So many of the popular things to do in Hamilton—from the annual Supercrawl street party to the Festival of Friends carnival in Gage Park—are primarily summertime activities. But the city hardly goes into hibernation mode come wintertime.
Once the surrounding Niagara escarpment gets covered in snow, the city that wields the tough nickname of The Hammer starts to resemble a cozy ski village (albeit without the chairlifts and snowboard bros). And with it comes copious options for both daytime adventures and nighttime revelry—of the indoor and outdoor varieties.
If you’re the sort of person who just wants to sit out winter altogether and drink your way through to next spring, then allow me to refer you to my previous post on Hamilton’s best bars. But if you’re the sort of person who likes to party in their parka, here’s my guide on what to do in Hamilton in the winter months.
THE GREAT OUTDOORS
From spring to autumn, the Pier 8 waterfront park is the site of Hamilton’s most resplendent roller rink, where skaters bounce, rock, and roll to disco classics while taking in gorgeous sunset views of the harbour. And the action doesn’t stop in the winter—you just need to swap out the wheels for blades as the rink gets covered in ice for free all-day skating.
Each February, Pier 8 also serves as the epicentre of Winterfest, a citywide celebration that includes a waterfront night market showcasing local shops, food vendors, and artists. As of 2019, it will also feature The Canteen, a mobile festival-within-a-festival housed inside refurbished camper trailers to bring live music, art installations, street eats, and more to various locations across the city. Keep an eye on the festival website for details.
If skating feels too amateur-hour for a winter warrior like yourself, then maybe pick-axing your way up an ice-covered gorge is more your speed? Once the temperature dips below zero, Hamilton’s famous waterfalls transform into dazzling frozen panoramas, and in the case of the popular Tiffany Falls, climbers can actually scale its 21-metre face. If this sounds like, ahem, a cool thing to do, you must either be a member of the Alpine Club of Canada or enroll yourself in an ice-climbing class with OneAxe Pursuits. Or you could always just Instagram it from a safe distance.
THE GREAT INDOORS
Want to get into the wintry spirit without dealing with the sub-zero temperatures? Starting in November, the Royal Botanical Gardens compound becomes a bustling holiday hub that hosts musical performances, magic shows, comedians, and—of particular interest to the little ones—the annual Botanical Train Show. Built from 250 feet of track, the display features model trains snaking around recreations of various Canadian landmarks, like a CN Tower made out of cedar.
No holiday season in Hamilton is complete without taking in some Christmas-movie classics at the castle-like Zoetic Theatre. Their interactive screenings of yuletide favourites like Elf and The Polar Express are sort of like the family-friendly versions of those fabled Rocky Horror Picture Show soirees.
The Zoetic is also home to an entirely different kind of cinematic experience as one of the host venues for the annual Hamilton Film Festival. For nine days in early November, the event showcases an eclectic slate of nearly a hundred independent features, with an emphasis on local and Canadian filmmakers.
But if you’re in the mood for food instead of films, Hamilton’s Food & Drink Fest also happens in November and showcases delicacies and tipples from over a hundred local restaurants, wineries, and breweries. Then, each February, Soupfest lets you sample the best bowls from some 25 local restaurants, with proceeds going to programs for local youth in need.
HOLIDAYS IN THE HAMMER
Gore Park is the heart of Hamilton—a triangular promenade that runs alongside the busy King Street corridor. In recent years, it’s been subject to a multi-phase redevelopment that’s seen it add the Veteran Place’s war memorial and vibrant multi-colored pillars displaying song lyrics from famous Hamilton musicians like Stan Rogers and the Arkells.
At the start of each December, the park is lit up by a massive Christmas tree that towers above its iconic water fountain, while free fairground rides transform the surrounding space into a mini-amusement park. It’s the best place to visit in Hamilton when you want to pretend you’re living in a Frank Capra film.
You can also usher in the holiday season at the city’s annual Santa Claus Parade, which marches through the downtown core up to Bayfront Park on the third Sunday of November. And at the end of the month, Hamilton welcomes the evening arrival of the CP Holiday Train, which rolls through Gage Park in all its glow-in-the-dark splendor with a popular musical act in tow, to collect donations for local food banks.
As the old saying goes, time flies when you’re having fun—and with all the wintertime attractions Hamilton has to offer, it’ll be spring before you know it.
All images: ©Tourism Hamilton