Fondly referred to by locals as “Limestone City” due to the prevalent use of this building material in the construction of its numerous elegant 19th-century homes, Kingston has much to offer both international travelers and day-trippers. Throughout the year, there are engaging activities to enjoy in this city.
Boasting a lengthy and fascinating history, Kingston even served as the capital of Upper Canada for a brief period before Ottawa assumed this honor. Notable historical sites in Kingston include old fortifications and public buildings. The Rideau Canal, once a crucial transportation link to Ottawa and the interior of Ontario, is now bustling with recreational boating traffic.
For further insights into the history and the myriad tourist attractions in this beautiful region of eastern Ontario, explore our comprehensive list of the best places to visit in Kingston, Ontario.
1. Fort Henry National Historic Site
Perched atop Point Henry with commanding views of the Cataraqui and St. Lawrence Rivers, Fort Henry National Historic Site is a must-visit on your Kingston travel itinerary.
Named after a former lieutenant governor of Quebec, it was erected on the grounds of an earlier fort built during the War of 1812 with the United States. The impressive fortifications visible today were constructed in the 1830s and played a pivotal role in safeguarding Kingston’s Royal Naval Dockyard and the entrance of the Rideau Canal, connecting Lake Ontario to Ottawa.
Transformed into a “living museum” in 1938, Fort Henry has evolved into a popular tourist attraction, offering an authentic glimpse into life during the early 1800s and the strategic significance of the fort. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007, it features informative uniformed staff, known as the Fort Henry Guard, who recreate the lives and trades of the fort’s former occupants through demonstrations and guided tours, with self-guided tours also available.
In addition to showcasing trades and crafts from the era, the staff conducts historical military re-enactments and drills, including the captivating Garrison Parade. Families can enjoy enrolling kids in an authentic Victorian schoolroom experience, complete with period costumes and lessons.
For those visiting in August, the fort’s renowned Sunset Ceremony is a must-see event in Kingston, featuring music and artillery demonstrations. Fort Henry also hosts various seasonal programs, including a Halloween “Fright Night.”
Open seasonally from late May through early September, with additional dates for special events, Fort Henry invites you to step back in time and immerse yourself in its rich historical experiences.
2. Thousand Islands
Just a short drive or boat ride from downtown Kingston, the Thousand Islands rank among Ontario’s most popular tourist attractions. Spanning both the Canadian and U.S. sides of the formidable St. Lawrence River, this picturesque region comprises over 1,800 islands of various sizes, with many hosting expansive cottages owned by affluent individuals from both nations.
Emerged from the eroded summits of once towering mountains, the channels, and waterways surrounding these islands can be explored through delightful sightseeing cruises, private boat rentals, or, in the case of some of the larger islands, even by car.
A prime starting point for your exploration is the Thousand Islands National Park, an untouched expanse featuring serene bays and granite islands, easily accessible by car from Kingston. Rent a canoe or kayak from here, revel in a tranquil paddle, engage in wildlife observation, and retreat for the night in the park’s comfortable cabin accommodations.
Alternatively, embark on the renowned Wolfe Islander III ferry, a favorite among day-trippers. Launched in 1976, this sizable vessel accommodates both cars and passengers, ferrying them to the scenic Wolfe Island, the largest among the myriad islands in the region. Wolfe Island is also accessible by ferry from the U.S. side of the St. Lawrence. Kingston offers a range of enjoyable scenic cruises departing for the Thousand Islands, adding to the allure of this captivating destination.
3. Frontenac Provincial Park
Situated in the quaint town of Sydenham, just a 40-minute drive north of Kingston, the expansive 13,000-acre Frontenac Provincial Park is an ideal destination for those seeking a nature-filled experience.
Designated as a “natural environment park,” it spans the unique Frontenac Axis, where the rugged Canadian Shield meets the Adirondack Mountains to the south.
Encompassing vast mixed forests and wetlands bordered by rugged granite outcrops, the park provides an ideal backdrop for a diverse range of outdoor activities. Popular pursuits include canoeing and kayaking on North and South Otter Lakes, among the park’s 20 other lakes. The extensive network of 100 kilometers of trails and opportunities for backcountry camping are also major draws.
Visitors can engage in guided wilderness adventures or receive instruction in basic survival techniques. Along the way, fortunate explorers may encounter wildlife such as grey wolves, black bears, red foxes, minks, and otters. Fishing and swimming are additional popular activities.
Open year-round, Frontenac Provincial Park offers winter activities, including cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, ensuring its appeal in every season.
4. Marine Museum of the Great Lakes
Positioned alongside Kingston’s dry dock, a historically significant structure constructed in 1892 for servicing larger vessels, the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes was established in 1975 to preserve the city’s extensive maritime history.
Dedicated to conserving narratives and artifacts, the museum covers a wide range of topics, encompassing shipbuilding, shipping on Lake Ontario and the Great Lakes, and Kingston’s distinctive role at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River.
In addition to its collections of books, photographs, and other research materials related to Great Lakes shipping, the museum features captivating exhibits delving into the history of the dry dock.
Visitors can explore guided tours, workshops, and educational programs. Easily accessible from the downtown core via the Waterfront Pathway, this intriguing museum is conveniently located near Battery Park and other notable city landmarks.
5. Kingston Waterfront
Extending for eight kilometers along the Lake Ontario shoreline, exploring Kingston’s waterfront is a must. This picturesque area is predominantly composed of parkland and level trails that connect several of the city’s top attractions, such as City Hall, Murney Tower, the Kingston Visitor Centre, and the historic Engine 1095.
While including Confederation Park, the central waterfront green space, in your Kingston waterfront itinerary, do not forget to visit Lake Ontario Park. Though a short drive from the historic downtown area, it provides an excellent spot for a picnic and allows kids to enjoy the adventure playground. Numerous beautiful beaches, with Breakwater Park Beach being a notable highlight, can also be found along the waterfront.
Water enthusiasts, rather than mere spectators, are also well-served. Apart from offering excellent sailing and fishing opportunities on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River, Kingston has become a popular destination for canoeists and kayakers eager to explore the stunning Thousand Islands area at their own pace.
Equipment rentals, including paddleboards, are conveniently available from vendors along the waterfront, such as Ahoy Rentals situated behind the Pumphouse Steam Museum.
6. Take a Tour of Historic Kingston City Hall
Constructed in 1844 during Kingston’s brief tenure as the seat of the Province of Canada, Kingston City Hall now serves as the residence of the city’s government and stands out as one of the most impressive and significant neoclassical heritage buildings in Ontario, also ranking among the largest.
Occupying an entire city block in the downtown core and situated just steps from Lake Ontario, Kingston City Hall boasts a remarkable feature in its tall dome, designed, like the rest of the building, by the renowned architect George Browne.
The building’s interior is equally captivating and can be explored through guided tours, offered on a first-come, first-served basis, so arriving early is advisable. Self-guided tours are also an option. Key highlights of a tour include the Council Chambers and the Memorial Hall.
Following the visit, take the opportunity to explore the historic Market Square and the adjacent Centennial Park.
Recognized as Canada’s oldest original waterworks, the PumpHouse is a must-visit in Kingston for enthusiasts of antique machinery, particularly steam-powered equipment. Erected in 1851 in response to destructive fires and cholera outbreaks, the PumpHouse stands as one of only six such facilities to have endured in North America.
For nearly a century, until their replacement by electric motors, the engines at the PumpHouse supplied fresh running water throughout Kingston, significantly contributing to the city’s growth and development. Converted into a museum in 2006, it provides a captivating exploration of its history through interactive games and displays suitable for all ages.
8. Kingston Penitentiary
A fortress designed to confine people rather than keep them out, Kingston Penitentiary stands as another must-visit tourist attraction. Established in 1835 as a maximum-security prison, it held the distinction, until its closure in 2013, of being the world’s oldest continuously operating prison.
Now transformed into a museum, “Kingston Pen” provides a captivating insight into the lives of both prisoners and prison guards from the 1800s to the late 1900s. The museum offers various engaging guest experiences, including informative guided tours.
Available in multiple languages, the extended tours, lasting two and a half hours and not recommended for children, are a noteworthy option. These comprehensive tours cover the main cell dome, various work areas, the gym, and the hospital. Throughout the tour, you’ll gain insights into the conditions of the time, and stories of famous inmates, escapees, and prison riots.
Adjacent to the penitentiary and well worth a visit is Canada’s Penitentiary Museum. This intriguing attraction showcases displays and artifacts related to many of Canada’s prominent prisons. Notably, it occupies the historic former home of the Kingston Pen wardens, constructed in 1870.
9. Explore History at Murney Tower National Historic Site of Canada
Constructed in 1846 in the style reminiscent of the renowned Martello Towers in southern England, the Murney Tower was erected by the British in response to escalating tensions with the USA. Serving as a crucial component of the Kingston Fortifications, built to safeguard the city’s Royal Naval dockyard, Kingston Harbour, supply depots, and the entrance to the Rideau Canal, the Murney Tower remains a prominent feature along the shoreline.
Purposefully designed to deter American troops from installing artillery on nearby Gardiners Island, the Murney Tower Museum earned the distinction of being the city’s inaugural museum in 1925. Noteworthy highlights encompass an impressive collection of weapons, including artillery, along with artifacts and displays depicting the building’s historical significance.
10. Historic Downtown Kingston
Located around Queen and Princess Streets, two lively thoroughfares that both originate (or conclude) at Kingston Harbour, downtown Kingston is easily navigable and a delightful place to spend time. Numerous excellent accommodation options, such as the stylish Frontenac Club, are conveniently situated within walking distance of key attractions.
Embark on your exploration at the waterfront Confederation Park, where you’ll discover perhaps the most well-known (and frequently photographed) landmark in the downtown core: Kingston City Hall.
Positioned overlooking the historic Market Square, this expansive public space evokes the charm of traditional city squares in Europe and hosts numerous events year-round, including regular farmers’ markets. During the summer, free movies are screened here, while winter brings a skating rink for family enjoyment.
Beyond its fantastic shopping and dining opportunities, the downtown area features other significant landmarks. These include Fort Frontenac, parts of which trace back to the French settlement era in 1673, and two magnificent churches: St. George’s Anglican Cathedral (1825) and St. Mary’s Cathedral (1848).
For those preferring to park their car and utilize public transit, the convenient hop-on, hop-off “K-Pass” is available for purchase at various locations around the city. It not only grants access to the city’s top attractions but also includes an enjoyable Thousand Islands cruise.
11. Isabel Bader Centre for Performing Arts
Established in 2014 and renowned as one of the premier concert and theater venues in Ontario, the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts presents a diverse array of arts and entertainment for both visitors and locals.
This aesthetically pleasing facility is an integral part of Queen’s University, regularly hosting performances by prominent orchestras, classical musicians, jazz artists, and theatrical productions.
Alongside its 560-plus-seat concert hall, the venue features a 92-seat screening room for films and a rehearsal hall. The interior of the building, predominantly adorned with wood finishes, is visually striking. If possible, it is highly recommended to step inside for a glimpse, especially if timed to coincide with a scheduled performance.
Q: When is the best time to visit Kingston?
A: The summer months, from June to August, offer the most pleasant weather for exploring Kingston’s outdoor attractions.
Q: Are there any free attractions in Kingston?
A: Yes, many attractions like City Park and Springer Market Square offer free admission.
Q: What’s the signature dish of Kingston?
A: The ‘BeaverTail’ pastry is a must-try, showcasing Kingston’s culinary uniqueness.
Q: Are there family-friendly accommodations in Kingston?
A: Absolutely, Kingston provides various family-friendly accommodations, ensuring a comfortable stay for all.
Q: How can I stay updated on Kingston’s events during my visit?
A: Check the local event calendar or visit the official tourism website for the latest information on events and festivals.