By Michele Sponagle
Hamilton, Ontario is one of those truly fascinating cities with an abundance of great things to see, do and eat. Even better is how much these vary from neighbourhood to neighbourhood. There’s no one size fits all here. Each of the five areas highlighted here are well worth a trip. Start your journey here…
The challenge is deciding which direction to head in. If you head north towards the waterfront, you’ll find an exciting mix of old and new in a neighbourhood that ticks a lot of boxes for visitors. As home to the city’s emerging arts hub and the popular Art Crawl event (the second Friday of each month), this historic neighbourhood has an incredible new energy making headlines across the country. Some of Hamilton’s most popular new eateries (like Lake Road, Born and Raised, Saltlick Smokehouse, Bar Izakaya and Nique to name a few) feed diners here, while funky one-off boutiques, selling everything from vintage barware to fashions from local designers, elevate the creative edge. Add into the mix established and emerging art galleries and old world Portuguese bakeries and produce stores, and you’ve got a dynamic stretch full of surprises. And let’s not forget about the southern part of James. It draws its own foodie crowd of diners, who come to eat, drink and be merry at its assortment of laid back pubs, globally inspired restaurants (like the best of Mexico at Mezcal and the Ethiopian fare of Wass), plus fine dining from spots like from Radius and Nellie James. For good measure, there’s also a robust indie coffee culture with Red Crow Coffee and Café Augusta, perfect spots to plant yourself while watching the world go by past your window.
Long-time Hamiltonians know Ottawa Street either for its abundance of fabric stores, farmers’ market or coffee shops. While they are still around, there’s much more as this east-end stretch reinvents itself as the Design District. You can still find plenty of fabric retailers, but these days, you’ll find more retailers dedicated to home improvement, whether you need a chair re-upholstered, rugs or contemporary lighting fixtures. Go new or go old with an expanding array of antique,vintage or collectible shops and unique boutiques selling everything from soy candles to chalk paint. A fresh wave of new restaurants, like the second location for the popular gourmet Hamburger Spot, Hambrgr, Gorilla Cheese, Black Sheep Snack Bar and Southern Smoke Barbecue, join the street scene next to favourites like Café Limoncello (a top spot for Italian fare). Restaurant hop and browse to your heart’s content, then grab a selfie next to the statue of Tim Horton, the hockey player who helped launch the ubiquitous coffee franchise, with the very first location started here. Pop in and head upstairs, which serves as a mini museum that pays homage the chain’s caffeine- and donut-fueled past.
This picturesque and historic little town is considered part of Hamilton. But it can stand on its own as an appealing destination. Its picture perfect downtown is dotted with independent retailers and restaurants. It has plenty of authentically retro places like the Collins Hotel (circa 1840), Mickey McGuire’s Cheese (around 25 years and counting), Picone Fine Food (100 years in Dundas) and Taylor’s Tea Room (20 years-plus). The locals seem to appreciate good food of all descriptions. Quatrefoil is fine dining at its best – a past En Route magazine pick for best new restaurant in Canada, Bangkok Spoon earns high praise for its top-notch Thai cuisine (including a wickedly good pad thai). When you get thirsty, follow the crowd to the beloved Detour Coffee, where java is treated with respect and reverence, made from its own roasted beans. Beer lovers can sample the latest creations from the Shawn & Ed Brewing Company, including beer aged in wine barrels. With so much going on, you’ll need a day or two just to hit the highlights and find some time to explore the myriad of hiking trails around. While in Dundas, do yourself a favour and book yourself a room at Osler House, an elegant bed and breakfast located in a stunning house circa 1840.
This strip located on The Mountain (aka Upper Hamilton, aka escarpment) is one of the oldest in the city. It has endured a boom-boost cycle in the past and has currently become one of Hamilton’s newest up-and-coming neighbourhoods. Fuelling its renaissance are new additions like soon-to-open Pokeh Bar (which began as a small stall in the Hamilton Farmers’ Market downtown) and Jonny Blonde, which evolved out of a food truck into a brick-and-mortar location offering stellar soup and sandwich options. If you believe candy is dandy, stroll into CandiWerx and be dazzled by the array of sweets on hand, from artisanal chocolate to PEZ. Plan a visit to Papa Leo’s, a popular local hangout especially for brunch (say yes to its awesome huevos rancheros), then get your caffeine fix to go at Relay Coffee and head to Sam Lawrence Park, which has the best views of the city skyline and Hamilton Harbour. For a dose of culture, The Zoetic Theatre offers an eclectic mix of arts programming, from poetry readings to stand-up comedy and sing-alongs.
Locke Street South
The roots of Hamilton’s revitalization can be found here. For decades, this lively stretch, situated between Aberdeen Avenue and Main Street, has felt like a truly cohesive neighbourhood with all the things locals want and need in one, like good coffee shops, cozy restaurants and shops where you can buy essentials, from oven mitts to birthday cards. The offerings have only gotten better of late with some fresh blood coming in to mix things up. On the food front, Brux House brought sophisticated bistro fare, coupled with a strong beverage program with craft beers and cocktails, into the ‘hood. Meanwhile, Mattson & Co. uses jazz as inspiration with a line-up of strong performers, menu selections and cocktails (try the Sarah Vaughn martini). Newbies share the block with long-time favourites like the West Town Bar & Grill, known for its casual fare and night time bar scene, and Earth to Table: Bread Bar, home to stellar pizza, decadent baked goods and dishes that lean heavily on local ingredients. Shoppers are spoiled for choice, too, with plenty of spots to buy antique and vintage goods, clothing from top international designers, and items to spruce up your home, whether it’s funky pillows or a chandelier.