I love the bustle of a busy urban centre with all the lifestyle perks, such as restaurants, cafes, shops, galleries, libraries, entertainment venues, parks and more. But finding the work-life balance to enjoy these perks can be difficult when the cost of living is so high. It’s no wonder there is a growing trend of people moving out of the Greater Toronto Area to find cities with lifestyle and affordability – like St Catharines.
St. Catharines, Ontario, is the largest city in the Niagara Region. Whether you are visiting for the first time or have lived here forever, it’s time to discover (or rediscover) St. Catharines’ thriving downtown core. We take a stroll to soak in its heritage architecture, the vibrant arts community and indulge in the hip culinary scene.
Our day begins right at the heart of downtown St. Catharines on St. Paul Street. In recent years with the addition of the FirstOntario Performing Arts (PAC), this area is on the up-and-up.
The PAC was opened in 2015 as a collaboration between the City of St. Catharines and Brock University. It has brought renewed vibrancy to the city’s core with its world-class line-up of acts.
There is a hum of student activity going on at Brock’s Marilyn I Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts next door. The PAC is also home to a keenly curated indie film house where you can enjoy a local Niagara wine and beer with your movie.
Stopping for a strong tasty espresso across the street at Mahtay Lounge, we find the walls lined with a local artist’s latest pieces, tables full of students, business, and creative types immersed in their laptops or discussing their next great project over coffee.
In Mahtay’s Community Room musicians are having an acoustic jam session, while our barista talks enthusiastically about the perfect balance of milk and espresso coffee to make a great flat white.
Hitting the street again we head a couple of blocks North East to the Niagara Artist Centre (NAC). There is a large art community in St. Catharines that was here long before the opening of the PAC. In fact, the NAC is one of the oldest artist-run organisations in Canada. It’s a not-for-profit artist collective where you can attend local exhibitions, live performances, and workshops.
Heading back down St Paul, keepgood co. catches our eye and we are drawn to the clean minimalist aesthetics of this interior decor boutique. Curated with a keen eye for Scandinavian style, every shelf is Instagram worthy.
Next, lunch beckons. There are so many options in St Catharines from authentic Indian, Thai, Japanese, and Chinese restaurants to hip gastropubs and cutting-edge modern cuisine.
One of the more recent additions to the food scene, Hambrgr has a reputation for awesome burgers and a focus on locally-sourced ingredients. We pull up a stool at one of the high tables. Exposed brick and chalkboard walls give the interior a laidback pub vibe. We order burgers piled high with fresh ingredients and a couple of locally-brewed beers.
After rolling out of Hambrgr full and happy, we take the opportunity to walk off our meal with a browse through the local farmers market.
Open Tuesdays, Thursday, and Saturdays every week in any season, St. Catharines Farmers Markets gives locals the opportunity to experience the best of the region, chat with the makers and growers, and sample seasonal produce.
As we head back down St. James Street to continue our stroll along St. Paul, we stumble on independent music retailer Mindbomb Records, and can’t resist popping in to thumb through their huge collection of gorgeous vinyl.
The lounge seats in the sunny window make it too tempting to sit here all day, but it is on to discover more local retailers.
Back on St. Paul Street, we head to Small Batch Co. – a cold-pressed juice company and cafe. I was recently told they engaged local artist Martina Doom to paint a mural on their backroom walls, and I have to take a peek.
Next is Craft Arts Market – a consignment store that offers local artisans a place to sells their wares. The selection of items available is highly curated and the result is a collection of beautiful and unique homewares, fashion items, and gifts.
It is also exciting to find Craft Arts Market serve Pilot espresso coffee and employ some of the finest baristas in the region to whip us up an afternoon pick-me-up.
Coffee in hand, we head across the street to the ever-popular Beechwood doughnuts. These 100 percent vegan treats have been the talk of the town and beyond since opening in 2015. One look at the gourmet options and it’s not hard to see why.
After a big day, pre-dinner drinks are in order and we pull up a stool at St. Catharines original brewpub The Merchant Ale House. “The Merch”, as it is referred to by locals, has been serving their tasty brews and pub food favourites for around 20 years. It is also a great place to catch local bands.
To finish off our trip around downtown, we head to oddBird restaurant.
Young chef/ owners Justin Duc and Scott White have quickly earned a reputation for delicious modern cuisine and their menu reflects their love of experimenting with new local ingredients.
The cozy interior is predominately taken over by the open kitchen where guests love to sit and watch the masters at work. The food is fantastic and the atmosphere is fun. It’s the perfect way to end our day.
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