I’m a big proponent of local travel. Not only can you plan a trip for the whole fam that doesn’t break the bank, but you can also discover what’s in your own backyard and support local businesses. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of local travel within Southern Ontario. I’ve visited Grand Bend & Sarnia, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Prince Edward County, and just spent another weekend in Southwestern Ontario (London, Essex County & Point Pelee, to be exact). All four were easy weekend road trips, and each destination is suitable for families, couples and/or groups of friends.
Ontario’s Southwest has SO much to offer. Before starting to explore it, I had only passed through some of the larger cities, like London & Windsor. I’d never heard of most of the little ones – like, did you know Leamington is the tomato capital of Canada (the Heinz plant used to be there, and all of French’s tomatoes are from Leamington)?! And did you know that Point Pelee is the southernmost point in mainland Canada?
While I love to share my international travels, I’d be remiss not to share my local finds too! So, to help inspire you to pack up the car and explore, below is a suggested itinerary on how to spend a weekend in Southwestern Ontario – specifically, London and Essex County/Point Pelee.
Know Before You Go
- Ontario’s Southwest is BIG! Its borders are Lake Huron to the north/northwest, the Detroit River to the west, Lake Erie to the south, and the Golden Horseshoe to the east.
- Expecting to ‘conquer’ Southwestern Ontario in one weekend isn’t possible, but there are lots of little weekend trips and day trips you can take within the region. A great place to read more is on the Ontario’s Southwest website.
- London is not just a university town! It has a bourgeoning food scene, a strong sense of community and local pride.
- Essex County is a nice jumping off point, if you want to earn your stripes as a Canadian and visit the furthest point south in Canada (Pelee Island) or mainland Canada (Point Pelee).
- The Lake Erie North Shore wine appellation is in Essex County. There are about 19 wineries in this region, so you could plan an entire trip around visiting them, alone (check out epicwineries.com to learn more).
How to Spend a Weekend in Southwest Ontario
If you have between 48-76 hours to spend and are looking for great food, coffee, wine & spirits, use this suggested itinerary to explore London, Essex County & Point Pelee.
DAY ONE – LONDON
London is a good base because it’s only a 2-hr. drive from downtown Toronto. Avoid traffic by leaving first thing in the morning and arrive when businesses and cafés open.
Fuel up after the drive at 10Eighteen. This coffee shop opened a couple years ago and is already a favourite. They specialize in pour-over coffees and their beans are from an Ontario roaster, Trebilcock coffee. There’s a good selection of house-made and locally sourced food (with vegan-friendly options), as well as local Kombucha, wine and craft beer from two London breweries.
There are lots of shops concentrated in the Old East Village of London. It’s worth while parking your car and strolling along Dundas St. to pop into some of them. You can find everything from antiques & vintage goods to Canadian apparel.
Another reason to park your car and consider alternate means of transport is because there are great local breweries and distilleries. We visited Union Ten Distillery, which was a real treat because we got to check it out before it opened to the public (its soft opening was on May 16th)!
The space is massive and serves as a distillery, bar/restaurant, and a live music hall. When the JUNO Awards were in London this year, Union Ten was one of the event venues.
It was special to have a private tasting with one of the owners, Brendan, and the manager, Alexis. We sampled their gin, vodka, ‘bourbon-style spirit’ and ‘cane spirit’ (there are regulations in Canada for what can officially be labeled a “whisky” and a “rum”). We had them first neat, and then in cocktails. My favourite was the gin and tonic with their fresh Juniper berries, imported all the way from Serbia.
London has a number of craft breweries, including London Brewing Co-Op, Anderson Craft Ales, and the newly opened Powerhouse Brewing Company, which we visited for a flight and brewery tour. While Powerhouse has been brewing for about a year, the owner has a long history in the business. Their taphouse opened only 2 weeks prior to our visit.
It’s called Powerhouse Brewing Company because it’s housed in the former powerhouse for the Kellogg’s Factory that operated here (100 Kellogg Lane in London’s Old East Village) for around 90 years. We had an awesome chat with the Master Brewer, Chris Patterson, who gave us a brief history lesson. When Kellogg’s closed their plant in 2014, it was a blow to the community. But revitalization of this space (including the opening of The Factory and Powerhouse) has begun, and over the next few years, there are plans for much more development, which in turn, will create jobs and support the community.
By late afternoon, check into your hotel. Hotel Metro is a modern boutique hotel in central London. It’s in a prime location, right next to Covent Garden Market and within walking distance of Budweiser Gardens and Richmond Row.
We felt very comfortable in our loft-style suite with an open concept bath, and we had all the amenities we needed for our 1-night stay.
You would never go hungry in London. One of the most impressive things about the London food scene is the emphasis on locally sourced ingredients and businesses working cooperatively (e.g. serving local beers, kombucha, sourcing from a local organic food company). I’d drive back to London just to eat, since I feel we barely scratched the surface!
For dinner, head to The Root Cellar, another local favourite. It’s a casual, gastro-pub that specializes in organic, fresh, locally-sourced food. Most, if not all, of the items on the menu could be made vegan or gluten-free. They’re very proud of their pizzas, which are made from a 2-year old sourdough culture produced from neighbourhood rhubarb, and baked in a pizza oven imported from Italy. “Farm-to-fork” and “plough-to-pint” are prominently displayed outside and inside the restaurant, and you can see their servers wearing shirts that say “Locavore” on the back.
We were impressed by how much this restaurant is rooted in the community and local food system.
To see more, check out THIS VIDEO I posted on Instagram highlighting our evening at The Root Cellar.
For entertainment, go to the Grand Theatre to cap off your night. There are lots of events happening throughout the season and it was nice to see how many residents of all ages came out. We caught a performance of Cabaret, which was interactive and fun!
DAY TWO – LONDON (½ DAY)
Coffee is the best way to start the day, and London has a pretty solid independent coffee scene! We visited 1 of the 5 Fire Roasted Coffee Company locations. Fire Roasted has one of the largest selections in Canada of Fairtrade whole bean coffee from around the world, and all of their coffee is roasted in London. They also supply coffee to the ONroute locations on highways 400 and 401.
Next, head to Covent Garden Market. Every Thursday and Saturday, Covent Garden Market has an outdoor farmer’s market, and the indoor market is open 7 days a week. You can take a leisurely stroll, grazing on everything from cheese to various types of international cuisines!
A good way to walk off the calories you consumed at the Market is by heading to Richmond Row. This is the stretch of Richmond St. from Queens to Oxford, with a concentration of shops and bars.
Before hitting the road to head south, make time for one last bite in London. Garlic’s of London has been proudly serving the community for about 25 years! There are items on the menu that have stuck around the whole time, like their garlic fettuccine.
Apart from serving old faves, they change their menu frequently, and not surprisingly, there is a garlic focus. We tried the garlic bulb (roasted garlic), garlic bisque, garlic fettuccine, and even had garlic ice cream at the end of our meal (which was delish!).
DAY TWO – ESSEX COUNTY (½ DAY)
The scenic drive to Windsor/Essex County is about 2 hours from London. Since our activities were centred in Essex County, we didn’t make it to the city of Windsor this time around. But it’s just a 20-minute drive north.
Give yourself ample time to explore the wineries in the Lake Erie North Shore wine appellation (“LENS”, for short). We were so impressed by this region! Its southern location coupled with the warming effect from Lake Erie make growing conditions really favourable. The wineries in LENS benefit from the longest growing season in all of Canada (they don’t have to bury their grapes in the winter, like in Prince Edward County, for example). This helps produce full-bodied wines. Their soil is also unique and contributes to the good terroir in the region.
We stopped in for a quick tasting at North 42 Degrees Estate Winery. It’s almost as though their wines were made just for my palate because I loved them all! We took home a bottle of their 2016 dry Riesling and their Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé.
Be sure to visit Oxley Estate Winery. Murray & Ann Wilson, the owners, are just the sweetest pair and we loved our chat with them! They opened their boutique-style winery in 2012 (although their first vintage was produced the year before). Although they both had other careers before becoming winemakers, they both grew up on farms, so opening a winery was a natural extension. The property is beautiful and includes a wine patio in the front, tasting room, and popular restaurant called “The Barn”. Try their Regent red and Auxxerois white, as both are considered rare to be grown in Canada (Oxley is the pioneer for growing the Regent grape in Ontario).
Plan to have a designated driver when exploring the wineries in LENS or look into booking a tour with a local company. Within this region, there are also distilleries (fun fact: JP Wiser’s is Canada’s oldest award-winning whisky brand and it started in Windsor, Ontario).
We sampled 5 spirits at Wolfhead Distillery. All their spirits are naturally-flavoured, and their vodkas are 100% wheat-based and 7 times distilled. Wolfhead opened in 2016 and already has most of its products in the LCBO. You can visit for a taste of their spirits or to eat (85% of their food is locally sourced).
After a day of exploring, I recommend settling in the tiny town of Amherstburg. It’s in Essex County, right on the Detroit River (in fact you can see Detroit from the waterfront). You can get anywhere in the main part of town on foot in 10 minutes, there’s a beautiful boardwalk, quaint stores, restaurants, and a little ice cream shop on the waterfront.
Amherstburg is close to Windsor, Point Pelee, and the Lake Erie North Shore wine region, and we are glad we stayed here.
Our Airbnb (Navy Yard Flats) was clean, modern, and extremely spacious (it had 2 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, a large living room, kitchen, and laundry room). Located on the waterfront, we were within walking distance of everything and conveniently across the street from the main coffee shop!
If you want a great burger in a casual atmosphere, go to Barrel 67. Their specialty is stuffed burgers, so don’t miss out on trying one! Their beef is sourced locally and brought in fresh twice a week. Their poutine is also a winner!
DAY THREE – AMHERSTBURG/POINT PELEE
Start your last day with coffee and breakfast at Caffeine & Co. The interior here is beautiful and eclectic – with white marble, black and gold accents throughout, and even an artificial cherry blossom tree inside. They claim ‘baking is their thing’ and have a variety of baked goods made fresh daily.
If you’re into history, you’ll want to check out Fort Malden National Historic Site. It was an important site for the British to defend against attack from the Americans and secure Upper Canada’s border with Detroit during the Upper Canada Rebellion. The grounds are beautiful and it’s free to the public.
Amherstburg was also a stop along the Underground Railway. It was a key landing point for escaped slaves, who crossed the border into Canada from Detroit. You can learn all about this at the Amherstburg Freedom Museum. Apart from the history, you can also easily spend time strolling or driving through the streets in Amherstburg, as the houses range from quaint and cute to large and stately.
It was also pretty neat to stop into the Happier Camper showroom. Happier Camper is a re-imagined, retro-modern utility trailer made from fibre glass. The design is innovative (not to mention, cute), and had me fantasizing about leaving the big city life to pack up and go road tripping for a year. The owner is originally from Amherstburg and his brother who helps with Canadian operations lives here. People come from all over Canada and the U.S. to see the trailers, and there is apparently a year-long waitlist to purchase one.
By early afternoon, start making your way south to Point Pelee National Park (where you’ll find the furthest point south in mainland Canada). The drive from Amherstburg is about an hour. If you want to visit Pelee Island (the furthest point south in Canada), you’ll have to take a ferry from the Leamington ferry docks. Consult the ferry schedule, if you’re planning to visit Pelee Island.
I highly recommend a stop at Birdies Perch. It’s a super cute double-decker ‘bustaurant’ in Leamington. There’s lots of outdoor seating, or you can opt to eat inside the bus. While they have other things on the menu, you should really try their specialty: fresh Perch from Lake Erie, which you can get in fish tacos, in a cone with fresh cut French fries, or in a Po’ Boy. Their poutine is also scrumptious! For dessert, there’s an ice cream shack conveniently located next to it (or you can order a shake from here to go with your meal, like we did!).
The amount of time you’ll want at Point Pelee National Park will depend on what you want to do (speak to the folks at the information centre for help). It’s technically Canada’s smallest national park, but still has an area of 15 km2, so plan for a few hours. There are several areas within the park, including beaches, walking trails, a beautiful marsh boardwalk, and people come from all over for birding. There is also a free shuttle from the information centre that can bring you to the tip.
We had an awesome time in London, Essex County & Point Pelee. These places combine great eats, coffee, drinks, activities, and scenery. So, if you’re itching to plan a road trip within Southwestern Ontario, give these places a visit! For a play-by-play on Instagram on what we did in these regions, you can check the story highlight from this trip in my bio.
If you enjoyed reading this post and are looking for more weekend getaway inspiration, check out:
- 12 Things to see and do in Southwestern Ontario
- 11 Things to do in Prince Edward County
- 36 Hours in Niagara-on-the-Lake