We know, we know—Ontario is overflowing with pretty, historic towns. Once you get away from the big cities, it’s hard to travel very far in any direction without coming across lovely Victorian storefronts and graceful heritage houses—so narrowing it down to only 10 towns was pretty difficult.
While it may be a controversial list, we’ve picked the spots that offer that perfect balance between old-fashioned charm, quirky culture, and welcoming community. You won’t go wrong taking a weekend trip to any of these gems—in fact you may be tempted to relocate all together. After all, Ontario is home to some of the best places to retire in Canada.
According to local stories, Queen Elizabeth called Goderich “the prettiest town in Canada,” although currently, no reigning monarch has ever actually visited. No matter—the town is lovely, and rightly famous for its sunsets. Its historic downtown is built on an octagonal central plaza called the Square, with 19th century homes and buildings extending along the eight roads that radiate outwards. And while a tragic tornado uprooted many of the Square’s old growth trees and destroyed some of its buildings in 2011, rebuilding efforts are underway, and the town remains one of our top picks for the loveliest day-trip destinations in Canada.
Originally known as Yarmouth Corners, Sparta has a deep connection to its Quaker past. First founded in 1813 and settled in the 1820s, Sparta’s Quaker Meeting House is still in use. You can see historic artifacts from this tiny hamlet’s past at Ye Olde Forge and Anvil museum, which is housed in the old blacksmith’s shop. For the ultimate in quaintness, check out the Sparta House Tea Room, built in 1830, which has the largest collection of teapots in southwestern Ontario.
Famous for its farmers’ market and spots for horse and buggy parking, St. Jacobs is in the heart of Ontario’s Old Order Mennonite community. The village of St. Jacobs includes a fantastic store devoted to architectural salvage items (think columns, stained glass windows, and cut-glass doorknobs) and a handmade broom store, along with lots of spots for artisans and great food.
You simply can’t go wrong with a rushing river, a beautiful old mill (in the process of being renovated), and gorgeous stone storefronts. Pretty much every corner in Elora is an opportunity to take a photograph. Add to that a world-class music festival and close-by outdoor fun—including one of our favourite cottage-country destinations, the Elora gorge—and you can see why Elora calls itself “Ontario’s Most Beautiful Village.”
Just outside of Hamilton, in the shadow of the Niagara Escarpment, Dundas has a beautifully preserved 19th-century downtown that has been the setting for many movies and TV shows. Coffee roasters, cheese shops, and a tiny tea room share space with nature trails and waterfalls. Wander through the residential streets north of downtown to get a taste of Ontario around the turn of the century.
Located northwest of Peterborough, Lindsay has one of the widest main streets in Ontario, which was originally built to accommodate the turning radius of a four-horse hitch. The main street is lined with historic Victorian storefronts, many of which were built following a fire in 1859 that destroyed most of the town’s commercial district. Check out performances at the Academy Theatre at the foot of the historic district.
On the shores of Lake Ontario and the Ganaraska River, Port Hope combines a historic downtown with extensive waterfront trails and beaches. Be sure not to miss the “Float Your Fanny Down the Ganny” river race in April, a 10-km race down the river in…well, pretty much anything that can float. Heritage is serious business in Port Hope—the town received a heritage award from Ontario’s Lieutenant Governor in 2008.
In picturesque Prince Edward County, Picton features a scaled-down version of the famous Crystal Palace built in London, England for the Great Exhibition of 1851, along with a host of other heritage buildings and archaeological sites. Check out the Regent Theatre, a rare, still-intact Edwardian opera house, which now hosts both live theatre and movies.
Situated on the Tay River, Perth is home to Canada’s oldest pioneer burial ground and was the site of the last fatal duel to be fought in Upper Canada. It’s not surprising, then, that the town also has a wealth of historic buildings, was voted the Prettiest Town in Ontario in 2000 by viewers of TV Ontario, and made our reader-nominated list of great small towns to explore in Canada.
Merrickville is known as “The Jewel of the Rideau,” and it’s easy to see why—restored stone buildings and a beautiful location on three locks on the Rideau Canal create a charming downtown. In fact, Merrickville boasts more buildings designated under the Ontario Heritage Act than any other village its size in Ontario. The Blockhouse, built in 1832, is a National Historic Site of Canada, and now houses a museum.