An inukshuk in Sunset Point beach park in Collingwood.

Small Towns of Ontario: A Summer Travel Guide to the Heart of the Province

Ontario is one of Canada’s most vibrant provinces; with endless charming towns, lively cities and scenic natural attractions to explore. When thinking of Ontario, many think of the bustling cities of Toronto and Ottawa, or iconic landmarks such as Niagara Falls. However, the true heart of the province lies within its small towns. Like most of Canada, these towns truly come alive during the warm summer months. With their character on full display, the summer is the perfect time to explore Ontario’s quaint towns, thus, getting a better understanding of the true nature of the province. This blog will delve into the most picturesque towns that are representative of the unique culture of Ontario, all of which can provide a much needed break from the busy city life.  

Small town Ontario

Ontario’s small towns can typically be characterized by their charming main streets, welcoming locals and unique culture. Often, these towns operate at a less hectic pace, allowing for visitors and locals to slow down and enjoy their time there. Many of these towns can be further characterized by their ties to Ontario’s sprawling waterways and plentitude of bodies of water:

With over 250,000 freshwater lakes, rivers and waterways that border four of North America’s five Great Lakes, Ontario’s landscapes are shaped by water and dramatically transform with each changing season.

Destination Ontario
The small town of Bobcaygeon, Ontario from a birds eye view
Bobcaygeon is the perfect example of a town formed around bodies of water in Ontario. Image by Kawartha Now

With such landscapes, and surrounding towns, shaped by the vast and scenic water systems, it is evident why the summer months are the ideal time to visit Ontario and its picturesque towns. From the fun cottage country, to the beach towns and wine regions, Ontario’s towns have a unique variance that allows for each town to have its own special appeal. Thus, Ontario is an ideal location for a great summer exploration. 

Please note: Before travelling Ontario this summer, be sure to check in on local and provincial COVID-19 travel advisories.

Niagara-on-the-Lake

Niagara-on-the-Lake is the epitome of wine country in Ontario. This picturesque town is the shining jewel of the Niagara Region, and is the small town counterpart to the often crowded Niagara Falls. In a region known for its abundance of sprawling vineyards and up-scale breweries, Niagara-on-the-Lake has the best of the best. In addition, the downtown core of this town presents the perfect blend of old-town with a modern flair. With several aesthetically pleasing shops, mouth watering eateries and scenic lake views, it has many great options to explore. 

Trius Winery and its beautiful vineyard at sunset.
Views from the highly rated Trius Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Image by Niagara Wineries

The wine capital of Ontario

Due to the milder climate in the region, this area is the ideal location to produce the perfect grapes, thus, some of Canada’s best wine. Along the scenic rolling hills of Niagara-on-the-Lake’s countryside are a profusion of over 25 aesthetic wineries. With so many options, these wineries meet the needs of all; from ice wine producers, smaller boutique vineyards and sprawling estate-style wineries. You can take a tour of multiple vineyards with companies such as Grape Escape Wine Tours. For those looking to explore at their own pace, there are several wineries that come highly recommended: 

  • For the quintessential Canadian experience- Wayne Gretzky Estates. This location not only offers a stellar selection of delightful wines and the finest of Canadiana, but it has an adjoining distillery for a one-of-a-kind experience.
  • For the Instagram feed- Trius Winery. This popular location started with a famous Bordeaux inspired red wine that was designated the Best Red Wine in the World. 27 years later, it is a staple in the Niagara region. It has recently become more popularized by its breathtaking scenery and famous pink flower wall that makes the perfect photo backdrop.
  • For the food and atmosphere lover- Jackson Triggs. One of Canada’s most recognizable wines also boasts an incredible winery. At Jackson Triggs, they proudly offer their renowned wine expertly paired with delicious, fresh food. In addition, Jackson Triggs Niagara Estate is home to a state of the art amphitheater, which hosts a variety of live music for a unique winery experience.

Fenelon Falls

Fenelon Falls, located in cottage country in the City of Kawartha Lakes, is another example of Ontario’s charming small towns. It is aptly nicknamed “The Jewel of the Kawarthas”, and for good reason. The town itself is nestled in between two of the most scenic lakes in the Kawarthas: Sturgeon Lake and Cameron Lake.

Crossing the main bridge into town, visitors are immediately treated to views of its primary attractions. On the right is the gorgeous falls that the town is named after. The lengthy falls have a continuous flow of tumbling waters that feed into Sturgeon Lake. Just beyond these falls are the scenic Fenelon cliffs that tower over the waters, making for a picturesque backdrop. On the left of the bridge, is the boaters key to the Kawarthas: Lock 34 of the Trent-Severn Waterway. This lock system connects boaters from Georgian Bay to the Bay of Quinte, along 44 locks and 386 kilometers of waterways. Lock 34 is one of the system’s busiest locations. With a staggering 7 meter drop of water displacement to get from Cameron to Sturgeon Lake, this lift lock attracts many onlookers that marvel as the boats pass between the two lakes. 

Food, drink and exploration

Like many other small towns that have an emphasis on summer tourism, there are plenty of cute patios and delicious eateries along the main streets of town. For the optimal summer patio experience, there are two main restaurants to try: Murphy’s Lockside Pub and Patio for lock views and the lively Fenelon atmosphere, and the Locker at the Falls for great service and fantastic views of the falls. Additionally, all craft beer lovers will be in paradise with a unique brewery in the center of the town. The Fenelon Falls Brewing Co. is located in a rustic building that used to function as a livery stable, and has now been renovated with a modern touch. With the most distinctive view of the locks, exceptionally brewed beer and delectable food, this is a must for all visitors.

The Locker on the Falls restaurant (top left) with views of the cascading falls in Fenelon Falls, Ontario.
The Locker on the Falls restaurant (top left) with views of the cascading falls in Fenelon Falls, Ontario. Image by Mark Harris.

In addition to the scenic views and fun patios, Fenelon is also perfect for an activity-packed day. Grab a coffee at Sip and take a long walk or bike ride along the beach and connecting Victoria Rail Trail. This trail connects Kawartha towns from Lindsay to Kinmount (55 kilometers) and is an ideal way to explore the breathtaking lakes of Fenelon Falls and surrounding areas. Also, for water sport enthusiasts, Fenelon has you covered. With paddleboard rentals available at the beach, you can take a relaxing paddle along the calm shores of Cameron Lake. Thus, you can take in the scenic beauty that is inherent in the tranquil lakes of the Kawarthas.

Collingwood

Despite being known as more of a winter destination, due to its proximity to Blue Mountain Ski Resort, the scenic town of Collingwood is also perfect for a summer get-away. With gorgeous views along the sprawling shoreline of Georgian Bay, a historic downtown and a plethora of outdoor activities, this is a must-visit town. 

Its historic downtown core is the perfect representation of a classic Ontario small town. Charming shops, cafes and bars line the streets with inviting locals and friendly business owners. Additionally, this town is nestled into the shore of the extensive waters of Georgian Bay. Visitors can take in the stunning views of this seemingly endless body of water while walking along Collingwood’s kilometers of pristine shoreline. This beach, coupled with the lovely downtown, make for the perfect relaxing summer day. 

The perfect outdoorsy escape

In addition to its quaint downtown and beautiful beach, Collingwood is known for its plethora of activities for outdoors enthusiasts. Its proximity to Ontario’s premier ski resort makes it an optimal location for mountain biking. Visitors can enjoy the numerous downhill tracks, forested trails and other breathtaking scenes while experiencing the exhilarating rush of downhill biking. Afterwards, bikers can take a break while exploring the bustling Blue Mountain Village, which is likened to Canada’s famous Whistler Village. Blue Mountain Village always has something exciting for visitors, whether it be an outdoor festival or live music, or its numerous fun bars to grab a pint.

An inukshuk in Sunset Point beach park in Collingwood.
The famous sunset at Sunset Point beach in Collingwood, Ontario. Image by On the Bay Magazine

Furthermore, for those looking to explore this scenic area on foot, Collingwood is also home to some wonderful trail networks. Visitors can explore its recreational trails that deliver some breathtaking stops. To take in the flora and fauna, see the Arboretum gardens. For further breathtaking views of Georgian Bay and the Collingwood Harbour, venture further to the beautiful Millennium Park. Additionally, this trail connects to the scenic lookout at Sunset Point, with lush greenery, fresh lake air and unparalleled sunset views.

Grand Bend

With a plethora of bodies of water in Ontario, including the Great Lakes, there are many scenic beaches across the province. Every summer, tourists flock to beach towns for their chance to soak up the sun. Among Ontario’s numerous beach towns, Grand Bend is one of the best. This stunning town seems more akin to a Florida beach vacation than a small Ontario town. During the day, tourists can relax on the 25 mile long white sand beach. At night, the town comes alive with a wonderful restaurant, nightlife and live music scene. Whether day tripping, camping or enjoying one of Grand Bend’s spectacular cottage rentals, this beach town is a great choice for a summer escape. 

The idyllic beach life 

Grand Bend’s Main Beach is among Ontario’s top beaches. This sprawling white sand beach has many enticing features such as delicious food and drink stands, an expansive boardwalk and a picturesque lighthouse. These stereotypical southern beach features cement its perfect summer vibes. In addition to the gorgeous beach, this destination has several exciting options for a more adrenaline packed beach day. Local boat companies can take visitors out on their fleets of fun water crafts to partake in various watersports. These include the classic Canadian water activities such as tubing and waterskiing, or the exhilarating sky-high parasailing. For an even more extreme, towering view of the beach town, there are skydiving companies that will fuel the biggest adrenaline junkies. 

Grand Bend Main Beach at mid day in small town Ontario
A family overlooking Main Beach in Grand Bend, Ontario. Image by Ontario’s Southwest

This beach town truly has something for all ages. It is perfect for a family friendly vacation with its Blue Flag accreditation for water quality and water safety. Also, there are many activities for children to enjoy such as go-karting and mini golf, as well as a splash pad and playground to play in. Alternatively, Grand Bend is also the perfect choice of destination for young adults. It often has entertaining live music and shows along the beach or at beach-side restaurants such as The Lake Hound. For nightlife options, the highly popular Growling Gator, is a great choice for breathtaking sunset views and exquisite patio food and drinks. 

Other Ontario small towns to visit

With so many incredible, quaint towns across Ontario, it is difficult to capture the charming essense of all. However, there are many more small towns that are critical to the makeup of this province. The following highlights of more quaint towns will provide further inspiration for a complete Ontario summer bucket list:

  • Goderich- Goderich has all the best aspects that are inherent in small towns. It is known for its historic downtown with a distinctive roundabout and unique hexagonal layout. Additionally, it has a gorgeous beach overlooking the expansive Lake Huron and is noted for its vibrant sunsets.
  • Tobermory- This town is an outdoor lover’s paradise. Nestled into the scenic Bruce Peninsula, Tobermory is known for its crystal clear, turquoise waters that are perfect for swimming, kayaking and snorkelling. It boasts two national parks, Fathom Five National Marine Park and Bruce Peninsula National Park, which feature incredible sights such as shipwrecks and the famous Flowerpot Island. This is a popular location for a weekend camping trip.
  • Bobcaygeon- Another classic town synonymous with cottage country (and famous for its ties to the Tragically Hip). This quaint town, much like its Kawarthas counterpart of Fenelon, is nestled between two beautiful lakes. With a swing bridge separating two sides of town, there are plenty of sights to see in the historic downtown district. No day here is complete without a stop at Bigley’s to check out the shoe selection, or at the original Kawartha Dairy for the famous ice cream. 
The distinctive rock formations of Flowerpot island in Tobermory Ontario
The distinctive Flowerpot Island of Tobermory, Ontario. Image by Viator

The heart of Ontario

The small towns across Ontario’s vast land are the true essence of the province. From the breathtaking wine region and the lively cottage towns, to the idyllic beaches and quaint historic downtowns. All small towns of Ontario have something unique to offer visitors. Make the most of your summer by adding any of these unique towns to your summer itinerary and experience the true heart of Ontario.

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