10 Top-Rated Things to Do in Guelph, Ontario

Written by Bryan Dearsley
Feb 22, 2021

Known among locals as the "Royal City" – a nickname established in the 1800s, when municipal leaders found themselves searching for a suitable name to rival other growing Ontario towns at the time – the City of Guelph makes for a great place to visit in Ontario. Just over an hour's drive from Toronto (or nearly two by "snail pace" public transit), this city of 135,000 souls offers plenty of fun things to do year-round.

Surrounded by a mix of rolling hills and valleys, farmland, and thick woods, it's a popular and picturesque place for nature lovers to visit. In addition to exploring its numerous conservation areas and nature preserves, it's popular for those who enjoy water-based activities, too, thanks to the construction of a large dam to the north of the city in the 1970s.

As a university city, it's also become something of a cultural hub. Its literary tradition has been cemented by its connections to John McCrae (the author of In Flanders Fields was born here), and the city has a vibrant art scene, too, thanks in part to the programs and exhibits hosted at the Art Gallery of Guelph.

Whether you're visiting Southwestern Ontario in winter for its excellent skiing or looking for a fun day trip from Toronto, be sure to read our list of things to do in Guelph for ideas and inspiration.

1. Get Adventurous at Rockwood Conservation Area

Rockwood Conservation Area
Rockwood Conservation Area

Located in the community of Rockwood just 15 minutes' northeast of Guelph by car, Rockwood Conservation Area is one of the region's most popular tourist attractions. Known locally as Rockwood Park, it attracts close to 70,000 visitors a year. They're drawn here spring through fall for the pleasant hiking trails, the unique geology, as well as the chance to explore the ruins of the historic Rockwood Woolen Mills. Founded in 1867, the mill operated until the Great Depression, and was a notable supplier of Canada's armed forces.

Rockwood Conservation Area also offers an opportunity for camping and it's proximity to the city makes it a popular campground for Torontonians.

The park's unique topography, formed centuries ago by glaciers, includes many bluffs and caves, including an extensive network of 12 caves. The area is also marked by numerous "potholes" of various sizes; some 200 or so of these "giant's kettles" have been counted, each formed by water seeping through cavities in the rock.

Other notable features are its abundant wildlife (it's a popular spot for bird-watching), as well as some of Ontario's oldest growth forest. Other popular outdoor activities include fishing for rainbow trout, camping, swimming at the park's beach, and participating in educational programs at the Rockwood Nature Centre.

Address: 161 Fall Street S, Guelph/Eramosa, Ontario

Official site: www.grandriver.ca/en/outdoor-recreation/Rockwood.aspx

2. Enjoy the Outdoors at Guelph Lake Conservation Area

Guelph Lake Conservation Area
Guelph Lake Conservation Area

Another area that's popular with both outdoor enthusiasts and the general public alike is Guelph Lake Conservation Area. Just an easy 10-minute drive north of downtown Guelph, this lovely park covers nearly 4,000 acres and is centered around a reservoir created in 1974 with the construction of the Guelph Dam. Open year-round, there's plenty of fun outdoor things to do whatever the weather, and whatever your interests.

In summer, families are drawn here for its two good-sized sandy beaches, as well as the numerous picnic areas sprinkled about, some within easy reach of the beach. On-the-water activities include fishing for bass and pike, windsurfing and sailing (electric motors are allowed), along with kayaking, canoeing, and paddle boating (rentals available). The park also hosts regular festivals, including the popular Hillside Festival held in July.

Hikers have over five kilometers of trails to explore, much of it through woodland around Guelph Lake, while the 3.5-kilometer-long Speed River Trail connects directly to the city itself. Fun winter activities include snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.

Address: 7743 Conservation Road, Guelph, Ontario

Official site: www.grandriver.ca/en/outdoor-recreation/Guelph-Lake.aspx

3. Wander the Arboretum at the University of Guelph

Bird feeder at the Guelph Arboretum
Bird feeder at the Guelph Arboretum

Looking for even more outdoor fun in Guelph, but this time of a gentler nature? The Guelph Arboretum, owned and operated by the University of Guelph, is the perfect spot to enjoy a relaxing few hours. Established in 1970 and based upon the famous arboretum at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, this delightful spot has since grown into one of the city's top attractions.

Spread over 400 acres, the arboretum features a collection of specialized gardens and plant species, including many native Ontario tree varieties, a natural wooded area, and meadows. It's also used extensively for research, educational programs, and for events.

A variety of workshops are also available, and for those who enjoy a good stroll, a network of nine kilometers of trails is available to explore, including a series of boardwalks over a wetland area. The Arboretum is open year-round, and a handy map is available on their website.

Address: 200 Arboretum Road, Guelph, Ontario

Official site: www.uoguelph.ca/arboretum/

4. Learn Fun Facts at Guelph Civic Museum

Guelph Civic Museum
Guelph Civic Museum | Photo Copyright: Guelph Civic Museum

Since being established in 1967, Guelph Civic Museum has done a great job of recording and showcasing the human and natural history of this part of Ontario. It's been housed since 2012 in the historic Loretto Convent. Built in the 1850s, this majestic building – set on a hill next to the Catholic Church of Our Lady – is a must-visit when in Guelph.

Interesting exhibits tell the story of the city's founding and the years since, including a number of interactive displays designed for kids in the Royal City Families Gallery. The museum boasts an impressive collection of nearly 40,000 artifacts, including historic photos, artwork, furniture, tapestries, and textiles.

Be sure to stop for a photo of the statue of the city's most famous son, John McRae, located in front of the museum. Check the museum's official website below for news of special events, including workshops, educational programs, and kids' activities.

Address: 52 Norfolk Street, Guelph, Ontario

Official site: https://guelphmuseums.ca/venue/civic-museum/

5. Visit the Birthplace of a Poet: McCrae House

John McCrae's In Flanders Fields
John McCrae's In Flanders Fields | RichardBH / photo modified

Few poems have quite captured the attention of the world the way that John McCrae's In Flanders Fields has done. Written in 1915 before the true horrors of WW1 became common knowledge, McCrae's poem – dedicated to a friend who died in the fighting – has become associated with the futility of war and the act of remembering those who died in conflict.

Many visitors to Guelph are surprised to find the poet was Canadian, born in Guelph in 1872. The home in which he was born was constructed in 1858 and owned by his family until 1873. Now fully restored and designated a National Historic Site of Canada, this humble cottage looks just as it would have at the time of McCrae's birth. Highlights of a visit include exhibits relating to the poet's life (he was also a doctor) and the wartime experiences that inspired his most famous work.

In addition to the events held here, workshops and educational programming for both kids and adults are regularly scheduled. One of the most popular activities includes enjoying an afternoon tea in the attraction's delightful gardens.

Address: 108 Water Street, Guelph, Ontario

Official site: https://guelphmuseums.ca/venue/mccrae-house/

6. Marvel at the Architecture of the Basilica of Our Lady Immaculate

Basilica of Our Lady Immaculate
Basilica of Our Lady Immaculate

Built on the city's highest point in 1888 on the site of an earlier wooden church, the Roman Catholic Basilica of Our Lady Immaculate is well worth a visit. Constructed in Gothic Revival style and made entirely of locally quarried limestone, this impressive structure was designed by Joseph Connolly, a renowned Canadian architect specializing in churches, including examples found in Toronto, Ontario.

After visiting, it's easy to see why this stunning church is considered among the architect's best work. Granted National Historic Site of Canada designation in 1990, its most interesting features include the many decorative limestone carvings on its exterior, along with its fine stained-glass windows. The church is also notable for having been visited by Pope Francis in 2014.

Free guided tours of this recently renovated cathedral can be arranged through its official website (see link below for details).

Address: 28 Norfolk Street, Guelph, Ontario

Official site: www.basilicaofourlady.com

7. Get Artsy at the Art Gallery of Guelph

Since being established in 1978, the Art Gallery of Guelph (AGG) has provided the local arts community, along with the general public, with a place to enjoy numerous cultural activities.

Consisting of a public gallery used to display the permanent collection of more than 9,000 pieces of art, the AGG has also built up a solid reputation for its research and educational programming. In addition to regularly rotating examples from its permanent collection, the gallery hosts many touring art exhibitions throughout the year.

The building itself is notable and is a modernized former schoolhouse constructed in 1904. In addition to housing the gallery shop, there's space for community events and workshops. Be sure to also spend time exploring the gallery's sculpture park. Established in 1983, it covers an area of 2.5 acres and features sculptures from local, national, and international artists.

Address: 358 Gordon Street, Guelph, Ontario

Official site: https://artgalleryofguelph.ca

8. Hike a Trail

Guelph Covered Bridge
Guelph Covered Bridge

For those who enjoy hiking (or even a gentle stroll), Guelph and its environs offer plenty of scope. Of the many trails to be enjoyed here, one of the most popular is the Royal Recreation Trail. This nearly five-kilometer-long "out-and-back" trail follows a long section of the pretty Eramosa River near the city center. It's also a popular trail with dog owners and those whose enjoy a level walking experience.

Should you wish, you can follow the river for a further four kilometers along the Eramosa River Trail. One of the most attractive spots on this picturesque riverside route is the Guelph Covered Bridge. Stretching nearly 40 meters across the convergence point of the Eramosa and Speed Rivers, this attractive lattice-covered pedestrian bridge was constructed in 1992 in homage to Ontario's once prolific Victorian-era covered bridges.

Another pleasant stroll can be enjoyed by sightseeing along the Downtown Trail, part of which includes a section of the Trans Canada Trail and can easily be joined with the above mentioned Eramosa River Trail.

Official site: https://guelph.ca/living/recreation/parks/trails/

9. Explore Downtown Guelph

Old building in downtown Guelph
Old building in downtown Guelph

Whether you arrive on foot along one of the city's popular hiking and walking trails or by car (there's plenty of good parking available), downtown Guelph offers plenty of fun things to do. Part of the fun is simply enjoying the architectural highlights of this vibrant area, much of it built in Victorian times of locally quarried limestone and extremely well preserved.

Covering a broad area that includes much of Wellington Street E. and Norwich Street, as well as Woolwich Street and Dublin Street, you'll find everything here to make you want to linger awhile, whatever time of year you visit. Highlights include numerous great restaurants offering casual and fine dining experiences, boutique shops and galleries, as well as old heritage churches and civic buildings such as Guelph City Hall.

The downtown core is also home to numerous events and festivals. One of the best attended and most anticipated is the Guelph Jazz Festival, which features musicians and bands from across North America. Other popular events include the annual film and literature festivals.

Official site: https://downtownguelph.com

10. Hammond Museum Of Radio

Antique radio
Antique radio

For something completely different, be sure to include the Hammond Museum of Radio on your Guelph travel itinerary. Based on a private collection that was started by a local businessman and "ham radio" enthusiast in the 1960s, this unique museum offers a fascinating look at the history of radios and wireless communications.

The collection includes many examples of radio transmitters and receivers, including some of the first that ever went into mass production for public use, many of them still in working condition. Informative displays showcasing the evolution of radio during the war years of WWI and WW2 are also worth seeing. Guided tours can be arranged.

Address: 595 Southgate Drive, Guelph, Ontario

Official site: www.hammondmuseumofradio.org

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