Kingston is one of Canada’s great cities whether you’re looking at it historically as Canada’s first capital or as a brilliant to place to plant yourself for a few days a get a real taste of the Limestone City.
Kingston, in our humble opinion, is one of the most underrated cities in this nation. You’ve got a remarkable restaurant scene, the history that comes with being Canada’s first capital, a live music and arts movement that brings unquestionable energy to the city, plus the youthful injection and presence of several preeminent educational institutions.
For far too long, Canadian travellers have conceptualized Kingston as a handy stop on the way from Toronto to Ottawa, or Montreal to Toronto, but the reality is that Kingston needs to be thought of as more than that.
This is a city with a lot to explore, discover and appreciate, whether you’re looking to do a historic bar crawl, to simply get out and walk for hours, popping your head in and out of shops where you’re likely to meet the owner him/herself, or to go on a self-guided camera tour, aiming to celebrate the multitude of views that you can find in the Limestone City.
A Brief History of Kingston
With a history that stretches back centuries, this charming city is a treasure trove of Canadian heritage waiting to be explored.
Founded all the way back in 1673, Kingston holds the distinction of being one of Canada’s oldest European settlements. Originally established as a French trading post known as Fort Frontenac, it played a significant role in the fur trade and served as a vital military stronghold throughout its early years.
In the late 18th century, Kingston witnessed a pivotal moment in Canadian history when it became the first capital of the United Province of Canada (which, of course, preceded Ottawa’s rise to that claim). Why was it named the first capital? Well, the city’s strategic location at the confluence of Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River, and the Rideau Canal made it an ideal hub for commerce and transportation, solidifying its position as a crucial centre of trade.
In the mid 1800s, universities were founded, and Kingston’s impressive City Hall was built. Kingston Penitentiary opened its doors (and closed in its prisoners), and the iconic Fort Henry became a mainstay. Fort Henry never was attacked by the Americans, but we’d like to think that was because it provided so many reasons not to.
Kingston, Ontario seamlessly weaves the past and present together, offering visitors a captivating glimpse into Canada’s fascinating history while embracing the vibrant spirit of modern life.
What to Do in Kingston When You Visit: Spend Multiple Days (or a Weekend) in One of Ontario’s Most Stories Cities
Below, we’re going to build out an itinerary that you can use to explore Kingston for a few days. As we noted above, this is really meant to showcase that Kingston is, in our mind, unequivocally a multi-day stop.
Walk Around the Queen’s University Campus
As a former Queen’s grad myself, you knew this was going to be on the list. Here’s a little walking tour to consider, based on some of my favourite highlights.
Begin your exploration at Grant Hall, the iconic limestone building that serves as the centrepiece of the campus. It’s also where I graduated from Queen’s, 75 years to the day after my grandmother. Walk along University Avenue and take in the hum of student life, then take note of Douglas Library, the Neogothic gem on campus. Pro tip here – the top floor features a library room that’s something straight out of Harry Potter.
I’d also say that you want to have the Agnes Etherington Art Centre on your radar. This renowned art gallery showcases an impressive collection of Canadian and international artwork, spanning various mediums and time periods.
In first year, I was based in Leggett Hall (one of the newer residences that we affectionally called Hotel Leggett). Some of my fondest memories are of walking down to the water from here, and taking in the sights and sounds of Lake Ontario Park. I’d strongly recommend you do the same.
Generally speaking, don’t be scared just to get a little lost, and form your own adventure here. In fact, I’d make time just to walk and to see what catches your eye.
Check Out Canada’s Penitentiary Museum
Canada’s Penitentiary Museum offers a deeper look into the world of incarceration, and the fascinating history of Canada’s correctional system. It’s housed within the former Warden’s Residence of Kingston Penitentiary, and we like that it delves into the lives of both inmates and prison staff.
At its core, the Museum aims to show what the early days of incarceration were like, and how that changed over a nearly 200 year span.
By the way, one of the museum’s highlights is its comprehensive collection of inmate-made weapons, showcasing what prisoners are capable of in their pursuit of survival within the prison walls. The creativity here is actually pretty impressive and eye-opening.
You’ll find a mixture of permanent exhibits here, along with temporary exhibits that often look in more depth at the Canadian justice system, and where fairness fit into it all.
It’s worth noting that the Penitentiary Museum is actually located adjacent to the Kingston Penitentiary, and access to the actual prison is not part of the museum experience.
Plan Your Visit Around a Particular Event or Festival
Below, we’re going to roll through some of the most popular festivals and events in Kingston for you.
Kingston Buskers Rendezvous takes place annually in July and brings together talented street performers from around the world. The streets of downtown Kingston come alive with music, comedy, acrobatics, and more, creating a lively and entertaining atmosphere.
If it’s music you’re after, then we’d recommend the Spring Reverb or the Limestone City Blues Festival. Spring Reverb is all about showcasing the best and the brightest in the Kingston music scene, but also invites some top out of town talent to come share the stage with them!
It’s August that you need to have circled for the Limestone City Blues Festival, a four-day event featuring live performances by local and international blues artists. Multiple stages throughout the downtown area showcase the soulful sounds of the blues genre, creating a lively and energetic atmosphere.
A personal favourite of ours is the Skeleton Park Arts Festival. We actually saw the Canadian hip hop artist Shad there a few years back when we were staying at the Smith Hotel. Celebrating arts and culture, this community-driven festival takes place in June in McBurney Park (known as Skeleton Park). It features live music performances, art installations, dance workshops, and a vibrant street fair, creating a sense of community and creativity. If this is up your alley, then you should also take note of the Kingston Multicultural Arts Festival.
Other festivals that come to mind include the Kingston Canadian Film Festival, one of the largest standalone film festivals in the country, Kingston Writerfest (held in September and bringing together the best in Canadian writing), and Kingstonlicious, the premiere prix fixe culinary experience in the city, and chance to try out some top restaurants.
Visit Bellevue House National Historic Site
At its core, the Bellevue House National Historic Site is about inviting people back in time. It’s a house that’s been restored to perfection, and offers a glimpse into the life of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister.
We know readers will have differing opinions on Mr. Macdonald’s legacy, but this is a place to come and learn about his life and political career yourself, and to make sure your opinions are grounded in fact.
You’ll find a variety of exhibits on offer when you arrive. From the challenges of nation-building to the political climate of the era, these exhibits provide a well-rounded understanding of the historical significance of Macdonald’s contributions.
We’d strongly recommend that you make time in your tour to explore the gardens on the property. Especially in the warmer months, you can expect a full gambit of colourful flowers and manicured hedges.
Go On a Tour to Dive a Little Deeper
From guided walking tours that showcase Kingston’s heritage sites and limestone architecture to boat tours that provide breathtaking views of Lake Ontario and the Thousand Islands, the tours offered in Canada’s first capital cater to various interests and preferences.
There are everything from specialized tours, such as ghost tours, which delve into the city’s haunted past, and food tours, which offer a delightful culinary adventure.
We’ve created an in-depth guide to our favourite Kingston tours over on our sister site, Ultimate Ontario.
Stay Somewhere Interesting and Historic
Our personal recommendation for where to stay in Kingston is the Secret Garden Inn, which the author has written about in-depth over on his site, travelingmitch.
The inn is celebrated for its tranquil atmosphere, beautiful gardens, and warm hospitality. We love the inn’s historic Victorian-era building, featuring comfortable and well-appointed rooms that exude a cozy and inviting ambiance.
The highlight might just be the delicious breakfast offerings, which include homemade pastries and locally sourced ingredients!
Save Some Room for Kingston’s Culinary Scene
This is not an exaggeration – Kingston has one of the best food scenes in this nation. Here are a few spots we’d definitely suggest you fit into your weekend itinerary.
- Chez Piggy: A beloved local institution, Chez Piggy offers a warm and inviting atmosphere combined with a menu that celebrates farm-to-table cuisine. You’ll find European and Mediterranean flavours, with an emphasis on fresh, locally sourced ingredients. It’s the restaurant in Kingston, in our humble opinion.
- The Black Dog Tavern: From classic pub fare like burgers and sandwiches to elevated comfort food, there’s something to satisfy every craving. Their burgers (and sandwiches) in particular are off-the-charts.
- Tango Nuevo: Known for its creative and globally inspired menu, Tango Nuevo is a must-visit for food enthusiasts. This trendy eatery showcases Latin American and Asian fusion cuisine, featuring an array of tantalizing small plates, sushi, and mouthwatering main courses.
- Atomica Pizza & Wine Bar: Pizza lovers rejoice at Atomica, where wood-fired pizzas steal the show. This lively restaurant features an impressive selection of gourmet pizzas, as well as a carefully curated wine list. They’ve even got a cheese curd pizza that we absolutely loved!
- Dianne’s Fish Shack & Smokehouse: Seafood aficionados will find their haven at Dianne’s Fish Shack. Located in Kingston’s historic downtown waterfront area, this lively eatery specializes in fresh seafood dishes and Southern-inspired comfort food. Go for the Baja fish tacos!
- Harper’s Burger Bar: For burger enthusiasts, Harper’s Burger Bar is a must-visit. This casual restaurant boasts a wide range of creative burgers made with premium ingredients and served with an array of delicious toppings and sides.
Head on Over to Fort Henry
For starters, I should mention that I went to a concert here right outside the Fort when I was in university, and it was unbelievable.
Built between 1832 and 1837, the fort was strategically positioned on a hill overlooking the entrance to the Rideau Canal, serving as a key defensive structure during the War of 1812.
Today, Fort Henry stands as a meticulously restored fortification, offering an immersive experience that brings history to life. This is one of the sites where you’ll be quite literally are transported back in time. They achieve this affect with old-fashioned military drills, costumed interpreters, the way they’ve restored the Fort, and the exhibits on display.
It would be a mistake not to include this in your Kingston weekend itinerary.
Check Out Kingston City Hall
Firstly, I want to mention that in recent years, the area behind the City Hall has become an epic event space, and also just a general meeting point for folks looking to press pause and take in the sights and sounds of Kingston. If you can time it correctly, we’d love to throw a vote for New Year’s Eve in The Square, as its fun each and every year.
The building itself is one of the best examples of Kingston’s use of limestone, and it was completed in 1844. Inside the City Hall, visitors can explore the impressive council chambers, which feature ornate woodwork, stained glass windows, and historical artifacts. The chambers, as you might imagine, have hosted countless council meetings and important civic events throughout Kingston’s history.
Set Eyes on Kingston’s Marvellous Array of Churches
There are no shortage of churches to set eyes on in Kingston, but here are a few that you’ll want to keep your eyes out for.
- St. George’s Cathedral: Located in the heart of downtown Kingston, St. George’s Cathedral is a magnificent example of Gothic Revival architecture. Think striking stone exterior, intricate stained glass windows, and soaring spires.
- St. Mary’s Cathedral: Situated just a short distance from St. George’s Cathedral, St. Mary’s Cathedral is another architectural gem. This Roman Catholic church boasts a beautiful Neoclassical design with its grand columns, arched windows, and elegant facade.
- Chalmers United Church: Nestled in Kingston’s the historic Sydenham Ward neighbourhood, Chalmers United Church is a historic limestone church that exudes charm and character. With its picturesque steeple, welcoming entrance, and classic architectural details, this church stands out as a beloved landmark in the neighbourhood.
- St. Paul’s Anglican Church: Also in Sydenham Ward is St. Paul’s Anglican Church is known for its striking Norman-style architecture. The church’s rounded arches, decorative stonework, and impressive tower create a captivating presence.
- Sydenham Street United Church: This was the church that I had views of from my room at the Secret Garden Inn. It was constructed all the way back in 1852 and, like St. Georges, it’s another brilliant example of Gothic Revival style architecture.
- St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church: Located near the waterfront, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church showcases Victorian Gothic architecture at its finest. Inside, visitors can admire the beautiful stained glass windows and the elegant interior design.
Visit Prominent Shops and Local Businesses
Here’s a hit-list of businesses and shops to have on your radar. We’d say the “musts” on our side are Black Dog Pottery, Harlowe Green, Cooke’s Fine Foods and Coffee (buy some coffee here to take home with you!), BSE Skate Shop, and Something Else Records.
Here’s our full list: YGK Thrift (165 Princess Street), Something Else Records (207A Wellington Street), Cooke’s Fine Foods and Coffee (61 Brock Street), Black Dog Pottery (58 Queen Street), Berry and Peterson Booksellers (348 King Street East), BSE Skate Shop (225 Princess Street) and Harlowe Green (90 Brock Street).
Others to consider on Princess Street (a street you should definitely walk up from top to bottom) include Novel Idea, Tara Natural Foods, and Cloth. Kingston Glass Studio and Gallery in Queen Street also tends to draw in a lot of locals and tourists alike.
Head to the Leon’s Centre to Catch a Live Show or See the Kingston Frontenacs
The Leon’s Centre is a multi-purpose arena located in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. It serves as the home venue for various events, including sports, concerts, and entertainment shows. The arena has a seating capacity of approximately 5,700 for hockey games and up to 6,700 for concerts.
In my university games, I used to go to Fronts games all the time, and also caught a few shows there, including Our Lady Peace if I’m not incorrect.
Your best bet is to head to their site and see what’s on!
Shoot Some Photography in Martello Alley
This is a throughway, sure, but it’s also a can’t miss outdoor gallery of sorts.
Whether you are an art lover, a curious traveler, or simply seeking a unique and creative experience, a visit to Martello Alley is a must. It offers a delightful blend of artistic expression, community engagement, and cultural immersion that truly captures the spirit of Kingston’s vibrant arts scene, but there are also restaurants, shops, and just general Kingston life.
I regularly think about places like this as where you can take the pulse of a city like this.
What Else Could You Add to Your Kingston Itinerary?
The very first thing that comes to mind is to rent a bike with Ahoy Rentals and explore the Kingston Waterfront. We did exactly that and biked from Ahoy all the way west to the Marshlands Conservation Area – a route we’d certainly recommend.
Also, Ahoy Rentals is steps away from the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes. You can head there to discover fascinating exhibits on shipwrecks, lighthouses, shipbuilding, and naval history.
Beyond that, you could also attend a local theatre performance. Check out the schedule of performances at places like the Domino Theatre or the Baby Grand Theatre. And finally, if you’re thirsty, consider diving into Kingston’s brewery and distillery scene. Some popular options include Something in the Water Brewery, Spearhead, and Daft Brewing Company. My favourite light beer in the country is actually Spearhead’s Decoy Lager!
However you approach it, there’s a little something for everyone here in Kingston, and this is a place where, if you give it the appropriate amount of time, you’ll live with a rich understanding of just what makes the Limestone City so very worth exploring.
Christopher Mitchell is a Co-founder of We Explore Canada. He’s visited over 80 countries and has lived on 4 continents, but now has his eyes set squarely on exploring this incredible country and helping others do the same.