Hopping Through History on Hamilton’s Harbourfront

Photographs by Stephanie Wallcraft and courtesy Tourism Hamilton.

The Hamilton waterfront is a great place to spend a summer afternoon.

Did you react to that statement with skepticism? That’s understandable. If you look south from the Queen Elizabeth Way, or if you’ve lived in the Greater Toronto Area for decades, you might have the perception that Hamilton is made entirely of foundries and fire.

But the best part of the city’s waterfront is tucked away beyond that view from the Burlington Skyway. A quick drive to the far end of the bay unlocks plenty of entertaining ways to spend a day.

From historic adventures to modern-day simple pleasures, here are some of the highlights of Hamilton’s harbourfront.

Outdoor skating rink

Canada has plenty of outdoor ice skating rinks, but very few of them turn into roller skating rinks in the summer. Why is that? Roller skating is good exercise, great fun, and doesn’t require freezing your keister off.

Located on Pier 8, Hamilton’s outdoor roller skating rink kicks off its season on the May long weekend. The rink is free to use, plenty of free parking is available, there’s an ice cream shop and a café around the corner, and skates can be rented on-site.

HMCS Haida National Historic Site

Remember when the HMCS Haida was docked near Ontario Place on Toronto’s waterfront in the 1970s and ’80s? I have friends who can vividly remember skipping school to visit it time and again without ever getting bored.

If you’ve ever wondered what happened to the Haida, here’s your answer: she’s now the ceremonial flagship of the Royal Canadian Navy and is docked at Pier 9 in Hamilton, where she serves as a museum ship and a National Historic Site of Canada.

Of the original 27 Tribal-class destroyers built during World War II, the Haida is the only surviving example. The access afforded to visitors of “Canada’s most fightingest ship” is truly remarkable – from the crew’s cabins to the galleys and even the weapons and artillery holds, you can see it all up close.

The Haida is open from the May long weekend until the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend and is one of the Greater Toronto Area highlights of Parks Canada Xplorers, a program that gives kids aged six to 12 a guided set of activities that helps them become fully immersed in their surroundings.

My daughter has now visited over a dozen sites in the Xplorers program, and while she has thoroughly enjoyed them all, the HMCS Haida is the only one that she has persistently asked to visit again. It may seem macabre to introduce the concept of modern warfare to children so young, but as they say, those who fail to learn about history are doomed to repeat it.

This summer marks the 75th anniversary of the Haida’s commissioning, so expect to see plenty of commemorative events in the coming months.

Dundurn Castle

To the west of the main waterfront area and across the railroad tracks – just far enough from the rest of the waterfront that you’ll need to hop back into the car – Dundurn Castle majestically overlooks the bay. This 18,000 square foot Victorian-era mansion has an expansive garden and grounds that are free to access year-round, but entry to the main house is via a fee-based guided tour that’s worth every penny.

You’ll learn not only about the history of the home and those who owned it – the most prominent of them being Allan MacNab, a premier of the Province of Canada before Confederation – but also about the history of the Hamilton area and the importance it played as a staging area in the War of 1812 and as a base for major shipping routes.

Much of the interior decorating and furniture has been restored to what the McNab family would have seen, but several original examples of fixtures remain such as the servants’ bells and gas lamps. The basement holds a working kitchen that’s used year-round for cooking workshops, including throughout the summer when the garden’s crops are used to recreate Victorian recipes with the equipment and methods of the time period.

Collective Arts Brewing Company

One of Southern Ontario’s most celebrated craft breweries is housed in a building on Burlington Street that’s best described as unassuming – at least for now.

Collective Arts Brewing Company prides itself on its meld of great beer and edgy art, an ethos that will soon adorn not only the sides of its cans but its exterior walls as well.

Visitors drop in to enjoy a brew in the bright and eclectic space, several of which can only be bought at this storefront location. Unfortunately, the brewery isn’t allowed to sell its ciders on-site, but they can be sampled here and picked up at the LCBO or select grocery stores in Ontario. Both types of tipples are available across Canada (except in Quebec), in 10 states, and internationally.

This June 15 and 16, Collective Arts will play home to its inaugural Liquid Arts Fest, which will attract 52 breweries from around the world along with live music, street artists live-painting murals, and several thousand visitors. For a fee, revelers can catch a shuttle bus from Toronto or Buffalo.

Waterfront parks

If a peaceful walk through a park is more your scene, there are several spots worthy of a picnic.

Bayfront Park has a roughly circular path that’s smooth and wide, which makes for easy traversing on foot or with a stroller. The numerous birdhouses installed on the water’s edge on the north side give a natural wetland home to a variety of birds. I’m no birder by any means, but we spotted robins, tree swallows, red-winged blackbirds, and Canada geese along our walk, plus numerous others. There’s a picturesque beach on the park’s west end, but the water isn’t safe for swimming – an unfortunate side effect of the area’s heavily industrial past. Still, it makes for a picturesque natural respite.

Just up the road at Pier 4 Park, the large nautical-themed playground will keep young ones busy for hours.

Downtown and the King William Street food scene

Snacks can be found here and there on the waterfront, but if it’s a meal you’re after, then – for now at least – you’ll likely prefer to get back into the car – not only because the main drag along James Street North is a little further south than the rest of the local attractions, but some downtown blocks remain a little rougher than others.

Food lovers will find that the cobblestone-lined stretch of King William Street east of James Street North is becoming a destination in its own right. Restaurants serving fare ranging from trendy hamburgers to classic French cuisine have popped up here over the past couple of years, lured by affordable rents and the opportunity in the market.

At Berkeley North, which opened with a California-inspired pescatarian menu but more recently has expanded to add responsibly and sustainably raised meat products from Cumbrae’s Butchers, partner Carl Wilson says that the Hamilton downtown and waterfront areas are improving quickly, and people are starting to take notice.

“People who live on Hamilton Mountain come down here,” he says, “and are surprised to see how much it’s changed.”

No argument here.