cool Canadian Cities
January 10, 2007 10:12 AM   Subscribe

Cool, small American cities such as Lawrence, Portland and Austin keep cropping up on MeFi as places people want to live. What, if they exist, are the Canadian equivalents ?
posted by gwynp to Society & Culture (39 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
Thunder Bay On. has seemed pretty cool whenever I've been there
posted by edgeways at 10:21 AM on January 10, 2007


Halifax is pretty awesome. There are tons of cultural activities and the terrain is spectacular.
posted by sueinnyc at 10:27 AM on January 10, 2007


I think Moncton has some of those Austin/Portland qualities.
posted by Amizu at 10:32 AM on January 10, 2007


I hear great things about Brandon. *shakes head*
Well I do.
posted by dreamsign at 10:39 AM on January 10, 2007


Part of the problem is that a small city in the US (Austin) is a large city in Canada (Winnipeg, Edmonton), and the college-town environment that makes those small US cities thrive also tends to limit itself to what Canadians would consider larger cities.

But Kingston and Halifax come to mind. Maybe Jasper/Banff? Victoria?

Prince Edward County south of Belleville, ON is up and coming as a hip place, but it's probably an older kind of up-and-coming than you're interested in.
posted by mendel at 10:40 AM on January 10, 2007


The Niagara Region of Ontario is where I grew up, and it seems to be turning in to a desirable locale - close to Toronto but still fairly peaceful, nice climate, gorgeous scenery.

Right now I'm in Dryden, ON, and let me tell you, it's the place to be.
posted by davey_darling at 10:48 AM on January 10, 2007


Brantford, ON has a very enthusiastic (& young) punk/indie community.

Calgary has a well-hidden but great indie music scene which intersects somewhat with Edmonton's.

But I think Halifax is kind of the best example of what you're looking for. Y'know, 15 years ago Harper's Bazaar called it "The Next Seattle"...
posted by loiseau at 10:56 AM on January 10, 2007


I don't think there are any. I've never heard anyone call "Thunder Bay" etc cool, though people certainly may move to a smaller place for monetary reasons, or to have more space, or be closer to nature etc.

"Culture" is spread pretty thin as it is in Canada.... I think you might be better of somewhere like Montreal or Vancouver -- hell, Vancouver's not that big at all; an ex-gf of mine from Tokyo used to say that she had been in train stations that were bigger than Vancouver's downtown core!
posted by modernnomad at 11:03 AM on January 10, 2007


Second on the Niagara region.

Saint Catherine's, Hamilton, Burlington etc. That's a neat little area....
posted by punkrockrat at 11:06 AM on January 10, 2007


Nelson, BC on Lake Kootenay? I rode through there once and it seemed to be a VERY vibrant place with a lot of restaurants, interesting buildings, and awesome scenery.
posted by SpecialK at 11:10 AM on January 10, 2007


Oh, Halifax, absolutely. Every single thing about that city is spectacular. Even the winters, from what I've been told, though they're spectacular in a different way.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 11:13 AM on January 10, 2007


I would say it's hard to make an equivalent comparison because the MeFi vibe is pretty left-of-centre and the mentioned places are more left-ish than the rest of the US, well, maybe except Austin. So almost everywhere in Canada is "cool" on the basis of left-of-GWB political beliefs.

If the desired qualities are just "cool" and "small", then I'd say that Waterloo and Guelph might both quality. Halifax is along the same lines. Of course, the "cool" factor in all of those cases comes from those all being university towns. Kingston was mentioned earlier - again, the university is a bigger factor in making Kingston cool than, say, RMC or the Kingston Pen.

And as mendel mentioned, "small" in the US is "big" in Canada. Portland is half a million people, with 2 million in the greater Portland Area, making it the size of somewhere like Winnipeg or Edmonton (actually, I think Edmonton is more like 3M). But Edmonton is the 4th biggest city (Winnipeg 5th) in Canada where Portland is the 24th in the US. Kingston, by comparison, is around the 23rd largest Canadian city.

Most Canadian small towns, in my experience, are extremely car-centric, which really reduces their coolness or are economically dead. I drove through Orangeville this weekend and it's a cute city, but I have no clue how you could earn a living there. Collingwood, in contrast, is probably cool if you like outdoorsy stuff and seems to have a real economy, but I've never heard anyone say it's "cool". If being near nature is your definition of "cool" then there are lots of places all over Canada like that.

Specifically, I would say Calgary is pretty cool, but with recent growth it's apparently impossible to find someplace to live. Other than that, it seems like a pretty happening town.

As other posters have mentioned, Halifax is pretty cool, is walkable and is chock-full of university students shuttling back and forth from the LiquorDome to halifax's various donair stands. Economically, it's OK, but no great shakes. My economic assessment may be biased by living in the Centre of the Universe. But everyone I know who has lived in Halifax moved away a few years later. Could be sampling bias since Toronto is a pretty frequent destination for those people.

Anyway, without a more specific definition of "cool", it's hard to make a specific recommendation.
posted by GuyZero at 11:18 AM on January 10, 2007


I agree with GuyZero - it's important to understand that the two countries are structured very differently in population distribution.

Canada, is very urban, in terms of percentage of people living in larger centres, whereas America is much less so.

So if you try to find similar "smaller" towns, what you'll be finding in America are lesser-known cities of half-million and up, whereas in Canada these towns will be 50 000 and up.

As a result the working landscape may be much different in a town of even 100k, than 500k. Similarly, the transit in some small towns is pretty abysmal.

Having said that, I think Kingston's a great place, having lived there for many years. Aside from the ancient prisons which are a cute distraction once in awhile, having a number of solid instututions make the pace a great cross-roads for people of all walks of life, students, academics, military people and so on.

Not to mention it's got some of the best fresh-water sailing you can get on this particular planet.
posted by iTristan at 12:09 PM on January 10, 2007


I love love love Quebec City.
posted by penchant at 12:35 PM on January 10, 2007


Ottawa? It's about the same size as Austin and has a similarly-sized mix of government and education.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:36 PM on January 10, 2007


Both Montreal and Vancouver are only a bit bigger than, for example, Austin. Both are probably about as cool as cities get in Canada. On the other end of the spectrum, there are a lot of very small cities that are considered cool, e.g. Nelson, Tofino, Canmore, etc. but they certainly aren't analogues for the cities the OP mentions. Many medium sized cities in Canada are based around resource extraction (logging, ranching, farming, fishing, etc.) and providing connected services which tends to make them less cool (to generalize broadly, diesel mechanics and truck drivers do not a cool city make). Other smaller cities have rather staid reputations because of their large civil service components (e.g. Victoria, Ottawa).
posted by ssg at 12:46 PM on January 10, 2007


GuyZero writes "Portland is half a million people, with 2 million in the greater Portland Area, making it the size of somewhere like Winnipeg or Edmonton (actually, I think Edmonton is more like 3M"

Edmonton proper is somewhere around 3/4 of mil with another 1/4 mil in the metro area. Calgary is just over a million and The Peg is somewhere around 600K.
posted by Mitheral at 1:03 PM on January 10, 2007


mendel writes "Part of the problem is that a small city in the US (Austin) is a large city in Canada (Winnipeg, Edmonton), and the college-town environment that makes those small US cities thrive also tends to limit itself to what Canadians would consider larger cities."

Great point. Portland and Vancouver have almost the same population. I don't think you'll find a better "match" for Portland in Canada than Vancouver.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:13 PM on January 10, 2007


Um. I'm assuming we're talking about Portland, OR. West coast bias.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:15 PM on January 10, 2007


Both Montreal and Vancouver are only a bit bigger than, for example, Austin.

Right. And if we're allowed to go based on population and not relative size ranking, if Austin is cool, Vancouver and Montreal are both ice-cold. Dry ice cold. No city in Texas has 1/10th the culture of Montreal. (Sorry Texas. We still love the steak. And in Montreal, they love the horse meat too).

The demographics nerd in me wants to get to splitting hairs about strict city population versus the greater region population, but yeah, Google sez Austin is 656,562 (2000) and Portland is 529,121 (2000) vs Vancouver at 583,267 (2005) and Montreal at 1,583,590 (2001). But without looking it up, my guess is that the area counted as "Montreal" is larger than the area counted as "Vancouver".

Anyway, your question was not about demographics. If by "small" you mean the same absolute size as Austin or Portland, then basically every city except Toronto counts. So pick anything.

If by "small" you mean below the top 15 largest Canadian cities, then just keep going down this list until you find cool. The only cool cities below #15 are Guelph and Kingston and not that many above 15 are very cool either (Hamilton, London and St. Catherines - I'm sorry, but you just aren't cool. Even my uncool self knows that. And Windsor - Windsor makes Sarnia look cool. See below...).

You get below a population of 100K around #35 on that list, and like iTristan said, once you're at that point the working landscape often gets very lopsided. #35, for example, is Sarnia, which is cool if you're a chemical engineer. Otherwise, it's a hole. (And Sarnia, you're not getting any apologies from me. You suck.)
posted by GuyZero at 1:21 PM on January 10, 2007


Edmonton proper is somewhere around 3/4 of mil with another 1/4 mil in the metro area. Calgary is just over a million and The Peg is somewhere around 600K.

Ooops. Man, there is some bad data out there. My bad. I don't know how I wrote that without catching it. I'll have to fire my editor.
posted by GuyZero at 1:23 PM on January 10, 2007


I'm a resident of Niagara and I can assure you that this area isn't cool. It's pretty quiet and safe, but comparing it to a culturally rich college town like Austin is silly.
posted by davebush at 2:08 PM on January 10, 2007


I don't think you'll find a better "match" for Portland in Canada than Vancouver.

Particularly if you dragged Vancouver eighty miles up the river and then jammed an expressway through the middle of it.

I mean, Portland's cute and all, but come on.
posted by timeistight at 2:18 PM on January 10, 2007


i definitely agree that halifax is probably the closest thing to what you're looking for. otherwise, hamilton, guelph, kingston, and waterloo all have universities, which mean some culture. thunder bay is okay too, but it does feel pretty small.

i think you could perhaps consider a toronto neighbourhood as an equivalent to a cool small town. downtown toronto (ie, the eaton's centre) is pretty awful, and the much-vaunted queen west is a ripoff. but the annex (bloor/brunswick), parkdale (queen/roncesvalles), little italy (college/euclid), and the junction (dundas west/keele) are all pretty cool, and each sort of functions as a self-contained small town. each of those areas has a heck of a lot more stuff going on than the city of guelph, in my experience. (nothing against guelph, though, i actually rather like guelph!)

of course, it probably bears saying that montreal's not that small, but it is the coolest city in the country.
posted by twistofrhyme at 3:29 PM on January 10, 2007


Halifax only partially qualifies - it is the largest city in the region by a lot..

The political point is interesting.. I think you'll find that some of the mid-sized places mentioned so far are actually more conservative than the big Canadian cities.

And, you know, wouldn't you rather be in the Centre of the Universe?
posted by Chuckles at 3:41 PM on January 10, 2007


Halifax is like a city with training wheels. It has some city-like qualities, but at the same time you can get out of it in 10 minutes. The abundance of universities and bars keep things from getting to conservative, but it has it's share of backwoods creeps. It may be the coolest Canadian city East of Montreal (with St. John's Newfoundland coming in second) but there isn't really much of a competition.
Here are some links...

The City: Halifax Regional Municipality
Alternative Weekly: The Coast
Daily Paper: The Chronicle Herald
The Other One: The Daily News
Rock: Halifax Locals
Rap: Halifamous
Jazz: Jazz East
Classical: Scotia Festival of Music
Electronic: Rave Halifax
posted by boost ventilator at 5:19 PM on January 10, 2007


Montreal, Kingston, Halifax.
posted by furtive at 5:54 PM on January 10, 2007


I think there really are no Canadian equivalents. The Portands and Austins of the US are trendy because they provide a mostly liberal, moderately diverse and manageably dynamic urban lifestyle. They are neither "big city" nor "small town."

There are no such alternatives in Canada. For one thing, our big cities are generally more livable than their US counterparts (although this is partly because they are not nearly as big). At the same time, our smaller cities generally lack the requisite diversity, culture, and coolness (and this is partly because they are so small). As others have suggested, young Canadians seeking a cool urban experience are most likely to find it in our 'big' cities: Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, and increasingly, Calgary.

I have a bit of a soft spot for Ottawa, but aside from the Rideau Canal, it is really not cool. At all. I also love Quebec City, but could not with a straight face suggest it is 'the Austin of Canada' (if anything, I would call it 'the Charleston of Canada').

Some suggestions in this thread do qualify as smaller centres that are more-or-less urban (Halifax, Victoria) but definitely lack the cultural amenities and coolness factor of the US cities you mentioned. Others (Guelph, etc.) are nice places, but in US terms they are just big college towns. Still others (Nelson, Tofino, Banff/Canmore, Niagara region) are, whatever you think of them as places to live, not cities at all.

Both Montreal and Vancouver are only a bit bigger than, for example, Austin.

I must agree with GuyZero that this is a misleading statement (even if it is literally true when only core city population is considered - even what counts as 'core' varies greatly from place to place). Anyone who has been to Montreal does not doubt for a second that it is a city in every possible sense of the word. Austin, on the other hand, feels much like a 'really big small town' in its central areas (this is one of its many virtues), and much like a 'really big suburb' everywhere else.
posted by Urban Hermit at 5:56 PM on January 10, 2007


I must agree with GuyZero that this is a misleading statement (even if it is literally true when only core city population is considered - even what counts as 'core' varies greatly from place to place).

Apologies, my mistake. My too-quick searching ended up with misleading data.

For the record (with Wikipedia as the source) the metro area populations are: Montreal 3M, Vancouver 2.2M, Austin 1.4M (and Portland, OR 2.1M).

Still others (Nelson, Tofino, Banff/Canmore, Niagara region) are, whatever you think of them as places to live, not cities at all.

I have no interest in claiming that these places are cities in the sense of large urban areas (though Nelson and Canmore are cities in the legal sense). I just wanted to point out, and I may be biased living in a very small town, that young people in search of a cool place to live in Canada tend to gravitate either towards "big" cities like Montreal and Vancouver or towards small towns with other draws.
posted by ssg at 6:26 PM on January 10, 2007


If we ever have to move to the interior of British Columbia (the mister might have to job-wise), I hope it's Vernon (map).
posted by deborah at 6:30 PM on January 10, 2007


I have no interest in claiming that these places are cities in the sense of large urban areas

Fair enough - I just wasn't sure how familiar the OP was with Canada, and didn't want him/her getting the wrong idea.

No slight intended against the places mentioned. If I were ever to move to a small town in Canada, it would be beautiful and offbeat Nelson, BC or someplace very much like it (somewhere in the Gulf Islands, perhaps).
posted by Urban Hermit at 6:39 PM on January 10, 2007


Charlottetown, PEI.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 7:39 PM on January 10, 2007


As a current Haligonian, I'm going to have to add onto the pile and say that Halifax is the "coolest" Canadian city I've ever lived in or even been to.

I saw Kingston was mentioned quite a bit, but I have to say (as someone who knows that area well) as far as bars/restaurants/music scene/city parks/entertainment/general layout goes, Halifax has it hands down. And the bars stay open until 4 (pumps arm in Tiger Woods "awesome!" putt-sinking fashion).

Both have "cool" potential though. As do many smaller cities in Canada (I personally dig Ottawa, and I'm sure there's some groovy spots on the west coast). People are free to have fun or lame it up however they choose.
posted by Idiot Mittens at 9:09 PM on January 10, 2007


Waterloo has a great university town vibe. St. Catharines, while technically a university town (Brock U is on the outskirts) does not.
posted by ewiar at 10:04 PM on January 10, 2007


Another vote for Waterloo. Two universities and a big community college.... And the Blackberry's from there too! Not the most exciting place though....
posted by rumbles at 10:44 PM on January 10, 2007


My quick picks would be: Halifax, Guelph, Winnipeg, Nelson.

I grew up in Thunder Bay and could not wait to get out. That said, summertime in NW Ontario cannot be beat just for how long the sun shines there. The outdoors environment may look pretty rote, but you can find a nice little niche that feels utterly comfortable. Generally, the city itself is bland and most of the industries there are drying up, leading a mass exodus of youth. I'm quite torn about how I truly feel, but I pine to go back every once in a while, do, spend a week or so before going crazy as I want to leave.

Went to school in Waterloo: cool isn't the word though there are a few pockets of interest about. Guelph is nearby and far more culturally interesting.
posted by myopicman at 11:51 PM on January 10, 2007


I wouldn't have thought Winnipeg small enough -- as one commenter noted, a "small" city in the U.S. is a big city in Canada. But it's definitely a cool town, with a long-standing music and arts community. Cheap to live. Super friendly people.

Only just had my first Halifax experience and loved it. Hear great things about Waterloo. My sig other is crazy about Quebec City. But Ottawa... NO.
posted by dreamsign at 3:59 AM on January 11, 2007


Halifax (and Nova Scotia in general) is beautiful, and Maritimers tend to be lovely, but I goddamn hate the weather here (Where is my winter!? Argh! Also, the wind coming off the harbour can be so bad it actually makes me angry.), and it's really, really tiny. If I scowl at someone on my walk into work one day, I'm going to see that exact same person the next day, and I'll probably feel bad because all these Maritimers are so friggin' nice, but why do they have to walk so slowly I have somewhere to be get out of my way. Still, lots of great music (No other province I've lived in has had such a great, intrinsic love of music.), beer, art, and fun-loving people.

I was a little girl when we lived there, but Regina was pretty cool. I certainly took in a lot of art and culture, and if the surrounding fields of wheat don't make your heart sigh, the Qu'Appelle Valley is close, and pleasant.

Kelowna is nice.

When the Maritime weather finally drives me away, however, it will be Calgary or Montreal for me. Or maybe the arctic.
posted by digifox at 4:58 AM on January 11, 2007


On complete readthrough here, I'd agree that Ottawa isn't so much "cool" as "nice", and ideal if you like doing outdoorsy stuff.

I think there's a tendancy here for people to attach exotic qualities to places they've never lived for a long period of time. So a lot is in the eye of the beholder, or the eye of the tourist/absentee. I personally would loathe living in a couple of the cities mentioned above, but that's good because if everyone lived in the same place it would cease to be cool.
posted by Idiot Mittens at 8:10 AM on January 11, 2007


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