Downtown Hamilton is home to one of Ontario's best art galleries, some beautifully restored heritage buildings and some splashy modern ones, and many independent boutiques and cafes. Check them out here.
Downtown Hamilton often gets a bad rap. I live here, and I’m not going to lie to you (see my no-puffery policy on my home page). Our core is in the midst of renewal but we still have a long way to go. You’ll still find sadly neglected buildings and sadly neglected people down here.
HOWEVER, you’ll ALSO find some great attractions for visitors and locals alike, and some great restaurants.
The Art Gallery of Hamilton is the top cultural attraction in the city. The main building (pictured below) is at 123 King Street West and you can read more about it here.
The Art Gallery's Design Annex, which is their furniture/art/gift boutique and performance space, is located in a beautifully renovated building on James Street North:
A few words about King and James. These are crucial streets for understanding the layout of Hamilton. The corner of King and James Streets is the centre of Hamilton’s downtown and the dividing point for east/west and north/south. By remembering this, you’ll be able to roughly locate any city address with an “E” or “W” or “N” or “S” ending.
If you’re coming to Hamilton as a tourist, one of the first spots
you’ll want to make is the city’s Tourism Office downtown, which is in the Lister Building at 28 James Street
North (more on James Street below). They have brochures about local attractions
and staff are on hand to answer your questions. The building itself is a 1926 gem
(the first indoor mall in the country) and was renovated a few years ago after
being threatened with demolition for about a decade. It’s seen by many as a
symbol of the re-awakening of the downtown core. It reminds me of a cake, with vanilla, chocolate and then vanilla layers. The white parts are terra cotta.
Just a block south of the Lister at one corner of King and James, you’ll find Gore Park.
It might look more like a traffic island to you, but locals use it as a
city park and during the summer you’ll often find bands playing music here and
food trucks set up around the perimeter.
On the north-west corner is Jackson Square, a mall housing shops and restaurants and the Hamilton Central Library and a seamless link to the downtown’s biggest hotel, The Sheraton Hotel (popular with conventions) which faces onto King Street West. For tourists, the main attraction in this mall would be link to the big interior Hamilton Farmers Market. The Farmers Market and the Library also have exits on York Blvd and if you go out one of their doors and turn left (west) you’ll come to FirstOntario Centre (formerly Copps Coliseum). This stadium hosts big concerts and sports events. Many people come from out of town to see these events. You might also be here for a show at Hamilton Place, a more elegant concert hall on Main Street. The local Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra plays at Hamilton Place during the fall and winter.
Just across the street from Hamilton Place is Hamilton City Hall. Don't forget to check out the little sculpture garden to the west of the building. It's one of the hidden treasures of downtown Hamilton. There's a statue of Ghandi, and monuments to immigrants.
And to the east of City Hall is the Canadian Football Museum:
Another block south, at 41 Jackson Street, is Whitehern Historic Home and Garden, a lovely place to visit winter or summer:
For more museums in the city, including the amazing Dundurn Castle, see my article about Hamilton museums.
One of my favourite buildings in the city is the John Sopinka Courthouse, with this stunning former postal hall. You can read more about it here: Hamilton Courthouse.
When you talk about downtown Hamilton, you have to bring up the
revitalization of James Street, particularly James Street North. The area has
received a lot of press over the past 10 years. James North used to be full of
decaying buildings with only a few stalwart shops and restaurants holding out.
Abandoned storefronts were everywhere. Rent was cheap. About 10 years ago,
artists and entrepreneurs started moving into the old late 19th and
early 20th century buildings, renovating them, restoring heritage
features, and slowly turning the area into a shopping and dining district
again. There are still eyesores (neglected properties) here and there but the
tide has turned. It seems every few weeks a new restaurant, bar, bakery or
store is popping up.
James Street North is the site of a monthly Art Crawl and two annual events: SuperCrawl and Open Streets.
On both occasions, the street is closed to traffic and people fill the streets,
enjoying live music, performers, vendors and good food. Here is a short video with snapshots of
some of the scenes. To start the video, click on the arrow in the middle.
If you have some time, you can walk down James Street North all the way to the waterfront, and pass some interesting places along the way, like this former train station that has been converted to a banquet hall called Liuna Station. If you get a chance to go inside, do! I’ve attended a conference here and the inside is stunning. You may have already seen it, in fact, as it has been used as a movie set several times.
It has a pretty park out front where you can sit and enjoy some public art.
There are more pictures in the slideshow above.
James Street South (south of King, remember?) is also a retail district
with some trendy coffee shops and restaurants and a few stores. At the corner
of James South and Hunter you’ll find the GO Train and Bus station, an art deco
building with a very cool interior. I’m so glad we managed to save this
building, and better still, use it for its original purpose (transportation).
As you head down James South you’ll see the Mountain. This is part of the Niagara Escarpment but in Hamilton we call it the Mountain. To the west of James South you have the residential district “The Durand” with its mix of fancy mansions and dull 1960s apartment buildings. If you love late 19th/early 20th century architecture, treat yourself to a walk around this neighbourhood.
To the east you have the sprawling St. Joseph’s Hospital (or St. Joe’s in local speech) and the “Corktown” neighbourhood with its houses, apartments, and many popular pubs offering live music.
Here’s a little tour of James Street South, in slideshow form. Watch for the art deco Piggott Building, which is now luxury condos. To use it, click on the little arrow at the bottom of the box; then click on it again. This will advance it slide by slide.
Here is another page with pictures of some downtown buildings that I've explored during an annual event: Doors Open Hamilton.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this little taste of downtown Hamilton. For more info, click on some of the links above.