Our borders are closed. Our flights have been cancelled. But if there’s one thing to be thankful for when living in Ontario, it’s that we have PLENTY of places to visit right here in our backyard.
So many places in fact, that you may be overwhelmed with options on where to visit this upcoming weekend. Aside from the major cities and tourist attractions (I’m looking at you Toronto & Niagara Falls), I think the true magic of Ontario lies within its small towns. The lesser-known towns. The ones you find by accident on a detour or happen to visit because of someone’s recommendation.
Over the last few years, I have had the pleasure of visiting some of these hidden gems and with everyone confined at home, I think now is the perfect time to share them. Grab your phone charger, pack some snacks and get ready to hit the road! Don’t forget to sign up for Airbnb using my link, you can get up to $70 off your first stay!
Let’s explore Ontario together.
Best Small Towns to Visit in Southern Ontario
I will be updating this post with more town ideas in Central & Northern Ontario. If you have any recommendations, please feel free to leave a comment below!
Only 20 minutes outside of downtown Windsor, Amherstburg (quite possibly a suburb of the city) sits right along the Detroit River and is packed with some unique sites! Starting at one end of the town, you have the Fort Malden Historic Site. Built by the British in the late 1700s for protection against America. It has an easy (and free) walking trail that offers up beautiful views of the river. You can see turtles on the rocks and otters (or fishers, I never know the difference) playing on the shore.
Make your way into town to see more historic buildings, award-winning gardens beside the water and a very cute downtown strip. Stop for a treat at Waterfront Ice Cream or Nuccelli’s Frozen Yogurt. If you’re hungrier than that, pop over to Eat ‘Em Up Earls. It’s a new burger joint serving fresh & local ingredients. I grabbed a Pelee Island Onion Burger and Fries with Earl’s Sauce on my last visit – delicious!
Bring your bicycle with you and take the ferry to Bois Blanc Island from Amherstburg for $10 roundtrip. You can check out the lighthouse, White Sands Conservation Area and the eerie abandoned amusement park. I didn’t visit the island, but if this sounds up your alley, check out this blog post from Great Lakes Cruising.
The buildings. The beaches. It’s all so beautiful in Bayfield! This heritage town is located on Lake Huron, right in between Grand Bend and Goderich and has to be visited in two seasons, summer and fall.
In the summer, you can head straight to Pioneer Park with your bathing suit and beach towels in hand. This park sits high above the lake and has an amazing view of the water below. Stick around for sunset and you won’t be disappointed. The best part about this park is the Instagram-worth wooden staircase that you can take all the way down to the shore. Spend a couple of hours on this sandy beach with crystal blue water. Honestly, you’ll feel like you’re in Florida.
Come back in the late fall to meander down the tree-lined Main Street in Bayfield, which gets covered in crispy colourful leaves. You can do some window shopping, grab a coffee at Shopbike or maybe even spend a night at the Little Inn on Bayfield for an elegant getaway. I’ve stayed in a lot of Airbnbs but I would be lying to myself if I said I wasn’t a sucker for luxury accommodation.
Just 12 minutes away from Paisley is another one of the best small towns in Ontario. There is truly no shortage of things to do in Bruce County! Chesley is a quaint country town with beautiful buildings, gardens and a local legend named Bruce.
On your way into town, be sure to stop and visit one of Ontario’s best roadside attractions, Big Bruce. It’s a life-size cow monument dedicated to the many local beef farmers in the area. Okay, maybe it’s larger than life-size.
Park the car in downtown. The best thing about the small towns is that parking is usually free! Walk along 1st avenue to enjoy all of the beautiful building facades. Check out some antiques at Yesteryear’s Treasures and grab a slice at Side Street Pizza.
Head down to the Kruger Memorial Par to enjoy a nice view of the river and check out some of the historical artifacts from the former Krug Furniture Factory. The park also connects to the Chesley Heritage Trail, where there are plenty of benches and places to relax.
If I had to pick a favourite, it would probably be Creemore. I’m a sucker for anywhere that feels like it’s off the beaten path and this town fits the bill. Strategically placed away from any main highways (even secondary highways), Creemore feels like a true escape from city life! You’ll find it tucked away in Simcoe County, between Orangeville and Collingwood.
I happened to visit when I was staying at an Airbnb in Shelburne and enjoying the local sites. If you haven’t used Airbnb before, what’s stopping you? It’s safe, easy and cheaper than a hotel. Sign up using my referral code to enjoy up to $62 off your first stay!
With beautiful storefronts, a cute little bakery, and some interesting historic sites (like North America’s smallest jail) Creemore is the perfect place to visit on a summer afternoon. You can spend at least an hour just meandering around town. Finish off your visit with a trip to the Creemore Springs Brewery. They normally conduct tours and tastings (on pause due to COVID) but you can pop in to buy a couple of cans and enjoy them in the park or bring them home for a souvenir!
It’s no surprise that Elora was dubbed Ontario’s Most Beautiful Village. Nestled between two rivers and perched on top of an amazing gorge, there are plenty of things to do in Elora. But it’s best known for the Elora Gorge Conservation Area! You can camp, picnic, hike and go tubing down the river. There’s even a shuttle bus that will come pick you up further down the stream! I think some of these facilities are closed for the season due to COVID, so be sure to check on their website to see what’s running.
Even if you stay in town, there’s still plenty for you to see and do! Start at the Elora Gorge Lookout, where you can partake in an easy and free walk to get a bird’s eye view of the river below. Walk along W Mill Street and Metcalfe to enjoy all of the stone buildings and boutique shops. There are several delicious bakeries & restaurants, many offering nice views of the river.
Fancy staying a night? Look no further than the Elora Mill Hotel & Spa – a 19th-century mill turned contemporary hotel. Floor to ceiling windows with views of the gorge? Check. Top-notch spa and outdoor pool? You ‘betcha. At the very least, treat yourself to a nice dinner at their restaurant and request a table by the window.
The next time you’re in the mood for a hike, a nice view or that cozy small-town feeling, head to Elora and you won’t be disappointed!
Conveniently located less than 10 minutes away from Elora, you will find yet another one of the best small towns in Ontario. Fergus prides itself on its Scottish heritage, historic buildings and natural beauty.
On your way here from Elora, stop by the Wellington County Museum and Archives, an old poorhouse from the 1800s turned cultural center. It’s the perfect place to learn more about local history or visit a special exhibit.
In town, park the car and set out on foot for a self-guided historic walking tour of Fergus, where you can visit some of their famous churches, stone cottages and the first settlement in the town. Afterwards, grab a coffee at the Vault and head down to Confederation Park to enjoy an amazing view of the town buildings!
You’ll find Grimsby nestled between Hamilton and St. Catherines, underneath the escarpment and in the heart of Ontario’s wine country! This convenient location makes it easy to visit when you’re on your way to either of the two regions. And lucky for you, there are some great things to do in Grimsby!
For starters, it’s a beautiful place to take a Sunday drive. In the 1800s, a group of Loyalists settled in the area, which left the town with many beautiful Victorian-era homes along Main and Elm. For a better look into one of these historic homes, check out Nelles Manor Museum. Hit up the downtown strip for some shopping, or just to grab a coffee at Station 1 Coffeehouse.
Drive down to Auditorium Court in the Grimsby Beach neighbourhood to check out the famous Painted Ladies, a historic set of colourful beach cottages that are reminiscent of gingerbread houses! It’s a very unique spot and shouldn’t be missed if you’re in the area.
On a warm summer day, head down to Grimsby-on-the-Lake, a brand new lakefront condo village where you can swim at the beach, go for a bike ride down the waterfront trail or grab a bite to eat at Lang on the Water, a delicious Vietnamese restaurant with a patio overlooking Lake Ontario.
Finish off your visit to Grimsby with a drive up the escarpment to the Beamer Memorial Conservation Area, where you can check out Beamer’s Falls and go for a short hike to be rewarded with an amazing view of Grimsby and the lake below!
If you’re from out of town, treat yourself to a night a Vinifera, the Inn on Winery Row and indulge in some of the area’s famous wines and ciders!
Who knew you could find a small historic village only 15 minutes north of Ontario’s biggest city? It’s true! Kleinburg is the perfect day trip from Toronto. This town was founded in the mid-1800s by a German settler, hence the name. It’s now home to several spas, restaurants and boutique shops.
Driving down Islington Ave, park the car to walk through the main part of town. You can visit sites like the Kleinburg Railway Station, the old Kline House and eat street-side at one of the many gorgeous patios. You can also satisfy your sweet tooth at the Old Firehall Confectionery.
Anyone interested in art, or Canadian landscapes for that matter, should check out the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. This gallery showcases some of the best art from Canadian painters. From the same parking lot, you can hit the Humber River Trails and enjoy some of the natural beauty this part of Ontario has to offer. You might even get inspired to paint your own landscape!
View this post on Instagram
It’s like the little sister of Collingwood, with slightly better genetics. Meaford is a beautiful small town on the shores of Georgian Bay and is worth a stop during your next visit to Grey County. Apart from having a lovely harbour & waterfront, Meaford is also known for its apples! I always visit Grandma Lambe’s when I’m in the area to pick up a fruit pie, butter tart or just an apple for snacking.
You can also set aside some time to walk through the downtown core, admiring the heritage buildings and then driving over to Beautiful Joe Park, honouring the famous dog that inspired the bestselling 1893 novel, Beautiful Joe.
You could even combine your visit with a few other towns, like Thornbury, Blue Mountain, Collingwood and even Wasaga Beach! My favourite place to stay in the area is the Georgian Bay Hotel because it’s close to all of the sites.
Oh, and don’t forget to check out the Irish Mountain Scenic Lookout! It’s completely free and offers a stunning view of the surrounding area. The perfect place to bring your apples and have a picnic.
This is the perfect town for a weekend getaway from the city. It’s nestled on the shores of Georgian Bay. It’s full of amazing art. And it’s located close to a LOT of other attracts in the area. Book a stay at a local Airbnb (don’t forget to sign up through my link to get up to $70 off) and start planning your visit!
In downtown Midland, you can park the car and check out their famous murals. There are over 30 of them right on the main street! They all offer some sort of historic significance to the area. You might work up an appetite and lucky for you, there are some great restaurants on this street too! Visit Dino’s Fresh Food Deli, Grounded Coffee Company or grab a sit on the waterfront patio at the Boathouse Eatery.
From the harbour, you can take a scenic cruise to visit some of Georgian Bay’s many islands – 30,000 of them to be exact! I don’t think you can visit them all, but you can at least get to enjoy some beautiful views from the water.
A bit further from downtown, you’ll find Sainte-Marie among the Hurons. This was the site of the first European settlers in Ontario. You can learn about the French and their history with the Huron Wendat. The beautiful Wye Marsh can be accessed from the same parking lot, where you can walk along the boardwalk or rent a kayak. It’s important to note that neither of these sites is free.
There’s is another small town just outside of Midland called Penatenguishe and you should pay a visit here too! The downtown strip has some cute little shops and the area is full of history. Venture over to Discovery Harbour to spot some tall ships if you’re lucky!
To the other side of Midland is an even smaller town, Port McNicoll. There is not a lot to do here, but it’s worth a visit to check out the S.S. Keewatin, a historic passenger steamboat.
I think most people from Ontario know about this one already, but it’s still worth a mention! Niagara-on-the-Lake is considered to be the loveliest town in Canada and I can agree with that statement! I wrote an entire post dedicated to Niagara-on-the-Lake this past winter to talk about my 2-night trip.
It boasts boutique shops, historic homes and on-trend eateries. It’s home to the popular Shaw Festival Theatre and several significant sites from the War of 1812. Outside of town, you will find pristine vineyards, producing some of the best wines in the world.
Just 20 minutes from downtown Kitchener, New Hamburg is a lovely small town that sits on the Nith River and is home to a 50-foot waterwheel! Although there isn’t a whole lot of attractions, it’s a nice place to visit one evening for dinner and walk.
The downtown strip has some nice heritage buildings, boutique shops and the beautiful Puddicombe Inn, a historic house turned accommodation. Even if you don’t stay the night, come eat at their streetside patio & taste their famous Puddicombe ‘Za!
After dinner, walk past the mural at the Wilmot Fire Station and down to the river, where you can sit in the park and enjoy a view of the waterwheel and dam.
Don’t let its small size fool you! Otterville is a village in rural Southern Ontario but it is jam-packed with historic buildings. It’s literally postcard perfect.
Take Highway 59 through Norwich on your way over and pop into town for some picnic supplies! Norwich is a nice small town too. The Norwich Deli and Bakery offers some delicious Dutch eats, like baked goods and cheeses.
Once in Otterville, you can start by visiting the Otterville Historic Railway Station at one end of town. It’s also a museum that displays many artifacts from the 1800s. Directly beside it is the famous Octagonal Cottage, which was once a Quaker meeting house.
In the center of town, be sure to check out the famous Otterville Mill and admire the waterfall view right across the street. You can check out a list of all the historic sites in Otterville here.
When you’re ready to relax, park the car on William Street and head down to Otterville Park. This is the perfect spot to bring your picnic supplies. Walk over the footbridge to access the 10-acre grounds, complete with seating area, playground and beautiful tall pine trees.
Due to its small size, there aren’t many places to stay around Ingersoll, but if you fancy a night away from home, I recommend staying at the Elmhurst Inn & Spa. It’s a charming hotel just off of the 401 in Ingersoll. The rooms are cozy. The grounds are beautiful. And it’s usually a very reasonable price!
Last summer while taking the scenic route from Hamilton to Lake Huron, I accidentally stumbled across the town of Paisley and boy, was I ever glad to find this place! It looks like a scene from a postcard.
The downtown core runs along two rivers. Don’t you just love a good river town? I know I do! Paisley boasts many historic buildings, some of which are decorated with bright colours! The square at Queen and Goldie Streets offers a nice 360-degree view of some of the best buildings in the town. There are some great local shops downtown like the Elora Soap Company, the perfect place to grab some homemade soaps, fragrance oils and linen sprays!
From Paisley, you can rent a canoe and paddle up the river, take your horse camping (you read that right) at the Saugeen Bluffs Conservation Area or head out on the Bruce County Rail Trail for a bike ride. Combine a visit to this town with Chesley too!
Ontario’s little slice of France. Okay, it’s not a french town by any means but it’s almost as beautiful as it’s larger counterpart! Paris, Ontario was voted the “prettiest little town in Canada” and happens to be only 30 minutes from my hometown of Hamilton. Check out this Youtube video made by a local realty company that showcases some of Paris’ sites.
Sitting on two rivers, the downtown core is lined with boutique shops, Parisian-inspired cafes and fine dining restaurants. Stay for dinner and visit one of the restaurants with a patio overlooking the water! If you’re an architecture buff, there are plenty of buildings styles to admire during your visit. Many of the buildings are made from Cobblestone (including 2 churches and 10 residences) which is why Paris was also given the title of “Cobblestone Capital of Canada”.
If you choose to spend a night, do yourself a favour and book a stay at the Arlington Hotel, a chateau-style property with unique rooms and a really good restaurant.
Port Rowan & Long Point
Even though I live only a stone’s throw away from Lake Ontario in Hamilton, we are not fortunate enough to have water that’s clean enough for swimming yet! So us Hamiltonians have to get kind of creative when it comes to finding places to go swimming in Southern Ontario. Many people flock to Port Dover in the summer months, but I prefer to drive a bit further down Lake Erie, to Port Rowan and Long Point.
Port Rowan is a small town in Norfolk County with a few cute storefronts on the main strip. You can grab an ice cream at the Twins Ice Cream Parlour and pop into Franni’s Attic Antiques to find some neat collectibles. Just outside of town is the Backus Heritage Conservation Area, where you can visit the historic grist mill and buildings that survived the War of 1812.
Known for its birding, boating and fishing, the beauty of Port Rowan lies in the natural surroundings. There is a bird-watching area just a few minutes from downtown as well as a restored wetland museum. On the way down to Long Point, there is a beautiful marsh trail where you can spot all kinds of wildlife.
And then finally, Long Point itself. My favourite place to go swimming near Hamilton! You can pay for entrance to the Long Point Provincial Park to enjoy all of the park activities or even book a night to stay at the campground. But if you want to get creative and find a parking spot, there are several pedestrian access points to the public beach too.
View this post on Instagram
Walkerton & Mildmay
Walkerton is the capital of Bruce County and for good reason. It’s a spirited community on the Saugeen River and offers up several activities and attractions. It’s also the perfect base to explore the local area and other small towns, like Paisley, Chesley, Mildmay and Palmerston.
Downtown Walkerton is home to many boutique shops and restaurants, like the Old Garage Wood Fired Pizza and Walkerton Sushi. It’s the best spot for sushi in Bruce County! Look closely at the buildings and you’ll be sure to find some nice street art here too.
Across the river, you can check out the Rotary Nature Park. It’s free to visit and offers a (relatively easy) hike uphill through the gardens. At the top, you’ll have a stunning view of the countryside! Book a night at the historic Chepstow Inn for a relaxing night in the country.
A few minutes outside of Walkerton, you will find Bruce County’s ONLY vineyard, Hoity Toity Cellars. In addition to delicious wine, they also make ciders. I highly recommend trying a bottle of “66 Pick Up”, their flagship cider. It’s lightly carbonated, slightly dry and oh-so refreshing!
Slightly further down Highway 9, you’ll find Mildmay. What’s there to do in Mildmay you ask? Buy cheese. Go to the famous Mildmay Cheese Haus and buy cheese, salami, crackers and all the fixings for a proper picnic! Bring your snacks down to the Mildmay Rotary Park, where you can drink some water for the Artesian well (it’s safe!) and sit by the pond.
There are SO many small towns in Ontario that are worth a visit. I’m from Southwestern Ontario and thought I would start with the towns that are closest to me, and that I have visited within the last couple of years. But I will update this post to add more towns. Specifically in Central, Western and near-North Ontario.
If you think there is an Ontario town that deserves more attention, leave it in the comments below to give people more inspiration! Remember, it’s yours to discover!