I spent my teen years and early twenties visiting my eldest sister who lives between Waterloo and Kitchener (AKA “KW” or “Tri-City” to locals), two side-by-side cities just an hour’s drive from me. Even now, in the summer months, my family and I buy a season’s pass to Aberfoyle, a massive outdoor antique market located just east of Waterloo, and try to make it on Sundays whenever I can.
Waterloo and its surrounding areas carry a lot of history, but they also continue to attract young people from near and far for its Universities (Wilfred Laurier and University of Waterloo) as well as the myriad tech companies it’s home to, from Blackberry to Google. Unassuming though it may be, if you’re ever in Southern Ontario and craving a break from the Toronto city hustle and bustle, a short day trip to Waterloo might be just what you need. Today, Jordana Garbati of White Cabana is joining us to share the best of what the region has to offer, from local eats and independent shops, to the best parks to laze around in and festivals to attend. –Sabrina
The region of Waterloo is about a one-hour drive west of Toronto, Ontario. Three main cities make up the region: Waterloo, Kitchener, and Cambridge. Each of these cities has a distinct flavor, but the three of them work together to make the region vibrant and dynamic.
Waterloo region may be most known for being the “Silicon Valley of the North,” or Ontario’s tech-hub. Not only is it home to two major Canadian universities (University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University), but the region houses tech giants including Blackberry, Google, Communitech, OpenText, and Desire 2 Learn.
The Waterloo region has deep German roots and a large population of Mennonites. These groups bring culture, interest, and heritage to the area, and the markets are definitely some of the best in southwestern Ontario.
I find that people are drawn to the region because of great dining options, tech jobs, farmers’ markets, culture, history, antiques, Oktoberfest (of course!), and, perhaps most recently, the architecture. The region has a thriving arts scene, and it’s obvious to many that the community is committed to making it the best that it can be.
I have lived and worked in Waterloo for almost two years, and I’ve definitely enjoyed exploring every bit of the region. While surrounded by amazing farmland, Waterloo and Kitchener have modern works of architecture that certainly warrant extended stares. The people here are some of the friendliest I have ever met, and I enjoy being part of the community.
In this city guide, I will share some of my favourite places to eat, drink, and shop, as well as a couple of recommendations for places to stay. Although there are three main cities in the region, they are very close to one another geographically. Uptown Waterloo and Downtown Kitchener actually share the same street (King St.) and are only about 10 minutes away from one another (from the center of each city). Cambridge is a bit farther away (about 20 minutes from Uptown Waterloo).
Waterloo Inn: While this is located slightly away from the downtown core, it’s a pleasant inn with friendly service.
Delta Hotel: Waterloo’s Delta hotel recently opened. The chain hotel has certainly brought another level of chic to the city center.
If you’re here in July, the Jazz Fest is a great way to spend a weekend. The vibe is relaxed and fun.
The Clay and Glass Museum is a the perfect place to admire unique pieces of art. The museum shop is a must for unique handcrafted gifts.
Uptown Waterloo has two cinemas: Princess Cinemas and Princess Twin. These independently owned theatres show mainstream and independent films, and the show offerings change regularly.
For those looking for a peaceful place for a walk, picnic, or game of cricket, Waterloo Park is a must. The park is home to fields, a lake, a zoo, as well as heritage elements such as Abraham Erb’s original grist mill and Waterloo’s first schoolhouse.
The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics (PI Institute) is an impressive architectural gem. The PI Institute draws in scholars and researchers from around the world and hosts a lecture series as well as a concert series.
The Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI Campus) was funded by Jim Balsillie (of BlackBerry fame), and it is yet another example of modern architecture in the city center. The garden courtyard is super sleek, as is the overall interior and exterior. The building was designed by KPMB and has received several design awards.
For those looking to shop for fashion, Uptown Waterloo has several stores of interest. For designer fashion, Sass carries brands such as DVF, Wildfox Couture, and Smythe. Erban Corner carries Canadian brands such as Comrags.
For men’s designer and modern fashion, a trip to Channers or Paul Puncher is sure to be successful. Channers carries brands like Canada Goose, Hugo Boss, and Lacoste. Paul Puncher is located in a converted train station and offers made-to-measure tailored suits.
Tadpole Shoppe in Uptown Waterloo is a convenient store to buy things for babies and kids.
For books, stop in to Words Worth Books. The selection is current and the staff is knowledgeable and friendly.
There are several art galleries in Uptown Waterloo. Paula White Diamond Art Gallery & Studio is certainly worth a visit as it carries modern and traditional works of art. The store is manageable and easy to access.
The city has some great flower shops, but Charmed is perhaps one of my favorites. It’s sweet, has a well-curated gift selection, and the arrangements are simply beautiful.
If you’re in the mood to renovate and include some salvaged items, Timeless Materials will inspire you. Since it is outside of the city center, you’ll need a car to access it (and to carry your salavage barn board back home, I guess).
Waterloo is small but mighty when it comes to food options. It’s certainly hard to narrow down the “must-eat” list to only a few restaurants.
Taco Farm has great decor, delicious in-house-made nachos, and perfect guacamole. Oh, and the tacos are consistently wonderful, too.
Princess Café has hip decor and a welcoming atmosphere. It is a great place to grab a bite before or after a movie at the Princess Cinemas.
Vincenzo’s is a delightful grocery store that is similar to NYC’s Dean & Deluca. The food is fresh, the products are from around the world, and the displays are lovely. Do make a stop at the cheese counter. If you’re hungry, the made-to-order pizzas do not disappoint.
As you’re making your way along King Street, stop in to Honey Bakeshop for a coffee, panini, macaron, or gelato. The atmosphere is modern and welcoming, and the sweet potato panini is delicious.
For fine French pastries, stop in to Sablétine. It’s Waterloo’s little piece of France, and the tarts, homemade breads, and macarons are lovely.
Jane Bond is a great option for vegetarians (and non-vegetarians). It also hosts live music. The place is small and the crowd is friendly.
If you’re looking for a great burger, Ethel’s Lounge is the place to go. The vibe at this diner is low-key.
Morty’s Pub is the spot if you’re a fan of wings. The pub draws in the student and professional crowds. Everyone in the city knows (and loves) Morty’s.
Death Valley’s Little Brother – known to everyone as DVLB – is a beautifully designed space that specializes in coffee and whiskey.
White Rabbit is a recent addition to the King Street strip. It’s a small space, but it offers an excellent selection of cocktails.
The village of St. Jacobs is a 7-minute drive from Uptown Waterloo. Here, you’ll find antique stores, a farmers’ market, independently owned restaurants, and some quaint shops.
Antiques: Market Road Antiques
Architectural antiques: Artefacts
Classic corn husk brooms: Hamel Brooms
Learn the history and story of the Mennonite people
Walper Hotel. The Walper Hotel is currently closed for renovations, but when it reopens in Fall 2015, it’s sure to be hip, modern, and completely updated.
Check out THEMUSEUM’s well-curated collection and exhibits any time of the year, great for kids and adults.
While Waterloo has the Princess Cinemas, Kitchener boasts the recently opened Apollo Cinema. It has been a crowd pleaser ever since it opened, playing current and old-school movies each week.
Victoria Park is a great place for a bike ride, a picnic, or some playground time if you have kids. It’s easily accessible, and it sometimes serves as the backdrop for art exhibits and concerts. The park is also home to The Boathouse, a restaurant and music house that is popular with the locals.
The Kitchener Blues Festival happens every August, drawing people from all over the region. It’s a must!
The Kitchener Rib Fest and Craft Beer Fest is held every July and people look forward to enjoying a delicious meal in the summer sunshine at this easygoing open-air festival.
In terms of architecture, a few buildings are worth noting. The façade of the University of Waterloo’s School of Pharmacy is covered in colorful printed flowers. The revamped warehouse that was once the old tannery now houses tech companies such as Google, Communitech, and Desire 2 Learn. Finally, the Breithaupt Block is currently under construction, but it will soon be home to a new Google headquarters.
Living Fresh Flower Studio and School, which is around the corner from the Walper Hotel, is the place to go for floral arrangements.
The Kitchener Market has fresh, locally produced meats, cheeses, produce, and breads.
Golden Hearth Bakery is an absolute must for any local or visitor. The croissants and pain au chocolat are unlike any other that I’ve tried outside of France. If the only reason you come to the region is to buy a croissant, I will completely understand! They are simply the best.
Public Kitchen & Bar is away from the downtown core, but is certainly worth the 5-minute drive. This tapas and oyster house is lively and hip, but the place is small and gets full quickly, so reservations are recommended.
Holy Guacamole is a local favorite that serves up fresh, fast Tex-Mex food.
If you’re a fan of cheese, then you’re going to enjoy Cheeses Murphy, a Kitchener restaurant that specializes in grilled cheese sandwiches.
Gilt Restaurant offers unique food pairings for lunch, dinner, and brunch. The modern, bright space is inviting, and the food is presented beautifully. It is also a great place for a pre-dinner cocktail in the lounge area.
Downtown Cambridge is a quick drive from Kitchener. The center of the city is full of rustic heritage buildings.
Langdon Hall consistently receives excellent reviews from the media. It’s a classic top-notch facility that has gorgeous rooms and a beautiful spa and restaurant.
For design enthusiasts, three places that should be seen are:
Willow House is a great destination for unique furnishings and reputable design advice.
Southworks Antiques is pitched as Canada’s largest antique mall. Be sure you budget enough time for shopping here!
Cornerstone is full of luxurious home furnishings and accessories. The store is well-curated and beautifully styled.
Cambridge Mill has a beautifully classic dining facility overlooking the water. Go here to celebrate a special occasion.