This is the latest in our twice-a-month series on underrated destinations, It’s Still a Big World.
“I’m gonna blame your luck on this.”
Domini Clark came down with COVID, just a few days before I was to visit her for the weekend in Hamilton, Ontario—my chance to see the city she can’t stop talking about. It’s also her hometown. After spending years in Toronto, my friend decided to return and buy a house in Hamilton during the pandemic.
We met on a press trip in Quebec right as COVID began, and as the world shut down we became good friends, commiserating over our lockdowns—this is a woman who hiked the 186-mile Pembrokeshire Coast Path in southwest Wales by herself. It made sense that the one time I was able to visit her that COVID would be there too.
So OK, yes. She had a point. This was my luck.
In fact, canceling trips was the most consistent story arc of my 2022. COVID was there at the beginning of the year when my father almost died from it, and I said goodbye to him three times. I canceled or moved all my trips then. Another big trip was canceled the night before I was to leave, due to a punch in the gut from the flu. And just a month before Hamilton, a press trip to Alaska was canceled because, you guessed it, I got COVID.
“But not this time, Universe,” I remember thinking.
So I rearranged my Canadian road trip to fit her recovery. With some help from Tourism Hamilton, and apparently their best evangelist, I spent a weekend getting to know the area. Now having been there, I can see why Domini loves it—and she does, swearing even the tap water is the best (it’s not bad).
Located an hour to the southwest of Toronto, Hamilton (population: 812,000) is situated on the far west side of Lake Ontario. It’s a city of over 100 waterfalls—150 by another count (you read that correctly). It’s surrounded by the outdoors, full of great restaurants, and has a lively nightlife. It’s not a city that puts on airs, as more than one person told me. In that way, Hamilton reminds me a little of another favorite place, Naples, Italy, where the energy is in front of you.
Known as The Hammer locally, Hamilton has had many nicknames (see this history of them). The Waterfall City or Waterfall Capital of the World has its obvious origins. It’s been called Steeltown or The Steel City, for its steel plants, and relatedly, Lunch-Bucket Town. But steel feels uninspired, and Lunch-Bucket Town is one of those nicknames first applied by condescending outsiders. So also was another nickname that I actually love and has been owned by Hamiltonians since its creation: The Ambitious City.
In 1847, a column in The Globe patronizingly called it The Ambitious City. While it was meant to be a diminutive, like saying, “Oh, look at you trying to be a real city like Toronto,” The Hamilton Spectator editor, Robert Smiley, saw it as a badge of honor, and nothing defangs a label like claiming it.
As Domini has told me a few times: “We’re not a neighborhood of Toronto; we have our own neighborhoods.”
That always moving forward and defiance at the expectations of others—that feels right when you’re in Hamilton.
While I was there, my home base for the weekend was Staybridge Suites downtown, which is in the center of everything. Hamilton is not a city for boutique hotels—just mostly chains and Airbnbs—but it is easy to be centrally located at Staybridge, which is also a comfortable stay.
There are many neighborhoods in Hamilton, and not all are the same. Locke Street, for example, is a comfy shopping neighborhood with a farmer’s market, and Ottawa Street is a home to antiques and the wonderfully bizarre Cabinet of Curiosities, where you can get a mummified piglet, the creepy dentist chair from your nightmares, or even that rare amputation chainsaw from 1860 that you’ve always wanted, but refused to tell the police why.
Then there’s Barton Village, where brunch alone at the creperie Verlan is enough to make you want to move to Hamilton. Verlan specializes in French-inspired crepes, French- and Australian-inspired toasties, soups, and patisserie. Their tomato jam is perfect. Hamilton is also home to the first Tim Hortons, but I have one of those back in Ohio. Instead, I was introduced to Cafe Baffico, and now dream about their Canadian Maple and Honey Dipper donuts.
The morning I arrived, I joined Domini for a breakfast run down James Street, which is the center of activity in Hamilton, with plenty of places to eat and drink. It is also where festivals are set up, like the monthly Art Crawl or the annual multi-arts Supercrawl.. There I discovered breakfast restaurants like SYNONYM, a locally sourced bohemian cafe, and Mulberry Coffeehouse, which has a nice selection of pastries, and OKO Bagels, which specializes in Montreal Style Bagels.
Hamilton is a place you generally visit by car. Many may pass by the city without stopping, sometimes on the way to the nearby Niagara Falls Park. If you’re only on the Skyway, you might think it’s a city of smokestacks, and miss its substance. But if you come the way I did, driving along York Boulevard, there is a very different picture.
Trees and outdoor spaces are everywhere.
And I really shouldn’t be surprised, since Domini has been bragging about that since she moved and started trekking the parks in her hok-skis in the winter.
The outdoors is baked into the Hamilton landscape. You’re never that far from trails or waterfalls, and that beauty is largely the result of the 650-mile Niagara Escarpment—a long slope formed by erosion that runs like an arch from East to West, from west New York state to Ontario, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois. This is the escarpment over which the Niagara Falls plummet.
The escarpment also cuts through Hamilton’s developed areas, making those 100-plus waterfalls possible.
Many of these falls are in the Dundas Valley Conservation Area, part of the Hamilton metropolitan area, and a good place for any outdoor activities you’re looking to do. Aside from paying for access ($10.50 CA; $7.56 USD per vehicle; $5.00 CA; $3.60 USD per person), a few areas, like Tew Falls, Webster Falls, and the hike to Dundas Peak, require reservations at some points in the year to reduce foot traffic during the popular fall season. When I arrived on a Friday, I headed to Spencer Gorge along the escarpment in Dundas and hiked the short trail that starts with Tew Falls—a ribbon waterfall that is also Hamilton’s tallest—and led to Dundas Peak, which offers a big picture view of the city.
Side note: Two waterfalls worth seeing, among many, are Albion Falls and Sherman Falls. Albion is a cascading falls that is roughly 60 feet wide and 64 feet high, and is very photogenic. Sherman is privately owned, but open to the public and nestled in a calm, cool, and wooded space.
The Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) also surprised me.
The RBG has 2,400 acres of nature sanctuaries and 300 acres of cultivated gardens. In the latter category is the David Braley & Nancy Gordon Rock Garden. Its upper and lower gardens were re-landscaped in 2015 with drought-resistant perennials and grasses, blooming at different periods of the year, making it more sustainable.
Conserved RBG nature sanctuaries, like the nearly 250-acre Hendrie Valley Sanctuary, have trails centered around wetlands, with ample opportunities to see wildlife, especially for birders, or to take a restful nature walk. Cootes Paradise is the RBG’s “largest and most diverse sanctuary” (at 1483 acres), which includes 791 acres of river-mouth marsh with extensive trails.
Princess Point, which is at Cootes Paradise, has hiking trails, opportunities to paddle for those who own their own canoe or kayak, and (during those cold Canadian winters) it is a popular spot for ice skating.
But if you really want to understand Hamilton’s waterfalls and natural landscape, then a short 40-minute trip to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls is well worth doing as part of your Hamilton visit, especially now that Niagara just opened a new attraction that takes visitors down 180 feet in the historic power station. There you’ll find a never-before-seen 2,200 foot underground tunnel that leads to a new spectacular view of the falls and that escarpment.
If you show up at night, there is “Currents: Niagara’s Power Transformed,” an interactive, immersive exhibit on the history of the region’s falls and hydroelectric power. Currents is masterfully done—fully plunging the Niagara visitor into an interactive story-telling that is alive and bursting with color, sound, and score.
But after spending a day outside, you’ll find plenty of areas around Hamilton for food, cold beer, and cocktails.
On James Street North, MERIT Brewing is a relaxed place to kick back with one of their IPAs or to try out their beer-wine hybrid, the Happy Place Cab Franc Skin & Vine Saison, which has a refreshing finish. (I’ve been seeing a lot more beer-wine hybrids on menus lately.)
Or you can get a fortifying meal at The Ship, just off James Street South, which has a charming covered pergola patio out the back of the restaurant. They were understaffed the night we were there, but the Catfish po’boy was a satisfying refuel after being outdoors.
The Capitol Bar on King Street, which very much serves as the neighborhood bar, is a cool, cozy space with live music. While there, I ordered a lager and had some conversations with Hamiltonians about why they choose to live in the city.
Sitting next to me at the bar, Aaron Donst told me he was 3 when he arrived in Hamilton and spent 15 years planning his escape. At some point, he says, a switch was flipped in how he felt about the city.
“I want to experience the rest of my life from Hamilton,” Donst told me. “I love this place.” Hamilton is close to everything without being caught up in the rush of a big city, he adds, and it’s small enough that he gets to know his neighbors.
Donst’s one disappointment? “We can’t catch an NHL game in Hamilton,” he said. You have to go elsewhere.
Hamilton is city 13, Aaron Weafer told me, after listing off the places he’s lived. (It was a night for meeting the Aarons of Hamilton.) At 10 years, Hamilton is the place he’s lived the longest, and he doesn’t plan on leaving.
What won him over was that Hamilton is more like “a small town with the energy of a city.”
“When I say small town,” says Weafer, “I mean, when I come to the bar, I know the owner and all the staff, and I’ve heard of the people in this room.”
And this is another theme I’ve found repeated while there: “Hamilton is a small town in a city.” In fact, within the first 30 minutes of being in town and walking James Street, I randomly ran into an individual from the tourism offices that I had never met in person.
“The people in Hamilton are just, I think, a lot nicer than most other places,” Spencer Brewer (Domini’s boyfriend) later told me Saturday afternoon. “You get to go into a bar or restaurant and interact with other people that are not just closed off.”
Hamilton, as I’ve discovered, is the kind of city where people thank their bus drivers when they get to their stop.
He recognizes the city needs improvements and has complaints about its political priorities, but he sees Hamiltonians as putting in the effort.
When I mentioned that earlier in the day I had seen community refrigerators, which are outside, accessible, and full of supplies, he quickly added, “Or there’s Period Pop-ups, as well, for women to get any supplies they need.” (Fifty-three percent of those unhoused in Hamilton are women.)
“Tonight you’ll get to see the real Hamilton,” Domini told me.
We met that night for dinner at Aberdeen Tavern, which is less a traditional tavern and more of an elevated dining experience with the bar option. It’s a quiet atmosphere and perfect for catching up with friends. I opted for something more comfort food for me, the Saffron Risotto (summer squash, peas, prosciutto, ricotta, and marjoram). They have a nice selection of cocktails, like the Golden Hour (Havana Club 7 rum, maraschino liqueur, pineapple juice, lime juice, and demerara syrup) and zero percent cocktails like Hibiscus Fever (Sobrii gin, lime juice, pineapple juice, hibiscus ginger syrup, angostura bitters).
After dinner, we hopped over to The Cotton Factory, which is a former cotton factory turned artist studios within a cool industrial space. The galleries and studios were open and artists were out ready to meet and talk. We made our way through winding halls, down freight elevators, and into studios selling their art, including funky masks made from found objects, and others hosting mixers in their galleries.
One gallery stood out. Large polarized and almost electric pieces depicted motherhood: a pregnant woman spooning with her partner in bed; a woman giving birth in a pool; a baby in a womb; a mother breastfeeding. We turned to face a wall-sized painting behind us and paused.
“Yup, that’s a vagina,” Domini noted.
I love visiting cities with industrial spaces turned-art-studios, and seeing what was probably a depressing, drab and dusty space brought to life with color and energy.
We followed that up with drinks at the cocktail lounge, Rapscallion and Co., where you’re greeted by antique Tiffany-style lamps, and round, leather banquette seats, leading to a cool, swanky bar space that faces an eclectic art gallery. They have a nice selection bourbons and signature cocktails, like the Sunbreather (bourbon, spicy tequila, Mezcal, Pineapple, Lemon, Guinness/pepper float), or the after dinner Night Owl (Irish whiskey, stout, coffee/smoke/chocolate blend of bitters, nutmeg), along with an array of meat dishes and vegetarian options. It’s definitely a return visit for the next trip.
“You’ll want to take that suit jacket off,” she tells me before we leave. “You’re going to have trouble blending in at the karaoke bar.” This was her surprise.
Backstreet Bar & Grill, a couple blocks off of James Street North, is a fun, dark, and dingy dive bar with an energetic—and I imagined sticky—karaoke stage. The beer list isn’t fantastic, but that’s not why you’re there, and that’s not why you’ll come back.
Front and center on the stage, anyone and everyone belted out songs with an emotional rawness that left you thinking you just watched them gut themselves in front of everyone. The beer in their hands sloshed while they sang. I draped my apparently outstanding jacket on my chair and sat mesmerized.
Regulars were there, I was told. I noticed a middle-aged man who also wore a navy suit jacket. He took the stage to sing ABC’s The Look of Love. He apparently tends to sing heartbreakers and sometimes weeps while doing it. He looked happy enough to me. Maybe his choice of song meant he finally met that someone special.
By 1 am, and after several songs, we made our way out of the bar, winding through a crowd gathered outside and the pungent draft of weed. Domini called an Uber and I hit the sidewalk back to my hotel. I passed clubs and bars still full of sound, the Art Gallery of Hamilton that I never made it to, and restaurants that I still want to try.
Hamilton is a city with texture—alive and flawed, but never banal. It’s classy, raw, and underestimated.
It’s a city with lush outdoor green spaces, posh night spots, breakfast favorites, and colorful dive bars. It’s The Ambitious City, but it’s also a small town in a big city. It’s the city that made my friend who she is—the one who engages the world on her terms and helped to talk me through a pandemic—and I’m forever grateful for that.