Story by Lynn Burshtein
LONDON, ONTARIO – London, Ontario is one of Canada’s most prosperous cities, particularly in the insurance and information technology industries. It is also the hometown of the Labatt and Carling breweries. But London is probably best known as a university town. Each September, the city is virtually taken over by party-hardy undergraduates returning for the fall semester. Frat boys and sorority girls (mainly from the University of Western Ontario’s Arts or Commerce programs) invade local pubs with a fervour their parents undoubtedly wished was applied to their studies. There may well be English majors on the scene here, but they seem to fly under the radar, at least culturally: The vernacular overheard on the streets at night includes utterances such as, “Beer Me!” and not much else.
But if you can get past frosh week, you’ll discover that London is actually quite rich with cultural heritage. It also possesses a cool, centrally located artisan market, some chic hotels and restaurants as well as a thriving entertainment scene. All of this bodes well for the more artistically inclined residents and visitors of the city.
In terms of accommodations, the Hotel Metro (32 Covent Market Place) is repeatedly cited as a charming alternative to the city’s big chain hotels. Located between the business and entertainment districts, Hotel Metro’s unobtrusive entrance makes it almost easy to miss. But inside the loft-like suites boast 10-foot ceilings and exposed brick, and bathrooms complete with rainfall showers, large soaker tubs and Aveda products (nightly room rates start at about $139). The hotel also has a full-service restaurant and bar, Blu Duby, that serves fusion fare, including gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan options, like the Grilled Caesar salad ($9) and the Watermelon & Strawberry salad ($14). For those with a bigger appetite there are also three-course set menus.
Another alternative is the Inn at the Idlewyld (36 Grand Avenue). The Idlewyld is a historic bed & breakfast, thus at the other end of the design spectrum from the Hotel Metro. Originally built in 1878 as the private residence of the city’s mayor, this small hotel (only 19 rooms, starting at about $129 per night) holds a prominent place in London’s history. Though the style is traditional, rooms are stocked with modern amenities and the hotel’s concierge is available around the clock. The Idlewyld is also home to the well-known Avenue Room, which features high-end cuisine made with local ingredients, such as the Tasting of Ontario Beets salad with foamed goat cheese pistachio ($10) or the Ricotta Gnocchi with Crispy Prosciutto ($14). There is also a three-course Summerlicious set menu ($35) and the restaurant also offers a traditional Afternoon Tea served each day year-round from 2-4 pm (reservations required).
Perhaps one of the best attractions in London is Covent Garden Market, located in the middle of downtown on King Street. Since 1845, Covent Garden has been a refuge for those seeking fresh, local foods (as opposed to say, run-of-the-mill pub grub). Indoors, you’ll also find fresh-cut flowers, some bakeries – for both humans and dogs, local produce, and a homeopathic store, to name just a few retailers.
There are also on-site restaurants, including the fantastic Waldo’s on King and an independent coffee shop, the Little Red Roaster, that supports fair-trade policies. Aside from your grocery needs, other merchants at Covent Garden include a massage therapy centre and a children’s clothing store. An outdoors farmers’ market in the square adjacent to the building runs between May and December.
London Isn’t Only for Going Back to School
On the cultural scene, there is the London Museum (421 Ridout Street North), which was founded in 1940 and promotes regional art, culture, and history (past exhibitions include riveting subject-matter such as “London’s Hometown Brewery: The Labatt Story”). In terms of theatre, the city’s most famous venue, the Grand Theatre, dates to 1901. Some of the legendary actors who have performed at the Grand include W.C. Fields, Sir John Gielgud, Sidney Poitier, Maggie Smith as well as Canadians Karen Kain, Victor Garber, and Sandra Oh. The Grand also runs its unique “High School Project,” a program that gives students in and around London the opportunity to work with professional directors, choreographers, and stage managers. The city also has some fabulous smaller venues, including Call the Office (216 York Street at Clarence Street), the go-to place for rising and mid-level touring acts.
Named the No. 20 Place to Visit in Canada for 2013 by Vacay.ca, London gained some serious bragging rights earlier this year from a live sports and entertainment perspective. In March, the city hosted the World Figure Skating Championships, which saw Canadian golden boy Patrick Chan capture his third consecutive gold medal, and 2010 Olympic Ice Dancing champions and hometown favourites Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir garner the silver medal.
More recently, legendary grunge band Pearl Jam played its sole Canadian summer date at the Budweiser Gardens. The band reportedly chose London because they had such a great experience playing here in 2005 (back when the arena was known as John Labatt Centre). At this exclusive show, Eddie Vedder & Co. played of a selection of crowd favourites along with a cover of the punk rock anthem “London Calling” by the Clash. A clever if obvious reference, to be sure, but I would argue that the Clash’s London, UK has little in common with London, Ontario. Whereas the Clash’s politically charged rant is about a decaying society in 1970’s England, the same concerns just don’t seem to apply to this thriving Canadian metropolis.
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