If you’ve lived in Toronto for a while, you’ve probably noticed the incredible transformation the city goes through each spring—patios, bike lanes, and sidewalks fill up, there are so many food, music, and cultural festivals happening that you can’t keep up with them all and, suddenly, everyone’s smiling. But no matter how much better the city gets in the summer, the never-ending concrete and extra tourists can make it feel a bit claustrophobic. If you don’t have a lot of time or money to get away, don’t sweat. There are lots of places within driving distance that provide the perfect weekend escape.
Experience Hip Hamilton
Hamilton has actually been referred to as Canada’s “Brooklyn.” We’re not sure the designation fits perfectly, given its proximity to downtown Toronto, but it does say something about the steel town’s recent transformation. What was once an industrial blue-collar city is now a haven for creative types—artists, chefs, and musicians—who’ve been driven out of Toronto by high housing prices. Some of the city’s must-try restaurants include Earth to Table Bread Bar, Two Black Sheep, The Burnt Tongue, and Radius. But it’s not just known for the food—it also has a solid music and art scene. Once a month, a neighbourhood art crawl takes over James St. North, where galleries stay open late and the bars host local musicians. Hamilton is also a nature lover’s paradise, home to almost 100 waterfalls.
Explore Water & Land in Tobermory
Just off the coast of the town of Tobermory, you’ll find Fathom Five National Marine Park, Canada’s first National Marine Conservation Area and one of the best freshwater dive sites in the world. The clear, clean waters off the coast of Bruce Peninsula cater to novice snorkelers and advanced divers alike, but if exploring submerged cliffs, caves, and more than 20 shipwrecks in Lake Huron’s depths isn’t for you, there’s tons to do above the water’s surface too. If you still want to see the shipwrecks, there are glass-bottom boat tours that will take you over them, before stopping off at the renowned Flowerpot Island, named for its iconic rock pillars, where you can spend the day swimming and hiking.
Ganaraska Forest by Day, Port Hope by Night
If you love the outdoors and are looking to try something new, head east to the Ganaraska Forest, which is home to one of Treetop Trekking’s aerial game and zipline parks. As you move from tree-to-tree along the park’s variety of structures, including suspended bridges, cable traverses, swinging logs, and ziplines, you’ll get a view of the forest that’s like nothing you’ve seen before. If it’s your first time off the ground, there’s a beginner course, but for those hoping for a shot of adrenaline, there are more extreme routes. After spending a few hours in the trees, wind down in the nearby town of Port Hope, which has been dubbed one of the province’s best small towns by multiple travel and leisure publications. Located on the shores of Lake Ontario, the historic town combines sandy beaches and waterfront trails with a range of historic buildings and artisanal shops.
‘Summer’ in Muskoka
This place is synonymous with summer. So much so, in fact, that National Geographic actually named the region one of the world’s best summer travel destinations in 2011. What makes it so special? It’s the stunning lakes, windswept pines, and rugged landscape of the Canadian shield combined with historic towns and villages home to enough shops and restaurants to keep you sane if the weather starts to turn. When you’re not sunbathing on the dock, grab some tacos at Port Carling’s Grand Electric Muskoka, a lakeside version of the Parkdale institution, check out their sister establishment Frankie’s Surf Club – a cocktails x juice bar x coffee shop x boutique hybrid, or catch a show at the historic Kee to Bala, where you can see artists like July Talk and Sam Roberts Band this summer.
Bask in Pure Ontario Beauty at Bon Echo
Algonquin does live up to the hype, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only provincial park in Ontario worth visiting. With a stunning blue lake that’s nearly 50 km around, hiking trails ranging from one to 17 kilometres long, every style of camping, and three natural sand beaches, there’s a lot to love about Bon Echo Provincial Park. But the park’s main attraction is Mazinaw Rock, a one-and-a-half-kilometre-long and 100-metre-high granite formation that juts straight out of the lower end of the lake. And it’s more than just a pretty sight: the rock features the country’s largest collection of Aboriginal pictographs, which are best seen by canoe and kayak. You can also hike to the top for a spectacular view of the lake, or if you’ve got some climbing experience under your belt, hop on a ferry and head straight up with the Alpine Club of Canada.
Eat & Drink Through Prince Edward County
City-dwellers have been flocking to Prince Edward County for its beaches, wineries, antiquing, and B&Bs for decades, but when The Drake Hotel opened The Drake Devonshire in the quaint town of Wellington, it became an even bigger hot spot for Torontonians. If you’ve never been, it’s time to find out what all the fuss is about. Don’t miss the county-specific wines at Norman Hardie Winery and Vineyard, which you can savour alongside pizza from an outdoor wood-fired oven on the small dining patio. You’ll also want to block-off an afternoon (or two) to spend at Sandbanks Provincial Park, where you can sunbathe on the sprawling, white-sand Outlet Beach or hike the massive sand dunes at Dunes Beach. Check out our lists for more things to do and food & drink guide.
Music & Nightlife in Peterborough
Two hours northeast of Toronto is the city of Peterborough. Though it might not be obvious at first, this sprawling, mid-sized city is home to a surprising amount of culture, especially in the summer. That’s when Peterborough hosts a free, two-month music fest. It’s held every Wednesday and Saturday night in Del Crary Park, and has featured artists like Tegan and Sara, The Strumbellas, and Hannah Georgas. When you’re done with a show, head downtown to dive bars like The Red Dog before ending your night at the Whistle Stop Cafe, which is open late on weekends, ready to serve hungry drinkers massive portions of their more than 100 varieties of poutine. During the day, you’ll notice the downtown core is littered with independent cafes, vintage shops, and record stores that will put you in mind of Toronto neighbourhoods like Dundas West and Parkdale.
Get Outside & Pampered at Blue Mountain
Everyone heads to Blue Mountain for skiing and après in the winter, but it’s an equally worthy summer destination. Just because there’s no snow doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of the mountain’s steep slopes. Hop on one of the resort’s chairlifts and take its mountain bike trails down. If that sounds too intense, there are more scenic, horizontal biking tours available as well. At the end of the day, reward yourself with a stop at Collingwood’s Side Launch Brewing Company for an informative tasting of local brews. For those looking to relax or soothe their muscles after a day on the mountain, the region is also home to a ton of spas, including the award-winning Scandinave Spa, which is nestled in the forest, just a few minutes from the village.
(Photo courtesy of Frankie’s Surf Club)