Ontario Travel Journal
When Jordan told me that we were going to Ontario for a wedding in May, I really didn’t know what I had signed up for. I imagined Toronto as this bustling hub of great places to eat, shop, etc., which pretty much sums up my first impression of Toronto after less than 8 hours in the city. As for the area around St. Catharine’s where we would be staying, I wasn’t so sure.
I procrastinated researching for this trip for quite some time because I wasn’t sure how much time we would have to explore. Jordan was in the wedding party and, since I typically prefer to travel for 10+ days at a time, a five-day trip feels like no big deal. Once I found out we were staying near Niagara Falls, I felt a bit more hopeful about what this trip had in-store. My research pretty much ended there - aside from looking up gluten-free restaurants to avoid starvation.
Here are my highlights, tips and realizations after exploring Toronto and Niagara for 5 short days.
Where to Stay
Unfortunately I don’t really have a go-to spot to tell you about that is the best of both worlds (inexpensive in a prime location). That being said, I still have thoughts on the best locations to stay.
Places I Would Have Stayed
The wedding was held at the Stone Mill Inn which has a restaurant called Johnny Rocco’s. This was perfect for me as they have an amazing selection of gluten free options including pizza crust and a dessert called the chocolate explosion (enough said). The hotel was about 10 minutes from downtown St. Catharine’s and 15 minutes from Niagara Falls. We didn’t stay there because it was approximately $130/night with the wedding's group discount (approx. $170/night regular). Yes, I know it's not THAT expensive, but we were on a tight budget.
If money wasn’t an issue, I probably would have stayed at one of the hotel casinos near Niagara Falls so that we could have been in the midst of all the excitement. Between the falls themselves and all the attractions in the area, there was SO much to do and it all would have been walkable.
Where We Actually Stayed
To keep things as cheap as possible, we booked an Airbnb in St. Catharine’s. It wasn’t particularly close to anything convenient (close driving distance, but nothing was walkable). That being said, it was 1 minute from the highway which made it easy to get between our place and downtown St. Catharine’s, Niagara, Hamilton, Toronto, etc. I learned that you basically can’t avoid the highway, even when travelling within the city of St. Catharine’s itself.
The place was super basic. There was no television and the bed was super creaky and hard but, it did the trick.
Tip: If you are planning to stay in Niagara, I would definitely recommend flying into Hamilton instead of Toronto. Flights are cheaper and the airport is super small and quiet meaning our time through security was short and rental cars were cheaper ($165 for 5 days to be exact).
Where to Eat
I feel like I keep forgetting to mention this but I am a (self-diagnosed) celiac and all of my restaurant choices rotate around those that have great gluten-free options. If you’re celiac, you’ll know that trying to eat gluten free is a lifelong experiment. There is always a chance that some other restaurant or cafe will make a better pizza crust, doughnut, etc. and you absolutely HAVE TO try them all. Travelling automatically becomes a huge opportunity to experiment and find the best gluten free options for all of my favourite foods.
A few quick things to note:
Gluten free and vegan options tend to go hand-in-hand in Toronto which poses a challenge when travelling with a guy who can tackle three burgers in the blink of an eye.
Getting a side of gluten-free poutine in St. Catharine’s/Niagara was an option just about everywhere (which is not the case in Calgary).
If it looks like a hole in the wall just try it! Most of the best places we went to were dead and… unassuming.
Where to Eat (St. Catharine's/Niagara)
Chop House Burger Bar
Chop House Burger Bar was the exact definition of a surprisingly awesome hole in the wall. Jordan and I debated going somewhere else when we pulled into the empty parking lot in what seemed like the middle of nowhere.
Jordan got a steal of a deal on a massive $13 pizza and I was in heaven with the “Blue” burger and a side of poutine.
Rozie's Breakfast Cafe
Rozie’s Cafe got awesome reviews and I LOVE brunch. Sadly, from a gluten-free perspective, it was kind of meh. I ordered the Irish Benny which was served on a corned beef hash. The portion size was really small and the hash was nothing special. They also do not hold back on hollandaise so keep that in mind (totally a win but only if your meal itself is also generous in size). All of that considered, I am keeping this option on here but it was in a great location, Jordan really enjoyed his meal and everyone I talked to that lives in the area says it’s one of their favourite places. Apparently, there were also gluten free options for pancakes/french toast so maybe that’s where it’s at.
The Works Gourmet Burger Bistro
The Works has sooo many burger options it makes your head explode. If you are a burger junkie you absolutely have to go here. I was in my glory (again) with a gluten free burger and poutine. The menu marks exactly which toppings are gluten free making it easy to pick a safe option. Go with a hefty appetite because, beyond the burgers, there are great options for appys, cocktails, etc. I definitely would have been happy eating there multiple times throughout the trip.
While Jordan was with the groomsmen the day of the wedding, I went to Cafe Amore on a solo adventure. It was probably the best place (outside of the burger joints - I can’t compare) for quality gluten free options and great prices. I ordered pasta which came with a starter caesar salad and garlic bread for $14 - and it was delish!
Johnny Rocco’s Italian Grill
I wish I had a chance to actually eat a full meal here! The atmosphere was great, the menu was massive and the chocolate explosion cake was ahhhhhmazing. Although we didn’t eat a full meal in the restaurant, the wedding meal was catered by Johnny Rocco’s and their gluten free options blew me away. It was a five course meal and the rice balls, ravioli and chicken entree were all absolutely amazing. This is chain restaurant in Ontario so you can typically find them all around Niagara and St. Catharine’s.
Where not to eat ft. quick rant: We ate at a restaurant called Corks in Niagara-On-The-Lake which was by far the most expensive and also most disappointing meal we had on our whole trip. They advertised gluten free options but their menu was also just a simple printout which basically gave you the choice between expensive steak or fish. It also listed random sauces, including alfredo sauce, but had no gluten free pasta option. What’s the point of that!? Then the food was bland and tasted like it had sat in the microwave. Don’t gooo.
What to Eat (Toronto)
I caught wind of Bunner’s well before I made it to Ontario. A co-worker of mine, who is also celiac, said she goes on a crazy gluten free pig out every time she goes Toronto. Also, when I was planning to visit my cousin in Toronto I told her that Bunner’s was the only place I knew I couldn’t miss - turns out it’s her favourite bakery in the city! Go early in the morning if you can because their products get picked over quickly. I had a cinnamon bun and a gingersnap cookie and I could have eaten about ten.
Big Fat Burrito
Big Fat Burrito was a fairly quick option that managed to fit all of our needs (I’m celiac, my cousin is vegan and my bf eats like a teenage boy - ha, aren’t we a fun bunch!). They were super attentive to allergy concerns and it would have been fairly easy to take to go, other than the fact that I got a large burrito bowl.
The Archives (Places I heard about, but didn't get to try)
What to See
The port town itself is super cute with lots of shops and restaurants to choose from. It was windy and rainy when we went - so very quiet - but the view of Lake Ontario from the port was pretty cool. I am always chasing lighthouses which is basically the whole reason I wanted to go. It didn’t disappoint!
I stumbled upon DeCew Falls when I was doing some last minute research (in our Airbnb to be precise) looking for things to do. The falls are super unique and gorgeous and there is a trail leading away from the falls where you can get to different viewpoints and see the river below. Keep in mind that the cliff surrounding the base of the falls is extremely steep and it isn’t safe to go down.
This town is so picture perfect. The sunset on the lake felt like something out of a romance novel and it was super cool to see the Toronto skyline in the distance. Make sure you walk around the neighbourhood a bit so you can see some of the older (but super extravagant) homes and bed and breakfasts. The town center was adorable and there was lots to do. That being said, I found it really hard to find a gluten-friendly place to eat and everything was super expensive. If we went earlier in the day, I would have wanted to rent bikes to see some of the wineries as well.
Niagara Falls & Clifton Hill
I did tons of research prior to going to Niagara Falls - particularly to find the cheapest place to park, as well as options for boat tours. We parked at the bottom of the Skylon Tower for $10 for the day (some lots are over $20) which is a 3 minute walk from Clifton Hill. Now Jordan’s exact words when we got to Clifton Hill was, “Why didn’t you tell me this was here?!” To be honest, I wasn’t expecting it either as I didn’t get that far in my research. Basically the area surrounding Niagara Falls is filled with attractions including haunted houses, wax museums and restaurants like the Hard Rock Cafe. There is also a strip on the other side of the Skylon Tower that is filled with hotels and casinos - we didn’t get a chance to check it out but saw it on the drive in.
We thought about doing the boat trip with Hornblower Niagara Cruises but we decided that a) we didn’t feel like getting soaked and b) that the best view of the falls was from up above anyways. Don’t quote me on that since I haven’t seen it for myself.
Niagara Outlet Collection
Stopping here was a part of my solo adventure on the day of the wedding but I ended up coming back the next day with Jordan so he could check it out. My favourite stores were the Kate Spade, lululemon and Vans outlets because they actually had amazing deals (Kate Spade purses for less than $150, lulu sports bras for $30 and Vans slip-ons for under $30!). It’s an outdoor mall and the sales are legit! GO!
Normally I would write a longer, dedicated section for a big city like this, but we really only toured the city for 5-6 hours. We met my cousin who was a godsend and was able to tell us where to park and then take us on a walking tour. If you want to be around all of the great places to eat and shop, stay close to Kensington Market or Queen Street West.
We also walked through the University of Toronto and Ryerson. If you go to the Ryerson campus, grab a latte at Balzac’s Coffee Roasters. Fun fact - there was a brief period of time where I planned to apply to Ryerson’s journalism program, but I was too scared to move across the country at that point. We also stopped at Dundas Square which is like a very mini version of Time’s Square. If I went back I would go sit on one of the high-rise patios in the square.
Anything I missed? Add it in the comments below!