While Hamilton may be known as the waterfall capital of the world, the city has so much to offer both outside and indoors! I’m not talking about the usual bowling, rock climbing or those run-of-the-mill activities either. Hey, don’t get me wrong – they’re great and all but these attractions are seriously cool and fun for all ages. Whether you’re looking to stay warm in the winter months or escape a rainy summer day, there’s no shortage of great indoor activities in Hamilton!
“The Hammer”, as it’s affectionately known, dates back to the 1800s and only continues to grow. With approximately 175 years under its belt, it’s not surprising to hear there’s plenty of rich history to be explored. Even if you’re not a history buff or art enthusiast, you’ll have a great time at these Hamilton destinations in the heart of Ontario. I know I did! I can say first hand it’s a great destination for an outing with friends, a weekend getaway or even some family fun!
Dundurn National Historic Site
Take a step back in time to the 1800s as you enter Dundurn Castle – the home of Sir Allan MacNab, one of Canada’s first premiers. While it isn’t actually a castle (the residents of Hamilton just called it that), Dundurn Castle is impressive even to this day. Built in the 1830s, it boasts technologies like gas lighting and running water that were hard to come by. Take a tour of the estate as you follow your aptly-dressed guide through the estate’s 40 rooms. Each room will give you a glimpse into another aspect of what life was like as a member of the MacNab family.
From brilliantly ornate rooms for entertaining guests to intimate personal bedrooms, everything you see has been accurately restored to how it would look in 1855. As you venture from room to room, you’ll learn about the history of the time as well as the MacNab family. It’s fascinating to hear about the happenings of the time, from stopping rebellions (that’s why he’s Sir Allan MacNab!) to the findings of his daughter Sophia’s diary. If you’re a fan of the royal family, The Duchess of Cambridge is the great-great-great granddaughter of Sir Allan MacNab!
INSIDER TIP: Don’t be afraid to ask your guide any questions you may have. They’re extremely knowledgable and have so much to share. You’ll learn more by engaging with them than by passively listening. I can’t stress this enough! Also if you have Janet as your guide, do say hello for me. She’s fantastic!
Afterwards, head down to the basement where you’ll leave affluent life behind. See the inner workings of Dundurn Castle as this is where the servants lived and worked. A stark contrast to the affluent lifestyle above ground, you won’t find any glamorous wallpapers or carpets here. Walk the same halls the servants did while carrying out their daily duties. Your tour will end in what’s often referred to as the heart of the home – the kitchen! If you’re feeling a little peckish, don’t worry. One of the chefs will have a recipe from the era for you to try!
There are often special events happening at Dundurn Castle from additional experiences to even the occasional beer tasting. Be sure to take a look at what events are coming up when planning your visit!
While the tours are fantastic, I highly recommend rolling up your sleeves and becoming a member of MacNab’s Kitchen. What better way to learn about the era than to become a part of it? Okay so you won’t actually become a servant but you will get to enjoy making a few authentic recipes from the 1800s!
Guided by one of the on-site chefs, you will learn about the history of the space while making some delicious eats. One of the coolest things is that you’ll actually get to use the authentic wood stove from 1869! I think it’s this fact which makes the food so tasty. It could also be that the majority of the ingredients you’ll use come from Dundurn Castle’s two-acre garden!
While MacNab’s Kitchen is run monthly, you can also book it for a private group! It makes for a fantastic day with friends or even a great outing for company bonding. It costs $25 per person for 15 people, however they will accommodate smaller groups – it just means your cost per person will increase. If you have more people, then the cost will decrease! No matter how many people are with you, you’ll have a lot of fun. I highly recommend it! MacNab’s Kitchen really rounds out the Dundurn Castle experience. Plus you can take the recipes home so you can cook like the 1800s whenever you want!
INSIDER TIP: Since the Family Day weekend, if you have a Hamilton library card you can take the tour for free! Just bring it with you as you go to purchase your ticket. No matter if you have a card or not though, the outdoor grounds and gardens are always free to explore.
Art Gallery of Hamilton
You may not think of Hamilton as a hub for art, but the Art Gallery of Hamilton will have you thinking otherwise. What humbly began in 1914 with just 33 artworks has grown into one of the finest art collections in Southern Ontario.
If you have never visited before (or even if you have!), I highly recommend joining one of their gallery tours. This will give you a great overview of how the AGH came to be along with their current exhibitions. I had the pleasure of Hanno as my guide, who has been a Docent for over 6 years now and is also on the AGH Board of Directors. He is incredibly knowledgable and absolutely captivating with so much information to share!
Hanno began with ‘AGH101’ – a brief overview of William Blair Bruce, a Hamilton-born artist. While he moved to Paris to pursue art and only returned to visit twice, it was because of his family that the AGH came to be. Upon his death, the Bruce family offered 29 of his paintings with the condition that they must be displayed publically. On Sunday, June 28th, 1914, that condition came to fruition as the Art Gallery of Hamilton opened its doors for the first time. Since then, their collection has grown to over 10,000 works, including prominent Canadian names like Tom Thompson, Emily Carr, the Group of Seven, Edward Burtynsky, and many more.
INSIDER TIP: You can visit the Art Gallery of Hamilton for free on the first Friday of every month! Opening hours are extended until 8:00pm, and you can enjoy a free tour at 6:00pm as well.
While the exhibitions do change, some works are a permanent extension of the gallery like the works of William Blair Bruce. On the second level, you’ll find Canadian artist Kim Adams’ Bruegel-Bosch Bus. An ongoing piece for over 20 years now, he uses ready-made objects to create eclectic works of art that transcend reality and fantasy. In what appears to be a post-apocalyptic realm, you’ll recognize icons and imagery yet they’re displayed in an unfamiliar way. This juxtaposition makes you question not only why these familiar elements are there but what their role is in this existence as well as our own.
There are so many incredible contemporary artworks that I was absolutely blown away. While many of the exhibitions are wrapping up on March 17, I highly recommend visiting before they disappear. Get ready to challenge how women have been omitted from the art realm in Speaking for Herself. The sobering reality is that even the AGH has succumbed to this gender disparity with as 12% of their collection comes from female artists. By displaying well-known female artists alongside the lesser-known, Speaking for Herself brings women artists to the forefront and back into the conversation. You’ll be amazed at the vast collection as you experience intergenerational conversations between the historical, the contemporary, Indigenous and settler artists, as they explore vast themes such as identity, the physical body, private versus public and more.
What I found to be the most captivating however were the works of Ojibway artist Norval Morrisseau. This brilliantly captivating works of art depict imagery from Anishinaabe stories and traditional knowledge he gained throughout his lifetime. In each piece, you can feel the deep spiritual ties that Indigenous People have to their traditional territory as well as all entities of creation. They each tell a separate tale, focused on teaching important values of respect, reciprocity, responsibility, and the importance of all relationships. Morrisseau dedicated his work to imparting knowledge onto younger generations along with how essential it is to exert one’s ability to inflict positive change wherever they can.
While this was my first visit to the Art Gallery of Hamilton, it certainly won’t be my last. I’m actually kicking myself that it took me so long to visit! If you haven’t been before, don’t delay and plan your visit. The AGH has plenty of events from yoga to workshops for additional fun!
Hamilton Museum of Steam and Technology
Time to travel back in time to Canada’s industrial revolution with a visit to this national historic site. The Hamilton Museum of Steam and Technology complex shows the progression of the waterworks as it supplied fresh water to the city.
To experience the museum to its fullest, I highly recommend their behind the scenes tour. This will allow you to see the historic site from a brand new perspective. I’ve got all the details for you as I got a sneak peek during my visit with Richard, one of the curators! Oh and for those Murdoch Mysteries fans, if the building looks a bit familiar – it should! The building’s exterior is the set for the morgue in Toronto.
INSIDER TIP: Attractions Ontario often has coupons which can save you money not just here but at a number of attractions within the province. Take a look online while planning for visit!
You’ll start the tour in the boiler room of the original pumphouse. Built in 1859, it held four boilers that were 30 feet long and 8 feet high. These gigantic beasts powered the neighbouring steam engines, however the original boilers were worn out by 1882. In order to replace them, the west and north walls had to be disassembled to make room to remove them. The walls were then raised 5 feet in order to accommodate the new boilers, which stayed within these walls until they were finally removed in 1970. You can see a replica of just how large they really were!
Before entering, you may have noticed the 150-foot chimney behind the building. In order to operate properly, it only needed to be 100-feet. However, engineer Thomas Keefer, who designed the Hamilton waterworks, insisted it could be seen from the waters of Lake Ontario. Hence, he added another 50 feet!
Next, you’ll pass through the engineers’ hall and into the pumphouse. Here you’ll find the two 70-tonne steam engines which pumped water out of Lake Ontario for the residents of Hamilton. Learn about how the steam engines work as your tour guide shows you how the engineers operated these massive engines back in the day. Be sure to walk along the gangway to the presentation doors to see these double-expansion condensing engines in all their beauty.
Afterwards, you’ll head upstairs to continue the tour, but not before learning about chief engineer James MacFarlane and his family. Chief engineer of the waterworks, he and his family actually lived on site. While the building is no longer standing, you can see traces of their existence. MacFarlane’s original desk is still there, along with his log book which gave researchers insight into when the engines were used. Your guide will also point out the carvings of his youngest son where he left his mark in the form of his initials. I bet James is still chastizing his son for that one!
The best views are those from the top level which can only be accessed via the behind the scenes tour. Why? Here is where you truly get a sense of how incredible these engines are. They were so colossal that they are actually attached to the walls of the building in order to keep them steady as they ran. This fact has helped them survive demolition a number of times before being turned into the museum we see today. It should also be noted that all of the pieces you see in the engine were made by hand. There were no fancy machines back in the mid-1800s to manufacture all of the parts. Each of them was rough-cast and then transported in the winter so they could be dragged across the ice and snow. Upon arrival, they were finished in place using good old-fashioned hard work and elbow grease. That fact absolutely blew my mind!
FUN FACT: These are thought to be some of, if not the oldest surviving Canadian built steam engines. They were built by the Gartshore Foundry in what is now known as Dundas, Ontario.
Once you’re done marvelling at these steamy industrial marvels, it’s time to head into the first electric pumphouse. Built in 1910, skepticism was high as the original pumphouse was kept as a backup. However, it could not keep up with the demand as Hamilton continued to grow as a city. The electric proved to be reliable and the steam engines were decommissioned in 1938.
While you won’t find the original electric engines inside the 1913 building, you will find a number of incredible artifacts from throughout Hamilton’s history. A fully intact locomotive that was used by the City of Guelph stands along with a number of other incredible machines, many of which assembled thanks to the efforts of volunteers! Take some time to admire them as you pass through towards the archives.
Now it’s time to admire the sheer number of relics housed within the walls of the Hamilton Museum of Steam and Technology! Get a glimpse of the incredible paper collection which includes a number of blueprints from Hamilton businesses. You’ll also get to see handcrafted tools that were actually used by workers back in the day and then graduate onto larger pieces of history. You’ll recognize a number of household Hamilton names like Stelco, Wanzer, Westinghouse and many more. It truly is an incredible ode to the city’s industrial history!
At the end of the tour, I was surprised with an incredible treat. While it’s unsure if this will be on the tour, I can at least give you a glimpse of the view from below the main level of the pumphouse (pictured above). Yes, I went through a trap door in the floor of the office to get up close and personal with the steam engines. I was blown away by the unreal view!
Royal Botanical Gardens
So the address may officially be in Burlington, but since RBG’s Cootes Paradise Sanctuary, Arboretum AND the Rock Garden are all in Hamilton, it gets included in this city round-up.
As the largest botanical gardens in Canada, RBG is a charitable organization whose mission is to bring people and nature together. By visiting RBG, along with charitable donations to their cause, they have been able to protect as well as restore almost 2500 acres of nature sanctuaries. These areas contain environmentally-sensitive habitats which shelter approximately 50 at-risk species. If this isn’t impressive, then how about the fact that they manage one of the biggest freshwater marshland restoration projects on the continent? Or that RBG has been Canada’s focal point for the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation as part of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity since 2006? I’d say that’s incredible!
No matter what time of the year you visit, RBG has something going on. While their outdoor gardens are in full-force during the summer, they have plenty to offer in the colder months! This is actually my second visit to RBG in cooler temperatures and both times have been amazing. Even though I’m a fan of winter, a great escape when you can’t travel far is the Mediterranean exhibit in the main building. While it may not be sunny skies and sand between your toes, the lush greenery of plants native to Australia, California, South Africa and the Mediterranean basin are sure to cure your winter woes.
The biggest thing that blows me away about RBG is the sheer amount of programming they have for families, especially during holidays like Family Day and March Break. There is at least one event every hour! From puppet shows to getting up close and personal with plants and critters, there is so much for attendees of all ages to enjoy!
Right now a lot of that programming is centred around their Spiders Alive! exhibit which runs until April 14th. Here you’ll learn about over 15 species of spiders along with a number of arthropods. It may have your skin crawling (I know mine was!) but this is one seriously cool exhibit. Plus all of these crawling critters are under lock and key so you don’t have to worry about any getting up close and personal! From spider anatomy to evolutionary history to defence mechanisms, you’ll be surprised by many of the traits these arachnids exhibit!
Don’t forget to also stop by RBG’s critter corner where you’ll find more familiar creatures you may have encountered in your own backyard. You’ll learn about how crickets are becoming more popular as a sustainable protein source… and can even try one if you’re brave enough! Do you think I was able to stomach one? You’ll have to watch my ‘Heart of Ontario’ Instagram story to find out!
Looking to Spend a Weekend in Hamilton?
There is no shortage of activities to fill up your weekend! Tackling all four of these attractions will keep your days jam-packed with fun. If you’re looking for accommodation in Hamilton, I highly recommend the Staybridge Suites in the heart of downtown.
What makes this hotel so fantastic is not just that every one of their rooms is a suite but that they really go the extra mile. Each suite comes with its own kitchenette with a fully operational stove, pots, plates, cutlery, the biggest refrigerator I’ve ever seen at a hotel, and even a dishwasher! Here’s what really hooked me though – the bag of popcorn to fully round out my stay. I know, it’s a tiny detail but it seriously made me feel at home at the Staybridge Suites!
As for the hotel itself, it has quite a few perks besides its great location. (Did I mention it’s just a 5-minute walk from the AGH?) The Staybridge Suites has a pool (open 7:00am until 11:00pm) along with a 24-hour fitness centre. Each stay also comes with complimentary breakfast including hot items like eggs and waffles along with cold items like cereal and fruit.
While this hotel does make for a perfect weekend getaway, if you stay Mondays, Tuesdays or Wednesdays then you’ll also be treated to a complimentary light dinner! I’ve never heard of a hotel offering this before! While I was there on soup and sandwich day, where I enjoyed a number of wraps, delicious salads and plenty of vegetables. It was just what I needed after a busy day of exploring the aforementioned attractions! The offerings change each day and can include Italian eats, barbecued treats and more!
I’d say these incredible amenities make it an awesome accommodation option.
If you’re looking to balance these indoor activities in Hamilton with some outdoor adventure, I highly recommend checking out some of the city’s waterfalls. From well-known beauties like Tiffany Falls to lesser-known gems like Borer’s Falls, you’ll fall head over heels for these natural wonders!
For the foodies out there, Hamilton has no shortage of great eats. From hipster joints like The Diplomat to tasty tacos at The Mule, there’s no way you can go home hungry.
Ready to Enjoy These Indoor Activities in Hamilton?
These are just four of the many incredible attractions the city has to offer. There are so many fun things to do in Hamilton! Whether you’re a history buff or an art critic, the city has plenty to offer all interests. Bring your partner, mother, father, siblings and kids alike because you’ll all have an amazing time exploring Hamilton, Ontario!
A huge thank you to both the Heart of Ontario and Attractions Ontario for sending me to explore more of my home province. While this trip to Hamilton was sponsored, I experienced all of these destinations and my opinions are truly my own.