48 Hours: Where to eat, stay, and explore in Kingston

It’s been well over 20 years since I last visited Kingston, Ontario.  But like many, the recent pandemic had us rethinking where we can escape from the city for a quick getaway. We found ourselves exploring Canada more than ever before and in our own backyard of Ontario, we know there are many gems just waiting to be discovered and revisited.

Situated approximately 3 hours drive from both Toronto and Montreal, Kingston is a central and vibrant city with lots to offer. More than a pit stop, we found there was much more to do to make this destination a perfect multi-night stay getaway. Attractions are on, and off, the water and suitable for all ages. There are more than 40 museums, national historic sites, art galleries, archives, and one UNESCO World Heritage Site.

48 Hours: Where to eat, stay, and explore in Kingston

Kingston is known to be a historic town as well as a university town. It was even once considered to be Canada’s capital back in 1841 until our reigning monarchy felt it was just a little too close for comfort to the US borders.  History does remain steeped in the city’s limestone walls and the ever popular Queen’s University has the core of the city flourishing with young and vibrant businesses catering to a wide range of tastes. But Kingston’s appeal for visitors near and far is a fine balance between small town charm and big city wants.

The city boasts two film festivals and a vibrant downtown shopping scene. Home to Ontario’s oldest public market and Canada’s hippest live music scene, Kingston is a walkable city with many hidden gems and alleyways. Love vintage and antique markets? No surprise there are many treasures to be found. With dozens of museums, historic sites, unique shopping finds, and dining experiences there is something old and new around every corner.

A Modern Stay with Historic Charm at The Smith Hotel:

48 Hours: Where to eat, stay, and explore in Kingston

I can remember the B&B that we stayed in years ago. It was the typical floral decor as one would expect back then. It felt more like Auntie May’s home and while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, there are definitely more options that will appeal to a variety of vacationers today.

This time, for a fun girl’s getaway weekend it was THE SMITH HOTEL (221 Queen Street) in Kingston that became a welcoming sanctuary I couldn’t wait to return to after a few hours of exploring. This hotel left me in utter awe at the design and architecture of the space built within a historic 1864 limestone church. Read about its charming history here.

I am one who deeply considers the hotel as very much part of a vacation experience. The hotel is more than a place to rest and to clean up. It’s a retreat and escape from my everyday. Dubbed a “hotel alternative” The Smith Hotel is a more refined stay but without the fussiness of a full on hotel. There is no reception desk or anyone to greet you. Not necessary in my books in such a quaint town. All the interactions are done online. Codes and keys are provided with easy to follow instructions on where to pick up and drop off securely on site.

The Smith Hotel offers a blend of modern aesthetics while maintaining the charm of a historic town. The 19th century gothic architecture gives the hotel much character and truly sets the scene for any traveller to Kingston. The hotel itself became the next level of intrigue and curiosity for travellers like me. Even my friend, who’s more accustomed to vacation condo properties proclaimed this was the most beautiful and well thought out floor plan of any other stay she’s ever experienced, anywhere.

There are five different styles of units within The Smith Hotel each of which offer something unique. Our Two Bedroom Premium Terrace Loft with floor to ceiling glass walls was equipped with a kitchenette (with everything you need), living room space complete with an AudioTechnica turntable and a well-curated vinyl to enjoy during our stay.  The dining area could comfortably seat four people and a quaint outdoor terrace for peace and tranquillity. There was also a generous work/study desk space located on the second floor next to my chosen bedroom. The cosy couches and the luxurious beds beckon guests to linger a little bit longer.

What we also appreciated during this stay was the location, within safe walking distance to the city’s many discoveries, attractions, shops, restaurants and other points of interest. By the way, parking is included in your stay at The Smith Hotel.

The hotel is worth a look not just for casual travellers but also work retreats. Upon exploration we learned about The Sanctuary co-working space has meeting rooms and an event space within the property.

So, what can you do in Kingston within 48 hours or more? 

WHERE TO EAT:

On this trip, we learned that the city of Kingston claims the bragging rights to having the most number of restaurants per capita. This was a surprise for us coming from Toronto but indeed there were no shortage or variety of places to eat. There is a diverse mix of fine and casual dining, bars, pubs, microbrewies and cafes to explore — even ramen and bubble tea! You’ll also want to check out Ontario’s oldest continuously run Farmers Market in North America right here!

Kingston Food Tour: is a great guided tour to explore the highlights of Kingston’s food scene. Led by local foodies this walking tour offers the back stories of some of the city’s most beloved restaurants and food purveyors. On this tour we visited…

48 Hours: Where to eat, stay, and explore in Kingston

Olivea (39 Brock Street): a family-owned Italian trattoria that claims a prime location overlooking the busy Market Square. They are well loved for their fresh pasta, very impressive wine list,  charcuterie and antipasti both sourced locally and from Italy. The owners Stev George and Deanna Harrington are also known for taking a group of their staff each year to Italy so they can share experiences in the food and culture.

The Kingston Brewery Company (34 Clarence Street): known as the oldest brewpub in Ontario this is a craft beer lover’s paradise. With 28 taps of Ontario beer and cider and a hearty menu to boot, no one leaves here unsatisfied. The building itself which was once the town’s telegraph office dates back to the 1800s and you’ll want to spend time here looking at all the history in this time capsule as well as the patio space.

Dianne’s (195 Ontario Street): is a nod to the East Coast with hearty chowders and fish dishes. It also brings Mexican influence to its menu of surf and tacos. Here we also discovered an extensive Tequila list that is worth learning and exploring.

BlackDog Tavern (69 Brock Street): with over 20 years of history, this location features a casual and approachable menu in a cosy and relaxed dining room. A lot of classic dishes with modern touches but also many gluten-free options. In fact, their fryers, batters, and coatings are all gluten-free! A curated craft beer selection is also a draw.

The Frontenac Club’s “Bank Gastropub” (225 King Street East): a former bank, and men’s members only establishment, makes this a must-visit spot and not just for the rich history! You don’t need to be a member to dine here. While you can book a tour and explore the refurbished (now hotel) building, step into its original bank vaults and relax on the patio, the new menu here is delightfully local. From its hand-crafted cocktails to its vibrant dishes, there is some serious love for local and seasonal sourcing.

MIO Gelato (178 Ontario Street): this cherished and locally-owned shop has been a huge draw since 2010. The traditional and authentic Italian style gelato offers fresh artisanal treats in popular flavours like Stracciatella, coffee, and pistachio, as well as unique flavours including Thai Milk Tea. Lineups are frequent but worth it.

MORE EATERIES TO DISCOVER…

Northside Espresso + Cafe (281 Princess Street): upon arrival, we landed on this beautiful boho vibe cafe that served exceptional dishes and incredible hand crafted hot beverages. It takes menu changes often according to the seasons and what’s available fresh and locally. Even their coffee beans are from lovingly sourced fair trade roasters. Here we brunched with our eyes as well as filling our bellies with goodness.

48 Hours: Where to eat, stay, and explore in Kingston

Chez Piggy (68 Princess Street): if you ask anyone for a dining recommendation you will no doubt be directed to this landmark restaurant. Formerly an abandoned stable, this is a family-run and locally loved spot where everyone tries to get in at least one visit. The menu will definitely have something for everyone and we had fun chatting with the staff about this very interesting location.  Oh, if walls could talk (they actually just might!).

The Everly (171 Wellington Street): this modern and stylish space within a mid-century building offers exciting dishes and cocktails made with local and seasonal ingredients. No surprise that this spot is much raved about by Torontonians.

Miss Bāo + Cocktail Bar (286 Princess Street): felt more like a cool hotspot in Toronto that took us by surprise. They offer reasonable yet innovative cocktails and Asian tapas style dishes and small bites. They are also known for their zero-waste concept using sustainable practices including the use of every part of an ingredient – from pickling to broths including the use of peels and trims. Beer and wine are sourced from small producers locally.

48 Hours: Where to eat, stay, and explore in Kingston

Juniper Cafe (118-370 King St West): at the waterfront, we ducked into this cute and casual cafe on a rainy afternoon. Ideal for tasty artisanal soups, sandwiches and salads you can eat in or take away for a picnic on a sunny day, of course.  Save room for their baked goods as well.

THINGS TO DO IN KINGSTON:

S.S. Keewatin: this new attraction just opened this past May and is a jewel that sits in the harbour at the Great Lakes Museum. One of the world’s last remaining Edwardian-era passenger steamship liners has a permanent home here in Kingston. The historic luxury ship was famous for its passenger experiences that was built in 1907 the same era as the Titanic. Luckily, this ship had no disasters during its run. S.S. Keewatin retired in the 1960s. The ship has been meticulously restored and incorporates heirloom pieces and artefacts donated by families and collectors.  It may just be the closest we get to getting a feel for the Gilded Age. Oh, what it must have been like to travel on such a steamship! The guided tours explore the various classes of accommodations as well as offer insight into the life of those who worked on such a grand ship. There are two guided experiences — one of the passengers, and the other the engine room that takes visitors to the belly of the ship. This is a permanent attraction and one of the last remaining ships of the era and an extraordinary look at this travel life in the early 1900s. Suitable for all ages, however, there are steps and step-overs to manoeuvre around. Learn more here.

Bellevue House National Historic Site: if you had visited this landmark 1840s house that was also the home of Sir John A. Macdonald in the past, you’ll want to revisit it now. After an extensive restoration the popular site didn’t just get an aesthetic refresh, the reimagined Bellevue House has updated the National Historic Site to include many voices. No doubt the first Prime Minister of Canada had much influence on our country’s history. Today, this important attraction offers various perspectives and will inspire conversations about Canada’s complex story and history. A guided tour is highly recommended and there are several options depending on the audience and the time allocated. The house has been restored to offer visitors an immersive experience. We were inspired by the conversations about women and equality, the Indigenous voices as well as the Chinese head tax history. The stories shared here are also about personal as well as national identity. Also worth noting is the Indigenous artwork throughout. We learned there was, and is, consultation within both the Indigenous and Chinese communities in bringing these stories to the forefront. While acknowledging the past we can help move the country forward with more thought and understanding. Suitable for all ages — there’s a kid’s scavenger hunt and hands on activities to engage everyone.  Learn more here.

48 Hours: Where to eat, stay, and explore in Kingston

Kingston Haunted Walk: Can you even visit Kingston and not be moved by its history? Whether you believe, or not, there are plenty of ghost stories and sightings that have been well documented. While you can explore on your own, it’s more fun when you’re accompanied by a compelling storyteller all dressed the part and guiding you through the dark alleys and neighbourhoods by foot all over  town. Stories from gravediggers to public hangings and lost love encounters are just a few we learned on this thrilling outing. Book ahead as they are super popular!

Penitentiary Museum (admission is by donation): we were told that this is a must-stop since the “Kingston Pen” across the road from this museum holds many stories. Lucky for us, we had a private tour with a former prison warden who was full of incredible stories and open to all our questions of what it was like to work there. The Museum was full of uncomfortable artifacts from fascinating escape and defensive tools creatively made by inmates to torture and restraining items historically found across Canada in Federal prisons. What I found eye opening was how inmates found art and music. There are rooms within the museum dedicated to their talents. This museum is located within Cedarhedge, which once housed the wardens of the Kingston Penitentiary. It has been open to the public since 1964.

Kingston Trolley Tours: is a great way to see many attractions quickly. Because tickets are valid for 24 hours, it means you can re-do the entire tour with opportunities to revisit by “hopping on and off”. The guided open air trolley takes a route with many points of interest and always fun facts are shared by the driver/guide. We love seeing the city this way as it covers a lot in the most efficient way.

CULTURAL TOURS: (FREE STUFF)

Kingston is not just a foodie and university town! The history here is also culturally rich! You can take these self-guided “Creative Kingston Walking Tours” at your leisure and maybe discover something you might not have known before. Bring your walking shoes and your earphones.

Literary Walk: Kingston has inspired several Canadian authors. Explore bookstores and libraries along the route that are true hidden treasures. Interesting Fact: poet and novelist Jason Heroux believed in the power of public art – poetry installations, in particular. While he was poet laureate of Kingston from 2019 to 2022, he made it a priority to put poems in places where people could see and read them on their everyday travels.

Music Walk: The much loved Canadian band, The Tragically Hip, has roots in Kingston. Interesting Fact: In 1984, “The Hip” original members played their first gig at the Kingston Artists Association on Queen Street as well as the final concert with Gord Downie at Kingston’s Leon Centre. The city has become a mecca for fans of this beloved group.

Film Location Tour: learn about the city’s film history with three different walking tours. Learn about the vibrant film and television production scene. Also, discover notable filmmakers of Kingston. Interesting Fact: you’ll want to learn how Kingston was connected to the GhostBusters film.

Heritage Hour: these sessions are offered about every three months and feature guest speakers who discuss Kingston’s past and living heritage. There’s an upcoming one on June 27 (Kingston City Hall, Memorial Hall) that focuses on Indigenous Slavery in the Galley Fleet of Louis XIV: A Global Haudenosaunee History.

SHOPPING:

Vintage: There are many quaint shops owned by locals worth exploring. Some favourites of course are vintage shops for apparel, decor, and collectibles. In a town with such a long history, there are many treasures to be found! You’ll want to keep an eye out for vintage shopping block parties as well. My friend scored a gorgeous ASOS dress for $5 that fit her perfectly. Some favourite vintage shops include the Montreal Street Collective (39 Montreal Street) for amazing apparel, jewellery, and accessories. Thrifty Girl (95 Clarence) has hand-picked vintage luxe pieces of apparel and accessories.  A must-visit is the Antique Emporium (77 Princess Street) for its incredible selection of vintage and new decor pieces for the home.

Keep Refillery (206 Princess Street): if you’re familiar with this sustainable shop in Toronto, this is the third location for this popular lifestyle shop. Here you can bring your own containers and fill to help minimize waste, excess packaging and plastic use in our tiny planet. The line includes high quality personal products from soaps, shampoos, lotions, and deodorants, as well as products for the home like cleaning solutions, dishwashing liquids, and reusable products.

Sterling Fine Silvery Jewellery (77A Princess Street): if you love fun, fresh and affordable everyday jewellery, you’ll want to stop into this treasure trove. They have everything from dainty rings and bracelets to lovely effortless styles in pendants and necklaces.

HOW TO GET THERE:

Kingston can be reached by car via Highway 401, by train with VIA Rail and by air at Kingston Airport.

48 Hours: Where to eat, stay, and explore in Kingston

WANT MORE?

Kingston’s heritage, history and architecture remain a big draw to the city. You can also spot artwork, plaques, and installations throughout as you wander throughout the city and we encourage you to wander if you have time. But it’s also exciting to explore the vibrant downtown and the collection of authentic boutiques, galleries, and performance venues that are equally as exciting!

Visit their site to see what’s happening each month: visitkingston.ca

 

About Sonya Davidson 943 Articles
Covering events, openings and all the deliciousness in Toronto.