Road trip Ontario: Exploring the Kingston region, a slice of history between cities

Kingston's City Hall stands at the heart of the downtown core.
Kingston's City Hall stands at the heart of the downtown core. Alexandra Mazur/CKWS

In our Road Trip Ontario series, we’ve already taken a tour of Guelph, and offered a list of drive-in movie theaters around Ontario. Now, we’re taking you to Kingston, a destination nearly halfway between Ottawa and Toronto, and easily accessible by car, train, bus or boat.

READ MORE: Kingston is latest Ontario city to impose hotel tax on guests

Although the first European settlement arrived in Kingston in the late 1600s, Kingston became a notable destination when it acted as Canada’s first capital from 1841 to 1843. It’s also known as “the Limestone City” because of its grand limestone buildings like City Hall, and as the home of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. MacDonald.

Kingston is famous — or perhaps infamous — for its several jails and penitentiaries, like the Kingston Penitentiary, first built in 1835, which tourists can now visit. Young military students come to study in Kingston at the Royal Military College of Canada, which stands next to Fort Henry, Kingston’s most-visited attraction.

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Queen’s University, first established in 1841, makes Kingston home to a younger and more modern crowd, so although the city is filled with nods to the past, the downtown core is built around 21st century life.

READ MORE: Kingston makes top-10 list of best places for millennials to live

Kingston Mayor Bryan Paterson says the city has a great cross-section of amenities that attract tourists to the area.

“We’re home to some of the region’s best cultural attractions — our beautiful waterfront, museums, galleries and renowned historic sites,” says Paterson.

Paterson also said that Kingston has “one of the highest numbers of restaurants per capita in the country.”

Kingston has a population just below 120,000, but Michael Beleza, brand marketing and communications manager at Tourism Kingston, says that despite its size, Kingston still feels like a larger city.

“We’re a smaller city but we have all the same benefits of a larger one, with an embracing community feel.”

Getting there

If you’re travelling from Toronto, the fastest way to get to Kingston is by going east on Highway 401. It’s a straight-shot drive that should get you to Kingston between two and three hours, traffic permitting.

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READ MORE: Toronto saw record number of visitors in 2017: tourism officials

If you’re coming from Ottawa, the quickest way to get to Kingston is by going westbound on Highway 417 out of the city, then taking the southbound exit for Highway 416. Take the 416 to its end, where you can merge on to the Highway 401 going westbound. The 401 will take you all the way to Kingston, where you can take Montreal Street and Battersea exit to the downtown core. This should get you to Kingston in just under two hours.

Via Rail also has a stop in Kingston, so it’s an option if you want to skip the driving and hop aboard a train.

If you’re more of a seafaring traveller, the Confederation Marina has 350 finger docks that can fit boats under 100 feet.

Where to stop on the way

From Toronto

Consider stopping off in Prince Edward County on your way to Kingston from Toronto to visit some of the award-winning wineries in the southern part of the county. To get there, get off of the 401 by taking exit 522 for County Road 40 Wooler Road towards Trenton. This will bring you to Highway 33 (Loyalist Parkway), which will lead you to Picton’s main street. If you’re more impressed by brew masters than master wine-makers, the area has several breweries to visit.

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WATCH: Archive footage from 2014 – Prince Edward County a new tourist destination for Torontonians

You could hop back on the 401, or for a more scenic route to Kingston, continue northbound on Highway 33, and follow this highway all the way to Kingston along the shoreline of Lake Ontario, taking a trip on the Glenora Ferry along the way. Note that this detour can make the trip about twice as long as it would on Highway 401, so consider booking a night at a bed and breakfast in the county.

From Ottawa

If you’d like to take the back roads from Ottawa to Kingston, consider getting off Highway 417 and taking the westbound exit for Highway 7 (exit 145 toward Carleton Place Toronto). This will take you through Perth, Ont. where you can explore the quaint and historic town.

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Once you’ve gone through Perth, take Highway 7 going southbound, turn left onto Glen Tay Road, left again on Christie Lake Road, and take a quick left on to Glen Tay Road, which turns into Harpers Road.

This windy road will take you to Scotch Line, or Route 10, which will lead you all the way to the bayside town of Westport — popular with Canadian and Americans cottagers alike. While you’re there, go for a hike on Foley Mountain where you’ll be able to get a bird’s-eye view of the old town settled in the early 1800s.

READ MORE: Westport resident shows off Canada Mint coin that features his art

To get to Kingston, drive the length of Westport’s Main Street, turn left onto Concession Street (County Rd 42 East), and take a right on Perth Road (Route 10). This will take you on a tour of the the Rideau Lakes and will lead you to Kingston’s Division Street, which runs through the very heart of the city.

Where’d you get that? A look at a few well-known shops in Kingston

Martello Alley: A neat little art gallery tucked away in one of Kingston’s historic alleyways. There is also another store on the same block called Antique Alley, which is worthwhile to explore.

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Cookes Fine Foods: Open in 1865, the store is packed with food items that you might have a hard time finding anywhere else.

Swiss Army Surplus: This army surplus store is located right downtown on Princess Street, and features a whole gamut of military, tactical and outdoor gear.

Kingston Markets: The Kingston Public Market sets up in Springer Market Square, right behind the historic City Hall. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, passers-by can shop for local produce and artisanal products. On Sundays, the square is filled with antiques. Every Sunday, there is also the Memorial Centre Market, set up in front of Kingston’s Memorial Centre Arena.

Points of interest

Fort Henry: Originally built during the War of 1812 to protect from an American invasion that never came, Fort Henry now acts as a living museum. Staff at Fort Henry mimic 19th century military life with costumed performances and demonstrations by the Fort Henry Guard, roles played by students trained as British soldiers from 1867.

WATCH: Fort Henry Guard prepare for visit with U.S. Marine Corps.

Click to play video 'Fort Henry Guard prepare for visit with U.S. Marine Corps.' Fort Henry Guard prepare for visit with U.S. Marine Corps.
Fort Henry Guard prepare for visit with U.S. Marine Corps.

Wolfe Island: Take a free trip on the Wolfe Island Ferry, which leaves from Kingston once an hour between 5:45 a.m. to 1:20 a.m. Once on the island, you can stay for a bite to eat, rent bikes and go to Big Sandy Bay Conservation Area, a beautiful and slightly secluded beach.

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Kingston Pen Tours: Take a tour of Kingston Penitentiary. Originally opened in 1835, the penitentiary closed in 2013, making it one of the longest run prisons in the world at the time of its closure.

READ MORE: City of Kingston and Corrections Canada agree to Penitentiary tours in 2018

Kingston Trolley Tours: There are lots of things to see in Kingston, and a trolley tour takes the guesswork out of where to go. Take the family on a guided tour in a red trolley to attractions like Fort Henry, the Royal Military College, Kingston Penitentiary and Queen’s University. There are several trolleys driving through the city during the day, and you can hop on and off at all eight locations where the trolleys stop.

Kingston 1000 Islands Cruises: With the option to take a dining cruise or a sightseeing cruise, you can see Kingston’s shoreline on the shorter cruises, or travel out to the famed Thousand Islands on the three-hour tour. If you’d like to do both the cruise and the trolley tours, you can buy a K-Pass, which will get you on both tours and give you access to other activities like haunted walking tours of the city.

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For the kids (and the young at heart)

Lake Ontario Park: On a hot day, it’s a great place to take your kids. There is a splash pad to play in, playgrounds and access down to the waterfront, where kids can play in the sand and make sandcastles.

The Pumphouse Museum: If anyone in the family is into machines, the Pumphouse Museum will be a great stop. The historic building, once Canada’s first water pumping station, showcases steam machinery, engines, model trains and more fun stuff for both kids and adults.

Skywood Eco Adventure: Although a little bit outside the city, this active destination allows you to zip-line through the trees, or take a walk in the canopies using ropes, nets and bridges.

Selfies and social posts — great spots to snap a picture

The Kingston Sign: Be the “I” in Kingston by stepping into an interactive monument specifically meant for photos. The large letters stand in Confederation Park, right in front of the waterfront and across the street from Kingston City Hall.

WATCH: Be the “I” in Kingston

Click to play video '‘I in Kingston’ sign a huge hit' ‘I in Kingston’ sign a huge hit
‘I in Kingston’ sign a huge hit

Confederation Park: No matter which way you’re pointing your camera in Confederation Park, you’re primed for a great photo. With City Hall one one side, the marina on the other and the fountain in the middle, you’ll have a nice background setting for a good memory.

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Queen’s University: Queen’s University came to be in 1841, but had no real home until its 11th year, when it moved into the Summerhill building. The building stands today as the campus’s oldest building, and some say its most beautiful.

READ MORE: Kingston, Queen’s University partner to curb unsanctioned street parties

Rocheleau Court: Once used as a carriageway, the old stone passageway connects Princess Street to King Street and Brock Street, and offers a back entrance to patios of popular local restaurants like Chez Piggy — whose previous executive chef  Ian Arthur was just elected MPP for Kingston and the Islands — the Toucan, a popular Irish Pub, and Le Chien Noir, a modern French Bistro. Local rumour has it that one section of the pathway veering off to King Street is haunted by a female ghost.

Old Kingston neighbourhoods: Take a walk through City Park, stroll down downtown King Street, Syndenham Street, Earl Street and other small roads in between. You’ll see beautiful grand homes built in the 19th century.

READ MORE: Kingston restaurater turns his back on plastic straws

Spots to eat and drink

You’ll find most of the restaurants downtown around Princess Street and Ontario Street. Here are the top five user-ranked restaurants in Kingston TripAdvisor Canada’s website:

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  1. Grecos Grill & Wine Bar
  2. Woodenheads Gourmet Pizza
  3. Windmills
  4. Amadeus Cafe
  5. AquaTerra

Make a night of it

Need a place to stay? Here are the top five traveller-ranked hotels in Kingston on TripAdvisor:

  1. Green Acres Inn
  2. Residence Inn Kingston Water’s Edge
  3. Best Western Fireside Inn
  4. Courtyard by Marriott Kingston Highway 401 / Division Street
  5. Quality Inn & Suites

READ MORE: Booking a hotel with ‘one room left’? Watchdog says it’s probably not true

And here are TripAdvisor’s top five traveller-ranked B&Bs in Kingston:

  1. All Suites Whitney Manor
  2. Secret Garden Bed & Breakfast Inn
  3. Frontenac Club Inn
  4. Green Woods Inn
  5. Hochelaga Inn

The final pitch: Why you should visit Kingston

Michael Beleza from Tourism Kingston says the city’s placement between major cities, as well as the fact that it’s surrounded by Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence and is connected to the Rideau Canal, offers tourists plenty of opportunities to branch out past the city to attractions nearby.

“You can go down to the [Prince Edward County], and come back and enjoy fine dining in Kingston,” said Beleza. “You can go tour the Thousand Islands…there’s a wealth of things to do.”
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