Sipping a shockingly cold gin martini while ensconced in a clubby leather wingback and gazing at contemporary art, I can easily imagine I’m in a swish private club in a world-capital city.
Except the gin is Pepprell, a craft distiller located in Southern Ontario, the chair was designed in Toronto and the art was imagined in nearby Waterloo, Ont. To be sure, the effect is just as members-only sophisticated, but the setting could only be the Walper, a hotel in Kitchener that’s passionate about provenance.
The design-forward property (built in 1893, it recently underwent a top-to-bottom, year-long makeover) is a stylish metaphor for the transformation of the city. The once pocket-protector perception of Kitchener as solely a geeky tech hub has been upended. Yes, Google has its Canadian engineering headquarters here – but it shares the downtown core with farmers’ markets, art galleries, independent shops, concerts, literary galas, vegan festivals and other lively pursuits that make it a worthy destination for curious day-trippers.
Kitchener is a 90-minute drive from Toronto, so it’s easy to pop up for a quick visit if you’re in the Greater Toronto Area. Consider an overnight stay though, especially if you can book into the Walper, where the lobby brims with powerhouse style elements such as abstract art, mid-century-mod-style furniture and sculptural brass light fixtures. These continue in the 92 guest rooms, no two of which are exactly the same.
Drop off your bags and check out the in-room amenities, including locally roasted coffee, before hitting the town. Make a left out of the front door and you’re on King Street, the city’s main artery. To say this downtown corridor is dynamic is an understatement. You’ll find a cavernous nightclub (inexplicably named Dallas), a cold-pressed juice boutique, a buzzy izakaya with a lineup out the door, a yoga studio and a trattoria with wood-burning pizza oven. Smart new condos above shops are being snapped up and the accessible City Hall boasts a public art gallery, as well as a stop for the city’s light-rail transit, which launched this past spring. Admittedly, the strip is a work in progress – some storefronts are shuttered; others are dollar stores – but the investment in LRT is significant and a sense of optimism abounds.
If you plan on hitting Themuseum while on King, take note: It’s not so much an art and history destination as an interactive science and activity-focused experience best suited to children. It does, however, occasionally host literary evenings so check out the schedule before you plan your trip. (In May, Margaret Atwood was on hand to discuss The Handmaid’s Tale and technology with Dave Bidini.)
Minutes away from the main drag is Victoria Park. The oldest in the city, it is a pretty, leafy respite complete with an artificial – but nonetheless lovely – lake. The green space imparts Kitchener’s downtown with some big-city heft in the manner of New York’s Central Park. It’s a fun spot to people watch and picnic and, in winter, the preferred place to ice skate.
The park also has a sense of history similar to what you’ll find in the downtown’s north end. To get there, hop on a bike (complimentary if you’re staying at the Walper) for a quick, uphill ride to this charming residential enclave replete with 19th-century homes that give an idea of how Kitchenerites lived in times gone by. The region’s art gallery is also at this end of town and deserves a visit.
As lively as the downtown scene is becoming, it still shuts down pretty early; most restaurants close at 9 p.m. The upside? Early to bed and early to rise means you’ll have a good chance of snagging one of the Walper’s out-of-this-world doughnuts, made in-house every Friday morning and available till they sell out. A local baker uses a recipe that belonged to his mother (and her mother before that), but the time-honoured baked goods have recently been joined by an up-to-the-minute treat: vegan cinnamon buns. It’s not the only old-meets-new mashup in town – but it’s definitely the sweetest.
TD Kitchener Blues Festival On this weekend, performers includes Canadian favourites such as the Northern Pikes and Kim Mitchell. kitchenerbluesfest.com
A Second Look Books & Movies A bibliophile’s heaven, this meticulously organized shop is a treasure trove of mint-condition books. Connect with manager Charles who is usually on hand. 31 King St. W
ABC Military Surplus A military surplus store worth exploring. I bought a $50 bomber here that has been mistaken for Lanvin. 46 Queen St. S
The Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery Check out the immersive installation, Jenn E Norton: Slipstream, on until Sept. 22. 101 Queen St. N
Grand Trunk Saloon This is the spot for a fab cocktail. They specialize in bourbon-based pours and serve up a mean fried chicken and waffle sandwich. 30 Ontario St. S
Centre in the Square The spot for big-ticket concerts (nostalgia alert: Foreigner is playing in September). 101 Queen St. N
Goodvibes Juice Co Delicious cold-pressed juices, nut milks and smoothies to go. 1 King St. W
La Cucina A casual Italian place with a wood-fired pizza oven and great lunch specials. 320 King St. W
Kitchener Market Open all week with but go early on Saturday morning for the farmers’ market. 300 King St. E
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