ski slopes of Whistler Blackcomb ski resort, or the glass-floored viewing room of Toronto’s CN Tower—welcomes the most visitors each year? Read the slideshow to find out.