Story by Julia Pelish
Vacay.ca Visual Editor
HAMILTON, ONTARIO — Long regarded as an industrial city with little to offer tourists, Hamilton is experiencing a transformation that may even tempt cynical Torontonians to drop by for a look. A recent weekend visit to this city of more than half a million people located on Lake Ontario between Toronto and Niagara Falls revealed a creative grassroots energy nourished by community spirit.
Although I live in Toronto, I am an American and not fully aware of the rivalry between Hogtown and Steeltown. What I do know is we all root for underdogs, and Hamilton is endearing because it embraces its role as the smaller, less affluent and mostly overlooked city on the Great Lakes. The great thing about underdogs is when they get even a small victory, they celebrate as if they’ve won a war. So it’s no surprise that when Hamilton — not Toronto — was chosen as the location for the first Anchor Bar franchise in Canada citizens arrived with gusto.
The Anchor Bar is home of the original Buffalo wing, created in 1964 and now a staple on pub menus everywhere in North America. The bar opened its initial Canadian location in Jackson Square earlier this year. According to general manager Tal Adler, the owners chose Hamilton because, “People genuinely want you to succeed here and the city really gives a lot of support.” The restaurant has a sports bar/family dining atmosphere with a menu that is unexpectedly broad. You can order the original secret recipe wings (with varying degrees of heat up to “suicide”), as well as pizzas made in a wood-fired oven imported from Italy, or salads and other healthy entrée selections.
After dinner, we traversed the James Street North area, which hosts an Art Crawl on the second Friday of each month. While Toronto has numerous art festivals, it doesn’t have an event like this frequently occurring, community-driven celebration of local art and artists infused with levity and good food. You start your trek with a stop at Tourism Hamilton’s Visitors Centre (open til 11 pm during the Art Crawl) in the lovingly restored Lister Block on the corner of James and King William streets. It is one of the beautiful old architectural gems in a city filled with them. From there go on to explore the cool vintage boutiques, cafes and gallery spaces. The area is expanding too because of a new wave of musicians and artists relocating from Toronto after discovering Hamilton’s affordability. If hunger strikes during the art crawl, food trucks are on the scene to serve the crowd.
Art aficionados will want to extend their stay to visit the Art Gallery of Hamilton, Ontario’s third-largest public art gallery, which will celebrate its 100th birthday in May 2014. A major retrospective of painter William Blair Bruce, who was born in Hamilton but spent most of his life painting in Paris and Sweden, will mark the centennial. Bruce is considered Canada’s first Impressionist. AGH owns 29 of his paintings, which were donated to the museum in 1906 after Bruce died at age 47. The only stipulation his family made in bequeathing Bruce’s works to the city was that they be housed in a permanent municipal gallery. Being that there wasn’t one at the time this detail took a few years of haggling at city hall. Finally in 1914 the Art Gallery of Hamilton was incorporated. Today the permanent collection has grown to more than 9,500 pieces and contains a wonderful mix of Canadian classic and contemporary as well as European historical art. Alex Colville’s iconic Horse and Train is a highlight of the collection and is presently on semi-permanent view. The AGH’s other location, the Design Annex, is on James Street North and features the new Art + Design Store that is stocked with one-of-a-kind items.
Meanwhile, Theatre Aquarius, Hamilton’s home for live arts, has expanded season by season since opening in 1973. It brings great performances into town. On the weekend I was there, I thoroughly enjoyed the musical Legally Blonde starring the lovely Kylee Evans. Times Stand Still is playing until June 8 and the 2013-14 season continues through December with a great lineup of dramas and musicals.
For those needing a room for the weekend, the recently opened Staybridge Suites offers rooms that are generous in size with comfortable beds and a kitchenette. (An added pleasure for me was the orange décor room accents; I have a weakness for that colour.) The staff is professional and friendly and the hotel is central to the city’s downtown.
The biggest surprise for me is how much I am looking forward to going back and discovering more of the activities and attractions in the Hamilton area, like hiking the renowned Bruce Trail, seeing more of the Niagara Escarpment and checking out some of the more than 100 waterfalls within the city limits. Then there is the James Street Supercrawl in September and festivals and concerts … And the chance to catch up with Vacay.ca friend and Hamilton’s biggest fan, musician Tom Wilson … and I could go on, but maybe it’s time you check out Hamilton for yourself.
More About Visiting Hamilton
Staybridge Suites: Nightly rates for king size bed, open concept room range from $149 – $164 per night. Reservations can be made here.
Art Gallery of Hamilton Hours: Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday: 11 am-6 pm; Thursday: 11 am-8 pm; Saturday and Sunday: noon-5 pm. Admission: Adults, $10; seniors/students, $8; children age 6-17, $4; free for children under age 5; family pass (2 adults and up to 4 children), $25. Website: Art Gallery of Hamilton.
The Anchor Bar Menu Prices: Wings start at $11.99; pizzas start at $14.99; dinner entrees range from $12.99 to $19.99.
Website: The Anchor Bar.
Getting Here: Hamilton is about 70 kilometres (50 minutes) from both Toronto to the northeast and Niagara Falls from the southwest. It is between both destinations, accessed through exits on the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW).
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