Over my more than decade of travel, Canada has featured prominently in my list of places I’ve returned to over and over again. I’ve extensively road tripped across Canada’s most incredible national parks, deeply explored the country’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and even visited regions of the country that few people have ever seen due to their sheer remoteness.
So when the VIA Rail, the trans Canada train system, invited me to test out its new offerings, I jumped at the chance. My train trip took place in October, and just a month earlier I had road tripped around Eastern Canada on my own, driving almost the exact same route the train would take, but in reverse: Quebec City to Toronto. On my own road trip, I was driving through after having visited Newfoundland and Labrador, so although that was not on this train route, it still provided an excellent contrast between traveling Canada by car and traveling Canada by train.
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The Two Best Train Trips in Eastern Canada
Why should you train Eastern Canada? Well, sadly, most American don’t think of Canada when it comes time to take a vacation—some of that has stemmed from the strength of the Canadian Dollar at times, but it also stems from our ignorance of things north of the border.
There are many incredible train trips in this part of the country, and the distances are not as far as you might think. The Toronto–Quebec City corridor is analogous to the Washington–Boston corridor on the East Coast of the US. It’s densely populated, the route contains some of the largest cities in the country, and they are close enough together to allow for reasonable travel times. So, let’s look at some of the best train trips in Eastern Canada, as well as the essential information you’ll need to plan a Canadian road trip!
Toronto to Ottawa Train Trip
Our train trip started in Canada’s largest city, Toronto.
Despite its size, Toronto is too often forgotten or overlooked by Americans visiting the country. It’s the 5th largest city in North America, and larger than every U.S. city other than New York, LA, and Chicago.
The best things to do in Toronto include: the CN Tower, Kensington Market, and Chinatown. The Queen Street West area is also one of the hippest in the city, and plan ahead which of the city’s best food trucks you’d like to sample.
The city has a number of fascinating and distinct neighborhoods, so a few days in the city to wander the skyscrapers and then find more off-the-beaten path local eateries and bars. I’d recommend starting your train trip with two solid days in Toronto, then heading onward.
There is also an arts festival in the fall known as Nuit Blanche (White Night). The festival literally goes all night long, with contemporary art exhibits located outside throughout the city. In addition to the art, there are food stands and there is, of course, lots of drinking. This is Canada after all.
Our next stop was Canada’s capital, Ottawa.
The train trip from Toronto to Ottawa was the longest leg of my entire journey around Eastern Canada, clocking in at about 4 hours. The time flew by considering we had a meal on the VIA train and were able to work on our laptops.
Ottawa has always been one of my favorite Canadian cities, and on this visit I was able to stay at the Fairmont Chateau Laurier, which is the castle-like hotel near the historic Rideau Canal and Parliament Hill. The Chateau Laurier is one of the few hotels in the world where I really wanted to stay at some point.
Visiting Parliament Hill is an interesting experience for Americans. There is only a fraction of the security you would find if you visited Capitol Hill in Washington DC. Also, there are gargoyles on the outside of the Parliament building in Ottawa, whereas in Washington the gargoyles are on the inside. :)
The other part of Ottawa I love is ByWard Market. Easy walking distance from Parliament Hill, the market is a neighborhood of boutique shops, fresh markets, delicious restaurants, and trendy bars.
Ottawa is also the home of the Canadian War Museum, National Gallery of Art, and the Canadian Museum of Civilization across the river in Hull, Quebec.
Most of the attractions in Ottawa that tourist would want to visit are within easy walking distance of each other, and like Toronto, you’ll want to be sure your train trip stops here for at least two days before moving onward.
Montreal to Quebec City Train Trip
Montreal is a truly unique city compared to other Eastern Canadian cities.
This time our slow train journey gave us the chance to really spend unhurried time in each new place, so I had much more time to explore Montreal.
It is a unique city. Although its in Quebec province, it’s really more of a bilingual city than a purely francophone city. Getting around knowing just English isn’t difficult, and is much easier if you even know a bit of French. And while it’s a bit more spread out than Ottawa, it isn’t nearly as bad as Toronto. Exploring the city can be done on foot or via public transportation. Montreal even has a network of bicycles you can rent, which are located all over town.
Just as we happened to be in Toronto for Nuit Blanche, we were in Montreal for the fall Lantern Festival taking place at the botanical garden. This was far more entertaining and photogenic than what I found in Toronto. The lanterns at night were a photographic bonanza and I could have spent the entire evening in the gardens taken pictures.
There are a number of both touristy and non-touristy things to do in Montreal, but at least make sure to you visit the world famous Schwartz’s Deli in Montreal’s Jewish Quarter and try its selection of smoked meats. You also have to try poutine, Canada’s national dish—with french fries, cheese curds, and gravy, it’s the tastiest heart attack on a plate you’ll ever find! (If you don’t try it in Montreal though, don’t despair, Quebec City also has incredible poutine.)
After days spent exploring Montreal, the train trip to Quebec City is a breeze and passes through pretty countryside.
Then you arrive in Quebec City.
Quebec City has become my favorite city in Canada, and quite possibly in all of North America.
It’s the most European city in North America, and when you walk the streets of the old town, you might think you are in France.
Fun fact about Quebec City: It’s the only walled city north of Mexico. The centerpiece of the Historic District of Old Quebec—a UNESCO site—is the Citadel, which was the French fort in the city. It is also the residence of the Canadian Governor General, who serves as the representative of the Queen as Head of State in Canada.
Outside the fort is the Plains of Abraham, which were not named after the biblical character, but rather the man who used to own the land. It was here that the British took control of Quebec from the French in 1759, in what was a surprisingly short fight. Both French General Montcalm and the British General Wolfe died in the battle.
The other dominate building in Old Quebec is the Chateau Frontenac. Like the Chateau Laurier, these hotels were originally built by the Canadian National Railway and are now owned by the Fairmont Hotel chain—they are uniquely Canadian and can be found throughout the country. In fact, the Canadian pavilion at Disney World’s EPCOT is, in part, modeled on the Chateau Frontenac.
Given it’s my favorite city, I recommend you make this your last stop on your Eastern Canada train trip and spend at least three days exploring the many things to do in Quebec, including fascinating day trips to nearby islands, and just soaking in the distinctly different atmosphere than anywhere else you’ve visited.
Should You Travel Eastern Canada by Train or Car?
Having done the trip by both train and car, which is the better way to do it? The easy answer is: train. If you’re road tripping across all of Canada, then you might want the flexibility of a car (but even then, it’s totally possible to take the train). Here are a few reasons I think eastern Canada is best done by train:
- Its cheaper. Gas in Canada is expensive. I’m not sure you’ll be saving any money by driving yourself around. The same goes for the cost of getting to Canada itself—the only exception might be if you live near the border in the North East United States.
- You don’t need a car. If you drive a car, you will have to deal with parking in several major urban areas, which is never cheap. All four of the cities I visited had good enough public transportation to get to you most of the major tourist areas you’d want to visit. The one exception was visiting the island outside of Quebec City, which is rural.
- You can work and relax on the train. It isn’t easy to work in a car, and it’s impossible if you’re the one driving. On the train, you have the opportunity to relax, eat, and read—and use the complimentary wifi.
- No border crossings. Having crossed the US/Canadian border several times in the last year by car, it’s something I have no desire to do again. Agents on both sides of the border feel the need to act like total a-holes and depending on the luck of the draw, your border crossing could last a full hour. You won’t have these problems if you enter Canada by plane. Avoiding a land border crossing would be reason enough not to take a car to Canada (although this point is moot if you’re renting a car when land).
I’d go so far as to say whenever you can take a train for a trip of four hours or less, it is almost always better than driving or flying (factoring in time spent at the airport).
WiFi Tips for Canada Train Travel
Let’s talk about the wifi on VIA Rail trains, which was the original purpose for my entire trip.
The wifi is good! It’s perhaps even a bit better than should be expected for being on a moving train. The train company was still beta testing the network when I used it, so it was available for free for all passengers. As such, I’m not sure how much the network performance was impacted by a lot of people trying to access the internet at once. The train company charges for the service now, so I have no idea how that impacts performance. But even with the train’s wifi network wide open, the performance was quite good. I’d say it was on a par with, or slightly better than, the quality of bandwidth you’d find on a domestic flight.
At some point on each leg of the train trip, there was a short period of time when the network would freeze. Based on where Foursquare would locate me, I think the network was switching over from one location to another as Foursquare would locate me in different cities after each network freeze. The switch lasted no more than one-to-two minutes.
If you want to take in the entire train trip from Toronto to Quebec City, it’s a short enough trip that it can be done by train in five days minimum—with that, you will be able to hit the highlights in each city and have plenty of time for travel, too. But, of course, if you can spend a few days in each city you’ll see more and have a better chance to soak in the culture along the way.
Key Canada Travel Planning Resources
- Best Guidebook: I recommend picking up the Lonely Planet Montreal & Quebec City Travel guide since these are two key cities where you’ll want to spend a few extra days and explore them in more depth.
- Best Accommodation Booking: Booking.com is my go-to for booking accomodation most anywhere in the world, but it’s especially useful for North America travel.
- Best Rental Car Company: You may choose to train the region and then rent a car for some day trips. I find that no matter where in the world I am, RentalCars.com consistently delivers the best deals.
- Best Travel Insurance: Although you’ve likely head all about Canada’s free healthcare, that’s reserved for locals. Choose a great insurance provider like World Nomads so you’re covered in case you get sick, hurt, or lose your bags along the way.
- Other EE Travel Guides: I’ve extensively traveled all of Canada, so why not view my free travel guides for Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City, Newfoundland and Labrador, most of British Columbia (and all of the national parks in between).