To those who’ve attended Queen’s University, or St. Lawrence College, or the Royal Military College of Canada, the Limestone City has always felt especially… Canadian. Almost the same distance from Toronto as it is from Montréal. On Lake Ontario, surrounded by fresh water and born into this country’s legacy for engineering that water as a way to carve urbanity into a wide, cold, bountiful land. Insane about hockey to the point of claiming to have invented it. And for millennia, the traditional home of the Haudenosaunee and Anishinabek First Nations, which were named the Katarokwi when English colonizers took the land and renamed it King’s Town as a tribute to King George III, shortening it to Kingston in 1788.
But the almost European walkability, the secret alleys and the grand public buildings and historic red-brick storefronts reminiscent of Cabbagetown or Gastown all have a good reason for being here. Kingston may be a small city today, but between 1841 and 1844 it was a fledgling nation’s first capital, and underwent a decade of the type of torrid government infrastructure investment that such a title demands—and that hasn’t slowed down much in more than 175 years.
That explains the “big city in a small town” feel that infuses a stroll through this landscape of labyrinths, limestone and brick nooks with urban discovery small (colourful Martello Alley and its galleries) and large (tours of Kingston Penitentiary, Canada’s oldest and most notorious maximum-security prison, which closed nine years ago and opened to the public in 2016).
Kingston ranks in the top five in the country among small cities in our Sights & Landmarks subcategory, replete with history lessons at places like Fort Henry, one of Ontario’s only UNESCO World Heritage Sites, where you can experience 19th-century military and civilian life, musical performances and military demonstrations. There is also easy access to the fabled Thousand Islands National Park right from downtown through paddlewheel or riverboat cruises. Or, stay closer to shore and discover the history and heritage of Kingston’s spectacular waterfront aboard the Island Queen. The city’s parks rank in the top 10 nationally and are particularly stunning along the waterfront, as well as over the water by ferry to even more natural bounty at places like Wolfe, Amherst and Howe islands. Lake Ontario’s playground is there for the taking, every year—and, after the past two-and-a-half claustrophobic years, there have never been more sailboats, canoes, kayaks, paddleboards and windsurfers skimming the historic shoreline and azure fresh waters.
The soul of the city is as much in its experiences—its Programming ranks in the top three in Canada—as it is in its built environment, and Kingston has its urban offerings finely tuned.
Its top 10 finish in our Nightlife subcategory is a result of the big-city diversity that draws so many to Kingston. From a half-dozen local breweries (and counting) to clubs that launched local scions like The Tragically Hip, Sarah Harmer and Dan Akroyd to superstardom, there is an expectation here that a night out will become unforgettable. It could be sipping on one of the MacKinnon Brothers Brewing Company’s wildly ambitious, fully local and farm-to-glass beers. Or follow the throngs of Queen’s students to the Mansion for a buzzy band. Or catch a local legend playing to an eager hometown audience at the Grand Theatre. And oh those Kingston theatres! Finishing in the top three in the country among small cities, the stages here go a long way toward explaining the pipeline of creativity fostered in the area. There are the intimate indie productions by Theatre Kingston and the Domino, but also newly opened venues or planned spots like the Isabel, designed for Queen’s University by Ottawa-based architects N45 and Oslo’s Snøhetta. The Norwegian firm is well known for designing a number of significant buildings worldwide, among them the Library at Alexandria in Egypt.
The city also ranks #1 in Canada in our Shopping subcategory, with all the generic selections you’d expect in far larger cities, but also plenty of fiercely independent boutiques and retailers, ranging from daring jewellers to some of the best-stocked thrift stores you’ll find in Canada. Powering Kingston’s creativity and commerce is, of course, its proud citizenry. Local talent is very much connected to the city’s three largest post-secondary schools, ranking Kingston #2 in our Employment in Education subcategory. Despite the winters, locals are top five nationally for cycling to work. And everyone here benefits from a top five ranking for Health-care Practitioners.
A city like this will only continue to draw new residents—it already ranks #6 among small cities in Canada in our Creative Class subcategory and #1 for Google Search. The aggregate price of a home in Kingston increased 38.1 per cent year-over-year, reaching $722,100 in the fourth quarter of 2021. The median price of a single-family detached home increased 44.3 per cent to $780,600 over that same time. According to Royal LePage, Kingston’s housing prices have jumped higher than any other city in the country. Any city. Big or small.