The Rock Garden at the Royal Botanical Gardens. Domini Clark/Handout
I feel like summer is rapidly slipping away and I want to maximize the weekends that are left. What’s an easy day trip from Toronto that doesn’t require much planning?
It’s Hammer Time.
Wait. Are you suggesting I visit … Hamilton?
That’s right. Hamilton. The Hammer. Steeltown.
You want me to leave Toronto to go see a suburb of Toronto?
How dare you. Hamilton is not a suburb. It’s the ninth-largest metropolitan area in Canada and has its own suburbs, thank you very much.
I seem to have hit a nerve.
You did. I’m a Hamiltonian by birth and although I moved to Toronto decades ago, I still have hometown pride. You can take the girl out of Hamilton, but you can’t take the Hamilton out of the girl.
Well, since you’re such an expert, impress me. Why is it worth my time?
So many reasons. Not least because it’s time to rid yourself of that T.O. snobbery. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that Hamilton isn’t perfect, but it’s changed a lot – for the better – from the city where I grew up. Restaurants and shops have moved to the downtown core, giving new life to beautiful heritage buildings. Much of the waterfront has been turned into a family friendly 12-kilometre trail, bustling with activity. A creative energy hums beneath the surface as artists, chefs and entrepreneurs priced out of other parts of the GTA have found a place in which they can afford to experiment.
I have been meaning to check out the food scene.
And you should. You’ll find some wonderful upscale restaurants – my pick is Aberdeen Tavern – but when I visit, I make a beeline for the eateries that remind me of my childhood. Just, better. I’m sure some of my Hamiltonian friends will roll their eyes at me for saying this, but no trip home is complete without a proper doughnut. This is the birthplace of Tim Hortons after all. But skip the big chain and pop by Grandad’s, where you’ll find big classics such as the rectangular walnut crunch, Canadian maple, Dutchies and honey dip.
A taco at the Mule. Domini Clark/Handout
My other standbys include the Mule, serving up an ever-changing variety of Mexican-inspired snacks and tacos. A favourite is the Cease and Desist, which tastes like a certain fast-food taco that we’d scarf down during high-school lunch hour. Continuing on in that vein, at Odds, a sports bar, you can pig out on old-school curly fries (you know you love them) and free popcorn. If you’re down by the water, an order of fish and chips from Hutch’s is a classic.
Wow, those sound like …
Wait, I’m not finished. NaRoma serves up a twist on Roman-style pizza that is the haute version of the tomato-sauce slab pizza that was a birthday-party staple. For something more modern, seek out Pokeh in the Hamilton Farmers’ Market for a fresh, spicy raw fish bowl. The tiny stall claims to be the first poke bar in Canada (take that, Toronto!) I should add that, yes, you can find plenty of healthier options in Hamilton (Odds has a cauliflower bowl), but you’re on a mini break, so go crazy.
Good to know. Are you done on this subject yet?
Almost. In case you’re a coffee lover, I must tell you about the excellent café scene. Seriously, each block seems to have some cool, little Instagrammable spot. Standouts include Saint James Espresso Bar & Eatery, Mulberry Street Coffeehouse and Smalls Coffee. Okay, next subject.
Tell me more about the city’s supposed scenic beauty.
It’s not supposed, although if you’re most familiar with the factory view from the Skyway bridge, I understand why you’re doubtful. More than 100 waterfalls are within easy reach, but I feel like they’re an open secret at this point. Less familiar to outsiders is the network of waterfront paths. You can enjoy an easy walk or cycle between Pier 4 and Pier 8 (there’s also a trolley), picnic in Bayfront Park or roller-skate (eighties style) at the Hamilton Waterfront Outdoor Rink. (Bike and skate rentals are available.)
For a more immersive nature experience, spend an afternoon exploring the Cootes Paradise Sanctuary, part of the Niagara Escarpment World Biosphere Reserve. Notable stops include Princess Point (being restored to its oak savannah roots), a marsh boardwalk and Burlington Heights, which stand 30 metres high and offer killer views. I love it.
Cootes is part of the Royal Botanical Gardens, which are larger than most people realize. Along with four formal gardens, it encompasses 1,100 hectares of nature reserve, 27 km of trails and an indoor Mediterranean garden. The Rock Garden recently went through a refresh, with a focus on more sustainable landscaping and practices, heritage species and pollinator-friendly plants. On Aug. 8, it’s being turned into an awesome outdoor patio during a Blooms, Brews & BBQ event (also happening Sept. 19).
Okay, that was a convincing argument. Other non-nature must-see sights?
I’m going to make three suggestions.
First: Dundurn Castle. After so many trips here as a kid, I thought I had seen it all. But visiting as an adult gave me a new appreciation for the home of Sir Allan MacNab (restored to its 1855 state). I spent about 30 minutes in the historic Kitchen Garden alone, asking the knowledgeable costumed staff endless questions.
Second: A Tiger Cats game. Sure, you can see the CFL in Toronto, but the vibe here is more small town, and I mean that in a good way. I am embarrassed to admit it took me almost 40 years to see a game and I regret all the missed opportunities to chant Oskee Wee Wee. The Labour Day Classic against the Toronto Argonauts is coming up and tickets are still available (from around $50.)
Are you ready for the third? It’s pretty awesome.
You can, of course, look at the array of aircraft on display at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum. But you can also fly in some of them. This is the only place in the world where you can fly in an iconic Avro Lancaster. Now, that experience does not come cheap, at $3,600 a seat. But several other flights are available at much more moderate prices, from just $100 for the Beechcraft Expeditor and the Douglas DC 3 Dakota. (Most flights are 20 minutes long.) I took off in a North American Harvard, a two-seater used by the British Commonwealth for training during the Second World War. As I sat in the back seat, baking in the sun, surrounded by noise, rattling through the sky, I had a newfound awe for the pilots who risked their lives. (I was having a blast; I doubt they were.) And looking down at the city and a sparkling Lake Ontario below me, I had a newfound appreciation for the city that I took off from in a different way decades ago.
Hamilton really is worth a visit. I hope you’ll agree.