Top Things to Do in Peterborough to Get a Taste of The Kawarthas
It has taken me three decades to visit Peterborough and I honestly wish I had visited sooner. It’s the perfect hub for exploring the beauty of The Kawarthas. With brilliant natural wonders, incredible cultural learning opportunities, an abundance of incredible restaurants and so much more, this is an Ontario road trip you need to plan sooner rather than later. Take it from me and check out these top things to do in Peterborough as soon as you can!
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A Bit About Peterborough
Like all of what is now Canada, Peterborough has been home to Indigenous communities long before Europeans set foot on these lands. It is said this area has been inhabited at times by the Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee, Mississauga and Wendake peoples since time immemorial. More recently, these lands have fallen under the stewardship of the Mississauga Peoples, also known as the Michi Saagiig in the Ojibway language. Before Peterborough was known as such, it was known as Nogojiwanong which translates to “place at the end of rapids”.
The city has a very rich history on top of this cultural background. With milestones like becoming the first city to have electric street lights in 1884 (part of the reason it has the nickname “the electric city”), the founding of the Peterborough Canoe Company in 1893, the construction of the Peterborough lift lock in 1904 and much more, it’s no wonder Peterborough is such a fascinating city.
One thing that really makes Peterborough unique is that they are truly working with the First Nations communities surrounding them to help ensure this history is at the forefront. It’s not uncommon to see signage, street art and more with Algonquian/Algonkian names and words. It’s just one of the many reasons you need to visit all of the amazing places to go in Peterborough!
Top Things to Do in Peterborough
With its location just 90 minutes from Toronto, many are starting to realize the area’s beauty. As a gateway to The Kawarthas, Peterborough makes a fantastic day trip but it’s best explored with at least a weekend visit. You can easily spend over a week exploring the area. That way you don’t miss all of these amazing Peterborough activities!
BEFORE YOUR VISIT: As with any destination you explore, be sure to treat it with respect. We’re lucky to have these beautiful lands and we must do our part to help them stay that way. Join me and commit to doing your part by signing the O’de Piitaanemaan Pledge. Created in partnership with Curve Lake First Nation, Hiawatha First Nation and the Peterborough and The Kawarthas tourism board, it shares the traditional Michi Saagiig teaching, Mnaadendamowin – to give respect to all creation.
Stroll Along the Otonabee River
Just minutes after arriving in Peterborough, I wandered along the paths that follow the river towards downtown. I couldn’t believe that all this natural beauty is right in the heart of the city!
The Trans Canada Trail runs right through Peterborough which is what this path is. You can enjoy a fantastic loop from the train bridge, following the river and crossing back over at the Hunter Street Bridge. At about 2 kilometres, it’ll take you approximately half an hour and is a great way to start the day with a coffee in hand!
Of course, Peterborough has a number of additional spots to enjoy a walk or hike if that’s what you’re looking for. There are the Wildlife Sanctuary Trails located on the Trent University Campus, the Jackson Creek Trails on Parkhill Road and Ashburnham Memorial Park to name a few!
Visit the Canadian Canoe Museum
For over 20 years, the Canadian Canoe Museum has been protecting what is now the world’s largest collection of canoes, kayaks and paddled watercraft. They were declared a cultural asset of national significance by the Senate in 2013 as they share the insights each vessel gives us into the history of these lands. From the dugouts of the Haida in the west to the skin-on-frame kayaks of the Inuit to the birchbark canoes of the Ojibway People, there is so much to see and learn!
You’ll begin on the top floor in the Origins exhibit that displays artifacts from hundreds of years ago. As you travel through the museum, you’ll learn about the different styles of paddled watercraft and their uses from then into modern-day times. From transportation to prospecting expeditions to the sport many of us love and enjoy, it’s incredible to see and learn about this formidable technology!
There are approximately 600 in their archives with over 100 on display within the museum itself, though that will continue to grow very soon! The Canadian Canoe Museum is in the process of establishing a new waterfront location where they will be able to expand their collection and better share the knowledge they have uncovered. You can learn more about this here.
This is honestly one of the things to do in Peterborough you cannot miss. I switched my travel dates to ensure I could visit and I’m so glad I did – it’s easily one of the coolest museums I’ve ever visited!
Cruise Lock 21 with Liftlock & The Riverboat Cruises
The best way to enjoy this national historic site is by experiencing the lock itself on the water! Hop on a 2 hour sightseeing cruise and get a taste of the majestic Trent Severn Waterway.
Grant, owner and captain, is a fountain of information as you learn not just about some of Peterborough’s history but all about the series of 45 canals that run all the way from Trenton in the Bay of Quinte to Port Severn on Georgian Bay. On this sightseeing tour, you’ll be taken through Little Lake to Lock 20 and then to Lock 21, Peterborough’s hydraulic lift lock. I won’t give away too many details but let me tell you that this is certainly one of the most informative tours you can take of Peterborough!
The highlight of your trip of course will be experiencing the sheer power of Lock 21 as you enjoy the ride on the world’s highest hydraulic lift lock! You’ll be raised 65 feet in less than five minutes. Not only is the feat impressive all on its own, but I was blown away at how smoothly it runs. Plus the fact that it’s all done with gravity is absolutely mind-boggling!
Liftlock & The Riverboat Cruises also offer 3 hour fall colour cruises beginning in mid-September. Enjoy the gorgeous reds and oranges as you explore the Trent Severn Waterway from Little Lake up to Trent University. I’d say it’s definitely one of the best things to do in Peterborough in the fall! In a normal year, you can also hop on one of their lunch or dinner cruises so be sure to keep this in mind for a future visit.
FUN FACT: Once winter arrives, the waterway freezes over and you can actually skate on the canal! It’s one of the top outdoor skating trails in Ontario!
Dive Into History at the Peterborough Museum & Archives
As you know, this area has been known as Nogojiwanong for centuries. While I gave an extremely brief overview of the history of what is now Peterborough, if you’re a history buff or want to know more in-depth about how Peterborough became the city it is today, you’ll want to pay a visit to the Peterborough Museum & Archives! They have over 45,000 artifacts in their permanent collection.
While only a fraction of the collection is on display, you will learn so much at this history museum as you move through the galleries. You’ll begin approximately 12,000 years ago with the ancestors of the First Nations communities we know of today. As you move through the gallery, you’ll learn about some of the traditions and technologies we have learned about from knowledge sharing as well as the discovery of artifacts.
Then we move into the era of European colonization with the Fur Trade, Irish Emigration and the settlement of these lands. Peterborough became a town in 1850 which was the dawn of a new era. With the arrival of the railway, the people flourished and thus a number of iconic Peterborough companies were born such as General Electric, Quaker Oats, the Peterborough Canoe Company and more. There is plenty to see and learn within these walls along with some great scavenger hunts to keep the little ones engaged and interested!
A visit to the Peterborough Museum & Archives is one of the fantastic free things to do in Peterborough as there is no formal entrance fee. However, they do ask for donations if you can spare some cash to support the museum.
Hunt for Street Art in Peterborough
There is no shortage of beautiful murals and public art pieces in Peterborough. As you explore the city, keep your eyes peeled for these brilliant masterpieces as you’ll find them everywhere – on buildings, under bridges and even on the roads themselves! I’ll share a few of my favourite spots that I think have to check out when visiting Peterborough.
The first spot is on the corner of King and Water Streets where you’ll find Jiimaan’ndewemgadnong. Located just across from the entrance to Millennium Park, this beautiful installation was created by Indigenous artist Tia Cavanagh. Meaning ‘place where the heart of the canoe beats’, Jiimaan’ndewemgadnong brings Indigeneity to the forefront of Peterborough, reminding us of the beauty, presence and history of the Anishinaabe People.
Next, follow the Otonabee River north to the Hunter Street Bridge. Cross the bridge but don’t go too far as you’ll see stairs on your right as you reach the eastern shore. Follow those stairs down and make your way underneath the bridge to find a massive mural encompassing its underside. It speaks to the melding of Peterborough’s history, honouring both the Indigenous roots of this land and the city’s colonial past. This talented work was done by Kirsten McCrea, one of Canada’s Top 30-Under-30 artists.
Lastly, make your way to Hunter Street West where you’ll find Peterborough’s Cafe District. New this year, the City of Peterborough put out a call to artists to create welcoming, engaging pedestrian spaces. You’ll want to look down for these as the murals span lanes of the road where summer patios are in place. From canoes to heartfelt words, I guarantee these masterpieces will put a smile on your face as you explore the city.
Indulge in the Butter Tart Tour
Who doesn’t love a food tour? Satisfy your sweet tooth by experiencing a few of the stops along the Butter Tart Trail. It’s not hard to do as there are over 50 businesses participating in this scrumptious route – with 8 stops in Peterborough alone!
In case you don’t know what a butter tart is, this culinary gem is actually quite simple with just butter, sugar, syrup and eggs all blended and paired with a flakey pie crust. While Barrie is said to be the home of the butter tart, The Kawarthas have fully embraced this sweet treat! You can find plenty of interesting spins on it too including additional filling ingredients like pecans, walnuts, raisins though some take it to the next level – like deep frying it!
I didn’t have a chance to indulge as much as I would have liked but you bet I will next time I visit. I’ve heard that Doo Doo’s Bakery in Bailieboro is said to have some of the best in the region, but I snagged one from Barn Door Bakery at the Peterborough Farmer’s Market and it was absolutely delicious! If butter tarts aren’t your thing, they have plenty of other goodies like scrumptious scones and cakes.
Go For a Paddle in Peterborough
Now that you’ve explored the city on foot, let’s check out Peterborough from a different angle! That’s right, you can enjoy a gorgeous, tranquil paddle in the heart of the city. How incredible is that?!
INSIDER TIP: No boat? No problem! Whether you’re looking to paddle a kayak, canoe or stand up paddleboard, you can get an hourly rental at Liftlock Paddle Co from sunrise to sunset every day of the week except Mondays. They will even meet you at your launch point!
Little Lake is one of the ten signature paddling routes in The Kawarthas. This paddle is perfect for beginners and will even be enjoyed by more experienced canoers and kayakers. Follow the Otonabee River under train bridges and past beautiful greenspaces. Little Lake itself is about a 6 kilometre route, though you can extend it by continuing up or downstream.
Of course, there are a number of fantastic places to go paddling in The Kawarthas as it’s an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise but where you can go for a sunset paddle in the heart of a city?! I don’t know about you, but some quality kayak time at golden hour sounds like the perfect way to end the day for me.
Places to Visit Near Peterborough
Since you’re surrounded by so many beautiful destinations, it would be a sin not to explore a bit outside of the city. Here are some spots to enjoy some days out near Peterborough. It is the gateway to The Kawarthas after all!
Explore the Whetung Ojibwa Centre
Head to Curve Lake First Nation where you’ll find the Whetung Ojibwa Centre. This incredible Indigenous-owned and run business has been a staple of Curve Lake for decades, though the Whetung Family’s history dates back all the way to the early 1900s.
While the Whetungs first began as a fishing lodge, their enterprise has since transformed into the destination you see today. Step inside and you’ll see beautiful handmade items from Curve Lake First Nation members as well as from other Indigenous artists across the country. Earrings, rings, mocassins – you name it! As you move towards the back on the main floor, you’ll transition into a gorgeous art gallery. Tall ceilings with wooden frames house the stunning works of painters and sculptors. You can easily spend hours just exploring the main floor… but there’s more to see downstairs!
Make your way down to both areas (yes, there are two!) where you’ll find clothing garments, books, greeting cards, framed prints and much more. There’s also the museum that features the Whetung Family’s private collection as well as items on loan from a number of places in Canada. You’ll see animal bones, sculptures, quillwork, regalia and so much more. Some of the artifacts in the museum are over 1000 years old!
Experience Petroglyphs Provincial Park
There’s a high chance that if you’re visiting Peterborough, chances are you’re already planning to visit Petroglyphs Provincial Park. Known as Kinoomaagewaabkong or “the white rocks that teach” in Ojibway, this sacred site has the highest concentration of rock carvings in a single area of Canada. Protected from the elements in a beautiful building with huge windows, take some time to walk around and read the interpretive signage. You’ll learn about prominent figures in Ojibway teachings such as the Turtle, Thunderbird and Nanabozho.
IMPORTANT: As I said, this is a sacred site and therefore no digital devices are to be used once you enter the building. Put your phone on silent, hide it away from temptation and open your eyes, ears and heart to the incredible wisdom of these petroglyphs.
While you can easily spend hours talking to the incredible interpreters inside the sacred site, be sure to take some time to explore the rest of the park! Inside the Visitor’s Centre, you’ll find teachings surrounding the Medicine Wheel and learn about the traditions of the Ojibway Peoples. Unfortunately, it’s currently closed due to losing power so I was unable to experience it, but I already can’t wait for my return visit to the park so I will see it then!
Once you’re done learning, reflect on the knowledge you’ve gained with a hike along the three hiking trails at Petroglyphs Provincial Park. The Nanabush Trail is the most popular at 5.5 kilometres in length and it takes you to beautiful lookouts around Minnow Lake. This can easily be joined with the Marsh Trail at 7 kilometres in length to create a loop as they share the same entrance path. Lastly, there’s the West Day Use Trail that winds through beautiful pine trees to take you to the ever-gorgeous McGinnis Lake, one of Ontario’s only meromictic lakes.
Take a Selfie with ‘Bucky’
Okay, that isn’t officially his name but I can’t think of a better way to refer to Buckhorn’s statue! The adorable town of Buckhorn is a perfect little day trip from Peterborough.
After you snap a selfie, walk along the waterfront to enjoy the views from Lock 31 of the Trent Severn Waterway. Take a moment to appreciate the natural beauty at Ode’naang Park (meaning “heart of the community” in Ojibway), possibly with one of the 50 flavours of ice cream from Mariloo’s Ice Cream Parlour!
Before you head out of town, be sure to scoot up Lakehurst Road until you see signs for the Adam and Eve Rocks. This kitschy little roadside stop showcases two massive glacial erratics that are remnants of the last ice age. However, legend has it that if two lovers hold hands while they each touch one of the rocks, their lives will be blessed. Seeing as this gal is single, I’ll have to return if I ever find a Mr. Right!
Explore the Quaint Town of Lakefield
Located approximately 20 minutes from both Buckhorn and Curve Lake, the town of Lakefield is another adorable day trip destination from Peterborough.
Spend some time wandering in the heart of town where you’ll find a number of quaint shops and restaurants. As with many of the small towns in The Kawarthas, you’ll enjoy some gorgeous waterfront views along the Trent Severn. Bask in the serenity of Lake Katchewanooka as you enjoy a stroll along the shoreline. Don’t miss visiting Isabel Morris Park which is home to a snapping turtle habitat – you may just spy one during your visit. You might even want to cast a line as this area is known for record-breaking bass, muskie and perch!
If you’re a fan of winter sports and have ever wanted to give speed skating a try, Lakefield is home to the Ontario Speed Skating Oval! They have nights where you can dabble in the sport on this 400 metre outdoor track.
Admire the Beauty in Stone at ZimArt
Just minutes from the shores of Rice Lake lies an artistic oasis. ZimArt is the brainchild of Fran Fearnley, a former journalist and avid art collector. After spending two years in South Africa, she fell in love with the art of Shona sculpture.
From June 15 until Thanksgiving, Fran opens up her five-acre property to the public so that anyone and everyone can enjoy these artistic masterpieces. All of the pieces you see are available for purchase and each year, she invites a Zimbabwean artist to come and be the artist-in-residence to help support their craft and their family.
Spend some time admiring the 300+ sculptures as you explore the most comprehensive, eclectic selection of Zimbabwean stone sculptures in the country! You’ll be in awe of the talent showcased at ZimArt as so much detail and thought is put into every single piece. To think that each of these sculptures is made of stone is extraordinary!
More Things to Do in Peterborough and The Kawarthas
As you can imagine, there are so many things to do in Peterborough outside and inside that you can’t pack it all into one visit. If you’ve checked all the above experiences off your list, here are some more suggestions while you’re exploring Peterborough and The Kawarthas!
- Cycle Around the City – I’m not an avid cyclist but Peterborough, as well as The Kawarthas, have a number of incredible cycling routes that will take you through the area. With a wide range of lengths and difficulties, it’s a great way to see more of this beautiful region!
- Explore the Art Gallery of Peterborough – Book an appointment and explore the beautiful exhibitions of this not-for-profit gallery. A gathering place to promote the arts, you’ll find brilliant works from contemporary visual artists from across the region as well as Canada.
- Hit the Links at a Peterborough Golf Course – I may not be a fan of a round of 18 but I know there are many out there who are and there’s no shortage of golf courses in Peterborough! There are over a dozen courses to choose from in the city and surrounding area including the top rated Kawartha Golf & Country Club, Quarry Golf Club and Peterborough Golf & Country Club.
- Visit Warsaw Caves Conservation Area – Formed thousands of years ago during the last ice age, this conservation area is home to a series of seven caves. While the caves themselves are unfortunately closed due to what’s going on right now in the world, there is plenty more to do in the conservation area including 15 kilometres of hiking trails, brilliant lookouts, fishing opportunities and plenty of water to paddle along the Indian River.
- Experience Lang Pioneer Village Museum – Take a step back in time as Peterborough County’s history magically comes to life. Explore the 30+ homes and businesses as you interact with costumed interpreters to learn about life in the 1800s. Learn about the beautiful culture of Curve Lake and Hiawatha First Nation at the Aabnaabin Camp, meander through a 175 year old grist mill (that’s still in operation!) and learn about the technological developments of the time.
Peterborough Restaurants to Eat At
Foodies – you need to plan a trip as soon as possible. You will actually be blown away by how many restaurants Peterborough has. It’s said to have one of the highest ratios of restaurants to population in the province! Naturally, that means you may have some choice fatigue happening so here are a few of my top recommendations of Peterborough restaurants to eat at during your visit.
RELATED: For a full guide of where to eat in the city, check out this article about the best restaurants in Peterborough on Eat Local Ontario!
The Publican House
When an establishment is formed over a night of bonding over beers… you know you’re in for a good time. That’s exactly what you’ll find at The Publican House! Housed in a +170-year-old building, you’ll enjoy a chill vibe with an upscale feel. Show up in shorts and a t-shirt or rock some business casual – either way, you’ll fit right in! Enjoy a flight of their beers or go for their lime or raspberry ales as they’re the perfect summer patio beers. As for their menu, you’ll find your typical pub chow but it isn’t so typical. These are easily some of the best eats I’ve had at a brewery yet!
I don’t know about you, but I’m always game for a little taste of Europe and you’ll find exactly that at St Veronus. Their menu is centred around Belgian dishes and you’ll find a cornucopia of authentic European beers. As I sat down, I noticed that every other person had ordered mussels… so you’ll definitely want to get the Moules Frites. These certainly pair well with their beer menu but if you’re into more fruity flavours like I am, indulge in a Lindemans Kriek Lambic. Grab a seat on their adorable outdoor patio if you can to complete the experience!
The Whistle Stop
Now, I’m typically a bit of a snoot and only have poutine in Quebec as I’ve been disappointed far too many times in Ontario… until now. The Whistle Stop not only has amazing poutine but over 100 variations of the dish! And before you ask – yes, the curds are squeaky and the fries are crispy! Chances are you’ll be a little overwhelmed by the number of choices that are available (I know I was), but if you’re a cheese lover then you’ll want to go for their mac and cheese poutine. Deep-fried mac and cheese balls on top of poutine with nacho cheese? Ohhh yes.
It is said that La Hacienda is some of the best Mexican food in Peterborough… and I can see why. This adorable restaurant makes you feel as if you’ve been transported down south with its colourful decor and vibrant atmosphere. La Hacienda also has one of the most enchanting patios in the city which is always a great pairing with delicious eats. Their menu features family recipes from their Mexican heritage and everything is made in-house. From appetizers like chips and salsa to full meals, you’ll leave happily satisfied as each dish is full of flavour.
Silver Bean Cafe
This idyllic little cafe is right on the shores of the Otonabee River. Their menu mainly consists of sandwiches, paninis and salads with lighter eats like scones and muffins as well. You’ll also find refreshing drinks like iced lattes, homemade lemonade, fruit smoothies and more. Everything at the Silver Bean Cafe is made from scratch, so it can take a little while to get your order but it’s 100% worth the wait. Plus when you have gorgeous views to enjoy – what’s the hurry? Unfortunately, this is a fair weather cafe so it is only open from early May until late October.
Where to Stay in Peterborough
You’ll find a number of hotels in Peterborough as they’re scattered throughout the city. While you can find some on the outskirts or make the choice to stay more into cottage country, I recommend staying in the heart of town. I don’t know about you, but I love being able to leave the car parked for a day or two when enjoying a destination. During my stay, I settled into the Holiday Inn Peterborough-Waterfront – and I’m sure you know exactly why based on the name!
It is indeed located on the shores of the Trent-Severn Waterway with the Trans Canada Trail running right past it, but that’s not the only reason why it’s one of the more popular hotels in Peterborough! You’ll find a fitness room, hot tub and sauna as well as both an indoor and outdoor pool which are connected. In the summer, the Gazebo Bar & Grill is a popular spot to grab a bite and a drink not just for hotel patrons but locals as well.
SOMETHING TO NOTE: As of right now, these facilities are only available by appointment so be sure to book your time in advance!
As for the rooms, they’re clean and modern with minimalistic decor. Each room is equipped with a flat-screen television, Keurig coffee maker, bar fridge and microwave. There is also a desk and office chair as well as a couch or single seat to relax in. Of course, there is reliable, fast Wi-Fi that’s perfect for doing some work or streaming an episode on Netflix. While some rooms will offer a view of the city, I recommend splurging a little so you can enjoy riverside views from your private balcony.
With a number of restaurants, shops and green spaces just steps away, you really can’t get a better location than the Holiday Inn Peterborough Waterfront. If you’re reading to plan your trip, click here to book your stay or take a moment to see what others have said about their experience. Of course, you can always take a look to see what other Peterborough hotels are available in case you can’t snag a room during your dates.
What to Know When Visiting Peterborough
After reading all of the incredible things to do in Peterborough, I’m sure you’re ready to get out and explore for yourself! Here are some tips, tricks and things to know to help you plan your adventure.
What is Peterborough known for?
Peterborough is known for a number of things! Besides being the gateway to The Kawarthas and the Electric City, it has birthed a number of companies and inventions. General Electric, Quaker Oats and the Peterborough Canoe Company all began in the city. Peterborough is also known for having the world’s largest hydraulic lift lock and the highest jet fountain in Canada. It’s also where Canadian icon Stompin’ Tom Connors got his name!
Is Peterborough Safe?
As a solo female traveller, there wasn’t a single time that I felt unsafe when exploring Peterborough. You may come across some interesting characters shall we say while exploring the downtown core, but it’s nothing to be worried about. Treat others as you wish to be treated and all will be well!
Where Can I Park in Peterborough?
There is plenty of street parking available in downtown Peterborough but you will have to pay an hourly rate between 9:00 am and 6:00 pm. Typically this is either $1.50 or $1.75 per hour. On streets where parking is free, there is a time limit of three hours. There is parking available in the Peterborough Square lot where you’ll get one hour free on weekdays and can park for free all day on Saturdays and Sundays. If you’re looking to park overnight, you will need to do so at one of the city parking lots, the King Street Parkade or the Simcoe Parking Garage.
Are There Public Washrooms in Peterborough?
Yes, there are! If you’re planning a quick day trip and need to use the facilities, you can find public washrooms located in Millennium Park.
Is Peterborough Walkable?
Peterborough is incredibly walkable! I highly recommend booking a hotel downtown as this way you’re surrounded by incredible restaurants and all of the amazing things to do in Peterborough are close at hand. If you’re an avid walker like me, then you’ll have no problem making your way over to Ashburnham to see the Peterborough Museum & Archives as well as Lock 21. Of course, if you want to visit any of the other incredible destinations outside of town (which you will), a car is needed. You can rent one from Enterprise on Ashburnham which is just on the other side of Little Lake!
This post is brought to you in partnership with Peterborough and The Kawarthas Tourism. While I was compensated for my time, all of the content and opinions here are honest and speak to my personal experience!
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