For the West Coast of Canada, we’re going to focus on BC and Alberta. While Alberta isn’t on the coast, many people will include Calgary, Banff and the Rocky Mountains in any west coast trip to Canada, so it only makes sense to include Alberta. On the East Coast, the coastal provinces are the Atlantic provinces, which consist of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador, and Quebec.
The East Coast provinces are larger in all metrics, but not significantly, and when you are looking at provinces that are larger than many countries, you won’t run out of things to see and do wherever you decide to go! The East Coast is approximately 2 million square kilometres and has a population of 10.5 million people. The West Coast provinces, on the other hand, cover 1.6 million square kilometres in size and have 8.7 million people.
Parks and Outdoor Experiences
Both of Canada’s coasts feature fantastic scenery. Let’s look at some of the stand-out natural wonders available on each coast. Do note that there are many more options for people to see; so many we can’t mention them all!
- Take a walk on a Glacier! Visit Banff National Park and take a walk (and have dinner) on the Athabasca Glacier within the Columbia Icefield. This is a unique, icy experience not to be missed during a summer visit
- Walk on a piece of ancient history! Visit Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve (the Island of Haida Gwaii) and visit a thousand-year-old Indigenous village and learn about the history of the village and its people from an on-site caretaker.
- Surf’s up! You may not think of surfing while in Canada, but Tofino is a world-renown surfing hotspot and it’s located in the breathtaking Pacific Rim National Park on Vancouver Island.
- Take a boat cruise in a Fjord! Norway isn’t the only country with fjords. In Gros Morne National Park in Newfoundland. A boat tour is the best way to see the towering mountains and majestic waterfalls that can be found in this unique park.
- Watch out for that tide! With the highest tides on earth, it is quite the experience to see the Bay of Fundy in New Brunswick. With a change of 56 feet (16 meters) you can walk along the beach when the tide is out, but when the tide comes in it could cover a 5-storey building!
- Year-round activities! Be sure to visit Mont Tremblant National Park (and nearby Mont Tremblant resort) in Quebec, to get your fill of summer and winter activities. In the summer you can kayak, hike or mountain climb and in the winner, you can downhill or cross-country ski and snowshoe. If you want a park with almost limitless activities to choose from this is the one!
Tie. We simply can’t choose between the natural wonders on each coast!
Of course, you can experience Indigenous all-around Canada; however, we’ll try and narrow it down to some of the most outstanding attractions that can be found on either coast.
- Gwaii Haanas on Haida Gwaii The Haida Heritage Centre in Skidegate and a tour to Skedans village on Moresby Island are unique activities that aren’t to be missed to learn more about the Haida people and their ancient history.
- Squamish Lil’Wat Cultural Centre Visitors to Whistler (near Vancouver) shouldn´t miss an opportunity to learn about the culture and history of the local Squamish and Lil’Wat peoples. In the cultural centre, you can see local artifacts, eat authentic foods and learn to make Indigenous crafts.
- Located in Osoyoos, Canada’s only desert landscape, walking tours of the area are available. These are programs to learn about the desert ecology and legends of the local people and animals. The cultural centre also showcases numerous artifacts and offers wine tastings from their local vineyards!
- Aanischaaukamikw Cree Cultural Institute. Be sure to visit this unique building, the design of which was inspired by the traditional Cree “Sabtuan.” The building features performance space, exhibition space, a library for historical archives and a demonstration space used to teach traditional arts and crafts and local languages.
- Wendake and the Hotel-Musee Premieres Nations. Locate near Quebec City, the hotel is located on the Wendake reserve for Huron-Wendake peoples. You can stay overnight in a modern hotel while enjoying the onsite longhouse and restaurant for enjoyable indigenous foods and cultural activities.
- Kejimkujik National Park and Historic Site. A fantastic dark night experience, enjoy Indigenous storytelling inspired by the sky and its stars. A Canada Parks guide will talk about the myths and legends of the Mi’kmaq and its relationship with the Milky Way stars.
With unique cultural experiences on both coasts, we can’t pick a winner here. Indigenous cultures on both coasts offer excellent cultural centres to learn more about their history and culture, and many provide immersive experiences and hands-on craft making as well.
For food on either coast, seafood is the name of the game. But both coasts have local non-seafood specialties that aren’t to be missed!
On the west coast, the seafood specialty is salmon, which is found in many restaurants and is a particular favourite in the numerous sushi restaurants around Vancouver. A close second would be oysters found throughout the region and usually served with a white wine/garlic sauce and fries! Last but not least, is the Nanaimo bar, a famous dessert bar, first created in the town of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. The Nanaimo bar consists of a crust of wafer, nuts and coconut flake, with custard filling and a chocolate ganache topping – yum!
On the east coast, lobster is the seafood item of choice and a mouth-watering dish. A locally created dish is Poutine, a French dish consisting of French fries slathered in gravy and cheese curds – a gluttonous treat. Finally, we have the famous bagels of Montreal, which are hand-made in a wood-fired oven and typically a little sweeter than the average bagel. This is a specialty not to be missed when visiting Montreal, the largest French-speaking city in the world, after Paris!
Another tie! We can’t choose between the fantastic seafood on both coasts, so it really comes down to Poutine vs Nanaimo bars, and we think both are winners!
Some of the best road trips in the world can be found on Canada’s two coasts!
In the West, you’ll get to experience a shorter but perhaps even more stunning drive on the Icefields Parkway. The parkway runs over 200 kilometres between Jasper and Lake Louise. Here you’ll see numerous glaciers, waterfalls, turquoise lakes and, of course, the stunning wildlife that is found in the Rocky Mountains.
In the East, we have the Cabot Trail, located on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. Best experienced over several days, you’ll see stunning coastal landscapes, waterfalls and Scottish historical buildings along the drive. Great seafood restaurants, local fairs, and hiking trails can also be found along the route, which takes you in and around the Cape Breton Highlands National Park.
We’re going to give it to the west coast for this one. The amazing scenery of the Icefields Parkway can’t be beaten, and it can be done in one leisurely afternoon!
Unique Outdoor Experiences
Last but not least, we’re going to look at some unique outdoor experiences on each coast that can’t be found anywhere else in Canada.
In the West, we have the famous spirit bears, more properly known as the Kermode bear. Most Kermode bears are black, but several hundred have the Albino gene, giving them a white hue. The bears are found in the Great Bear Rainforest, a very hard-to-reach area on the coast of BC between Bella Bella and Prince Rupert. Considering the remote region and the low number of Spirit bears, you’ll be lucky indeed to see one, but everyone visiting Canada’s West Coast should try.
In the East, this means iceberg alley in Newfoundland. Found on the north and east coasts of Newfoundland, this is one of the best places on earth, and the only spot in Canada, to view icebergs! They drift down from Canada’s arctic every summer and, due to the Atlantic current, are easily spotted near Newfoundland. Of course, they aren’t drifting by every day, so a little luck must be with you during your visit.
East Coast. But this comes down to your preference for natural scenery vs. wildlife. Due to the relative ease of seeing icebergs when visiting Newfoundland in the summer, compared to finding a Spirit Bear, we’ll give the East Coast the win here.
This concludes our look at some of the major differences between Canada’s West and East coasts. What do you think of our choices and winners? We don’t think you can go wrong visiting either coast – there are so many fun and exciting activities and attractions to do in both regions. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!
Photos courtesy of ©Lisanne Smeele / Destination BC, Yuri Choufour