Quickly gaining a reputation for being Canada’s ‘little Brooklyn’, Hamilton, Ontario has seen its fair share of change and excitement over the past few decades. Located on the tip of the Niagara Peninsula and running along the South shore of Lake Ontario, Hamilton was once referred to as “Steel Town” because of its booming steel and manufacturing industry. But an economic crash in the late 1900s led to the end of the local steel industry and this once populated and bustling city became barren.
But Hamilton has been slowly getting back on its feet, thanks to its focus on supporting small businesses, fostering community and welcoming creative, service and retail industries. With much of its original infrastructure still standing, Hamilton is home to countless examples of heritage architecture, more than 100 waterfalls, and Tara Nolan, a writer, co-founder of Savvy Gardening, and outdoor explorer.
After living in Toronto for 10 years, Tara and her husband craved a change and naturally looked to the far less expensive city of Hamilton — where Tara’s husband grew up and where they both attended university. “While we were gone, a cultural, retail and culinary renaissance started to take hold of the city, with a new generation of entrepreneurs opening businesses” Tara explains. “Heritage buildings and vacant spaces have been lovingly restored to make way for galleries, retail shops and restaurants.” There is no denying that Hamilton has been revitalized and there is a pervasive sense of pride as the city acknowledges its past, while moving in a new direction. Today, Tara is proudly taking us on a virtual tour of this exciting city. –Sabrina
Photography by Tara Nolan unless otherwise stated
At least once a month, my husband and I turn to each other and say: “I love it here,” or “I’m so glad we live here.” Five years ago, after coming home from a trip, we decided we needed a change. Our careers had taken us to Toronto, but Hamilton beckoned.
I’m proud to call Hamilton home. My husband and I are always excited when we get to show out-of-towners a taste of what this great city has to offer. There are plenty of things to do and there’s always a lot going on, whether it’s an art crawl, an outdoor concert or a guided nature walk. Here are some of the highlights that I would recommend to visitors who want to explore Hamilton’s hip and happening neighborhoods, or its trails and waterfalls—or a little of both!
PLACES TO EAT
Hamilton has lots of fantastic restaurants (with more opening all the time) that make up a delightfully unpretentious food scene. This is merely a sampling as there are truly too many to list here.
If I were setting off on a day of exploring shops and neighborhoods, I would start with brunch at the Aberdeen Tavern. Located in a former bank building, the décor may be swanky, but the atmosphere is friendly and relaxed, and the food is amazing! I would then pop up Dundurn Street to pick up a treat at Cake & Loaf Bakery.
Further east, past downtown, the Cannon Coffee Co. is my Ottawa Street brunch pick. I have two words to convince you to go: waffle sandwiches—especially if you need fuel for treasure hunting in the antique shops that dot the street.
On Locke Street, take a break at Democracy Coffee House and catch up on conversation (a lack of wi-fi is deliberate for this very reason). For lunch, Earth To Table Bread Bar offers great soups, salads and pizzas (and freshly baked bread)—as well as a daily “loaded fries” creation that can be hard to resist. At the opposite end of the street, Brux House has a broad craft beer and cider selection, as well as delicious starters and mains.
If you’re headed to the James Street North neighborhood, pop into the Hamilton Farmers’ Market on the way to try Pokeh, Canada’s first poké bar.
I have never been disappointed with the scrumptious soup selection at The Burnt Tongue — My husband thinks they make the best burger in Hamilton.
If you’re heading to check out any of the hikes around Dundas, grab a Green Earth Grilled Cheese (my favorite sandwich in Hamilton) and fresh juice from Earth Shake.
For a coffee break, Mulberry Street Coffeehouse offers lots of seating among local artwork on James Street North. The day I discovered they bake gluten-free donuts, I cried tears of joy. Saint James Espresso Bar & Eatery is a great new addition to the strip and not too far away on King Street East, the Dutch-inspired Café Oranje serves up locally roasted coffee and yummy treats.
For drinks before dinner, Two Black Sheep on John Street South offers buck-a-shuck oysters between 4 and 6 p.m., interesting cocktails and record-player tunes.
Grab a table at The Mule (my new favorite taco joint) for dinner. Besides tacos, the menu also includes a delicious queso fundido dip, a teetering shrimp tostada and Baja-style wings with lime crema.
Image above: The Mule
If you’re really hungry, try Saltlick Smokehouse where the table decides together what meats, like pulled pork and brisket, and sides will be served.
Image above: Rich Auger
If there is a vegan or vegetarian in your group, The Butcher And The Vegan will satisfy all members of your party.
Downtown, James Street North is one of those neighborhoods that has evolved a great deal in the last few years. I believe it was the artist-run space called centre that first started creating “Art is the New Steel” T-shirts, which aptly describe what’s happened to this amazing little area.
Mixed Media, which in 2015 celebrated its 10th anniversary, is one of those stalwart originals that took a chance on James Street North before it became the popular shopping/gallery/restaurant hub it is today. This fantastic art shop stocks a fabulous assortment of stationery, magazines, art supplies and gifts.
Image above: Mixed Media
White Elephant (there is a second location in the Westdale neighborhood) curates an amazing collection of local designers’ apparel and jewelry, including Birds of North America (I love their dresses), Jennifer Glasgow, Bespoke Uprising and Moonlight For Violet.
Image above: Rich Auger
Pretty Grit sells an eclectic mix of trendy home accessories, from patterned glasses and bowls to lamps and cushions.
Image above: Pretty Grit
O’s carries clothing and accessories from labels like Fjällräven, Brixton and Penfield, and Pomp & Ceremony’s Liberty of London-patterned ties.
One of the things I’ve always wanted to do on my travels is to take some type of craft class. If you have the time, both Needlework and Handknit Yarn Studio offer excellent sewing and knitting classes, respectively. Their retail shops are also stocked with a superb selection of fabric, notions, pattern and wool.
Image above: The Love Studio
The Design Annex Art + Design Store, an extension of the Art Gallery of Hamilton, showcases art that complements interesting décor vignettes, all available for sale.
I love i fiori’s aesthetic, as well as that the fact that the shop sources most of its flowers and plants from Niagara-based farmers and greenhouse growers.
Chocolat on James is a great place to stop in for a treat, like chocolate-covered gummy bears and truffles. Beanermunky in Dundas is my regular chocolate haunt because I can walk there for my sweet fix.
For quirky gifts and vinyl toys, head to The Gifted on King Street East.
Locke Street is another neighborhood that has really evolved over the last several years. Once a quiet strip with a couple of antique stores and a flower shop, it is now a bustling thoroughfare with a variety of shops and restaurants (and antique stores), and it hosts a weekly farmers’ market throughout the summer months.
Image above: LuLu & Lavigne
I have bought multiple items for my home from LuLu & Lavigne Home Studio. I also really like Canoe, a store dedicated to stocking items made in North America by independent designers (as well as stationery).
The Westdale neighborhood is a sentimental favorite because I used to live there while I was in university (it’s where I met my husband). Visit The Casual Gourmet for kitchenware and Bryan Prince Bookseller, a lovely independent bookstore that’s been around since the 80s.
PLACES TO VISIT/SEE
Despite its steel town reputation, there is a LOT of conservation area to discover. There are many access points to The Bruce Trail, Canada’s longest and oldest footpath, which starts in the Niagara region and winds its way all the way up to Tobermory. Did you know that Hamilton is often referred to as the waterfall capital of the world? There are over 100 waterfalls. A popular tourist spot is in the Spencer Gorge/Webster Falls Conservation Area, though I would recommend going during the week as it’s very busy on the weekend.
To see the city on two wheels (there are bike lanes on some of the main streets), grab a SoBi bike from one of the many hubs throughout the city.
If you’re going to visit Hamilton at night, I would make sure the date coincides with the James North Art Crawl, which takes place the second Friday of every month. In September, the event is amplified as it becomes the James Street Super Crawl with three days of music (it attracts top-notch bands), food and art installations. It recently won Ontario’s Tourism event of the year.
Each winter, the Hamilton Waterfront Trust creates a skating rink at Bayfront Park, right on the lake. Skate rentals are available and there is a rink indoors, attached to Williams Fresh Café, where you can lace up and warm up. In the summer, bring your roller skates!
Serve Ping Pong Bar & Lounge is the latest establishment to host a fun retro pastime. It serves pretty tasty food, too!
There are so many other terrific shops, restaurants and places to explore… you’ll have to come and see for yourself!