Great Lakes Direct

Lake Ontario Travel Guide

Best Places to Visit and Things to Do

Lake Ontario is the easternmost of the Great Lakes. It straddles the border between the United States and Canada and, at 7,340 square miles (19,000 square kilometers), is the smallest of the Great Lakes in area.

However, it's still an impressive freshwater basin that serves as a vital source of water for millions of people in both countries and the lake plays a critical role in the region's ecology, economy, and recreation.

Located at the base of Niagara Falls, Lake Ontario receives water from the upper Great Lakes through the Niagara River. The lake's major outlet is the St Lawrence River, which flows northeast into the Gulf of St Lawrence and the Atlantic Ocean.

The lake's drainage basin covers 24,720 square miles (64,030 square kilometers) and is home to more than 10 million people, including major cities such as Toronto, Ontario, and Rochester, New York.

Scarborough Bluffs near Toronto on Lake Ontario
Scarborough Bluffs near Toronto on Lake Ontario

Historically, Lake Ontario has been a major center of human activity and cultural development.

The lake and its surrounding region were originally inhabited by various Native American tribes, including the Iroquois and Huron nations. European exploration of the area began in the 17th century, with the French and British establishing trading posts and settlements along the lake's shores.

Today, Lake Ontario continues to be a vital resource for the region, supporting commercial fishing, shipping, and a thriving tourism industry, with around 12 million visitors annually.

Main Tourist Destinations on Lake Ontario

Lake Ontario stands out among the Great Lakes regarding the distribution of population centers and tourist destinations.

Unlike the other lakes, where the US shorelines often host numerous towns and cities, Lake Ontario's Canadian side is more densely populated and urbanized, featuring major cities such as Toronto and Hamilton.

On the New York side, the landscape is comparatively rural, with towns being more dispersed and generally smaller.

Toronto, Ontario

Toronto is Canada's largest city. It is a must for anyone exploring the shores of Lake Ontario.

This dynamic metropolis boasts a stunning waterfront that features the famous CN Tower, which rises 1,815 feet (553 meters) above the city. Ripley's Aquarium, home to more than 16,000 aquatic creatures from around the world, sits at the base of the tower.

Toronto skyline from Lake Ontario
Toronto skyline from Lake Ontario

The buzzing waterfront offers a variety of activities, from boat tours to waterfront dining, making it the perfect place to soak up the city's energy.

With a population of more than 2.7 million, Toronto offers a diverse culinary scene. From world-renowned restaurants to cozy neighborhood eateries, foodies will enjoy the city's offerings.

Those interested in culture and the arts will find no shortage of world-class museums in Toronto, including the Royal Ontario Museum, which houses over 6 million artifacts spanning natural history and world cultures.

Toronto Distillery District
Toronto Distillery District

Don't miss the opportunity to explore Toronto's unique neighborhoods, such as the Distillery Historic District. This pedestrian-only village, set in a former 1800s whiskey distillery, features Victorian-era architecture, boutique shops, art galleries and charming cafes.

Whether you're an urban explorer, a foodie, or a lover of culture and the arts, Toronto has something to offer every visitor to Lake Ontario.

Kingston, Ontario

Kingston, Ontario, nestled on the shores of Lake Ontario, is a city steeped in history and charm.

Affectionately known as the "Limestone City," Kingston boasts a stunning collection of well-preserved 19th century buildings constructed of local limestone. History buffs and architecture enthusiasts will enjoy exploring the city's historic districts, such as the downtown core, which features fine examples of Victorian and Edwardian architecture.

Kingston City Hall from Lake Ontario
Kingston City Hall from Lake Ontario

One of Kingston's most notable attractions is the UNESCO-designated Rideau Canal.

This 19th-century marvel stretches 125 miles (202 kilometers) from Kingston to Ottawa, offering boating aficionados a unique opportunity to navigate through a series of 45 locks. Visitors can also explore the canal's history at the Kingston Mills Lock Station, which features restored locks and a visitor center.

No visit to Kingston is complete without a trip to historic Fort Henry, a 19th-century British fortification that offers daily tours, military demonstrations, and stunning views of Lake Ontario.

Scenic cruises through the picturesque Thousand Islands region depart from Kingston's waterfront, providing a glimpse into the area's natural beauty and grand estate homes.

Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario

Niagara-on-the-Lake is located where the Niagara River meets Lake Ontario in the heart of Canada's wine country.

This charming destination is known for its well-preserved 19th century architecture, with elegant Victorian-era buildings. The town of just over 17,500 people attracts wine connoisseurs, theater lovers and history buffs alike.

Niagara-on-the-Lake, Lake Ontario

One of the town's most notable attractions is the Shaw Festival, a prestigious theater event that runs from April to December each year. Named after the celebrated playwright George Bernard Shaw, the festival offers performances at three distinct venues, including the historic Royal George Theatre.

Niagara-on-the-Lake is also home to some of Canada's most acclaimed wineries, thanks to its unique microclimate and fertile soil. The region boasts over 20 wineries, many of which offer tours and tastings of their award-winning vintages.

Fort George, a meticulously reconstructed War of 1812 fort, provides visitors with a glimpse into the region's military past through guided tours and interactive exhibits. The Niagara Historical Society Museum, housed in a restored 1875 building, showcases the town's rich history and cultural heritage.

Fort George near Niagara-on-the-Lake
Fort George near Niagara-on-the-Lake

Fort Niagara, located directly across the Niagara River in the United States, offers a complementary historical perspective to the region's past. Established in the 17th century, Fort Niagara is an important historic site that offers visitors an immersive experience of early military life through well-preserved buildings and reenactments.

Hamilton, Ontario

Hamilton offers visitors a unique blend of industrial heritage, natural beauty, and cultural attractions. Hamilton is the third-largest city in Ontario, with a population of over 536,000.

Nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts will delight in Hamilton's extensive network of hiking trails and green spaces. The city boasts over 100 waterfalls, earning it the nickname "The City of Waterfalls."

View over Hamilton, Ontario
View over Hamilton, Ontario

The Bruce Trail, Canada's oldest and longest marked hiking trail, winds through Hamilton on its way from Tobermory on Lake Huron.

Bayfront Park, located on the city's waterfront, features a wide promenade, a fishing pier, and a sandy beach, perfect for a leisurely stroll or a picnic with a view of Lake Ontario.

Rochester, New York

Rochester, New York, is a city located on the southern shore of the lake. It is home to approximately 206,000 residents and is known for its family-friendly attractions, stunning parks, and cultural heritage.

One of Rochester's most popular attractions is the Strong National Museum of Play, a must-see for families with children. This interactive museum features exhibits dedicated to the history and exploration of play, including classic toys, video games, and a full-size merry-go-round.

The museum is also home to the World Video Game Hall of Fame, which celebrates the most influential video games of all time.

Rochester in New York State
Rochester in New York State

The George Eastman Museum is a treasure trove of photographic history for photography enthusiasts and history buffs. Located on the estate of Kodak founder George Eastman, the museum houses one of the world's largest collections of photographic and motion picture artifacts.

Visitors can tour Eastman's historic mansion, explore the beautiful gardens, and participate in workshops and demonstrations related to the art and science of photography.

Sackets Harbor, New York

Sackets Harbor is a picturesque village on the eastern shore of Lake Ontario in New York State. With a population of just over 1,400, Sackets Harbor offers visitors a peaceful and quaint atmosphere perfect for those seeking a relaxing getaway.

The village played a pivotal role in the War of 1812, serving as a strategic naval base for American forces. Today, visitors can explore this fascinating history at the Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Historic Site.

The site features restored buildings, exhibits of military artifacts, and guided tours that bring the stories of the war to life. The historic site also hosts a variety of events throughout the year, including reenactments and living history demonstrations.

The marina at Sackets Harbor in New York State
The marina at Sackets Harbor in New York State

The village's charming downtown is perfect for a leisurely stroll, with well-preserved 19th-century buildings housing unique shops, art galleries and restaurants.

Nature lovers will enjoy the village's scenic trails, including the Sackets Harbor Battlefield History Trail, which winds through the historic site and along the lakeshore. The trail offers stunning views of Lake Ontario and the opportunity to spot several species of birds, including bald eagles and ospreys.

Main Parks around Lake Ontario

Thousand Islands National Park, Ontario

Thousand Islands National Park lies at the junction of Lakes Ontario and the Saint Lawrence River, and consists of more than 20 islands and several mainland areas.

The Thousand Islands region is a boater's and kayaker's paradise, with countless channels, bays and hidden coves to explore. The park offers several boat launches and docks, as well as guided boat tours for those who prefer a more structured experience.

The Thousand Islands National Park
The Thousand Islands National Park

Visitors may see a variety of bird species, including osprey, herons, and cormorants, as well as mammals such as deer, beaver, and river otter. The park also offers several hiking trails that wind through the interior of the islands, providing an opportunity to get up close and personal with the park's unique flora and fauna.

Sandbanks Provincial Park, Ontario

Sandbanks Provincial Park in Prince Edward County is a natural wonder that attracts visitors from far and wide. The park is home to the world's largest baymouth barrier dune formation, a unique geological feature that creates a series of golden sandy beaches and rolling dunes that stretch for over 12 kilometers (7.5 miles).

Sandbanks Provincial Park on Lake Ontario
Sandbanks Provincial Park

The park's pristine beaches are the main attraction for many visitors, offering endless opportunities for swimming, sunbathing, and relaxation.

The three main beaches - Outlet Beach, Sandbanks Beach, and Dunes Beach - each have their own distinct character and appeal.

Outlet Beach is the largest and most popular, with shallow waters that are perfect for families with young children.

Sandbanks Beach is known for its stunning sunset views and is a favorite spot for photographers and romantic walks.

Dunes Beach at Sandbanks Provincial Park
Dunes Beach at Sandbanks Provincial Park

Dunes Beach is a more secluded and natural setting, backed by towering sand dunes that rise up to 25 meters (82 feet) high.

Sandbanks Provincial Park is also a haven for bird watchers, particularly during the spring and fall migration seasons. The park's unique combination of dunes, wetlands, and forests provides a diverse range of habitats that attract over 240 species of birds.

The park also offers a range of recreational activities, including hiking, cycling, and boating. The Sandbanks Lakeview Trail is a gentle 2.5-kilometer (1.6-mile) loop that offers stunning views of Lake Ontario and the surrounding dunes.