This is my condensed ‘Ultimate guide to travelling West Canada’.
It will tell you the ‘how to’s’ to getting around, the key places to visit and highlights I found whilst in Canada. When I arrived I couldn’t find much information on getting around at any of the hostels, so doing the trip really helped me get a gasp on the place so it should help you learn from my mistakes and provide a great trip to West Canada.
As always, if I’ve missed anything, if you have any questions then contact me via the comments section or instagram @whereawalton
First of all, starting with a Geography lesson (for those who don’t know and because I got confused when I arrived), BC (British Columbia) contains places like Vancouver, Vancouver Island, Whistler. There’s a lot more to BC in the north, but we stuck to the recommended ‘touristy’ places rather than off the beaten path. Alberta covers The Rockies like Banff, Calgary, Jasper, Lake Louise and Canmore.
Where to start?
I would advise using Vancouver as your base.
Whether you’re just doing BC or BC & Alberta in your trip, then make Vancouver your in and out flight destination. Why?
ONE: Vancouver’s basically the travel hub for all transport (flights/buses/ferry’s, they all head here).
TWO: Having a base makes things a lot cheaper e.g Return Flights (International and Domestic).
Guide to British Columbia:
- Vancouver: Bike ride around Stanley Park, Hike Quarry Rock, Walk across the Capilano Suspension Bridge, look out at the Cleveland Dam, visit Kitsilano – a nice ‘hipster’ suburb with a nice beach, enjoy sunset and the appropriately named Sunset Beach, take a day trip to Bowen Island to have lunch or grab some fruit and veg at Granville Market. All of these are accessible via public transport OR have a hire car at hand for a few of the trips. My Vancouver Highlights blog summarises everything I loved about this city. Time to spend here: 3-7 days.
- Squamish: Less than an hour from Vancouver, a quaint little town surrounded by mountains, adventure activities: climb The Chief, ride the Gondola or hike Sea to Summit. To get here and around, either grab a pop-a-ride to Squamish (car share app) or have a hire car for your time. I’d advise a hire car otherwise it’s a 40 min walk to the hikes once you’re in Squamish. BONUS TIP – you’ll drive the Sea to Sky Highway to get here and it’s beautiful. Time to spend here: 1-3 nights.
- Whistler: The place to go for Ski & Snowboarding, but there’s so much more to do in Whistler such as Cross Country Skiing, the world’s fastest bobsleigh, tubing and the abandoned train wreck. Also if you’re on a budget, eat at Furniture warehouse for $5.95 a meal. Time to spend here: 3-5 nights.
- Then head back to Vancouver from Whistler – the drive is 1-2 hours max
Getting to and from Vancouver Island:
- You have two options to consider: Take a Ferry from Vancouver (Tsawwassen) to Victoria (Swartz Bay) OR from Vancouver (Horse Shoe Bay or Tsawwassen) to Nanaimo.
- On Vancouver Island, Victoria and Tofino are the places you want to go – we stopped at a few others but really these two are the best!
- Nanaimo is nicely in the centre of both towns so this might be a better place to get the ferry to, as it’s a long drive from Victoria to Tofino.
- When we went, we headed to Victoria as getting a hire car from there was far cheaper.
- However, honestly getting to Victoria isn’t the easiest from Vancouver without a car – it’s a train to Bridgeport Station, then a #620 bus (Compass Card or a 2-Zone Ticket – $4.10 weekdays, $2.85 weekends) to the Tsawwassen Ferry ($17 and takes 1.5 hours) to Swartz Bay, #70 long bus to Victoria ($2.50 – cash, takes an hour) and a walk to where you are saying.
- If you’re a backpacker, you’ll manage if you’re on holiday, just bring a car.
- Vancouver Island – Victoria: Explore the old town, the market, Chinatown, Fisherman’s Whalf, walk from downtown across the new bridge to the Hidden Harbour Marine Centre (a nice easy walk to and back – you could even get a water taxi back to town), Craig Durrock Castle, Beacon Hill Park (for the world’s tallest totem pole), the breakwater barge and Oak Bay (the only place in Victoria you see seals being fed).
- On the way to Tofino: Kinsol Trestle (a bridge), Cathedral Grove (wood walk) and Wally Creek are nice little stops.
- Vancouver Island – Tofino: I love this place and it’s a ‘must go’ in my opinion. If you do really look into a nice place to stay with a cracking view of the water. We stayed at the Hi Whaler Hostel which was fab and had the best view of the Oyster House and water front but there’s honestly so many lovely hotels, pods etc so please choose a good one!!
- Things to see/do in Tofino: Look out to Strawberry Island, Tonquin Beach, Long Beach, Tofino Brewing Company, West Pacific Trail (from Ucluelet), surf lesson with Surf Sisters (ask for Jo), Schooner Beach, Rainforest Trail, Bear/Whale Tours, Kayaks. Eat at Tacofino (Best Burrito I’ve ever eaten) and look out for the ‘Buck-a-shuck’ night at the Ice House ($1 an Oyster) – it’s a very nice place with a good atmosphere to dine and have a drink.
- Head back to Vancouver
- Getting from Vancouver to The Rockies/Banff (as most do):
- I would advise that you book a return flight from Vancouver to either Edmonton or Calgary before heading to The Rockies (Or fly into one and out the other depending on the time you have.
- This is because it’s a long 8-9 hour drive (800KM) from Vancouver to Banff
- And I didn’t think the towns in between were worth seeing (Kamloops/Kelowna).
- I 100% recommend having a hire car for The Rockies, we went into Banff without (as we went there via a couple Pop-a-Rides), then headed to Calgary to get a car and brought it back to Banff.
Guide to Alberta:
- Calgary: Other than exploring the town and dining out, there’s not a crazy amount of things to do in town, but we thought the Dinosaur Museum (Tyrrell Museum) a 1 hour 40 minute drive out of Calgary was an unsung hero of the trip. It’s honestly one of the most incredible museums I’ve ever seen where they examine new species dinosaur fossils all the time! After the Museum, you can drive to the Hoodoo’s (a sedimentary rock formation).
- Canmore: Now friends, don’t you dare skip this town on the way to Banff. To me, this town was better than Banff (as a town) although I admit Banff has a lot more photo op spots near Banff town that you’ll need a car for. We stayed at the Alpine Club of Canada in a family room with mountain views of the Three Sisters and it was PERFECT. There’s the option of dorms, but it’s the mountain view chalets you want. There’s mountain hikes here, or just enjoy a coffee in town like I did! There’s lots of cute little shops, easy walk around a little river, cafes etc and just look up – you’re surrounded by mountains.
- Banff: Things to see IN Banff – Banff Upper Hot Springs, Tunnnel Mountain, Viewpoint of Fairmont Banff (or go in and explore), Surprise Corner view, Bow Trail, Sulphur Mountain (walk up, gondola down). Things to see near by via car: Lake Minnewanka, Two Jacks Lake and Vermilion Lakes.
- Lake Louise: Johnson Canyon (you can also see this via Banff) – whilst here, find the secret walk down to a giant rock. See Lake Louise itself and have a coffee in the Fairmont, Lake Moraine (if it’s open), the tea house above the lake in summer.
- On the way to Jasper: Icefields Parkway drive, Horseshoe bay.
- Jasper: Pyramid island and Pyramid Lake, Maligne Canyon, Maligne Lake, Old Fort Point (100% for Sunset), Medicine Lake. Eat a Rasberry & White Chocolate scone from the Bear Paw Bakery.
We didn’t head to Edmonton as we heard they have a nice mall, but nothing else worth seeing. We drove back through the Rockies, had a stop back at our favourite places before dropping off the car and then getting a night bus back to Vancouver. As mentioned, consider a flight to save the stress and the long drive.
How much did you spend?
For 3 months, $5,722 CAD (£3,318). So around £1,100 a month.
This is my final spreadsheet of spending (yes I keep these for every trip, it’s what I do best):
- ‘MISC’ covers car hire and petrol (as I saw it as a luxury at the time), but as well as bike hire, buying walking shoes from an op shop, sim card with data only, hostel day tours, gifts, surf gear hire and bear tour.
- ‘Travel’ included buses, ferries and Pop-a-Rides.
- Yes I keep a coffee budget, it’s to remind me to stop buying coffee out. 🙂
Any recommendations on food worth trying whilst in Canada?
They don’t really have many local dishes other an Poutine. We ate it in a few places but by far the best is ‘Mean Poutine’.
Best restaurant experience: Elbow Room for Breakfast
Treats: Any Donut at ’49 Apparel’ and the ‘Raspberry & White Chocolate Scone’ at Bear Paw Bakery.
Best time of year to travel West Canada?
Personally, Spring/Summer (May/June to September). This is because we saw the end of winter (early March) then as it started to warm up that’s when we started falling in love with this country, particularly. Vancouver in the grey cloud and rain just didn’t paint a pretty picture of the city, and all of the lakes are frozen so you feel a bit cheated not seeing all the turquoise lakes in their glory.
If you’re there to ski/snowboard, the winter is great but for everything else, the summer is the time to be there!
Random things to be aware of in BC and Alberta?
ONE: As per North America, that sales tax is annoying and it differs by state. So, if you buy something in a shop and convert it to your currency you think wow – this is cheap! Then get to the till point and they slap on the sales tax and it costs the same, if not more then back home.
I wish I could provide more info on how the sales tax works in Canada as it differs for almost all items, then it doesn’t affect some grocery food. In one shop a guy we were with bought 2 t shirts and sales tax % differed for each. It sometimes feels like it’s made up as they go along.
TWO: Also, be prepared to tip when you eat out – at least 15%. Standard.
THREE: If you’re a Brit, you’re likely to be asked if you’re Aussie or Kiwi.
FOUR: BC was in the process of legalising Cannibis, which is highly apparent when you get to Vancouver. We arrived on Granville Street (Central Vancouver) at 7am and you could smell it in the air already.
FIVE: There’s a high amount of homelessness in Vancouver, particularly Gastown and Chinatown (East Hastings area) of Vancouver – which is a shame as these are nice places to walk around but can feel unsafe at times (especially at night).
SIX: Overall, it’s very safe and easy to get around West Canada, even if you’ve not planned ahead (like us). However public transport out of Vancouver is sparse so a hire car or Greyhound buses will help.
Here’s a few more photo’s to encourage you to book your fights over: