Written by Jim Bamboulis
The bell at St. George’s Cathedral rings in the distance. The harbour is alive with sails, the market is active with hints of maple syrup in the air. Patios are full with lively conversation, exotic drinks and, inspiring fare. This isn’t Toronto’s Queen Street West or Vancouver’s Gastown.
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This is Kingston, Ontario. Camera-ready, it’s a city that has quietly reinvented itself, going from ‘stopover town’ to a ‘spend-the-weekend-city’ in seemingly no time at all. Come on in and don’t be surprised if the Limestone City totally disarms you, raises your eyebrows, makes your jaw drop and welcomes you home. Because it will. And here’s the thing: It’s only getting better!
The infamous Kingston Penitentiary
Kingston is home to 22 National Historic Sites of Canada. 22! Along with Bellevue House, the former residence of a Father of Confederation and Canada’s first PM John A. MacDonald, Kingston General Hospital, Canada’s oldest hospital and still in operation, the Kingston Penitentiary is a must!
Established in 1835, it’s Canada’s oldest reformatory prison, once home to several very well-publicized criminals. The north-facing front entrance of this place is still super-imposing, and despite closing in 2013, the entire complex feels like a moment stuck in time. Don’t get me wrong, the staff is great, uber welcoming and very cordial. But this place is so daunting, I felt as if I should walk a straight line, don’t ask questions and do as I’m told.
Walking tours at The Pen are educational that are led by very entertaining and knowledgeable staff who give you a clear picture of the history of the building, its influence, its impact, the prisoners who lived behind bars and prison life in general. Honestly – and it might just be me – but this is a great first-date kind of place, perfect for couples, and families who love detailed glimpses into history.
Across the street from Kingston Pen, the Prison for Women, which functioned at a maximum security level from 1934 to 2000 as well as the Correctional Service of Canada Museum which features collections dedicated to preserving and interpreting the history of Canada’s federal penitentiaries.
Stay at the Delta, eat at Aqua Terra
Check-in, unwind and take in the hospitality. Staff here understand that even the small touches go a long way. That and the fact that the hotel is centrally located, along the water, and offers pretty views of the harbour, it’s an obvious choice when spending the weekend in Kingston.
The absolute bonus – you don’t have to go too far for an exceptional meal, prepared and served by staff who understand what a memorable and experiential dining experience is all about. What I’m saying is, on your first night, stay in the hotel. You can order room service. But don’t.
Do yourself the honour of reserving a table at Aqua Terra, the hotel’s in-house restaurant. Casually elegant with views of the water, the menu blew us away, presentation amazed us. Service was personable and impeccable, the flavours were to die for. This kitchen led by Executive Chef Brent McAllister delivers perfectly from the small details to the bigger picture!
Get up. Get busy. Expect a full day of amazing experiences. Because the hotel is already in the centre of it all, it’s just a matter of picking a direction and following your senses. However, as a general rule, a good place to start is Kingston’s City Hall, a stunning structure that dominates the skyline.
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This Neoclassical masterpiece, City Hall and Springer Market Square located right behind it are both National Historic Sites of Canada. Head to the second floor and explore a free mini-museum that illustrates both the history of the building and city itself. Later, hit Kingston’s Public Market for everything from honey and soaps to fabric, fruits and, flowers. Founded in 1801, it’s the oldest public market in Ontario!
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Kingston public market and township hall building. The city was briefly the capital of Canada in the 19th century. . . #kingstonontario #ontario #publicmarket #19thcenturyarchitecture #publicsquare #iphonephotography #architecture #ig_travel #urbanphotography #explorecanada #springermarketsquare #downtownkingston
Back along the waterfront, Kingston’s Fortifications are thankfully still on display. Shoal Tower is near City Hall, and a bit west along the water you’ll find Murney Tower. These are two of four Martello Towers that were built in Kingston to defend the city and the integral Rideau Canal in case the Americans decided to invade.
Just north of the Murney Tower, just outside Queen’s University, you’ll not only find Kingston’s only remaining gas lamp at the corner of Lower Union and King Street East, but you’ll also find the Frontenac County Courthouse, another National Historic Site. The building was home to obvious judicial and administrative offices but in the back, now a parking lot, were gallows where criminals would be publicly executed by hanging. Directly across the street from where those gallows would have been is MacIntosh Castle.
According to legend, ‘widow’s walk’ was added so that the lady of the house could have a perfect view of the executions taking place in the courtyard across the street while enjoying her tea. Now a privately owned home, MacIntosh Castle is part of a network of beautiful homes in this area, making your walk that much more enjoyable.
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Meander your way back downtown, pop into Chez Piggy, one of Kingston’s best-known restaurants. Zal Yanovsky from the pop group The Lovin’ Spoonful and partner Rose Richardson opened it in 1979 in what used to be a limestone horse stable built in 1806.
Have a bite, enjoy a drink in the Euro-style courtyard before heading to Cooke’s Fine Foods steps away on Princess Street. Open since 1865, this Victorian gem has that ‘wow’ factor as soon as you step inside. Coffee, fine cheese, gift baskets and, gourmet chocolates can all be found here.
The creaking floors haven’t changed, neither has the counter. Antiques and collectables are proudly displayed on top shelves and service is still of the utmost importance, still friendly and welcoming. Walking around will make you feel like you’re in a delicious museum with treats surrounding you.
East of downtown, across the St. Lawrence, and off the Causeway, you find the Royal Military College of Canada. Established in 1876, it’s the only Canadian federal institution with degree-granting powers in arts, science and, engineering. It’s a gorgeous 101-acre campus and within the grounds, home to several National Historic Sites of Canada, including the Kingston Royal Naval Dockyard, and, Fort Frederick. Those along with five Classified Federal Heritage Buildings and twenty-three Recognized Federal Heritage Buildings.
On the other side of Navy Bay sits Fort Henry, another National Historic Site of Canada. The original was built during the War of 1812 to protect the Kingston Royal Navy Dockyard against a possible American attack. Replaced by a much larger fort in the 1830s, this modified version was used to protect both the dockyard and southern entrance of the integral Rideau Canal. It’s been a living museum and tourist attraction since the 1930s.
Do a self-guided tour or take a tour that illustrates British military life by members of the Fort Henry Guard. Experience a historical reenactment of drills, Garrison Parade and Muster Parade where young visitors dress up in period uniforms and learn how to march. Take a haunted walk at any point or choose to come in the colder months. Fort Henry is home to several outdoor festivals and events including Lumina Borealis and Fort Fright, which is not for the faint of heart.
If you thought Kingston’s food scene was the same old, been there done that kind of jive, then let me tell ya, you don’t know Kingston! From elegant, even regal dining rooms to distinct olive oils, this town has plenty of tricks up its sleeve.
So much grub, only so much time. Do yourself a favour and book a spot on Kingston Food Tours. This 2 1/2 hour walking food tour is a perfect way to eat your way through this delicious city, learn a lot about the history and evolution of the restaurant scene, sample some of the best and hottest fare in town and sincerely feel as if you did Kingston proper.
From tacos, margaritas, doner pizza and gnocchi to pastries, gelato and cortado, you’ll quickly learn that this ain’t your grandad’s Kingston, not by a long shot. It’s come a long way and it promises to get even better.
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Take a Buffet Cruise in the Thousand Islands
Hop aboard the Island Queen. Enjoy the sounds of the banjo and guitar. Take your seat, enjoy your view. Fill your plates and have a drink. Cruise and experience the gorgeously infamous Thousand Islands with a full stomach and open spirit.
Whether you take a 90-minute discovery cruise around Kingston’s waterfront or a 3-hour buffet cruise that meanders the islands along the calming St. Lawrence for miles, you’ll have a great time.
The latter especially is super special because you get to see the small cottage islands from the comfort of your reserved dining table. Head upstairs and experience the natural wonders of the islands with open-air, panoramic views. Depending on your preference and time frame, you can take brunch, lunch and even sunset cruises. No matter what you choose, you’re guaranteed to see the 1000 islands like you’ve never seen them before.
Kingston, Ontario. It’s about time you paid a visit. Get here and experience what’s it’s all about.
Hey y’all. I’m Jim. I spent 16 years in the broadcast media world before starting up Travel Mammal, a site dedicated to working with brands to promote travel, food, and cultural experiences.
I’ve created content and collaborated with everyone from Chevrolet, Lonely Planet, Trivago, Nevada Tourism and The Weather Network to New Brunswick Tourism, Yellow Pages, Tourism Toronto, and Airbnb. Safe travels, y’all.