Discover Southern Ontario

There is more to this part of the province than Toronto and Niagara Falls: a string of towns with beautifully preserved Victorian Main Streets, lovely waterfront areas, interesting cultural events, pioneer history, farmers’ markets and old-world charm.

These towns are easily accessible by car or by GO Transit or VIA Rail trains from Toronto.

Niagara-on-the-Lake is a charming Victorian town less than two hours’ drive south from Toronto and 25 kilometres from Niagara Falls. Its history goes back to the 1780s but the present buildings were built after the small town was razed to the ground by the Americans during the 1812 War. It is set slap-bang in the middle of Ontario’s wine country, which makes for a very enjoyable drive (if somewhat lengthened by frequent detours to taste the local nectar, icewine, a sweet wine produced from grapes that have been frozen while still on the vine. The most popular kind of grape for icewine is Vidal. The colder it is drunk, the better.) A leisurely stroll along Queen St. and King St. is highly recommended, especially in spring and summer.  The flower-lined streets are filled with quaint shops, ice cream stores and interesting buildings.  Niagara-on-the-Lake is also famous for its annual Shaw Festival Theatre in the summer.

53 Niagara-on-the-lakePrince of Wales Hotel

IMG_1744Inniskillin Winery

Stratford was established on 1859 and, just like its English counterpart, lies on the shores of the river Avon, swans and all. The town is famous for its summer theater festival, which attracts internationally renowned stage names. The downtown streets are lined with splendid Victorian buildings which are beautifully preserved; it all looks terribly English.  The best time of the year to visit Stratford is the autumn: the trees along the waterfront take on lovely russet, golden, red and ochre hues, and the Amish farmers open the doors of their homes to visitors every Saturday in October. I suggest you plan your visit in advance. We didn’t, and got there too late on the last Saturday of October  to visit any Amish home.

58 StratfordRiver Avon

24 StratfordMain Street

St. Jacobs village lies in the heart of Mennonite country and is surrounded by fruitful farmland. Unlike the other towns, there is nothing Victorian about it. The country style wooden buildings along King St. (OK, maybe street names are a throwback to Victorian times) house a variety of shops ranging from boutiques to broom-makers’. A disused mill was converted to a shopping mall of sorts. If you’re in the mood for shopping, the local specialties are maple syrup (it even has its own museum) and quilts. Look out for the murals depicting the Mennonite way of life. If you go for a drive in the country, though, you can see it for yourself.

IMG_1577Mennonite farm


Street art in St. Jacobs

Guelph is located in the Kitchener-Waterloo area about 100 kilometres west of Toronto. Its downtown core is probably less quaint than Stratford or Niagara-on-the-Lake but is not without appeal. The Church of Our Lady Immaculate is a National Historic Site that towers over the town. Old Quebec Street Shoppes is a nice surprise; this boutique shopping mall has beautiful facades crafted with local granite in Victorian (aha!) times. If you ever wondered how the poppy came to be associated with war veterans and worn on Remembrance Day, Guelph has the answer. It is the birthplace of Lt. Cl. John McCrae, who wrote the war memorial poem In Flanders Fields: “In Flanders fields, the poppies blow, between the crosses row on row…” His home is now a museum and there’s a sobering memorial next door. There is a handful of parks along the River Speed where you can rent a canoe and paddle to your heart’s content or just sit on a bench under the trees and spend a relaxing hour or two.

20. GuelphLt. Cl. John McCrae’s home

33. GuelphRelaxing by the Speed River

Text and photos by Ana Astri-O’Reilly

If you’re in… Toronto

  • Make use of the public transport network, which is very good. The Subway, trolleys and buses take you everywhere. Cash fares are $3 for adults, $2 for seniors and students and 75 ¢ for children. Transfers expire in 2 hours, which means that you can take a bus and transfer to a trolley using the same ticket within a 2 hour period. You can pay for your fare on the bus but remember to have the correct amount in coins as the driver doesn’t give you change. The same goes for the Subway: you can pay cash (they make change, though) or buy tokens. You should consider buying a $10 day pass too if you’re planning on sightseeing a lot. Visit TTC for info on routes, fares, etc.
A trolley down Queen Street east – Corktown

  • Eat a hot dog. Toronto is famous for its hot dogs. There are a few varieties to choose from: beef dogs, Polish, German and Italian sausages (mild and spicy), chicken sausages, even halal meat!
Hot dog stand outside Eaton Centre

  • Walk! One of the best features of Toronto, in my opinion, is that it is pedestrian-friendly, even in the winter months. When it’s freezing cold in the street, take the PATH (a 28-kilometre long underground network connecting subway stations, hotels, malls and various attractions) and don’t let the snow stop you.
A PATH corridor

  • Take your time to stroll around the neighbourhoods. Each of them is unique: Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Italy, Cabbagetown, Old Town Toronto, and the list goes on.

Toronto city tour

Toronto trivia: the city was originally named York. When New Amsterdam became New York, people began to call it Little York. The locals didn’t like to be known as “Little Yorkers” so they renamed it Toronto, which means “meeting place” in the Huron language.

Last week, I took a hop-on-hop-off city tour of Toronto. I like to do touristy stuff like that every once in a while. I learned a lot about the city and got a rough idea of what it is like. I like that fact that Toronto is such an ethnically diverse city that you can experience the culture and taste the flavours of different countries in a relatively small area; it’s like a one-stop shop.

The first neighbourhood we drove through was Church-Wellesley Village, or the Gay Village. And boy can you tell it is populated by the LGBT community. It’s a very trendy place; I loved the design and decor of the shops. What cracked me up were the Brokeback Mountain-style advertisements, which you don’t see anywhere else in the city.

Gay Village Trivia: the story goes that Alexander Wood owned the land and encouraged homosexuals to settle there in the early 1800’s. He was deported to Scotland but returned years later. I guess Torontonians weren’t that open-minded at the time.

In the India Bazaar District, the air is scented with the smell of spices and curry (and garlic!). I need to go back and do some damage to my credit card (sorry, Sean!) because I adored the bright hues of the silks and saris on display.

You know you’re entering Greektown when you see blue and white everywhere, the Greek national colours. Must go back for dolmas and spanakopitas. Lots of restaurants and lots and lots of bridal shops. The film My Big Fat Greek Wedding has nothing on this place.

Greektown trivia: the house seen in the aforesaid film is located somewhere in this neighbourhood, it’s not a movie set.

I got off the bus in Little Italy. I was famished and had a headache (it was quite windy on the top deck). I was spoilt for choice but decided to check out Café Diplomático, which apparently is very popular with tourists and locals and it is where football fans gather to watch games. I had chicken parmiggiana with salad. It was good but not the best I’ve ever had. I took a stroll up and down the street. There’s not really much to see and do except eat. And eat well.

Although there was one more neighbourhood left to visit, I was done with sightseeing for the day and decided to head back to the hotel; except I had no idea where the nearest subway station was. I asked a lady, who very kindly pointed me in the right direction.

As it turned out, the tube station was in the heart of Koreatown. I didn’t miss anything, after all.