You’d be hard pressed to find a Canadian who doesn’t know Kingston. They might know it as Canada’s first capital or that Sir John A. Macdonald called the place home. Maybe they know its restaurant scene is one of the hottest in the country or that its infamous Kingston Penitentiary is one of the most storied jails in the dominion. The point is, the city once called “King’s Town” is known as a diamond in Canada’s crown — and today it’s shining brighter than ever. Here are a few of the best ways to see its cut, including 12 can’t-miss experiences.
Native people have likely lived in this area for over three thousand years, but Kingston’s really started after Fort Frontenac was built in 1673. The community took off in the late eighteenth century with the arrival of United Empire Loyalists, and during the War of 1812 it became a military stronghold. Fort Henry was first built for that war and is still one of Kingston’s biggest attractions.
By 1840, Kingston had the largest population of any centre in Upper Canada, and a year later was the first capital of the united Province of Canada. Its other firsts: the setting of the first meeting of parliament (in what’s now part of Kingston General Hospital), and the hometown of our first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald (if you get the chance, stop by his former home, Bellevue House).
3 Best History Experiences
Sunset Ceremonies: A summer must at Fort Henry. Drum, drill and artillery squads present an interpretive story of 1860s military life as the sun goes down.
Kingston Trolley Tour: A hop on hop off historical tour aboard a vintage red trolley bus. The tour’s nine stops and narration tell over three hundred years of K-town’s story.
Original Haunted Walk: A nighttime tour through Sydenham Ward, Kingston’s creepiest hood. Tales of haunted hotels, hangings, grave robbings and more highlight the city’s strange side.
Food and Drink
Kingston has more restaurants per capita than almost anywhere in Canada. Anchored by Ontario’s oldest and longest running market, the food scene plates seafood (e.g. Dianne’s), Greek cuisine (e.g. Grecos), Thai and Cambodian (e.g. Royal Angkor), fine dining (e.g. Chez Piggy) and beyond. And don’t forget about those moving restaurants — there over ten food trucks roaming around (start with Farm Girl Food or Mission Street North).
You’re not lacking for drink options here either. Kingston’s a pub-lover’s playground with classic brew houses like Kingston Brewing Company and modern watering holes like Red House. Award-winning brewery and tap room Stone City Ales is always a good option for craft beer fans. For cocktails, head to King Street mainstay Tango and newest hole-in-the-wall Musiikki.
3 Best Food and Drink Experiences
Dining Cruise: Take a lunch or sunset dinner cruise into the Thousand Islands aboard a Mississippi Paddleboat or a glass top, Bateau Mouche style vessel.
Arts and Culture
If the market is Kingston’s food anchor, then The Grand Theatre has to be its cultural mooring. Sitting on Princess Street since 1902, it’s hosted everyone from Harry Houdini to the Kingston Symphony. The new architectural marvels on the lake — the Isabel Bader Centre and the Tett Centre — can’t be forgotten, though, as they’re adding more music, dance, film and art to the city than ever before.
Film buffs head to the Kingston Canadian Film Festival in February and The Screening Room all the time for art-house, foreign, alternative and classic cinema. Most of the downtown pubs will have live music throughout the week, but for the best tunes and venue head to The Grad Club or The Mansion.
3 Best Arts and Culture Experiences
In Sir John A’s Footsteps: Starts with a 15-minute historical stroll through downtown and ends with a 45-minute performance about Canada’s first Prime Minister and others who shaped Kingston.
Tett Centre Workshop: The Tett Centre is all about engaging the community in pursuing the arts, so take advantage of its photography workshops, Native arts classes, intros to weaving and more.
Festivals and Events
Kingston’s festival season never really comes to an end. In January and February there’s a winter carnival and a queer film fest. In the spring, Maple Madness and Limestone Race Weekend. In the summer and fall, movies in Market Square, the Skeleton Park Arts Festival, Taste of Kingston and Fort Fright. In between are peppered fairs, concerts, craft beer shows, buskers and way more. Stay tuned to Tourism Kingston’s events calendar for up-to-date listings.
3 Best Festivals and Events
Feb Fest: A downtown winter carnival complete with public skating and ice slides, a figure skating show, a hockey game between Queen’s and RMC, and another between former NHL stars.
Wolfe Island Music Festival: A free 20-minute ferry takes you to a two-day music festival on the biggest of the Thousand Islands. Past headliners have included Sarah Harmer, Shad, Constantines and Sam Roberts Band.
Buskers Rendezvous: Knife jugglers, contortionists, flame swallowers and any other street performer you can imagine take over downtown K-town for a weekend in July.