Kingston is roughly half-way between Toronto and Montreal, along highway 401. I’ve made the trip between those two cities dozens of times over the last 25 years, yet I never thought of stopping here until this July!

Kingston served briefly as the capital of the United Canadas from 1841 to 1844 (before Confederation). The impressive City Hall, constructed in the Neoclassical style, was completed in 1844. It faces the waterfront, where the St Lawrence river empties into Lake Ontario, and is the focal point of the city. Across the street you find the old train station, now the tourist office, and a newly repainted black steam locomotive. The arch and fountain in Confederation Park symbolizes Canada as one nation from sea to sea, and was opened in 1967 to commemorate the Canada’s centennial. Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. MacDonald hails from Kingston, and you can see his house at 110-112 Rideau Street.

A small but pleasant downtown

Downtown Kingston is the site of several 19th century buildings. Queen’s University (established in 1841), is one of the oldest universities in Canada. The older buildings are made of grey stone, with turrets and pointy roofs, looking very English with their ivy creeping up the walls. Some of the modern buildings, by contrast, are less than inspiring, even though others could be considered “quirky”. Walking through a nearby park brings you to a status of Sir John A. Macdonald, and then to Ontario Street, which takes you right back to City Hall.

On Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, a small food and handicraft market sets up on Springer Market Square, behind City Hall. Saturday is the busiest day. You can sit on the patio of restaurant Olivea on Brock Street and watch the action.

My visit happened to coincide with the first day of the Busker Festival, which is held around City Hall for four days in mid-July. The performance I caught was quite amusing and because the crowd was not oppressive, I had a good view of the proceedings. The Festival is free and the performers ask for donations.

A quiet walk

For a quieter time, walk along the Waterfront Pathway, an eight kilometres trail that goes from Emma Martin Park in the East, to the Rideau Trailhead in the West. A shorter section can be enjoyed by following King Street to the south, from downtown. You will pass several small museums: Murney Tower Museum, Pump House Steam Museum, and Marine Museum of the Great Lakes.

At Emily St. head toward the lake and follow the path along Macdonald Memorial Park for about a kilometre and a half. Stately homes grace the other side of King Street. I was here on a Thursday at lunch time, and the area was very quiet. A few people sat on benches, eating their lunch, while others jogged or sat by the water’s edge in peaceful contemplation.

 Wolfe island

If you want to be “on” the water rather than next to it, take the free ferry to Wolfe Island (which departs every 30 minutes from the dock at the foot of Barrack Street). The 20-minute ride is a good way to cool off on a hot and humid summer day. Located at the mouth of the St Lawrence river, Wolfe is considered the first of the 1000 islands.

After docking at Wolfe, you find yourself right in the middle of a small village, with a choice of bakery, Bar & Grill, or small cafe Tenango which was celebrating its first birthday the day I visited. You can rent a bike and explore the island, or just walk around the quiet rural setting. Find yourself a spot by the water and listen to the birds singing and the wind blowing in the reeds.

Kingston is also home to a famous penitentiary, but hopefully, you will not need to visit there!

The town centre is compact and a day is all it takes to explore downtown, the Queen’s campus, and perhaps do a little trip on the water. If you want to visit some museums, add a second day.

In summary, if you have some time to spare while travelling between Montreal and Toronto, Kingston is the perfect place for a break.

Where to eat:
Olivea, 39 Brock St. 613.547.5483 (Italian restaurant, patio)
Tir Nan Og, 200 Ontario St. 613.544.7474 (Irish pub)
Chez Piggy, 68R Princess St. 613.549.7673 (locally sourced ingredients, patio)

Public buses:
Fare: $2.50 adult, $2.25 children

Waterfront Pathway 

Wolfe Island ferry:
Leaves every 30 minutes from both Kingston and Wolfe Island.
First ferry from Kingston: 6:15 am
Last ferry from Wolfe Island:1:20 am
Schedule is seasonal.