Escape to this lakeside jewel bursting with art, gardens, waterfalls and more.
By Cheryl Rodewig
I’ll admit I was planning a trip to Toronto when my mouse first hovered over Burlington, Ontario, on the map. My curiosity was piqued. Of course, I ultimately decided to go. I found a treasure.
Situated on the western shore of Lake Ontario less than an hour from the provincial capital, Burlington is a sophisticated city with a full calendar of festivals, award-winning chefs, an internationally famous garden and built-in romance—perfect for a couples’ getaway.
Finding Romance in Nature
The Royal Botanical Gardens cover more than 2,700 acres on the south side of Burlington. From woodland walks and formal courtyards to a greenhouse and arboretum, the landscape is varied and scenic. Bask in the showy beauty of lilies and tulips or take in the quieter splendor of the marsh trail and meadows.
The gardens are spread out, so you’ll probably want to drive between them. Don’t miss the recently renovated rock garden, layers of colors from flowering trees and bulbs descending to a serpentine stream. Further afield, nature sanctuaries provide pleasant bird-watching opportunities if you have the time to spare.
All told, you can easily spend the day at the gardens. Take a break for a romantic lunch at the on-site Greenhouse Café. The menu focuses on seasonal, sustainable ingredients with over a third of its food locally sourced. In a salad the freshness of the produce really shines through, while a chef-made entrée like the balsamic salmon is heartier meal yet still feels healthy. The bar menu offers a selection of local wines and craft beer. The atmosphere is airy and upscale, suitable for an anniversary lunch or special occasion as well as a memory-making vacation day.
Downtown Burlington is walkable and photo-ready. Start the day on the waterfront trail. Sure, it’s idyllic at dusk when the sunset shoots streaks of pink and orange over the water, but it’s invigorating in the morning. Go for a bike ride or just a leisurely stroll.
If you’re there Sunday morning, stop by the Centro Market, a couple blocks inland, to browse the seasonal farmers market that runs through mid-October. The focus is healthy regional food. If you’re lucky, you might catch some live music or a chef demonstration.
Back on the trail, Spencer Smith Park makes a peaceful stop to enjoy nature. It’s also home to Spencer’s at the Waterfront, a chic yet down-to-earth seafood restaurant where you can indulge in Canadian lobster for dinner or Portuguese fish stew for lunch. The dining room, encased in windows, affords spectacular views onto the reflection pond and Lake Ontario. Linger over your meal and save room for dessert like the honey shortcake with sangria sorbet, rhubarb parfait with orange blossom ice cream, or a gourmet cheese plate.
The restaurant sits across the street from the Art Gallery of Burlington, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. The gallery’s claim to fame is having the world’s largest collection of Canadian ceramics, but the expansive rooms are filled with a range of artworks, including an unexpected sculpture garden off one corridor. If you want to take a bit of handcrafted Burlington home with you, hit the gift shop on the way out. Admission to the gallery is free and it’s open daily.
There’s more art outdoors around the city: murals, monuments and sculpture plus unusual media liked stained glass and LED lights, much of it in or near downtown. The most photographed might be the Lady of the Lake, a bronze woman rising from a fountain in Spencer Smith Park, symbol of the city’s close tie to Lake Ontario. At night, the famous Brant Street Pier nearby is lit in brilliant colors.
In the Area
On the northern corner of Burlington, Mount Nemo has plenty of hiking for more adventurous couples. On some stretches, you’ll almost feel like you have the place to yourself. And it’s all worth it when you reach the lookout point where you can see all the way to Toronto.
For waterfalls, head to nearby Hamilton just across the bay. Two of its most famous falls, Webster and Tew, are so popular that convenient weekend shuttles from the Christie Lake Conservation Area are offered to help limit impact to the land. Once you’re there, no real hiking is required. Walk to the falls, gaze and admire.
Nature, art and food are great pastimes for romantic getaways, but if you really want to take things to the next level—quality time, collaboration, competition—try a game cafe. Mancala Monk Board Game Cafe has over 1,200 games to choose among, including staff-recommended two-player games. Test your skills with The Castles of Burgundy, set in Medieval France, or the abstract, strategic Qwirkle. Before you know it, two hours will have passed and you’ll know your partner better than ever.
The cafe stocks family games, but you don’t see too many kids in the evening. When I went, it was fairly quiet, one other couple immersed in a game of Guess Who. The cafe has half-off admission Tuesdays, but even at full price, this place is a steal: $5 for at least three hours of play. The snackable menu augments the experience with paninis, nachos, candy and a host of drinks, Jell-O floats to refreshing bubble tea. Sign up for their TGIFridates to get dinner, drinks and admission rolled into one package.
Where To Stay
Stay in Downtown Burlington. You can walk down to the pier or walk up the street to a show at the performing arts center…lots of restaurants, boutique shopping, you’re in the center of everything.
The Waterfront Hotel Downtown Burlington has a prime location as the only hotel on the water. The waterfront theme is evident throughout: framed photos of nautical knots and sails, mild blues and silvers, wisps and waves of artwork. The effect is simple and sleek, particularly welcoming combined with the friendly customer service.
A hotel of this caliber in Toronto would probably be out of my price range, but here it’s an affordable luxury. The rooms are comfortable and modern, some looking out onto the lake. The complimentary breakfast served in the bistro is impressive, too, a cut above standard continental fare. Be sure to steal some time away and slip down to the heated pool and hot tub. One wall is covered in windows so you can swim and soak, enjoying the view.
When To Go
Summer is when the gardens and parks are blooming brightest. The events calendar also perks up with warmer weather, and the farmer’s market opens in May.
If you want to save on travel or try a quieter time of year, fall and winter are good options, too. Fall offers changing leaves that are stunning at the Royal Botanical Gardens and Mount Nemo. Winter guarantees snowy scenery and free ice-skating by the Burlington waterfront.
Whenever you go, Burlington is a surprising discovery, still off most travelers’ radar, a place to fall in love—and fall in love with.
– Photos by Cheryl Rodewig
Featured products, services and/or travel arrangements may have been complimentary in part or in full; this affords the research opportunity but does not sway opinion.
Cheryl Rodewig is an Atlanta-based writer and educator. Learn more at cherylrodewig.com.