Named after George Hamilton, a Canadian merchant, this small city became a major port in 1832 and eventually became a hub for steel and manufacturing, earning it the nickname “Steeltown”. However, there’s much more to Hamilton than industry. Situated at the Western end of Lake Ontario, the Niagara Escarpment UNESCO Biosphere Reserve runs right through the city, making it a great place for those who love the outdoors. But it’s not just for those that love nature either. There are also excellent restaurants, lovely art galleries, and a lively music scene that anyone can enjoy.
So whether you’re looking to visit one of many waterfalls, link up with the famous Bruce Trail, or enjoy one of the museums, parks, or gardens, we’ll fill you in on all the top things to do in Hamilton, Ontario.
1. Explore The Many Waterfalls
It might seem weird to kick off a list of things to do in Hamilton with waterfalls, but when there are more than 100 waterfalls and cascades located throughout the city, it just makes sense. In fact, Hamilton’s other nickname is the “City of Waterfalls”. What a contrast!
Hamilton’s treasure chest of waterfalls is due to the fact that it lies within the Niagara Escarpment, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Most of these waterfalls are very accessible and a few of them are right in town! Some of them are also located on the popular Bruce Trail, a famous hiking trail near the city.
Some of the popular ones include Webster’s Falls and Tew’s Falls, which are located in the Spencer Gorge Conservation Area. In fact, Webster’s Falls is the largest of them all, with a whopping 30-metre crest. Tew’s Falls, on the other hand, is the highest of them all, at 41-metres. Other popular waterfalls include Albion Falls, Devil’s Punchbowl Falls, and Buttermilk Falls.
Whether you choose to visit two of them or try your best to see 100, this is a great way to enjoy the outdoors around Hamilton.
2. Visit the Dundurn Castle
We love all the National Historic Sites of Canada and Dundurn Castle is a cool one to visit. In fact, it’s as close as you’ll get to an authentic Regency-style manor house anywhere in Canada. Built back in 1835, this neoclassical mansion was owned by Sir Allan Napier MacNab, who became prime minister of Canada in 1854. With more than 18,000 square feet and forty rooms, I can see why they call this mansion a castle. MacNab even threw parties for higher-ups such as Sir. John A. MacDonald and King Edward VII.
Purchased by the City of Hamilton around 1900, the building has been carefully restored to look just as it would have in 1855 and features original décor, furnishings, and history, all brought to life by well-informed costumed guides.
If you’re interested in seeing such an extravagant mansion and seeing what it was like to live this sort of lifestyle in the mid-19th century, complete with underground slave quarters (terrible, but that’s history), a two-acre kitchen garden (still in use), and a landscaped courtyard, this is a historical landmark you don’t want to miss.
3. Board a Famous Tribal Class Destroyer Warship
Where else can you step onto a famous warship that served in World War II? That’s a trick question because Hamilton is the only place you can do so!
The HMCS Haida, Canada’s most famous warship, is the only Tribal Class Destroyer in existence. After serving in World War II, the Korean War, and the Cold Wars, as well as earning its record of sinking the most enemy tonnage in WW2, it is now a Canadian National Historic Site and a museum that you can explore.
Highlights of a visit include seeing the very tight sleeping and eating quarters shared by over 250 men, the officer’s quarters, the engine room, and the bridge, as well as the opportunity to try using Morse Code.
Docked at Pier 9 in the Hamilton Harbour, you can take a self-guided tour or pay to go on a guided tour.
4. Walk Around the Royal Botanical Gardens
Wait, what? Another National Historic Site?
Yes, that’s right. The Royal Botanical Gardens is not only one of the best things to do in Hamilton (technically in Burlington) but is also a National Historic Site. It’s also Canada’s largest botanical garden!
Whether you love flowers or just love to stroll around beautiful areas, the Royal Botanical Gardens are a must-see. With over 27km of walking trails created within more than 2,420 acres (1,100 hectares) of nature preserve, there is really so much to explore.
Some of the things you’ll want to see include the cultivated garden of Hendrie Park, the collection of herbaceous perennials at Laking Garden, the Arboretum English Garden, and the nature interpretive centre, just to name a few. The Royal Botanical Gardens are also well-known with birders, with more than 300 species of birds either passing through on their way to warmer climates or those that call the area home year-round.
5. Explore the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum
With the success of Top Gun 2, it seems like people are super excited to see warplanes, so if that’s what you’re into, don’t miss the chance to explore the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, which is home to one of Canada’s largest historic military collections, including more than than 45 various aircraft and a Lancaster bomber, which is one of only two left in existence. Other rare aircraft include a Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire, both well-known for their roles in the Battle of Britain.
Many of the warplanes and helicopters were used by the Canadian Military from World War II to the present day and it’s a great place to visit for aviation nerds, history buffs, or just anyone wanting to see these industrial works of art.
For an extra-special experience, try to time your visit with the museum’s annual air show. It’s one thing to see them parked in a museum but a whole different experience to see some flown in the sky. In fact, you can also pay for the rare opportunity to fly in one of these vintage aircraft. We did this once in Ottawa and it was the highlight of our trip.
6. Be Delighted at the Art Gallery of Hamilton
If art is your thing, you do not want to miss the Art Gallery of Hamilton, which just so happens to be one of the oldest and largest art museums in Canada! In fact, almost 300,000 visitors arrive each year!
Established in 1914 and offering more than 7,000 square metres of museum space to explore, visitors will find more than 10,000 pieces of art, ranging from historical Canadian and contemporary paintings to historical European art.
This really is a great place to admire the beauty and impressive artistic capabilities of humans, whether or not you’re an art buff. General admission is free but there is a fee for the travelling exhibits. However, Fridays offer free visits to both. Guided tours are also available, and a good café is located on-site, along with a gift shop.
7. Walk the Waterfront at Bayfront Park
Whenever we visit new cities, we love to explore the scenic pathways that make up the city, and for Hamilton, the best place to do this is by strolling along the waterfront at Bayfront Park. Whether you walk or bike, it’s just a great way to get outside, see the locals, and witness the beauty of the harbour.
There’s a wide asphalt path that makes it easy for most people to use, and it continues from the Bayfront Park for 1.5 kilometres until it reaches the nature sanctuary at Cootes Paradise. The upper area of the park is home to green space and a grass amphitheatre while the lower walking path is near the water’s edge.
Some highlights of the 1,800 metres of shoreline include a natural fish habitat, a sandy beach, a public boat launch and a nearby marina.
8. Re-Visit History at Westfield Heritage Village
Located in the community of Rockton, which is just a 25-minute drive west of Hamilton, Westfield Heritage Village is a wonderful opportunity to get a snapshot of the region’s past. Home to 35 historic buildings reconstructed around a central “village” on an 840-acre site, history is brought to life thanks to the lively costumed interpreters that recreate the lives and culture of Canadians from the 1800s to the early 1900s.
Some of the highlights include the general store (complete with traditional candies for purchase), the maple sugar shack, the regular demonstrations of skills and crafts, and the chance for kids to dress up in period costumes.
There are also guided sightseeing tours for those that want to go deeper and there are plenty of nice trails to explore.
9. Visit the Canadian Football Hall of Fame & Museum
While Canada might be famous for hockey, one of the other very popular sports is Canadian Football. Established in 1963, the Canadian Football Hall of Fame is a must-visit for sports fans. It’s located in the Tim Hortons Field stadium, which serves as home to the Hamilton Tiger-Cats football team, which means if you time your visit right, you can also watch a live game!
The displays are dedicated mostly to the history of the sport in Canada, but also feature university and school football. Visitors will find loads of players’ uniforms and stats, as well as more than 250 metallic busts of many of the big Canadian football stars. One of the highlights is also the iconic “Touchdown” sculpture, which is located outside the stadium’s gate 3. This life-size sculpture depicts two players, one receiving the ball while the other tackles him. Admission to the museum is free on game days, so again, time your visit and see the sport in action!
10. Go On a Pub Crawl
If nightlife is your thing, it’s worth considering a self-guided pub crawl in Hess Village. Once the sun goes down, this popular and trendy area is a great place to indulge in a variety of pubs, restaurants, cafes, and even art galleries, all of which are houses inside historic buildings.
From Main St to King St West, there’s a beautiful cobblestone street that is pedestrian-only, making it a great place to walk around. There are plenty of places to grab a cold one and many places to get a delicious bite to eat as well.
11. Attend a Festival
All cities are best experienced with lively festivals and with Hamilton, most of them are held in the city’s historical Gage Park.
If you want to see Hamilton truly come to life, consider attending the very popular Festival of Friends, the largest annual music and arts festival of its kind in Canada. Best part? It’s free! With more than 250,000 people attending the 3-day music festival every summer, you’ll really get a good sense of the energy in this city.
Other Hamilton festivals include Live on the Lake, Sound of Music, the Hamilton Fringe Fest, the Hamilton Mountain Rib and Beer Fest, and many others.
12. Hike the Famous Bruce Trail
By now, you’ve likely gleaned from this list that Hamilton is a place full of history. Well, even when it comes to nature, it still rings true. The Bruce Trail, which spans almost 900 kilometres from the Niagara River to Tobermory, is the longest and oldest public footpath in Canada. The Iroquoia section, which is 122 kilometres long, actually starts near Hamilton. Some even say that the nicest sections of the trail are here.
For those into hiking and nature, you can hike the entire trail for several days or weeks, or just get on the trail for a day hike. Either way, there’s lots of stunning scenery all over the Niagara Escarpment. Some of the beauty you’ll find in this UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve include ancient cedar trees, lakes, waterfalls, and even a 15th-century Iroquoian village.
13. Visit Niagara Falls
Since Niagara Falls is less than a one-hour drive from Hamilton, it can easily be done as a day trip or as part of an Ontario road trip. Home to one of Canada’s most iconic natural attractions, Niagara Falls is truly a sight to behold. With more than 3,160 tonnes of water flowing over Niagara Falls every second, it’s truly unbelievable to see up close, whether that’s from the free boardwalk in town, a Journey Behind the Falls tour, or from a helicopter, just to name a few.
However, there’s much more to Niagara Falls than the waterfall. It’s sort of like a mini Las Vegas, with lots of famous attractions, casinos, and restaurants.
14. Visit Toronto
Although you likely flew into Toronto, perhaps you didn’t have time to explore the city. Then again, maybe you just didn’t want to stay in Canada’s biggest city. That’s okay. If Hamilton can be one of the best weekend getaways from Toronto, then Toronto can easily be a weekend getaway (or day trip) from Hamilton. In fact, Toronto is only a one-hour drive away!
If you’re looking for world-class museums, a trip up the famous and iconic CN Tower, admiring one of the three major sports teams, or just feeling the hustle and bustle of one of the world’s great cities, make sure Toronto is on your Canadian bucket list. Just don’t get caught in rush hour!
Want More Things to Do?
Hamilton is just one of the many cities and places to explore in Ontario, not to mention the entire country! Luckily, if you’re looking for ways to explore Canada, you’ve come to the right place. For more things to do across the province or country, check out these travel guides below: