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Things to Do in Cornwall, Ontario: Welcome to Ontario’s Easternmost City!

Cornwall, Ontario is a city with a unique history that’s worth understanding and appreciating, a vibrant main strip with cafes, shops, and restaurants, a striking waterfront, and access to the great outdoors in all directions. If you haven’t visited Cornwall with the intention to meaningfully explore in the past, well perhaps now is the time, as there are plenty of things to do in Cornwall.

Things do Do in Cornwall, Ontario
Lamoureux Park on a late all eve. Photo Credit: Christopher Mitchell

Just as the sun was poking its head out for the day, I entered into Toronto‘s Union Station, bought my train ticket to Cornwall, and then sipped coffee in the VIA Business Lounge. There’s something about the wonderful simplicity of train travel that brings you back to another era. No lengthy security line, no airport chaos, just a walk to the platform, then a view out the window like no other.

The train ride was, as expected, a wonderful experience, but it also helped that I was on my way to explore a part of the province that I hadn’t yet. Ultimate Ontario, believe it or not, was founded back in 2018, and since inception, all members of this team have done a lot of exploring in order to serve our readers. But there’s a genuine feeling of anticipation for places we haven’t done our due diligence on just yet, that we’re headed towards, full speed ahead.

Everybody has their preconceived notions about what a place entails, largely constructed from half-remembered blips that they’ve heard on CBC radio, but we can’t actually form a true connection to a place until we’ve been there.

Googling pictures of a city’s main street is no replacement for visiting its restaurants, shops, and cafes. It’s no replacement for locking eyes with someone who has put their heart and soul into their local business, and to see how they serve (and are supported by) a community.

Cornwall isn’t a big city by any means, but it has quite the history and story, and it’s an easy place to arrive, and immediately become a part of the hum and energy of the city. Perhaps you’ve taken the train past Cornwall in the past, or driven past it on the highway and haven’t taken the opportunity to explore a little.

Well, here’s your sign.

A Bit More About Cornwall, Ontario

Cornwall, located in Eastern Ontario (and not all that far from Kingston and Ottawa), stands at the convergence of Ontario and Quebec, along with the state of New York. Serving as the seat of the United Counties of Stormont, Dundas, and Glengarry, Cornwall holds the distinction of being Ontario’s easternmost city.

For millennia, Indigenous communities have thrived in and around the present-day Cornwall area, and in particular the Mohawk and Ojibwe Peoples. The documented European presence dates back to 1784 when United Empire Loyalists, largely from New York, founded the first settlement. This became a notable visitation point in Ontario for European royalty, even hosting Prince William Henry in 1787. Post-US independence, Cornwall became a haven for former Crown loyalists and disbanded soldiers, particularly from Germany, who settled in New Johnstown, renamed Cornwall later on.

The War of 1812 saw battles near Cornwall, and the town faced a brief occupation by the American Army in 1813. By 1834, it achieved incorporation as one of Upper Canada’s first municipalities. From an industrial perspective, the construction of the Cornwall Canal from 1834 to 1842 was an absolute game-changer.

Then, railway development in the late 1800s and early 1900s solidified Cornwall’s regional importance. The Grand Trunk Railway, New York and Ottawa Railway, and Canadian Pacific Railway all established significant connections, transforming Cornwall into a central hub serving surrounding rural areas. There’s a reason I took the train here, my friends!

In the late 1950s, the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway submerged some of the smaller communities nearby (known as “the Lost Villages” – and part of the reason that Lost Villages Brewery now exists in the region!). To add more difficulty to the mix, I learned at the Cornwall Community Museum and Archives that this was ultimately an industrial hub, and that industry began to be further and further outsourced, which wasn’t easy for this community.

But, you get the sense that this is a place where perseverance runs deep, and despite any challenges faced, people find a way to move forwards. That’s part of what makes visiting enticing. You learn about what was — but I left, more than anything, with a sense that Cornwall and the SDG Counties are focused now not on the past, but on the future, and one filled with a lot of promise.

*Please note that this article may contain affiliate links. Simply put, that means that we may get a small commission from some of our recommendations at absolutely zero extra cost to you.

What Should You Do in Cornwall During Your Visit?

There’s a lot of ways to approach exploring Cornwall, and here are some of our favourites things to do.

Get Some Context for Your Visit at the Cornwall Community Museum

Cornwall Community  Museum
The Cornwall Community Museum. Photo Credit: Christopher Mitchell

I’ve always felt that starting things off at a museum that tells the story of destination makes a lot of sense. It can help you understand what makes a place tick, and most importantly, it gives you a sense of what the local community is proud of. It could be sports, it could be medical advancements, it could be particular local people, or some philanthropic efforts that you were unaware of. You never know, until you go.

I was welcomed to the museum by Don, the Curator and Manager who knows this museum like the back of his hand. He talked about how Cornwall aided in the formation of the Ontario that we know today, and how “industry wise, on a per capita level, Cornwall was way ahead of the game.”

I loved all the old pictures, and how easy it was to be transported back to another time. It’s not a modern, flashy museum in any sense, but it is set up in an accessible way, and it was the perfect starting point for me to start to really understand this city – a place with a history that is very much unique. A history that deserves to have its own community museum.

Stay Somewhere Unique

The Auberge Chesley's Inn in Cornwall, Ontario
The Auberge Chesley’s Inn in Cornwall, Ontario. Photo Credit: Christopher Mitchell

The first place that comes to mind for me is the Auberge Chesley’s Inn, which is set in a redbrick Georgian house that was built all the way back in 1814. It’s located in the heart of the action, walking distance from pretty much everything, and great minds think alike, because Bri (a fellow UO founder, and my partner) also stayed here when she was in the region, and wrote all about it.

There are 3 rooms available, that all have a very regal, comfortable look. I personally loved my wooden canopy bed, and had a suite with a little separate living room where I did some relaxing one fine eve.

As a fellow traveller, it was a treat to walk around the home and see what the owner, Robert Prowse, had amassed on his own travels. He has spent some significant time on the road, and I ended up leaving with a lot of useful tips for travelling in the middle east, in particular, and Robert is part of the reason I’ve got Oman now on the top of my travel bucket-list.

His pup is adorable, and inseparable from this place. Hamish, a Scottish terrier, has to be in the running for one of the friendliest dogs around.

Finally, the breakfast was terrific. Robert has this down to a science, and I left with a full belly, ample coffee flowing through me, and the sense that I’d love to return, anytime of year. You can check availability for your stay here.

Visit the Historic SDG Jail

If you ever were looking to bolster your resolve to never go to prison, this would be a good place to go. It was constructed all the way back in 1833, but actually ran until 2002. You can see what life would have been like here, but also learn about the prison’s many escapes, and with its deaths and hangings, it also is on the radar for lovers of the paranormal.

I took a guided tour (which are offered Thursday to Sunday between May and August), and enjoyed taking pictures as an inmate (which they have set up for a bit of fun), but also as a bit of an amateur historian, I was drawn to the scratches in the wall (makeshift graffiti, really) that inmates had made in the past. As a taller individual, I looked at some of the cells, and ended up feeling awfully grateful for my freedom, and the ability to leave when the tour was over!

They’re trying out new events here, like movie nights in the courtyard, and “paranormal investigations,” so feel free to look at what’s upcoming here.

Stroll Around Lamoureux Park

Lamoureux Park in Cornwall, Ontario
Lamoureux Park in Cornwall, Ontario. Photo Credit: Christopher Mitchell

Lamoureux Park is a beautiful riverside park situated along the St. Lawrence River. It’s a prominent and cherished public space within the city, spanning about 20 acres.

One of its key features is its scenic location, providing lovely views of the river and the surrounding landscape, but Lamoureux Park is not just about nature; it’s also a hub for community events and activities throughout the year. It hosts various festivals, concerts, and cultural events, drawing in crowds from Cornwall and neighbouring areas.

Recreationally speaking, it’s also just a nice place to come take a stroll, do a bit of cycling, or whatever suits you. Lamoureux Park stands as a cherished recreational and communal space in Cornwall, fostering a sense of community while providing a picturesque setting for relaxation and enjoyment.

Spend Time at Some of Cornwall’s Best Restaurants and Cafes

I kicked off my own Cornwall culinary explorations at Carrots N’ Dates, a beautiful little spot on the main strip that focuses on making everything fresh, from scratch, using whole foods, and daily! As they note, “our health-forward eatery blends community connection and nutritious food into an environment that fosters a shift in lifestyle.”

I had the “Crispy Buffalo Cauliflower Wrap,” and thought it was excellent, but if I went back again, I’d be getting a bowl and a smoothie, as I saw some other customers appreciating that combination! They also do plenty of live music and community events, and the ambiance as well is something to appreciate.

Later that night, I popped by Schnitzels European Flavours, and cannot say enough good things about it. For one, they’ve got a very enticing beer list ranging from Ontario favourites to some beers that are known to go awfully well with classic European cuisine (Carlsberg, Erdinger Weissbier, Erdinger Dunkle). It was also rather busy when I went, and yet the service was superb, so kudos to their staff.

Go with something here that they’re known for – perogies, beef goulash, sausage plates, their wood fire pizza, or a schnitzel. I had the classic schnitzel, and added mushroom gravy, basically making my own little lightly fried jager schnitzel. I honestly still think about that schnitzel on the regular, which is why I’d mark down this spot as a place to visit in Cornwall while you’re there.

Schnitzels in Cornwall, Ontario
Schnitzels – as good as it looks! Photo Credit: Christopher Mitchell

Other food spots that you might want to consider:

  • Fairy Sweet: A popular local bakery
  • Esca Gourmey Pizza & Bar: An industrial style Italian stop that gets creative with their toppings.
  • Philos: Known primarily for their greek cuisine, but also do a little pizza! Cornwall actually has a great reputation as a “pizza city” for all the Ontario foodies out there.
  • Thum’s Kitchen: Your choice for Thai in Cornwall.
  • Au Vieux Duluth: They call themselves “the best bring your own wine Greek restaurant in Ontario!”
  • The Spicy Pearl: Caribbean and Thai food converge here, right on the main strip.

Check Out the Saunders Hydro Dam Visitor Centre

The Saunders Hydro Dam Visitor Centre is an educational hub that delves into the workings of hydroelectric power generation, particularly focusing on the Moses-Saunders Power Dam. This interactive facility features exhibits, displays, and presentations that explain the history, engineering, and environmental significance of the dam.

Visitors can explore the operations of the dam through guided tours, offering close-up views of the massive turbines and insights into their role in electricity generation. Knowledgeable guides provide detailed explanations, making it an engaging destination for those interested in renewable energy and the impact of hydroelectric power on the St. Lawrence River.

Typically, the Hydro Dam Visitor Centre is only open for guided visits and the like in the summer season, so do be mindful of that on your visit.

Do a Little Shopping!

Life's Little Pleasures in Cornwall, Ontario
The welcoming interior of Life’s Little Pleasures. Photo Credit: Christopher Mitchell

Personally, I’d recommend doing what I did, and setting some time aside to walk up, down, and around Pitt Street. You’ll find spots like The Happy Popcorn Co., Kid’s Korner, Love and Lee Bridal & Clothing Boutique, DG Vintage, and Life’s Little Pleasures.

Of course, you can also saunter in to Cornwall Square where you’ll find clothing stores, jewellery stores, and a sizeable Dollarama.

Generally speaking, at Ultimate Ontario, we always ask shoppers to try to be conscious about shopping locally. You’ll have a richer experience going to a locally owned shop and talking to an owner about their products than you will at a chain.

What Else Should You Consider Doing in and Around Cornwall?

The Summerstown Trails outside Cornwall
Enjoying the Summerstown Trails. Photo Credit: Christopher Mitchell
  • Pop into Rurban Brewing for a cold one. It’s an indie taproom with a team that’s been in and around beer for decades.
  • Into escape rooms? Rush Hour Escapes Cornwall is located right on Pitt Street!
  • I used Cornwall as a base as well to explore some other communities. One such community that you need to have on your radar is Lancaster. Kick things off by picking up some award-winning cheese at Glengarry Fine Cheese, then consider doing some local shopping at spots like Marigold Market, Aberdeen Gift, The Jewellery Factory, Rob McIntosh, Trading Post, or Millworks & Co. You also will want to have Marlin Orchards & Garden Centre as a spot to visit on the way over to Lancaster from Cornwall. After your shopping, grab a bite at the Perch and Paddle, a fantastic spot with elevated pub grub in Lancaster.
  • If you love being active while on your travels, then you’ll be pleased to know that it’s a short drive to get to the Summertown Forest, and the wondrous Summerstown Trails, which is run by the Friends of Summertown Trails Inc., a community based non-profit. I hopped on a fat bike and had a blast, but it’s known for its promise during the winter months as a go-to location for nordic walking, cross country skiing and more.

As we’ve learned over and over again in our exploration of Ontario cities and towns, what you put into your exploration is what you get out of it. So walk up and down the pleasant main street, but also pop into local shops and restaurants. And visit Lamoureux Park, but also make time for a visit to the Cornwall Community Museum, which you’ll likely pass anyway as you’re walking.

It’s a city where I felt welcomed from the moment I arrived, and that I already can’t wait to return to, especially after I learned about what a cycling hotspot it is. Cornwall awaits, my friends, and it’s worth recognizing this city for its unique story and culture, and as something more than a sign on the highway, or another stop on your train ride.

Get off the train, take that exit, and come form some memories in this area!

We want to thank to Cornwall Tourism, Attractions Ontario, SDG Counties and the United Counties of Prescott Russell for hosting us as media. All opinions are our own.

Jo Lawson

Tuesday 12th of December 2023

I am a transplant in Cornwall and didn't know much about it's history hence you just did an excellent write up about this beautiful city. Thank you.

Christopher Mitchell

Sunday 17th of December 2023

You're most welcome! Happy you enjoyed it!