Art Gallery of Algoma Photo courtesy of Art Gallery of Hamilton

Hamilton

Some say “art is the new steel” in Hamilton. It’s no wonder — the city best known for its industrial side has become a thriving arts destination for artists and visitors alike. And with easy access from Toronto and Niagara Falls, Hamilton is ideal for a day trip…or two.

Day One

Two people looking at an various pieces of artwork displayed on a wall Art Gallery of Hamilton, photo courtesy of the Art Gallery of Hamilton
A group of people looking at sculptures Photo by Abedar Kamgari
Morning
James Street North
Birthplace of “Art is the new steel”

It’s one of the oldest streets in Canada with a history of “firsts” for Hamilton. First department store (The Right House), first skyscraper (Pigott Building) and first indoor mall (Lister Block). Today, James Street North is one of the first places to go for restaurants and galleries. The early 21st-century arts renaissance (which led to the slogan “art is the new steel”) has spread throughout the city now. But James North is still home to the popular Art Crawl pop-up event each month, plus permanent galleries including You and Me Gallery, and Hamilton Artists Inc. Also consider checking out artist-run co-op The Assembly on King although note — it’s open “by chance or by appointment.” That said, nearby Redchurch Café + Gallery has its own dedicated art space curated in partnership with The Assembly.

Artwork of a metal head with flowers sprouting from the top Mother Natural Mural by Alexander Bacon, on Rebecca St. Photo courtesy of Tourism Hamilton
Afternoon
Urban Mural Walks
A Painted City

Hamilton has rightfully been called a city of murals, and you’ll see the vibrant public art form everywhere, including James Street North, Burlington, and Mary streets, and features a significant amount of eye-catching work by sought-after Haudenosaunee artist, Kyle Joedicke. Cyclists may choose to explore the one-hundred-plus murals on two wheels, thanks to the Hamilton Bike Share’s “Everyone Rides” initiative Mural Map. And July’s Concrete Canvas Art Festival gives one and all a chance to watch mural artists in the act of creation. Next on your plate could be some excellent dining, since Hamilton’s growing reputation as a creative culinary hotspot makes for many possibilities. To name a few: Mexican cuisine at The Mule, Italian at Born and Raised (home to Top Chef Canada finalist Vittorio Colacitti), pub food at Odds Bar (founded by two members of the band Arkells) and vegan cuisine at Democracy*.

A large building that reads: First Ontario Concert Hall PHOTO COURTESY Core Entertainment/ProAm Images
Evening
Musictown
From Punk to Jazz to Classical

Seems like every few years there’s another article about Hamilton’s music scene blowing up. Not a surprise, given the city is the birthplace of bands like Arkells, Whitehorse and Monster Truck, and home to Daniel Lanois’ world-renowned Grant Avenue Studio. There’s even a TV show (“This Is The Thing”), based on fictional Hamilton musicians — showcasing actual Hamilton musicians and comedians. In September, James Street’s Art Crawl turns into Supercrawl, celebrating music alongside art. Plus, the ongoing scene runs the gamut from punk to jazz to classical. FirstOntario Concert Hall is home to the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra as well as presenting a range of concerts by touring artists. Mills Hardware is a cool live music space with a long history: acts like Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks, The Ink Spots, The Tragically Hip and The Ramones have all played at the venue. Today, the programming crisscrosses music genres along with theatre, comedy and more. As for the thriving local scene, check out the beloved Casbah Lounge.

Day Two

A family of 4 walks on an elevated wooden walkway with trees all around them Photo courtesy of Royal Botanical Gardens
Morning
Royal Botanical Gardens
World’s Largest Botanical Garden

Culture in Hamilton is growing — literally — at the Royal Botanical Gardens, just a few minutes’ drive from downtown. The world’s largest botanical garden has been described as “an interactive museum filled with natural wonders,” and so it is. With its 27-plus kilometres of trails, it’s a lovely place to visit any time of year. In season you’ll find the world’s largest lilac collection plus some 3,000 rose bushes, among other floral splendours. The RBG is also a choice lunch stop, given the Greenhouse Café specializes in local produce and Ontario wines and craft brews. The birthplace of the gardens is just a three-minute drive away at the Rock Garden, with its year-round perennial display that emphasizes sustainable trends in garden design in a heritage setting. Makes sense, considering Hamilton’s unique natural backdrop, with the Niagara Escarpment (nicknamed The Mountain) dividing the city, and sparkling with 100-some waterfalls mere minutes from the downtown core.

The entrance to the large Carnegie Gallery building with pillars on either side. Photo courtesy of The Carnegie Gallery
Afternoon
Dundas Arts Studios
The Valley Town

Stop in lovely little Dundas on your way back downtown. The “Valley Town,” as Dundas is known, is a true sweet spot: its historic 19th-century centre is dotted with boutiques and cafés and surrounded by green space. (Not to mention it has the distinction of hosting the annual Cactus Festival, which has led some to call Dundas the “cactus capital of the universe.”) Dundas also has a thriving visual arts scene, with the Dundas Valley School of Art, Millworks Creative’s community of artists, and a bustling annual studio tour each fall. Permanent galleries include The Carnegie Gallery, with exhibitions by contemporary Canadian artists (and arts and crafts by locals on offer), plus Danuta Niton — Art of Design Studio, and Lorraine Roy Art Textiles.

An old looking building made of bricks The Cotton Factory, photo by Geoff Shaw
Afternoon
Cotton Factory
Cool, Gritty… and Charming

From cotton mill to creative hub, welcome to The Cotton Factory. Back in 1900, Hamilton was on the verge of an economic boom that made its steel famous, but textiles played their part too, notably the Imperial Cotton Company’s canvas manufacturing. Today, the charming old building has been repurposed as a centre for artists of all kinds (furniture designers, photographers, musicians, filmmakers etc.) to create and collaborate. Art experiences, markets and open studio days are regular features, with some studios selling the work of local makers. Located in a cool, gritty, and evolving part of Hamilton you’ll also find interesting spots to dine not far away. For instance, Motel Restaurant’s hipster brunches, Mosaic (“a chill bar with a warm vibe”), the Galley Pump’s hometown comfort food, and O Leão Cafe & Restaurant’s Portuguese cuisine.

A stage with hundreds of seats in front of it, split across 2 floors. Supplied by Theatre Aquarius
Evening
Theatre Aquarius; Playhouse Cinema
Stage and Screen

Theatre Aquarius is known for producing high-quality work and for its interest in bringing new plays to the stage. In other words, the name Theatre Aquarius is synonymous with accessible, challenging, and entertaining live theatre. But it also serves as a vibrant part of Hamilton’s arts community through theatre arts education for young people of diverse backgrounds, and with Indigenous, newcomers, and LGBTQ+ outreach programs. Note too that Hamilton offers a theatre experience of the filmic kind at the Playhouse Cinema, where you can enjoy all manner of movies in a restored and beautiful theatre dating back 105 years.

Your trip at a glance

This guide represents a weekend-long experience, highlighting one of the many wonderful destinations in the area. To suggest a destination for a future guide, please CONTACT US.

Ontario Culture Days thanks its tourism partner THE HEART OF ONTARIO for their support and assistance with this article. All editorial decisions were made at the sole discretion of Ontario Culture Days staff. This guide was written by Li Robbins.