Photograph by Philippe Nault, Hemis/Alamy
A Trip to the Cottage
Ontario is a big, diverse place and its residents, spread across more than a million square kilometers, don’t lay claim to all that many shared experiences. But if there’s one Ontario tradition that’s nearly universal, it’s the family trip to the cottage.
Cottage time is all about campfires, canoe rides, and rainy-day board games. Visitors can get in on the action too; rental cottages are widely available. Popular “cottage country” areas include the Kawarthas and Muskoka, both within a couple hours’ drive of Toronto, and the Rideau Lakes, near Ottawa.
The Toronto Zoo is the largest in Canada, and one of the largest in the world. Its 460-plus animal species are organized by their region of origin. In addition to the main exhibits, the zoo also offers a special children’s zone with demonstrations, a splash park, and interactive activities for kids.
In recent years the Toronto Zoo has substantially expanded its conservation and education efforts, upgrading animal habitats and funding research projects worldwide. Ask about the zoo’s family-focused educational programs.
Rideau Canal (Ottawa)
Ottawa’s Rideau Canal is a national historic site and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was built after the War of 1812 as the key link in a chain of locks, rivers, and lakes that provided an alternate route between Montreal and Kingston, in case of an American invasion of the St. Lawrence River. Today it’s an urban waterway lined with trees and bike paths—perfect for renting a canoe, pedal boat, or bicycle and cruising through downtown. In winter, it’s transformed into the world’s longest skating rink.
Canoeing in Algonquin Provincial Park
A canoe ride in Algonquin is quintessential Ontario: an endless expanse of water, rock, and pine trees, with the silence broken only by a loon’s call or the splash of a paddle.
Of course, since the park is enormously popular, it isn’t always quite that idyllic. But while Ontario has plenty of wild, empty backcountry to offer, Algonquin’s level of infrastructure and trip support makes it especially family-friendly, and the park is so vast that it’s almost always possible to find some solitude. Options range from short, easy paddles to multiday, self-supported backcountry canoe-camping trips.
Science North and Dynamic Earth (Sudbury)
Sudbury’s twin science centers offer hands-on exhibits covering a broad array of scientific topics, often with a northern flavor. At Science North visitors can learn about bush planes and butterflies, try their hand at measuring emissions and air quality in the region, and visit an IMAX theater and a planetarium.
Nearby at Dynamic Earth, the emphasis is on geology: the highlight is an elevator ride deep underground to a simulated mining environment. Some of the exhibits here offer an opportunity to teach kids about reading and thinking critically.
Canadian Museum of Nature (Ottawa)
The Canadian Museum of Nature is a natural history playground in the heart of Ottawa. The permanent exhibits feature everything from skeletal dinosaurs to live tarantulas and cockroaches, and traveling exhibitions also rotate through. Some of the displays still tend toward the old school—think taxidermy mammals and painted habitat backdrops—but the newer sections of the museum emphasize interactivity and hands-on learning. Even the museum building itself can be a thrill for kids: It’s castle-like, more than a century old, and rumor has it the place is haunted.
Experience Canada’s national obsession with the OHL (or Ontario Hockey League), a prominent junior hockey league that grooms many future big league hockey stars. It’s open only to players 16 to 20, and its games tend to be fast-paced and highly skilled. They’re also far more affordable than professional NHL games, where the ticket prices rapidly rise into triple digits.
The league has teams spread out across the province, from Ottawa in the east to Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie in the north and Sarnia in far southwestern Ontario. Weekend afternoon games are particularly family-friendly.
Agawa Canyon Tour Train (Sault Ste. Marie)
The Algoma Central Railway runs this popular one-day scenic train ride out of Sault Ste. Marie, the northern Ontario city better known as the Soo. The train runs north through a granite wilderness before plunging into the Agawa Canyon. At the bottom, visitors take a 90-minute break; try one of the handful of hiking trails to a waterfall or scenic lookout, or settle down for a picnic.
Trains are equipped with large windows and monitors showing “engineer’s-eye-view” footage from cameras mounted up front. Snacks and hot or cold meals are available onboard.
Black Creek Pioneer Village (Toronto)
Black Creek is a classic pioneer village attraction, complete with historic buildings, demonstrations of old-time skills and chores, hands-on activities for kids, and interpreters in period dress. And while it’s largely kid-focused, the village also has a perk for adults: there’s a microbrewery on-site.
For visitors who can’t make it to Toronto, there are similar working historical villages in other parts of the province: check out Eastern Ontario’s Upper Canada Village, Muskoka Heritage Place, or Fort William Historical Park in Thunder Bay.
Ontario Place (Toronto)
Ontario Place is an interesting contradiction: a hedonistic theme park run by, of all things, a government agency. The result is a fun hybrid, with carnival standbys like bumper boats and mini-golf on offer alongside large-scale thrill rides, a giant water park, and—here’s where the contrast kicks in—an eco-learning center and an IMAX theater that screens regular nature documentaries.
Ontario Place is located on the waterfront in downtown Toronto. It’s open from mid-June to early September.