Like many of Ontario’s most famous tourist destinations, Kingston is a lakeshore community boasting a proud heritage and history that’s highlighted by a contemporary, modern charm. And as one of the country’s oldest cities, there’s certainly no shortage of history here: chock full of museums and historic sites that reflect its storied past, Kingston’s cultural heritage is a ubiquitous presence throughout the city; evident in everything from its art and architecture, travelers can experience the best of the city through both its famed sites like 1000 Islands and its hidden corners and alleyways boasting eclectic markets and restaurants.
Dubbed the “Limestone City” for its abundance of 19th-century historic buildings that still stand tall today, Kingston’s waterfront community is truly a place where the past and present collide to create this distinctive city’s atmosphere and charm. Below are some of the best places to visit for visitors who want to take a voyage into Kingston’s exciting past.
Explore Kingston’s Steampunk Side At The Pumphouse Museum
Located on the site of Canada’s oldest original waterworks, the PumpHouse Museum was a cornerstone of Kingston’s infrastructure from 1851-1952—it even provided the city’s first drinking water. Today, the site of the former steam-powered waterworks is an exciting museum that showcases the area’s history and culture in one of the last remaining preserved water stations in North America. An important piece of the city’s architectural heritage, the original building is also home to numerous pieces from the city’s Civic Collection—important historical artifacts that have endured as a testament to its storied past.
- Address: 23 Ontario Street, Kingston
- Contact: (613)-544-7867
- Hours: The PumpHouse is now closed for the season and will reopen in Spring 2022
- Admission: Tickets can be purchased online
- Don’t Miss: The original, still working steam pumps; the collection of model railway trains; the city of Kingston’s Civic Collection
- Historical Fun Fact: In its heyday, the waterworks pumped on average 450,000 gallons of water per day
Historic Fort Henry: A UNESCO World Heritage Site
So much more than an exploration of 19th-century military history, the Fort Henry National Historic Site is an enigmatic part of Kingston’s past. Built during the War of 1812, there’s plenty of history here—including the fort’s distinctive architecture that hosts historical reenactments, parades, and the famed Sunset Ceremony in the summer where visitors can experience a full program including drills, music, and artillery. Though now operated by the St. Lawrence parks Commission and considered a ‘living museum,’ the fort is still staffed by the Fort Henry Guard who act as guides and interpreters to visitors.
- Address: 1 Fort Henry Drive, Kingston
- Contact: (613)-548-4415
- Hours: Fort Henry will reopen in Spring 2022
- Admission: Tickets can be purchased online
- Don’t Miss: Sit in on a class in the Victorian schoolroom; take a guided tour; attend the summer YGK Beer Fest; watch the Sunset Ceremony in July and August
- Historical Fun Fact: Fort Henry was named after Henry Hamilton, the former Lieutenant-Governor of Quebec
Visit The Notorious Kingston Penitentiary
A National Historic Site and Canada’s oldest prison, the Kingston Penitentiary opened its doors in 1835 and served as a maximum-security prison until closing its doors in 2013. Housing some of the country’s worst criminals throughout its almost 200-year history, Kingston Pen's history is an exciting blend of fact, fiction, and mythic lore. Today, the prison stands much as it did during its open years—allowing visitors an inside look at where prisoners spent their time. An important piece of Canadian history, the Kingston Pen is also known for its stunning 19th-century architecture both outside and inside the notorious prison.
- Address: 560 King Street West, Kingston
- Contact: (613) 542-7388
- Hours: Tours have ended for the 2021 season
- Admission: Standard tour $40/person. Call or email for ticket info
- Don’t Miss: The Indigenous Grounds; the Regional Treatment Center’s Gymnasium; the north gate; the main cell dome. Be sure to head across the street and check out Canada’s Penitentiary Museum
- Historical Fun Fact: Both Charles Dickens and Ernest Hemingway both visited the famous prison
Living History At Kingston City Hall
Located in the heart of Kingston’s historic downtown, Kingston City Hall was designated as a National Historic Site in 1961. An incredible example of Neoclassical architectural style, City Hall was completed in 1844 and takes up a whole city block along the waterfront. Though some of the rear wing was destroyed by fire in 1865, much of the original structure still stands today—and functions much as it did back then, like a town hall, community marketplace, and public gathering space.
- Address: 216 Ontario Street, Kingston
- Contact: (613) 546-4291
- Hours: Tours will resume in spring 2022
- Admission: Free
- Don’t Miss: Market Wing Cultural Space; Heritage Resource Center; Memorial Hall windows; historical artifacts from Kingston’s Civic Collection
- Historical Fun Fact: After his death in 1891, the body of Canada’s first Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald, lay in state in what is now City Hall’s Memorial Hall
Take An Architectural Tour
Kingston’s architectural marvels go beyond its most historic buildings—in fact, some of the city’s most impressive architecture can be found in stately 19th century homes that still dominate the city’s classic neighborhoods to this day. There are two separate self-guided tours that give visitors the chance to explore the best examples of the Limestone City’s most unique architectural marvels: The Newlands + Coverdale Tour and The John + Joseph Power Tour.
- The Newlands + Coverdale Tour explores the buildings created by prominent Kingston architects William Newlands and William Coverdale that were built during the late 19th and early 20th century and include notable works such as Newlands Pavilion and the Visitor Information Center. Take the self-guided tour here
- The John + Joseph Power Tour explores the works of father and son Kingston duo John and Joseph Power and include city notables PumpHouse Steam Museum and the Kingston Courthouse. Take the self-guided tour here
Kingston is a dynamic and historic city full of cultural heritage that can be seen in everything from its famous architecture to its waterfront attractions. Known as the "Limestone City," the modern city of Kingston is a wonderful place to visit for those looking for a fun, exciting city that still remains loyal to its 19th-century roots: a vibrant cultural center with a classic architectural backdrop that’s the perfect blend of past, present, and future.