Not surprisingly, this entire year we have spent more time close to home in Southwestern Ontario.
Small adventures in a controlled manner close to home are the name of the game. On a recent day off, my daughter Payton and I drove to Port Stanley after visiting a park in Aylmer. That got us talking about what the iconic tourist attractions are in each city nearby us in Southwestern Ontario.
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Why Southwestern Ontario?
Southwestern Ontario is where I have lived my entire life to date. While I have considered moving to B.C. or the USA, I am so glad we never left. At different times I have called Kitchener, Guelph and London home. Of course, I live in London with my family now and can’t imagine a better city in which to raise a family and grow memories.
If there’s an upside to the pandemic it might be, first of all, that we have done some crazy amazing baking here and have perfected all the bread making, jam making and even no-churn ice cream making and, second of all, it’s that we have noticed things that have always been here. The beaches in southern Ontario, the Farmer’s Markets, the trails and parks.
Ultimately there are so many things to see and do, but for now here are some of the southwestern Ontario attractions you need to see.
Let’s start with London, my home and the largest of all the cities in Southwestern Ontario, by population. There’s a lot to love about the city and it’s a great place to raise a family.
Home of the eternal flame which is to stay lit until a cure for diabetes is found. Birthplace of the discovery of insulin. Banting House is both a museum and the headquarters of the Canadian Diabetes Association.
Looking for a gorgeous university with a strong tradition and lovely architecture? That would be Western, with world class medical school, teacher’s college and business school, this has also been the setting of many medical breakthroughs in Southwestern Ontario.
The epic Western Fall fair here is one of my favourite events to attend and has been for many years. This year, the fair was held virtually. Yearly, as soon as school starts, you can typically explore agricultural pavilions and ride all the thrilling rides possible. Concerts happen too.
There are many trails and parks in my home city, but the river running through the city is quite lovely. Check out Museum London and take a stroll along the banks of the Thames. London is also a great spot to take in live theatre. Can’t wait until that resumes again safely.
The city I grew up in. I have so much love for Guelph. It was a perfect spot to grow up in and yet I just couldn’t wait to leave as a teenager ready for university. I was just ready for something different and some independence.
Riverside Park and More
Guelph’s Riverside Park flower clock comes to mind. As a child, I visited that park weekly in the summer with my family. It was on the way to my Grandma’s house on Sheridan Street and we had probably about 100 picnics there over the first few decades of my life.
Riverside Park is the spot that I would check out first. There’s a gorgeous river running through the park and you can wade in or fish. Also, that carousel and the tiny train through Riverside Park brings back such amazing happy memories for me. I have been on the train recently with my nieces and nephews, but mostly I recall doing this as a child and then returning to go on the train with both of my baby girls.
There aren’t very many museums in Guelph, but this one is worth noting. McRae House is the birthplace of John McCrae, doctor, soldier and author of the famous First World War poem “In Flanders Fields.” The house is a National Historic Site of Canada.
The Guelph Dam
The Guelph Dam is the setting for so many races and camping trips. Worth visiting if you are a camper, or someone who wants to get on the water while in town.
University and Arboretum
The University of Guelph and the arboretum are also iconic. Nearby Stone Road Mall is where I spent many of my weekends and my pay cheques in high school. Just saying.
This is the city where I met my husband and his parents. Then we got married in Waterloo. I did my undergraduate studies at University of Waterloo. My brother did his bachelor’s degree there too. I have a lot of ties to this area.
Oktoberfest and Oncle Hans
Oktoberfest is an iconic fall celebration that originated in Germany. Due to the high population of Germans that settled in the K-W area, this has always been a big part of the local tradition and culture. Thanksgiving Monday is the Oktoberfest parade and there is always a Miss Oktoberfest pageant. This year, that will obviously look different, but in a typical year this is the festival or cultural event to make note of and attend at least once.
Doon Heritage Village
The Doon Heritage Village recreates life in rural Waterloo County during the year 1914. It has more than 22 buildings on more than 24 hectares (60 acres). Some buildings are restored, and others are reconstructions based on original buildings. Typically open from May through December. If you’ve ever been to a living history museum then you know they can be extremely interesting and educational.
Mennonites and Markets
The Market. Go the market. Period. St. Jacobs is Mennonite country in Southwestern Ontario so be cautious driving and look out for horses and buggies along with their occupants. I have been itching to return for years and once upon a time in university I would visit weekly.
There’s also an outlet mall here and some gorgeous scenery along the way to St. Jacobs. When I lived in Waterloo and Kitchener, we took the drive on weekends, because it was the best market around and a lovely scenic drive.
To be honest, I think this one is the city itself. The city of Goderich, known as Canada’s prettiest little town, lives up to its title. Its downtown is unique, clean and full of charming stores and lately also gorgeous murals, which are perfect for Instagram. The waterfront is pretty and there are numerous trails and parks more than worth exploring.
Any city or town with a beach is generally worth checking out at least once. The beach here has been a bit off limits this year, but it’s still lovely to see. Not the kind of beach you can spend a weekend at really in my opinion. But it is a worthy attraction in the area.
The theatre of course.
Of course, everyone knows how iconic the theatre is in Stratford. It is a jewel in the arts scene in Ontario and the multiple live theatre performances here every year do Canada proud.
Stratford is a gorgeous city just to visit and shop in and wander through from time to time. The Alley Cat Café was a highlight for us this year.
The downtown has a walk of fame that commemorates theatrical legends in Stratford. We stumbled upon it this year actually while out exploring. I mean I knew of it just not where it was and we enjoyed following in some of the footsteps and taking photos.
St. Mary’s is a tiny hidden spot between London and Stratford. It is a quarry and well known for cement and gravel production. In the summer, swimming at the quarry can be a lot of fun. Afterwards, browse the cute historic downtown area.
Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
Maybe afterwards you can pop into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Canada actually has a rich baseball history. Bet you didn’t know that? If you are a baseball fan, then you need to visit the Hall of Fame and Museum.
The scenic Grand River winds throughout Southwestern Ontario, but one of the nicest sections is here. It’s lovely just to fish in, walk beside or grab a canoe and take a paddle. There’s apparently a tubing company that you should also check out. We are still hoping to get to do this! Stay tuned!
African Lion Safari
Depending on who you ask, African Lion Safari is either in Hamilton or in Cambridge. Technically it’s Flamborough, so actually it isn’t really in either, but sort of outside of both cities. That makes it one of my picks for iconic southwestern Ontario attractions to visit. Drive through African animal safari and water park. We visited the park probably every year until I was about 14. I have taken my own children there many times.
Every time I have visited it has been an adventure. Once I went with my daughter’s school class for their end of year trip. Supervising a group of hyperactive grade fives was a new way to see the park.
Township of Puslinch
So, Emerald Lake is a trailer park/ camp site and it is not far from African Lion Safari. Consider wrapping these two things into a weekend trip or a fall getaway. Emerald Lake is so much fun. It’s not fancy by any stretch but there’s a bit of a quarry type of thing set up with inflatable toys you can climb up, slide down and jump off of with friends, cousins and family.
My daughter calls this cliff jumping and it is a blast.
McClintock’s Ski School
I once did a story on this business. That was a lifetime ago but the gist of it was a family opened a water skiing school outside of Cambridge in Puslinch Township. A water skiing school? That’s right. How fun is that? In typical years they offer lessons and camps. In fact, I feel like one year this is going to happen for us. Water ski day camp sounds amazing!
Oh I know it’s not a city, but the ports here and the wine region all have a place in my heart. We had an amazing visit to Norfolk County in 2018 and canoeing was also a highlight. You can read more about that here if you want. Forty-one Amazing Things to Do in Norfolk County.
Such a pretty spot to visit. It reminds me of a fishing village out east.
Main beach, pier and marina
Quiet frankly Port Stanley has been a gift to us this year. This August, we returned after visiting for Beach Days with a group of parents I know who used to meet in person at a support group locally in London. When everything was cancelled in person, one of the amazing Moms suggested that we could all meet safely at the beach during the summer on Tuesdays and occasionally Wednesday or Thursday if the weather was rainy.
So, I have taken my 16-year-old and she has met up at least 5-6 weeks in a row with a very good friend and a fellow teen with FASD. That has been invaluable and those trips so special to us.
All of this, against the backdrop of Lake Erie and some amazing waves for jumping. We have easily maintained social distancing and been safe while occasionally walking to Mackie’s with masks on of course to grab French fries.
The farm markets through St. Thomas, are worth checking out and the local ice cream shops are some of my favourites in the area.
Southwestern Ontario is my home and I often take it for granted. This summer and fall, we have explored more than usual close to home and we have been reminded that we live in a stunning province with so much to celebrate, just a short drive from many major centres.
Explore Southwestern Ontario Safely
Explore safely and remember to check out some of our notable landmarks and attractions when you are in the area. There’s a lot to enjoy here and many events typically throughout the year worth celebrating.