Ontario has some of the best small towns. Nothing but charm and the slow pace of quiet streets filled with quaint little shops. They make for the perfect day trip and escape from our energetic city life.
Small towns don’t offer visitors any attractions per say. The best ones will offer pretty boutique stores, a delightful tea house, and interesting antique shops. And, more recently you will find local craft beer and distillery spirits popping up.
Just an hour west of Toronto, you will find Huron-Perth-Waterloo-Wellington regions known for its pastoral landscape and growing urban cities. It is a mecca for culinary and outdoor experiences. And, is the place I now call home. Let me share some of my favourites in this region.
Elora sits on a stunning gorge alongside the banks of the Grand River. The 25-meter (80 feet) limestone cliffs are perfect for water adventures all year round. Elora has plenty of outdoor activities, from rafting to repelling to river walks, and even its own music festival called Riverfest.
The 19th century-old buildings have been transformed into art studios and galleries, boutique stores and eateries. And, the eateries, there are plenty! Let your taste buds transport you to France and dine at The Evelyn a french inspired menu and atmosphere. Or perhaps Italy, and dine at La Fontana where it offers fresh pasta and wood oven baked pizza. Of, if you are after farm to table pub-style eateries that serve up a really good cocktail head to The Porch Light or The Friendly Society. And, Elora Brewing Co. provides a true craft beer experience not to be missed.
Elora makes for a romantic getaway, especially if you stay at the historic landmark Elora Mill and Spa. The recently renovated luxurious accommodation is a definite splurge, but offers you such a unique experience that it’s worth it!
Driving distance (from Toronto) = 90 mins
Fergus is a pretty little town that sits on the Grand River. It has deep Scottish roots dating back to 1833 when its earliest settlers called it “Little Falls” because of its scenic waterfalls. The best way to see them is to walk along the river through Templin Gardens. Beautifully landscaped garden beds are set against the limestone trails and gorge. Especially the large historical set of stone stairs spiraling down the gorge wall to the river’s edge.
Next, take a stroll through the historic downtown and take in the over 200 buildings built in the early 19th century that are now turned into unique shops, antique stores and cafes. There is even a Grand Theatre that seats 252 people, offering cultural events since 1928. Continue past the downtown and you will see the lovely historic homes that have been preserved, each one donning a sign with the year of the house, resident’s name and occupation. This will take you to the historic mill which has since been converted to modern condos.
The Fergus Scottish Festival and Highland Games is the town’s largest and most recognized festival. Actually, it is the largest Highland Games festival in North America. It’s an annual tradition that draws over 30,000 people each year.
If you are interested in learning more about Fergus and the surrounding area, a visit to the Wellington County Museum is a must. Located just outside of Fergus on your way to Elora is this historic building that was once the county’s poorhouse.
Driving Distance (from Toronto) = 75 mins
Galt (in Cambridge)
Cambridge is a new and thriving city since it amalgamated 4 small towns of Galt, Hespeler, Preston and Blair together in 1973. The history of the area is a diverse and interesting one.
What makes this community so special? Nestled along the Grand River is the former Galt. It resembles a little piece of Europe with its historic limestone buildings dating back to the mid 1800’s built right up against the river’s edge.
The best way to experience the charm of this community is to attend the the weekend farmers’ market, which dates back to 1830, making it one of the oldest markets of its kind in Canada. Then head to one of the community’s many hipster coffee shops like Monigram Coffee Roasters or Grand Cafe or Blackwing Coffee Bar. Along the way you will see a variety of quaint shops along the oldest streets of this community.
Then walk or bike along the 58 km trails — many along its waterfront — and spectacular views from atop 400 year-old limestone cliffs. End your day and dine at Cambridge Mill as you dine and overlook the views of the Grand River.
One of the biggest draws to the Cambridge area is Langdon Hall, which is a Relais & Châteaux property. But visitors making the trip to the luxury resort and dining destination would be remiss to pass up a visit the historic downtown area, which is one of the prettiest in all of southern Ontario.
Driving Distance (from Toronto) = 60 mins
Paris is often referred to as Ontario’s “Prettiest Little Town.” This picturesque town is located where the Grand and Nith Rivers meet. Against the backdrop of the two rivers sits the small downtown lined with little shops and cafes.
A couple of my favourites are Chocolate Sensations, The Peddler, a quaint tea and gift shop, and the Paris Bakery. Grab yourself a sweet treat and then meander through Glen Heron Books or John M. Hall, an old-fashion linen shop that has been in place for over 120 years. Lastly, and most definitely worth the drive, is Piper and Oak – an upscale home interiors shop. Looking for a hip cafe and market? Venture a couple streets over to The Paris Wincey Mills Co. – a historic building that dates back to 1889 that has been been transformed into a year round market with local vendors.
Next, take a stroll past some of the town’s most pristine buildings that feature many different architectural styles, including Victorian, Edwardian, Gothic and Post Modern. Paris is best known for the cobblestone buildings. Builders used over 14,000 cobblestones all of near identical size drawn from the Grand and Nith Rivers to create several homes and buildings. My favourite is the Charles Mitchell House, a beautiful historic cobblestone home from 1842. If you love architecture, then a day trip to Paris is a must!
Driving Distance (from Toronto) = 75 mins
St. Jacobs is located in the heart of Old Order Mennonite community. You will see many families on the country roads in traditional horse and buggy. St. Jacobs is famous for its massive all-year round Farmers’ Market. You can catch over 300 local vendors on Tuesdays (summer only), Thursdays and Saturdays. Part of the seasonal market includes a craft and flea market.
After the market, head to the cute village of St. Jacobs, home to boutique shops and artisan stores. There you will find your typical tea house, bakery and many one-of-kind artisan shops. One of my absolute favourites is tucked away on a quiet side street, Artefacts Salvage and Design. A store devoted to architectural salvage items like doors, columns, windows, door knobs, lights and more. If you are looking to add a bit of history to your home reno, then this is the place to seek out.
Now that you have worked up a thirst, head to Block Three Brewing, the local craft brewery company to sample some of the fantastic beer selections. Or go to The Village Biergarten that features Block Three beers on tap as well as a Mexican cuisine.
Driving distance (from Toronto) = 75 mins
Stratford, sits on the banks of the picturesque Avon River, just like England’s Stratford. Take a stroll along the pathway along the gentle flow of the river with an abundant amount of swans linking five beautiful gardens in full bloom in spring, summer and fall.
Stratford is famous for its theatrical productions, in particular, showcasing the plays of William Shakespeare. The Stratford Festival began in 1952 and welcomes just over 500,000 attendees in a season. 90 percent of visitors to Stratford come for the Festival.
While this town is a cultural hub, it is also a foodie hot spot. From its fine dining choices of The Prune Restaurant, Revival House, or Bijou to its cute little cafes like Balzac’s Coffee Roasters or Edison’s.
Explore the historic downtown, from early 19th century and unique boutique shops like Watson’s Chelsea Bazaar, Bradshaws, or Wills and Prior, just to name a few. Most of the original historic buildings are from early 19th century.
Visit Stratford, and you’ll feel like you are in small-town England.