Canada, with its long history of British, French, and even Aboriginal cultures, is a vast landscape with any number of interesting historical sites and towns. But while everyone knows about places like Montreal and Toronto, we decided to spotlight some of this beautiful country’s lesser-known, but still completely charming, places.
On this list are 30 of the best underrated historic towns in Canada. Their claims to fame are varied — one of them was founded during one of the 19th century’s many gold rushes, while another has long been a favored summer getaway for the rich and famous — but all of them share a fascinating historical charm that is sure to thrill any visitor.
Bay Bulls, Newfoundland
This small town of roughly 1,000 people has been a fishing village since as far back as the 1500s. Much of that tradition is still what makes Bay Bulls, Newfoundland so charming. The village is located a mere half hour from St. John’s, and visitors make their way here for such activities as whale watching, bird watching at the town’s bird sanctuary, and viewing icebergs on boat tours.
Dawson City, Yukon
Called the “Paris of the North,” Dawson City in Yukon was once the largest city north of San Francisco and west of Winnipeg. Though only about 1,300 people live in this “city” permanently, Dawson attracts a respectable number of tourists each year due to its proximity to Yukon and Alaska. Dawson City’s heyday came during the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush, and much of its historic vibe still stems from that event. Visitors can pan for gold while in town, or visit many of the well-preserved heritage homes and museums, including Downtown Hotel, famous for its “Sour Toe Cocktail” that is said to be the most infamous drink in the North.
You may recognize Dundas, Ontario from any number of television shows and movies that have been filmed there. Located just outside of Hamilton, near Niagara Escarpment, Dundas is one of the best preserved 19th century towns in all of Canada. Its many residential streets are lined with stately and mature trees, as well as turn-of-the-century homes that have been lovingly maintained and restored. Downtown, visitors will find modern coffee houses and boutiques alongside charming throwbacks such as old-fashioned cheese shops and even a tiny tea room.
Located along the Grand River and the picturesque Elora Gorge, Elora is a quaint historic town. It’s well known for its 19th century limestone architecture, the result of its easy proximity to the Elora Quarry, now a conservation spot maintained as a swimming hole. While in Elora, shop your way through the charming downtown, tube down the Grand River, or enjoy the frequent community events like the Scottish Festival.
Founded in the early 1800s, Erin is an inviting small town located in Ontario. It’s laid back and welcoming, and makes for the perfect day trip from the bigger city of Toronto. Erin makes for a suitable getaway during each of the four seasons, as the nearby Elora Cataract Trailway is perfect for walking, hiking, cycling, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, and just about anything else you can think of.
Flin Flon, Manitoba
Flin Flon is an historic mining town located in Manitoba’s beautiful Lake District. Though Flin Flon gets its name from the character Flintabbatey Flontatin of the turn-of-the-century sci-fi novel The Sunless City, that’s about the extent of its “futuristic” character. Rather, this old mining town and its population of 5,000 are best known for things like its annual Trout Festival, held each July; the Hudson Bay smokestack, said to the tallest freestanding structure in Western Canada at 250 meters tall; and the unique sewer system that runs above ground in wooden boxes — the modern result of the town’s construction atop hard rock.
The small town of Frelighsburg, Quebec was founded in the 1700s by American Loyalists fleeing the Revolutionary War. Amazingly, many of the town’s oldest brick and wood buildings are still standing, making the small town a fun place to explore. Just past Frelighsburg’s main thoroughfare is one of the province’s major apple-growing regions, with dozens of orchards and cider houses worthy of a tasting or tour.
Founded by English, Scottish, and Irish immigrants, Hudson is a charming historic town with a fun Olde English vibe. Located about 60 km west of Montreal and home to about 5,000 people, Hudson is well known for its famous flea market, first-class dining options (interestingly, the whole town seems to specialize in organic cuisine), traditional tea rooms, and successful local industry of crafts and artistry.
Kenora, Ontario is located along the shores of Lake of the Woods, about 200 km east of Winnipeg. This underrated historic town has an important aboriginal history, a fact that remains a major draw for history buffs. Besides the usual hiking and swimming for which this region is well known, Kenora offers visitors such sites and experiences as the award-winning Lake of the Woods Museum, plus authentic Pow Wows to help teach visitors about Aboriginal culture.
As Canada’s original capital city, Kingston packs quite a historical punch. Its nickname is the “Limestone City” thanks to its many grand limestone buildings dating back to the 19th century. One such building is the Bellevue House National Historic Site, the former home of Canada’s first prime minister, and modern home to stunning gardens, interesting historical facts, and frequent military demonstrations. Other sites in Kingston include Fort Henry (brave ones will love the haunted house), the Kingston Penitentiary museum, Kingston Mills, and even the International Hockey Hall of Fame.
Located about 50 km north of Edmonton is Legal, a Francophone settlement that remains bilingual. This town of roughly 1,250 people thrives on agriculture, as the surrounding area is nearly all fertile farmland. Downtown, visitors are sure to be awed by the 28 colorful murals that give Legal its nickname of “French Mural Capital of Canada.” Come July, francophiles won’t want to miss Legal’s “Fete Au Village,” an annual festival that brings local communities together to celebrate French culture.
Located just northwest of Peterborough in Ontario is Lindsay, an historic small town dating back to the 1800s. Lindsay’s downtown area is easily one of the best in the province, if not the country, with wide main streets originally built for the turning radius of a four-horse hitch! Walk this wide boulevard and visit the many shops while admiring the old Victorian storefronts. Come evening, enjoy a performance at the historic Academy Theatre in Lindsay’s gorgeous historic district.
Lunenburg, Nova Scotia
With its stunning natural setting among water, historic buildings, and laid-back local culture, it’s no wonder Lunenburg, Nova Scotia has on more than one occasion been compared to Venice. The town sits on the beautiful Nova Scotia coast, only a few miles from Mahone Bay (also on our list), and locals have been building ships here since 1753. The famous 1920s racing schooner, Bluenose, is still docked here, the same ship that appears on the Canadian 10-cent coin. But one need not be interested in ships to appreciate the charm of Lunenburg, as this UNESCO World Heritage site is sure to impress just about anyone.
Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia
Founded in the 1700s, Mahone Bay in Nova Scotia is an old maritime town with a peaceful, laid-back vibe about it. Its three most famous sites, all historic churches, are said to be the most photographed churches in all of Canada. In between kayaking or sailing trips and exploring the miles of trails that meander along the lake, visitors shouldn’t miss the opportunity to stroll through Mahone Bay’s quaint downtown. Main Street runs right along the water, and is lined with antique shops, art galleries, and restaurants housed in lovely 19th century buildings.
Merrickville, Ontario, known also as the “Jewel of the Rideau,” has repeatedly been named Canada’s Most Beautiful Village. Part of this lovely reputation has to do with the Rideau Canal meandering peacefully through town, though we’d bet Merrickville’s historic charm has something to do with it too. Indeed, Merrickville boasts more designated heritage buildings than any other Ontario town its size, including Gothic churches, old stone houses, and Grand Victorian mansions. But Merrickville isn’t just for history buffs. While it spent its heyday as part of an important shipping route, today Merrickville is best known as a popular spot for canoeing and kayaking.
Memramcook, New Brunswick
Located 20 minutes from the cities of Moncton and Dieppe is Memramcook, a charming historic town known for its vibrant Acadian culture. Indeed, many locals still speak the Chiac derivative of the French language, while a fascinating mini museum and the Monument Lefebvre National Historic Site are just two places to learn about local Acadian culture and history. Memramcook also boasts plenty of stunning scenery, with nearby Memramcook River Valley being a great place for walking and biking the many trails.
While most people head to bigger Niagara Falls, we think that nearby Niagara-on-the-Lake is more of the charmer. Walk along the town’s pedestrian-friendly main street, and you’ll see beautiful old homes and buildings, stunning English gardens, and very few chain stores or restaurants. Head towards the outskirts of town to find a great destination for golf and wine tasting, plus trails for biking or hiking. While Niagara-on-the-Lake is a great underrated destination at any time of year, the town really comes alive when it hosts the Annual Shaw Theatre Festival.
North Hatley, Quebec
North Hatley, located along the north shore of Lake Massawippi in Quebec, has on more than one occasion been called one of the Canada’s most beautiful places. And it’s easy to see why. North Hatley is a stone’s throw from the lake, while the surrounding mountains form a stunning natural amphitheater around the little town. This area has been a favorite summer getaway for wealthy Canadians and Americans since the end of the 19th century, and today visitors will find dozens of impressive mansions and residences dating from the late 1800s. While many of these have been repurposed into B&Bs, art galleries, and even restaurants, others have been carefully restored and make for great lakefront vacation rentals.
Perth, located along the Tay River in southwest Ottawa, is a charming small town that is rightfully proud of its status as heritage town. In Perth’s downtown square, visitors will find century-old buildings constructed entirely of stone and now housing modern boutiques, restaurants, and specialty shops. The town hosts a wide variety of festivals and ceremonies each year, and at every single one a town crier appears in traditional uniform. Fun fact: Perth is home to the second oldest weekly newspaper in Canada, the oldest continuously operating golf course, and the oldest active town band.
Picton, Ontario, the largest community in Prince Edward County, is a wanderer’s paradise. Take a stroll down Picton’s main streets and enjoy the many consignment shops, cafes, and independent bookstores (Books and Company even has a pet cat!). Continue your walk down to Sandbanks Provincial Park and its beach and biking trails. Interestingly, Picton is also home to an 1887 Crystal Palace, the only remaining replica of the famous cast-iron and glass building in London.
Port Hope, Ontario
Located a mere hour from Toronto is Port Hope, perhaps the best preserved 19th-century town in all of Ontario. This walkable little community enjoys the highest per capita rate of preservation in the country, with upwards of 300 buildings designated to the heritage registries. While most of these preserved buildings now house restaurants, shops, and even studio apartments, others like the Waddel Hotel (built in 1845) and the Capitol Theatre have been carefully restored and continue serving their original purpose.
Sparta, Ontario, formerly known as Yarmouth Corners, is an historic Quaker town that has retained much of its Quaker charm and heritage. Originally settled in the 1820s, Sparta is home to such historic gems as a Quaker Meeting House that is still in use today, the Sparta House Tea Room which also remains in use, and Ye Olde Forge and Anvil Museum which houses interesting artifacts from Sparta’s earliest days.
St. Andrew’s, New Brunswick
St. Andrews, New Brunswick, home to a mere 1,800 people, is Canada’s oldest seaside resort town. Located on the Bay of Fundy, St. Andrews is quaint, charming, and historical — making it a great place to spend a quiet day or long weekend. Besides golf (St. Andrews is home to the historic Algonquin Resort), most activity here revolves around the water. Swimming, fishing, and whale watching are popular pastimes, while more than one local restaurant offers up dinners of delicious fresh-caught fish and lobster.
St. Mary’s, Ontario
The motto of tiny St. Mary’s, Ontario is “The town worth living in,” and we have to say: we agree! This charmer of a town, with its population of fewer than 7,000 people, is located 100 km southwest of Toronto. It’s well-known for its impressive limestone buildings, most of which are done in the varying styles of 19th century architecture. Architecture aficionados or not, visitors are sure to marvel at St. Mary’s impressively constructed opera house, town hall, and library, all of which were built with locally quarried limestone. And while the quarry is no longer being mined for stone, it has been converted into the country’s largest outdoor swimming pool.
The Pas, Manitoba
One of the oldest settlements in northern Manitoba, The Pas is home to one of the few true blue lakes in the entire world. Known for its stunning natural beauty, this historic small town makes for the perfect getaway at any time of year. Outdoor sports, including hunting and fishing, are all favorite pastimes here, while the town’s calendar of events is full of things like the annual Trapper’s Festival, Opasquia Indian Days, and the Agricultural Fair. Want to see the Northern Lights? Head to The Pas, where the natural light show is visible year round.
Trinity is a beautiful 18th century harbor town located along the coast of Newfoundland. Though Trinity’s year-round population hovers around only 200 residents, the town plays constant host to tourists enjoying its quaint walkable streets, old churches, impressive collection of restored saltbox houses, museums, and one-of-a-kind street signs, each of which is painted in old-style calligraphy. If Trinity looks familiar, perhaps it’s because you recognize it as the main filming location for the award-winning film The Shipping News.
Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia
Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia is well-known for its beautiful natural surroundings. Nature lovers head to Tumbler Ridge to enjoy the dozens of waterfalls, tobogganing in the winter, and hiking on any of the 47 hiking trails. Tumbler Ridge is also one of only two UNESCO Global Geoparks in North America, and is especially famous for its still-visible dinosaur tracks and fossils.
Victoria-by-the-Sea, Prince Edward Island
Victoria-by-the-Sea, located along the shores of the Northumberland Strait near the popular resort towns of Charlottetown and Summerside, is a beautiful 19th century town known for its colorful Victorian homes and old-fashioned lighthouse. The whole town consists of a mere four blocks, plus the Northumberland Strait where kayaking remains one of Victoria’s most popular pastimes. Today, While there are still plenty of lobster fishermen, Victoria-by-the-Sea is best known as a year-round artists’ enclave, housing painters, potters, sculptors, and candlemakers.
Located in Waterton Lakes National Park, near the USA/Canadian border, is Waterton. This small mountain village/national park/World Heritage Site/International Peace Park might have quite the resume, but it boasts a laid-back and unpretentious vibe. Enjoy the gorgeous mountainscape surrounding the town, pop into Watertown’s few restaurants and shops to enjoy some local fare, and make a visit to some historical sites such as the fine Prince of Wales hotel.
Yarmouth, Nova Scotia
Yarmouth is a fun little town in Nova Scotia which, despite being fully modern, has also managed to maintain its heritage as an important fishing village. In the Heritage District, visitors can meander 19th century Victorian homes once inhabited by captains and wealthy ship owners, while the town’s “living wharves” program allows visitors and residents both young and old to meet actual working fishermen and hear first-hand accounts of what it’s actually like to fish for a living.