About this series: With COVID-19 restrictions having eased over the last few months, Wheels wants to inspire you to get ready to explore — but only when it is safe to do so. This series of daytrips and longer drives highlight great experiences you can have in the province and across Canada, ands show you why this country is “Ours to Discover.”
Lying in the very heart of southwestern Ontario, Guelph is surrounded by a lush mix of undulating hills, farmland, woods and wetlands, which all contribute to this vibrant mid-sized city feeling more like a small town. Less than 100 kilometers from Toronto, Guelph is an underappreciated gem that will woo you with its verdant parks, quirky bookstores, interesting cultural offerings and superb restaurants. It’s the perfect daytrip destination for those looking for a fall escape.
In the morning: Guelph is jam packed with things to do so you’ll want to get an early start and leave Toronto by 7 a.m. It should take about an hour and 20 minutes to arrive (expect to add an additional 15 to 20 minutes if traffic is heavy). You can pretty much drive west on Highway 401 the entire way, turning off at exit 295 and following it into the city.
There’s no better way to begin your visit than taking a leisurely stroll along one of the many trails at the University of Guelph’s arboretum. Admission is free and there are more than 400 acres of pristine meadows, woodlands and gardens to explore, making it a popular place for birdwatching and reconnecting with nature.
If you are visiting on a Saturday and you’re feeling peckish, make a quick stop at the Guelph Farmers Market to grab a snack. The market, which has been in operation for more than 180 years, is held from 7 a.m. to noon at the corner of Gordon Street and Waterloo Avenue.
After exercising your legs, it’s time to give your mind a workout. Guelph has an impressive selection of cultural attractions waiting to be explored. Art lovers won’t want to miss the regional and international art offerings at the Art Gallery of Guelph. The gallery is open noon to five Tuesday to Sunday. If it happens to be closed by the time you get there you can still wander through its adjoining outdoor sculpture park to admire more than 35 striking works.
After, visit McCrae House, the birthplace of John McCrae, author of “In Flanders Fields.” The Guelph Civic Museum, set in a former convent, showcases the city’s fascinating history and culture and is located next door to the city’s majestic Basilica of Our Lady Immaculate. Perched atop Guelph’s highest hill, the Gothic-style beauty stands sentinel over the city’s downtown core.
Whatever option you select, finish off your morning by walking hand-in-hand across Guelph’s photogenic covered bridge. One of only two covered bridges in the province, the unique lattice truss pedestrian crossing was hand built by 400 volunteers from the Timber Framers Guild in 1992.
Around noon: A charming spot for lunch, The Boathouse is just a few feet from the covered bridge and has a lovely patio set along the Speed River, near where it meets the Eramosa River. The restaurant has tasty sandwiches and salads, but the real treat is its English-inspired high tea that comes complete with small sandwiches, scones and petit fours.
If it is a nice autumn day, enjoy the fall foliage with a picnic by the river. Pick up some bread and desserts at Polestar Hearth (where everything is made with naturally leavened sourdough and Canadian organic grains), some quiche and sausage rolls from Eric the Baker and cheeses from Tomme Cheese Shop for a memorable alfresco meal.
In the afternoon: You’ll be spoiled for shopping options in downtown Guelph. Kennedy Park features a solid selection of Canadian clothing designers. Grey Rock Clothing Co. emphasizes sustainably sourced fabrics, Sunday General Store sells sophisticated home goods, and IF Footwear Boutique is a shoe-lover’s dream.
Bookworms will be delighted to discover that as a university city, Guelph has an impressive collection of bookstores, from The Bookshelf, a beloved local independent, to Janus Books, which offers a curated collection of second-hand tomes.
Guelph also has a well-earned reputation as home to one of Ontario’s hottest craft beer scenes. Brothers Brewing Company has a thirst-quenching selection of beer brewed in-house, Fixed Geer Brewing features an inventive menu of beer cocktails and wood-fired pizza, and Royal City Brewing Co. is a small batch producer with an approachable vibe. Be sure to pick up some bottles to take home with you.
In the evening: Before you head out to dinner, set aside time for a pre-meal drink at Two Faces, an unfussy, welcoming bar with a focus on natural wine, many of which are hard to find anywhere else in Ontario.
For dinner, if you’re looking for a restaurant with a cosy, intimate atmosphere coupled with scrumptious food, Bin 23 is an ideal option. The small but delectable menu highlights creative North American cuisine (the tenderloin is top notch) and features an impressive wine collection. Elegant La Cucina is where to go when you’re hankering for authentic Italian cuisine made with love. The restaurant only offers two seatings per night (5:30 p.m. and 8 p.m.) so be sure to make a reservation. For a more boisterous atmosphere, check out Miijidaa Café + Bistro. The eatery has an enticing selection of vegetarian dishes, as well as carnivore-friendly fare like elk, pork tourtière and venison burgers.
Complete your day in Guelph with a movie at The Bookshelf. This cultural hub houses not only a bookstore but also a bar and a cinema that screens indie films. Or check what’s going on at Guelph’s River Run Centre. This multi-purpose performing arts venue hosts a variety of events, including musical performances, dance recitals and stage productions.
COVID-19 need to know
Note that the government-mandated proof of vaccination rule is in effect. Check provincial guidelines before you head out on your road trip (ontario.ca).
For the drive
The Ontario Agricultural College of the University of Guelph publishes the “Why and How” podcast, which looks at agriculture, food and the environment. It offers insight into several subjects, including food labelling, the craft beer boom and why chickens are stressed out. It is available on Apple Podcast, Google Podcasts, SoundCloud or Spotify.
- 7:00 a.m. Leave Toronto
- Drive west on Highway 401 to exit 295
- 8:30 a.m. The University of Guelph arboretum
- 10:00 a.m. Cultural offerings
- 11:30 a.m. Guelph covered bridge
- Noon Lunch
- 1:30 p.m. Shopping
- 3:30 p.m. Microbreweries
- 5:00 p.m. Two Faces
- 6 p.m. Dinner
- 7:30 p.m. Movie or show
- 9:30 p.m. Drive back to Toronto
NOTE: Times are suggestions only