Words by Jim Bamboulis
When the time’s right, it’ll feel right to travel again. And when that time comes, it’ll be time to explore the backyard. All within driving distance of Toronto, these 10 places make perfect day trips with passionate locals who can’t wait to host you!
Ontario is full of cute, quaint towns. St. Marys is one of the prettiest. About 2 hours west of Toronto, this beauty is not only home to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, but it’s also aptly named “Stonetown” because it’s filled with unique architecture featuring locally-quarried limestone.
A stroll around St. Marys will make you feel good all over. But if you’re willing to strap on a swimsuit, then St. Marys will enchant you. After all, what’s summer fun without a day on the water? The decades-old St. Marys Quarry has been an outdoor swimming pool, enjoyed by millions since the 1930s. So big and so popular, this quarry is now Canada’s largest outdoor swimming pool!
When you drive into Woodstock, the first thing you see is a giant cow sculpture. You’ve entered Oxford County, the Dairy Capital of Canada, and a big hot spot within the county is Woodstock, about 1 1/2 hours southwest of Toronto. Besides having several historically beautiful, architecturally stunning buildings scattered throughout, over 1 billion glasses of milk are produced annually in these parts. Milk delivery is still a thing and so is Cowapolooza, a hands-on cow-milking competition.
Of course with milk comes a favourite ice cream joint and a popular cheese trail. There are eight cheese companies and over 70 varieties of cheese made here and the trail takes you on a taste adventure while visiting museums, artisans and cheese makers. My go-to stop on a summer day (ok, let’s face it, on any day), is Bartley’s Dairy Bar. Around for 50 years, this consistently loaded with dozens of flavours of ice cream and frozen yogurt. Expect a line-up. Don’t worry, it’s worth the way.
Located about 1 1/2 hours north of Toronto, Creemore is one of those small places that packs a big punch. Artistic and cute, you get the chance to explore everything from beautiful gardens and street art to boutiques, cafes and even a welcoming brewhouse you can both explore and enjoy a pint.
An outdoor vintage market and annual classic car show, both light up the main strip but for a bit of history, veer off the beaten path and explore the historic log cabin at the edge of town and the “little-lockup” next to it. The tiny 3-cell jail dates back to 1892 that may be the smallest in North America.
When you tell people you’re headed to Sarnia for the day, don’t be surprised if you’re given looks of confusion, even bewilderment. It’s true, Sarnia doesn’t exactly have the reputation as a go-to day trip destination but here’s to trying new things, experiencing places you never thought you would.
Located about 2 1/2 hours west of Toronto, Sarnia sits along the St. Clair River, opposite Fort Gratoit Township, Michigan. Drive towards the lakeshore, park the car under the Blue Water International Bridge in Waterfront Park, and get ready to wait in line for an epic poutine experience.
Full and ready to explore, burn off the calories by hopping on the lakefront walking trail, and take in the water views. Before you know it, you’ve reached Canatara Beach and Park, complete with Caribbean-style turquoise waters. Slap on the sunscreen, lay out, take a dip, repeat.
Before you head out, a must-eat spot is Sissio’s Pizza, a place that’s been around for decades and continues to be an amazing family spot for a guaranteed memorable meal. Similar to what’s widely known as a panzerotti, Sissio’s offers up something called the ‘Puffio’, a definite stand-out that you can stuff and customize your way. The crust is a touch sweet, the size is perfectly filling and the sound it makes when you crack the crust goes, you guessed it, poof!
Located about four hours east of Toronto, an hour south of Ottawa and about three hours west of Montreal, Merrickville is a village that sits nicely along the Rideau Canal – a National Historic Site of Canada. In fact, it predates the Canal. An industrial powerhouse for decades, it became a ghost-town by the 1960s and 70s. It didn’t take long before artists came to town and brought the funk with them.
Considered to be one of Canada’s Prettiest Villages, it’s home to the Rideau Woodland Ramble, one of Canada’s top garden destinations, over 100 historic and heritage properties, shops and boutiques that you’ll spend a day exploring, bakeries, cafes and restaurants you’ll spend a day gorging in.
Almonte + Packenham
Located just over three hours northeast of Toronto and 40 minutes west of Ottawa, Almonte, Ontario is loaded with amazing shops, killer coffee, delicious food, historical genius and some of the friendliest people anywhere. Small town Canadiana, with charm and soul that will make you wonder why you haven’t been here sooner and question why you would ever want to leave.
Home to the inventor of basketball, James Naismith, and named after Juan Almonte – a 19th century Mexican Ambassador who never knew that a town in Ontario was named after him – Almonte is the definition of quaint. When you arrive, your absolute best bet is to start by strolling the Riverwalk. A scenic boardwalk path that’s surrounded by both cascading waterfalls and historic sites, it’s a perfect way to acclimate yourself.
Riverwalk leads directly to Mill Street, Almonte’s main drag. Along the way, you’ll find everything from ice cream outposts, classic diners, reinvented cafes and boutique shops to historic buildings, historic figures, galleries and antique stores.
Bob Volks is your main man when it comes to your ATV excursion. Starting in downtown Almonte, hit the Rail Trail, en route to historic Pakenham. There, you’ll see North America’s only 5-arch bridge, built in 1903 by Scottish masons.
Then there’s the infamous Pakenham General Store which dates back to 1840! Step inside and step back in time. Victorian Colonial furniture, wood floors, original wooden counters and antiques used by the original owners will astound and inspire your imagination. Even grocery items are antiques dating back a few generations. Look up and see the historic electric train circling the store and browse the in-house art gallery. Oh and make sure you get a Sticky Bun. Get two. Yes, get two Sticky Buns. Trust me!
This is one of the maple capitals of Ontario – and there’s plenty of maple food and drink to enjoy. Hit Equator Coffee for a maple latte, and the Almonte Lobby Bar for a full-on maple-themed dinner and Fulton’s for all the maple syrup you want to take back home with you!
Head three hours northwest of the city, and take a moment to look over Lake Huron. Stay long enough, and you’ll be graced with incredible, unobstructed views of one of the best sunsets anywhere!
Get here early and hit Southampton’s town-centre. With several restaurants, shops and boutiques to keep you busy, my recommendation is to make time to visit Offshore Bakery. Their butter tarts are ridiculously good, their breads soft and fresh but when here, try the Bruce Potato as it’s their specialty.
Full and ready for some R+R, head to the water. There are several beaches to choose from, each featuring sandy heaven, shallow blue water and perfect for the entire fam jam. It’s important to respect the fragile dune ecosystem that exists as it’s home to numerous types of flora and fauna.
20 years ago, Milton, Ontario was a sleepy small town. So sleepy small, you could blink and miss it altogether. But thanks to explosive growth, Milton continues to be one of the fastest-growing communities in Canada. Located about 40km northwest of Toronto, it features a weekly downtown farmers market, Chudleigh’s Apple Farm as well as Springridge Farm, both of which feature freshly baked goods daily and a super strong sense of community. Then there’s the outdoor adventures.
Located in the Greenbelt with plenty of access points to the miraculous Bruce Trail, Milton is surrounded with natural beauty that promises to get your adrenaline pumping. Crawford Lake Conservation Area features a reconstructed Iroquoian village, and 19 km’s worth of hiking trails, including a boardwalk trail that circles the lake, giving you perfect views of the wildlife. Kelso Conservation Area gets packed with sun and water lovers who surround Lake Kelso in need of Vitamin fun. Camp and picnic sites are available for rent as are canoes, kayaks, paddle boards and paddle boats.
Get your sweat glands working by tackling both Mount Nemo and Rattlesnake Point. Popular with cyclists and hikers, the latter features incredible trails, beautiful caves and cliffs and amazing views of the surrounding Niagara Escarpment. If you want to take a hike and be rewarded with a stellar waterfall, hit Hilton Falls Conservation Area, enjoy the stunning rock layers and pristine 10 meter high waterfall.
Step back in time in an hour and a half. With hilly Walton Street lined with Canadian flags, Port Hope is easily one of the most proudly patriotic towns in Ontario.
Ironically, because of slow growth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Port Hope’s original architecture was never demolished in the name of progress. That said, this spectacular small town has over 270 heritage-designated buildings and has a higher per capita rate of preservation than any other town in the country. It’s no wonder that Port Hope is celebrated as the best-preserved 19th century streetscape in the province!
At night, enjoy a show at the legendary Capitol Theatre, Canada’s last functioning atmospheric theatre complete with an auditorium styled after an outdoor medieval courtyard with rolling clouds projected onto the ceiling. Or go old-school at the Port Hope Drive-In. Built in 1952, it’s among the oldest drive-ins still operating in Canada.
With a lakefront boardwalk trail, beaches, plenty of amazing restaurants and cafes and a downtown farmers market, you can spend the day in Port Hope and enjoy every second.
Head 2 1/2 hours southwest of Toronto and experience Port Stanley, a lakeside oasis complete with a giant beach, great food and cool vibe.
With its unique 50’s style store design and central downtown location, Broderick’s Ice Cream Parlour is a go-to when it comes to getting your summer on. Closer to the beach, and another decades-old institution, Mackie’s has lineups out the door thanks to its milkshakes, orangeade, and French fries, among others items.
As for the beach, accessible mats make it easy for those with wheelchairs and strollers to join in the fun in the sun. And swimming here is encouraged. It’s only about 30 beaches in Canada to have earned official Blue Flag status for it’s commitment to strict water quality and safety criteria. So come on in, the water’s just fine.
Where will YOU go?
Thanks for making it all the way to the end of the article. Hope you enjoyed it and are planning your next trip. I’ve been grateful to get the chance to work with dozens of travel brands and tourism boards worldwide. Spent 16 years in TV and for the past 12 years, I’ve been developing content for organizations like Lonely Planet, Tourism Toronto, Copenhagen Tourism and the Athens Authentic Marathon. Thank you and keep coming back for more travel inspiration.