Ontario's Best Destinations

10 places in Ontario that you need to explore | Powell’s Travels

by W. Andrew Powell

Ontario is an incredible province, and it’s a huge place to explore. The fourth-largest province has dozens of interesting towns and cities, and includes the Canadian Shield, touches on the Hudson Bay to the north, the Great Lakes to the South, and it’s filled with stunning natural spaces.

If you’re looking for a few of the best places to explore in the province, I’ve put together a few of my favourite Ontario travel destinations. There’s really a long list of places to check out, and I could have easily made this 100, but these highlights are some of the most interesting places to explore, whether you’re travelling for a few days, or a few hours.

Note that, due to the current Stage 3 restrictions in Ontario, some attractions may not be open, yet, but many will begin opening starting on July 16, or by the end of July. Before booking your next trip, be sure to check ahead for schedules, restrictions, and requirements.

National Gallery of Canada, plus the Canadian Museum of History

National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa

Ottawa is Canada’s capital city, and it’s also home to one of the best art galleries in the country, the National Gallery of Canada.

Just steps from Parliament Hill, and the stunning Fairmont Laurier Hotel, the National Gallery of Canada is one of the largest art galleries in North America, with a collection that features over 90,000 pieces, and includes works of art by Canadian, European, American, Asian, and Indigenous artists.

The building, and the grounds, are worth a visit alone, but the art collection is truly astonishing, and you can easily spend a few hours or an entire day exploring the gallery.

While it’s not in Ontario, across the river in Gatineau, Quebec, the Canadian Museum of History is one of Canada’s most incredible museums, and it’s worth a stop while you’re in the area. Their collection boasts over 4 million pieces, in a remarkable space that includes a French church, as well as a kids play area that looks like a little town, and permanent exhibits that explore the history and lives of the Indigenous peoples across Canada.

Be sure to make time to walk the Grand Hall to see the powerful Spirit of Haida Gwaii sculpture, and check out their website to find out about current exhibitions.

For kids and adults, the art gallery and museum represent major moments in Canada’s rich history, and first time visitors will want to give themselves enough time to really explore these iconic cultural centres.

Sleeping Giant Provincial Park

Sleeping Giant Provincial Park

While Algonquin Park gets a lot of the love, Sleeping Giant Provincial Park is a stunning place to explore on the shores of Lake Superior, just a short drive from Thunder Bay.

From Toronto, the park is nearly a 15 hour drive, so if you’re coming from the south it’s a great trip to explore for a week, stopping part-way up at Sault Ste. Marie to break up the drive.

At Sleeping Giant, there are more than 100 km of hiking trails, and there are lots of places where you can see the “Sleeping Giant” that really does look like a huge man asleep on the horizon. During the summer, when it’s best to climb, you can even hike trails up the mesas that make up the Giant for some of the best views in the area.

There’s a lot of history in the park, including what was once a silver mine, and in addition to camping and hiking, there’s also lots wildlife to see, mountain biking, cross-country skiing in the winter, fishing, boating, and vistas to explore. The area offers some of the best of this rugged, beautiful region of Ontario.

Toronto Islands

Toronto Islands

Exploring Toronto will easily take you a week, if you really want to see some of the best that the city has to offer, but the Toronto Islands are one of the best destinations in the city, and it’s easy to get there, and explore, without spending a lot of money.

Located on Lake Ontario, and just a 13-minute ferry ride from the Toronto Ferry Terminal, at the foot of Bay Street, the Toronto Islands are an idyllic escape from the city. Whether you’re a local or not, the 5 km-long chain of islands is a great stop to walk, bike, have a picnic, sit on a beach, or to enjoy Centreville Amusement Park.

Ferries run throughout the day starting at 8:00 AM, with the last ferry back from the island at 10:15 PM (check the ferry schedule for current times), and it’s just $8.50 for adults, free for infants, and between $4 and $5.50 for kids. You can also use water taxis to get to and from the island, although prices vary and will cost you a bit more.

Far Enough Farm is one of my favourite spots on the islands, with farm animals and hands-on experiences, but the view of Toronto from the islands is also worth seeing.

There are a number of restaurants located around the Toronto Islands, and if you luck out, there are also a few bed & breakfasts among the Toronto Islands Community. However, there are also lots of hotels in Downtown Toronto where you can stay, within easy reach of the Islands, including the Fairmont Royal York Hotel, the Westin Harbour Castle, or the Delta Hotel by Marriott Toronto.

St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market

St. Jacobs Farmers' Market

One of Canada’s best outdoor and indoor markets, the year-round St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market is a must visit for snacks, treats, food, gifts, and just wandering around.

Just a short drive from Waterloo, and a 75 minute drive from Toronto, St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market has an incredible group of vendors. Outside, you can buy seasonal fresh vegeatables, flowers, and snacks, while indoors there are a number of food stalls, and vendors selling food, arts & crafts, used items like records and video games, and kitchen accessories, to name just a few things.

Every time I go, I have to buy myself a few cinnamon buns from The Cini-Bun Shop, and you need to try them. They make the best cinnamon buns I’ve ever had in my life, and I’d never go without picking up a box.

There are also outlets across the street, nearby hotels like the Homewood Suites by Hilton, and an antique market. Explore the whole list of vendors at the market on their website.

While you’re visiting the Farmers’ Market, St. Jacobs is a lovely little town to explore. The main street has restaurants, shops, and places where you can buy a pint to drink on the patio, like The Village Biergarten. It’s a great day-trip to get away for a an afternoon.

Picton & Prince Edward County

Parsons Brewing Company
Parsons Brewing Company

Prince Edward County might just be a slice of heaven. The County, as it’s known, has a lot to explore, and it has an amazing mix of food, wine, restaurants, and scenic spaces that are refreshing and relaxing.

A little over 2 hours drive from Toronto, Prince Edward County is best explored over a weekend, or a few days, and since it’s such a big area, it’s hard to sum up everything you need to see.

For overnights stays, two of the major highlights are Merrill House, the upscale inn-meets-hotel and restaurant with its artistic flare and history, as well as the Drake Devonshire Inn, with beautiful guest rooms, and incredible restaurant experience.

Parsons Brewing Company is one of my favourite breweries in Ontario, and you can stop for a meal, music on special evenings, and explore their tap room. I have a lot of favourites here, but for something really unique, try their Mousetrap Rye Pale Ale, Kilted Mouse, or their Rum Brûlée.

The County also offers some of the best cycling, arts and arts galleries, festivals throughout the year, and lavender fields. Or just wander, explore, and rest up, because there are very few places like Prince Edward County.

Blue Mountain Village & Resort

Blue Mountain Village & Resort

Summer, fall, or winter, Blue Mountain Resort is one of Ontario’s most exciting places. While it’s best known for the skiing, Blue Mountain Resort is beautiful in the summer and fall, and there are non-stop events throughout the year, including concerts, nearby hiking, golf, an aquatic centre, shopping, and more.

I’ve been to Blue Mountain a number of times in the last few years (and so far never in the winter), and that’s what makes it so unique. Hopefully, this year we’ll see the return of Creemore Springs Oktoberfest, which usually happens at the end of September, but if not, there’s a lot more to do, like drive-in concerts, the Apple Pie Trail to explore, and lots more.

In the heart of the village, you can find dozens of stores and restaurants, perfect for a night out or an afternoon break with the family, and there are a number of hotels and lodging options, including the fantastic Westin Trillium House, or Blue Mountain Resort.

Located alongside Collingwood, there’s a lot to see in the area, too, including the Scenic Caves Nature Adventures, where you can explore caves, a suspension bridge, and hiking trails, to an excellent zip line.

Tobermory & Fathom Five National Marine Park

Image courtesy Parks Canada

Tobermory is one of Ontario’s most beautiful hidden gems. I rarely hear enough people talking about this great destination, and it’s closer than you probably realize.

Located close to Manitoulin Island, another Ontario travel gem, Tobermory is just over 3 hours and 30 minutes drive from Toronto, and it’s a wonderful place with B&Bs, camping, cottages to rent, and outdoor adventures at every turn. It’s an outdoor playground, and on the drive up you can also explore Owen Sound, and the town or Wiarton.

Fathom Five National Marine Park is a National Marine Conservation Area in the Georgian Bay, and above the water in the area you can explore the flowerpot islands, while below it you can enjoy incredible diving with more than 20 historical shipwrecks.

Don’t worry, if diving isn’t your thing, there’s also excellent kayaking, boat tours and cruises that will take you around the bay, and Bruce Peninsula National Park is also nearby. There are also a number of events in the area each year, including the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation who host an annual traditional Pow Wow that will hopefully return in summer 2022.

Casa Loma & Spadina Museum

Toronto’s Casa Loma is more than just a stunning castle on the hill, the attraction features a large outdoor space, near the equally historic Spadina Museum, and it’s a lovely area to walk that’s also close to parks, shopping, and the evolving Dupont street hangouts.

Visiting the castle, that dates back to 1914, you can walk and explore the rooms and the grounds, or plan to attend a special event, sit down for a meal at BlueBlood Steakhouse, or visit for afternoon tea. There are usually lots of events planned at the castle throughout the year, that usually play upon the fairytale experience of the unique attraction.

Toronto CityPass includes the attraction along with the CN Tower, Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, the Royal Ontario Museum, and either the Toronto Zoo or the Ontario Science Centre.

Exploring the area, the walk up Baldwin Steps offers an impressive view of the city, while Spadina Museum has amazing art, and beautiful gardens.

Agawa Canyon & Sault Ste. Marie

 Sault Ste. Marie Canal National Historic Site
Sault Ste. Marie Canal National Historic Site

Agawa Canyon Train is an experience I highly recommend in the fall, but it’s a beautiful experience that runs from June to the middle of October, offering views of Ontario’s majestic rivers, lakes, and forests near Sault Ste. Marie.

The train will take you on a day-long trip, 114 miles north and then back again, starting in the city at 8am, and returning for 6pm. During the trip, you’ll stop for 90 minutes at Canyon Park, where you can walk and explore.

The Agawa Canyon Train offers food you can purchase, or they allow you to bring your own food to enjoy on the trip or in the park.

Sault Ste. Marie has a lot to do, while you’re in the area. I highly recommend visiting Entomica for a bug experience that will be a huge hit with kids, and the Mill Street Market has lots of vendors to check out whether you’re hungry or just shopping for fun. The town also has a casino, and the Sault Ste. Marie Canal National Historic Site on North St. Marie’s Island is a great place to hike and explore some history.

Ontario’s Provincial Parks

Bon Echo
Bon Echo

I could dedicate a whole story just to Ontario Parks. The diversity and beauty of Ontario’s park spaces is astonishing, and they are incredibly affordable to explore, whether you’re visiting for a day trip, camping over night, or looking to try one of their incredibly cozy cabins.

From the rugged Killarney Provincial Park, to Forks of the Credit, Presqu’ile, Algonquin, Bonnechere, Long Point, or, right beside Toronto, Bronte Creek, there are over 330 provincial parks. While some of them are small, 100 of them offer camping and facilities for visitors, and they cover a total of 82,000 square km.

Some of my favourites include the very relaxed and quiet, Silent Lake, or the iconic Bon Echo, where you can discover Indigenous pictographs that are hundreds of years old.

Ontario Parks also has a number of Dark Sky designated preserves, for enjoying the night sky, and if you venture to Killarney, you can enjoy the historic views that inspired the Group of Seven’s artists A.Y. Jackson, Franklin Carmichael, and A.J. Casson.

Every month, I round up travel thoughts, inspirations, and eventually, travel ideas in Powell’s Travels. I’d also love to hear about some of your favourite travel memories, so tell me all about them in the comments, ask me questions, or reach out on Twitter. Watch some of my travel videos on YouTube.

Except where noted, all images by W. Andrew Powell.

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