I love taking short trips, so I’ve been asking around about places to visit outside of Toronto. This is what I learned about Hamilton from random people I spoke to:
- Toronto is expensive and Hamilton is cheap (from people who live there)
- It was a major industrial city and now it’s part of the rust belt (from people who drive by)
- There are over 100 waterfalls (from the tourism board)
Being a big fan of both easy hikes and urban wastelands, this sounded perfect.
Once I started looking into it, it seemed like there was a lot to do. I sent out some requests on CouchSurfing and decided to stay for two nights. Public transit between Hamilton and Toronto is much more frequent during the week, so I was working remotely during my stay.
Two days and twenty-five miles later, I am totally charmed by Hamilton. Part of that is because my CouchSurfing hosts, Kathryn and John, were so awesome and they showed me some of the best spots in the city.
A brief history
The area of Hamilton was first settled by around 10,000 Loyalists who fled the US after the Revolution. The area was originally known as Head-of-the-Lake. After the War of 1812, local entrepreneurs, led by George Hamilton, laid out the city in 1813. The railway arrived in 1854, connecting it to New York, Boston, Chicago, and Milwaukee.
Hamilton has a wealth of beautiful old buildings. The 19th Century was a good time for civic building and Hamilton was thriving. The train stations, libraries schools, churches, and early office buildings reflect this. In 1910 Hamilton saw the arrival of its first steel manufacturing company. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Pittsburgh is its sister city. By 1929 it had high-rises, McMaster moved to the city in 1930, and by 1940 the airport had opened. It was once Canada’s fifth largest city.
Hamilton was home to more than just steel plants, it was a thriving industrial city and port town, producing automobiles, tobacco, beer, and textiles. It was connected to the region by rail, waterway, and road. Because of its close ties to shipping and huge number of new immigrants, Hamilton saw more than its share of epidemics, including several disastrous cholera outbreaks.
While offshoring has forced numerous plants to close, Hamilton is still the most highly industrialized region in Canada. It produces more than half of Canada’s steel. US companies manufacture products in Hamilton to avoid tariffs on imported goods.
Today, the city’s economy focuses on the service sector, including healthcare and education. Hamilton’s airport started out as a wartime air force training station, but today it’s an important freight hub and becoming increasingly popular as an alternative to Pearson Airport in Mississauga for travelers.
Hamilton is widely considered a bedroom community for Toronto, but 70% of Hamilton residents work in Hamilton. While you’ll find all the usual chains, Hamilton is a city of mom-and-pop stores. It was a charming and very friendly city. The city has been making big investments, making it more pedestrian friendly and improving transit infrastructure. Many beautiful civic buildings — as well as its homes — are being restored.
Hamilton’s neighborhood associations are very active. Every shopping district has a Business Improvement Area, fresh updates to make the streets attractive for pedestrians, and a strong network of local blogs. Hamilton is a city of half a million, but it felt like a small town. People say hello on the streets and I ended up chatting with most of the people I came across, which is not normal for this New Yorker.
Downtown Hamilton (Beasley)
Downtown Hamilton reminded me of Toronto’s East Side. For every hipster coffee shop, locavore eatery, and artisanal boutique, there’s a pawn shop, payday loan place, and employment center. With some big name office buildings, conference center, and FirstOntario Centre, there’s also a large number of white collar office workers.
The first Friday of every month the Art Gallery of Hamilton is open late and is free after 4pm. The second Friday of every month is the James Street North Art Crawl. Hamilton takes their Art Crawl seriously — everyone was telling me about it. There are a considerable number of art galleries, along with even more coffee shops, cafes, and boutiques that display art.
Jackson Square has everything you need, including ATMs from several banks, the LCBO, and two huge grocery stores. Nations Fresh Foods has a great selection, especially for an urban grocery store. The Hamilton Farmers Market was closed while I was there, but it’s a huge space and people rave about it.
Hess Street is a lovely little one-way cobblestone street lined with cafes and bars. It used to be Hamilton’s go-to spot for live music, but as more great bars and music venues open up around the city, it’s facing serious competition. Regardless, it’s a great spot just a few blocks from downtown with a collection of fantastic patios.
North End (Jamesville)
Hamilton’s North End is mostly a quiet residential neighborhood, although there are some cute neighborhood spots along James Street North. Most of the action, including summertime concerts, happens in Pier 4 Park.
On weekends there’s a free tourist train that will take you from point to point along the waterfront. Bayfront Park has a sandy beach if you want to enjoy the sun.
Walking along Ottawa Street North, it’s clear that Crown Point used to be Hamilton’s garment district. If you’re looking for fabrics, finishings, household goods, or wallpaper, this is still the place to go. Nowadays, Ottawa Street is a destination for antiques, with antique stores lining the street. There are also a few cafes to check out when you’re ready for a break.
Crown Point might be best known as the birthplace of Tim Horton’s. The location of the original Tim Horton’s boasts a brand new store with a museum on the second floor.
Gage Park and the Hamilton Children’s Museum are just a few blocks away from the shopping on Ottawa Street North. The Tiger Cats Stadium is also nearby.
Barton Street doesn’t have the same charm or density as Ottawa Street, but if you’re working on a home improvement project or want to connect with local artists, Barton’s affordable storefronts are worth a look. This is also the place to go if you’re looking for authentic Polish or Middle Eastern food.
Sitting at the top of the escarpment is the Concession Street shopping district. This was the first settlement in the area on top of “the mountain” and was founded by former slaves who had escaped the US thanks to the underground railroad. Few of the black residents stayed on Hamilton Mountain for long and today few traces of the original residents remain.
The East End Incline Railway and Hamilton & Barton Incline Railway used to connect East Hamilton to Crown Point and the rest of downtown Hamilton. The funicular was designed to transport pedestrians, cyclists, cars, and even horse-drawn vehicles. The last incline railway trip was taken in 1936. Today you can drive up Jolley Cut or take the stairs from Wentworth Street and Charles Avenue up to Mountain Park Avenue and Upper Wentworth Street.
Locke Street South
Locke Street South’s lively strip runs from Main Street to the base of the escarpment — you can hop off the GO bus from Toronto here. This used to be where the Hamilton Street Railway met the Hamilton-Dundas Electric Railway.
This used to be Hamilton’s center of antiquing — a title now held by Ottawa Street — but today it’s a charming main street lined with cafes and shops. This residential neighborhood feels a bit like Cabbagetown in Toronto or Ditmas Park in Brooklyn. Locke Street is what Hamiltonians think of when they hear the word gentrification.
Westdale sits between McMaster University and downtown, running along King Street West. The strip is short, but it’s got everything you need. Streets radiate out from King in concentric circles and are gorgeous. Established in the early 1920s, Westdale was Canada’s first planned community.
Westdale borders the Cootes Paradise conservation area. You can jump onto the Ravine Road Trail and Caleb’s Walk. Both will take you to the Sassafras Point Trail, which takes you to a scenic spot overlooking the water.
Where to work remotely
Hamilton is rich with independent coffee shops. Every neighborhood has a few to choose from, along with the ubiquitous Tim Horton’s, Second Cup, and Starbucks.
I ducked in here to cool off after my climb down the mountain and stayed for lunch when it started to downpour. The staff was super friendly, the food was great, and there were plugs and wifi.
This is the spot for coffee snobs, but I mean that in a good way. They have a great selection of sweets and a common table that will bring you back to grade school.
Located on the edge of downtown, this Dutch coffee shop has excellent European-style coffee and Dutch treats. Ask and they’ll tell you about vegan options and hook you up with soy milk.
Hamilton boasts some lovely renovated public libraries. All of them offer wifi and computer access.
You can also work from the McMaster University Library, which has various study spaces.
The AGH is right in the center of downtown. It houses modern and contemporary art from Canadian artists and classic art from Europe. They have a fairly small display space and a large permanent collection, so work is rotated frequently. Admission is free from 4-8pm on the first Friday of the Month.
Sorry, kids. This museum is closed until further notice. The Hall of Fame is in the process of being moved from its current location next to City Hall to the Tim Horton’s Field.
The Warplane Heritage Museum doesn’t just have planes on display, they also fly them. There is an impressive number of historic planes in their hangar and on the tarmac, some of which you can climb into the cockpit. Volunteers are happy to give you the history of different planes. They also have a flight simulator for you to try your hand at flying. They have a permanent collection explaining the history of Canadian flight, along with various temporary exhibits. Even people who aren’t history buffs or fascinated by aviation seem to have a good time.
Bus no. 20 will take you from the Hamilton GO (catch it across the street on James at Hunter) to the museum (or Hamilton International Airport) in about 35 minutes. The hangar is not air conditioned and may be closed on hot days.
If you’re interested in the lives of the rich and famous circa 1850, this is the spot for you. Costumed guides lead you through the mansion and are happy to entertain all of your questions.
This is also home to the Hamilton Military Museum, with displays on everything from the War of 1812 to WWII.
Dundurn Castle and Hamilton Cemetery can both be reached in about 15 minutes on the no. 8 bus from James at Hunter, outside of the Hamilton GO.
The old waterworks have been turned into a museum. It’s home to two 70-ton powered water pumping engines. They also have a tiny train you can ride, which is pretty awesome. It’s a fairly small museum and a guide takes you through. If you’re not a science geek, this might not be the best destination for you.
You can take the bus no. 4 from James at Hunter, outside of the Hamilton GO, to the museum in about 35 minutes. The museum is not air conditioned and may be closed on hot days.
HMCS Haida National Historic Site
The HMCS Haida is a tribal class destroyer museum ship. Prince Charles visited, so you should, too. It boasts an incredibly affordable admission rate. I didn’t have a chance to go this time around, but it’s on the top of my list for my next trip to Hamilton. I hear it’s a must-see.
You can take the bus no. 4 from James at Hunter, outside of the Hamilton GO, to the museum in about 15 minutes.
McMaster is home to historical, modern and contemporary art. They also have a university sculpture walk. It’s one of Canada’s best university art collections, so it’s well worth a visit.
You can get there in about 20 minutes on the no. 47 bus from the Hamilton GO.
A photo posted by Royal Botanical Gardens (@rbgcanada) on
The Royal Botanical Gardens is has both extensive display gardens and ecological preserves. It’s one of the largest botanical gardens in the world.
You can get there in about 20 minutes on bus no. 101 from King Street at James. The Rock Gardens hosts concerts twice a week throughout the summer, which are free with the price of regular admission.
The former customs house and post office is now home to the Workers Arts & Heritage Center. They have displays on the history of Hamilton, factory life, unionization, and office work. The exhibits were well done and the building has been beautifully restored. They host a lot of workshops and special events. I’m still not sure if they were actually open when I went in or if they just left the doors open while they set up for an event, but regardless, they were happy to let me wander around.
Original Tim Horton’s
Calling this the Tim Horton’s Museum feels like a bit of a stretch, but the original Tim Horton’s location has a “memory lane” display, along with a replica of the original store in the upstairs seating area.
The Hamilton Conservation Authority manages over 11,000 acres of land, while the city park system has another 2,600 acres. You can download a PDF of the trails.
The Bruce Trail stretches from Queenston to Tobermory along the Niagara Escarpment. It cuts directly through the city for some great urban hiking. It’s easy to forget you’re in the middle of the city until you suddenly catch a skyline view.
The waterfront trail is a beautifully maintained, easy walk along the scenic waterfront. It’s perfect for rollerblading, biking, or even strollers. The waterfront is quiet, but it does have a few spots to stop for a snack.
Hamilton’s downtown shopping districts don’t cater for tourists, so you’ll have no problem finding the essentials: banks, grocery stores, pharmacies, etc.
I visited Hamilton during a heat wave, so I wasn’t big on eating while I was there. I did pass a number of enticing looking restaurants and cafes. I’ll leave the restaurant reviews to Chanry Thach of the Hungry Gnome.
Hamilton has several major hotel chains, motels, B&Bs, and campgrounds. I CouchSurfed during my stay.
Regional transit and long-distance transit leaves from the Hamilton Centre GO Station. Trains or busses (depending on time of day) go between Toronto and Hamilton every 30 minutes. The beautiful Art Deco station has a nice waiting area, clean bathrooms, and a small cafe. Some trains and busses use the West Harbour GO Station, so check the schedule carefully. The West Harbour GO Station is brand new and has a lovely outdoor area.
Most local busses (confusingly called the Hamilton Street Railway) leave from the MacNab Street South Transit Center, which is wedged between Jackson Square and the Art Gallery of Hamilton. Bus service is frequent and fairly reliable. You can look online, use their app, or text to see bus locations in real time. You can pay with Presto or with exact change.
SOBI is Hamilton’s bike share. You can rent bikes hourly and bike stations are scattered throughout the city, including at trailheads. Plenty of entrance points to trails have both bus stops and bike stations. Their website and app make it easy to find bikes and stations, as well as to reserve a bike. You can even leave a bike — or pick one up — outside of an official bike hub. There are occasionally bike lanes and bike routes are marked around the city.
I opted to navigate most of the city by foot. Hamilton is pretty pedestrian friendly and I felt very comfortable walking around, aside from the heat. Even major roads have consistent sidewalks and street crossings.
Living in Hamilton
People talk about how much more affordable it is to live in Hamilton all the time, but I was still shocked to see just how much less it costs to live in Hamilton. If you’re looking for a smaller, friendlier city that still has a lot to offer, you should seriously consider a move to Hamilton. If you want to be able to live downtown while still having a house and a yard, you want to live in Hamilton.
You get all the benefits of a smaller city, with Toronto and Buffalo just a short ride away. The people I met in Hamilton love their city, which is the surest sign that the rising tide is going to continue.