Ontario is a Canadian province that is noteworthy for its high population density (by Canadian standards at least). It is also well-known as the site of both the nation's capital of Ottawa, and one of the country's most globally-recognized cities, Toronto (the provincial capital). These larger accolades are balanced out by some of the quietest, prettiest, and most alluring communities one could ever hope to find. They are spread across four of the Great Lakes of which Ontario is adjacent, along beautiful rivers, modest mountains, soft beaches, and lush forests. The following is a list, in no particular order, of some of the most charming towns to visit throughout this amazing province.
Tobermory is a cozy fishing town on the Northern tip of the Bruce Peninsula. It is appreciated for its stunning Georgian Bay scenery, sunken ships that beckon scuba divers from all over, and its laid-back community. The town serves not only as an excellent final destination for city-weary Ontarians, but also as a terminal for the Chi-Cheemaun ferry, which shuttles passengers to and from Manitoulin Island, and operates as the Northern trailhead for the 560-mile, Niagara-bound, Bruce Trail. For these reasons and more, Tobermory has rightfully earned the title, "crown jewel of the Bruce Peninsula."
This small, Shakespere-inspired city is located in Southeast Ontario (and is "but mad North-northwest"). It is named after the birthplace of the great English playwright and also happens to be the hometown of Canadian heartthrob musician, Justin Bieber (though I am not equating the two). The charm here oozes out of every chocolate shop, boutique hotel, theater, and creatively designed (and well-executed) restaurant. Stratford prides itself on everything presentation, from art to architecture, to mom n' pop shops.
Port Franks is a blend of country and lakeside vibes. It is a low-key place that provides quiet respite from the Greater Toronto Area, as well as the more popular summer destination spots in and around Lambton Shores. It has the sandy Lake Huron beach (the first Great Lake on the list), and the excellent nature trails of its nearby tourist rivals (such as Pinery Provincial Park and Grand Bend), but the difference is, no one seems to know about this place. It is a tough detour to spot, so look for the striking sand dunes that rise seemingly out of nowhere. How charming!
Dundas is a gem within the city of Hamilton. It is nicknamed “Valley Town” as it is nestled at the bottom of the Niagara Escarpment. This area is home to the Dundas Valley Conservation Area and Christie Conservation Area, both of which protect the surprising natural beauty of “Steel City.” The extensive hiking trails and tall waterfalls are particularly photogenic - as too is the historic downtown core of Dundas.
Niagara-on-the-Lake is impossibly charming. For starters, it is perfectly situated right where the Niagara River meets Lake Ontario (another one of the Great Lakes). Plus, the mega-attraction, Niagara Falls, is only a stone's throw away. On top of that, the Heritage District combines an old-town feel with the energy of bustling tourism. The appeal only continues with the numerous wineries that not only produce world-class selections, but do so in an environment of stunning architecture. And finally, Niagara-on-the-Lake is deemed “The culinary capital of Canada.” This is the place to step out of the mundane and into a different world for a night, a weekend, or more.
This serene community exists within the municipality of Bluewater, in Huron County, and is another sandy paradise on the shores of Lake Huron. For anyone looking to string together a charming lakeside road trip, Bayfield is less than 30 miles North of Port Franks/Lambton Shores and around 140 miles South of Tobermory. The three main beaches give visitors a chance to spread out and enjoy their own little slice of summertime swimming or shoulder-season musing. The quaint and historical buildings along Main Street will soothe the soul and beckon the belly with the array of restaurants, cafes, pubs, and bakeries.
This township is easy to miss en route between Thunder Bay and Nipigon, in Northwestern Ontario. Drive a mere 5-miles South of the Trans Canada Highway and this lovely, nature-soaked community reveals itself. Red Rock sits between the verdant cliffs of How Mountain and the unkempt shores of Nipigon Bay, which flows in from Lake Superior (yet another of the Great Lakes). It is a place to catch a breath and stretch the legs - specifically, try the Nipigon River Recreation Trail, which spans 6-miles (one-way) through a forested trail that overlooks the bay. Before leaving, try spending a night at the spooky, yet intriguing, Red Rock Inn.
Though the name references the gypsum deposits used to manufacture plaster of Paris and not the French city, Paris, Ontario is still deserving of every positive connotation. This adorable community in the County of Brant, near the city Brantford, is a place of old churches, cobblestone buildings, and where the slim Nith River meets the aptly named Grand River. Paris makes for a relaxing getaway where visitors can escape the bustle of the bigger Southern Ontario cities. Take a riverside stroll, disappear into some nature trails, or just enjoy the town's anachronistic sights that prevail despite surrounding developments.
Port Stanley is a harbor village in the Municipality of Central Elgin, in Elgin County, on the North Shore of Lake Erie (the fourth of Ontario's Great Lakes). This is another classic walking town. Check out the different sailboats parked in the marinas and live vicariously through all the nautical neighbors. Then hit the beach and take in the smiling faces as they enjoy some of the best sands in the North Lake Erie region. Finally, cruise through the village streets, filled with the standard pubs, restaurants, and ice cream parlors you would hope to see in a cute fishing community.
Blue Mountain Village (Collingwood)
Many of the charming towns on this list are enchanting during the summer, but dormant during the winter. Not so with Blue Mountain Village, Ontario's largest mountain village resort, and one that is geared toward winter fun. As the name would suggest, Blue Mountain Village is located at the foot of the Blue Mountains of the Niagara Escarpment, just outside of Collingwood. This provides the slopes for skiing and snowboarding - modest by West Coast standards but still enticing for anyone who wants to carve powder while in Ontario. There are also festival lights, a skating loop, shops to explore, or for anyone who wants to just stay inside and keep cozy, the decor and activity is pleasing to watch through the window of any toasty chalet. Bare in mind, Blue Mountain Village is a four season resort town. When the snow melts, this place still delivers excellent hiking, biking, ziplining, and more.
This final entry is another small city, and it is the hometown of yours truly. Despite my bias, Sarnia definitely delivers in the charm department. It showcases a long Lake Huron shoreline filled with private and public beaches, several sizable parks are peppered in throughout, and the downtown core has recently experienced a resurgence, particularly in regards to craft food/drinks and thoughtful cafes. Sarnia is a key USA/Canada border crossing, symbolized by the proud, dual arches of the Blue Water Bridge, which span the St. Clair River into Port Huron, Michigan. A relaxing afternoon can be spent hanging out by the fry trucks under the bridge, watching the boats pass by and observing the steady and mutual, international exchange.
So there you have it, proof positive that Ontario is so much more than the province of Canada's metropolitans. There are no shortage of charming towns, (small) cities, communities, and villages throughout the land. For anyone who likes cozy layouts, outdoor leisure (particularly swimming), and indulging the palate, Ontario's softer side will deliver.