Thunder Bay is one of the best cities in Ontario for outdoor addicts. Home to epic hiking trails, thundering waterfalls, and even Ontario’s very own Grand Canyon, there are tons of things to do in Thunder Bay for those who are looking for a slice of the great outdoors. Located on the shores of the expansive Lake Superior, at the foot of Mount Makay, Thunder Bay is full of such natural beauty you’ll fall in love with it quickly, as I did.
But don’t let its wealth of outdoor activities sway you if your interests are more akin to the arts, history, and great grub. Thunder Bay has something for everyone, even those on the hunt for street art. It’s a great stop on your Northwestern Ontario road trip. Or a short flight for a weekend getaway from both the US and parts of Canada. So, move on over Banff, Ottawa, and Toronto – there’s a hidden Canadian gem of a destination! And its name is Thunder Bay!
Where is Thunder Bay?
Thunder Bay is located in Northwestern Ontario. While it’s a great road trip from Toronto, it will take you over 15 hours and cover nearly 1400 kilometers. If you’re going the road trip route, I suggest this itinerary, with two night stays on the way there, and one on the way back. Or you can always fly into the Thunder Bay Airport.
Things to do in Thunder Bay Outdoors
Sleeping Giant Provincial Park
Located 45 kilometers east of Thunder Bay, Sleeping Giant Provincial Park is a must for all outdoor enthusiasts. Set on the Sibley Peninsula that stretches out into Lake Superior, the Park is home to over 80 kilometers of trails, over 24,000 hectares of natural beauty, and natural wonders fit for any bucket list.
One of the top things to do in Thunder Bay is to hike the Top of the Giant. While this trial is not for the faint of heart it will be all worth the pain and sweat in the end. From the top, you’ll have numerous options for epic views, including one that will have you standing atop the highest cliffs in Ontario. From the top of those cliffs, you’ll feel like you’ve found a slice of Europe in Ontario like you’re standing on the cliffs in Norway. But don’t worry, there are a ton of great, less intensive hikes throughout the Park leading to beautiful spots like the Sea Lion, Tee Harbor, and Lehtinen’s Bay to name of a few.
Forget about heading to the United States folks, Ontario has its very own Grand Canyon. Affectionately dubbed the ‘Grand Canyon of the North’, Ouimet Canyon is a remarkable sight. Located 64 kilometers northeast (1 hour) of Thunder Bay is Ouimet Canyon, Provincial Park. A one-kilometer loop trail takes you to two viewing platforms overlooking the canyon. The canyon is 500 feet across, 3 kilometers in length, and has over 350-foot vertical cliffs plunging into the delicate canyon floor. The canyon floor is home to rare Arctic flora that is usually found 1,000 kilometers to the north.
The views from the platforms are outstanding. From the sheer cliffs to the fragile canyon floor and out to Lake Superior in the distance, it’s hard to imagine this grand canyon is still so unknown. From one of the platforms, you can see a large rock formation that appears to be watching over the canyon.
Looking for a sweeping view over Thunder Bay? Then head to the top of Mount McKay. Park at the 500-foot level, enjoy a picnic and the view. And if you’re up for a hike, take the trail to the top. At 1000 feet over the city, the top of Mount McKay will award you with views of Thunder Bay, Lake Superior, and beyond.
Thunder Bay is home to a handful of amazing waterfalls. And a day spent chasing waterfalls is a day well spent. But the most popular and biggest of them all is Kakabeka Falls. Just a half-hour outside of Thunder Bay is Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park. Kakabeka Falls is known as the ‘Niagara of the North, with its meaning stemming from an Ojibwa word meaning ‘thundering water‘. A boardwalk trail will lead you nearly all the way around the falls. At 230 feet across and plunging 130 feet into a gorge carved out of Precambrian Shield, Kakabeka Falls is home to fossils that are 1.6 million years old!
For Art Lovers
Prince Arthur’s Landing Public Art
Along Thunder Bay’s downtown lakeshore you’ll find the city’s largest series of art installations. These unique and thought-provoking pieces of art, in various mediums, will captivate and inspire you. Pick up a flyer from the Thunder Bay Pagoda to guide you on a Prince Arthur’s Landing public art self-guided walking tour. From the Spirit Garden with odes to the Ojibwe to the 2 Beacons who speak to each other, and the over dozen benches with poems, excerpts, and moving pieces that share the spirit of Northwestern Ontario’s culture. This walking tour is a great way to end the day and appreciate the artistic spirit of Thunder Bay.
Some form of street art can be found in almost every city. And Thunder Bay is no different. From the art installations along the lakeshore discussed above to the alleyways full of street art in the heart of the downtown core, Thunder Bay has some fun and striking pieces. Wander down Cooke Street for some traditional graffiti street art, or head to 226 May St. South to see a scene of Metis canoeists, and for a truly impressive sight head to the Thunder Bay Public Library. And if you want to take a tour of the city’s street art head to the Definitely Superior Art Gallery Facebook page to find their map of all the locations.
For History Buffs
Heritage Architecture Walking Tour
The City of Thunder Bay offers 4 self-guided walking tours on their website here, where you can learn about the city’s rich history and see its diverse architecture. You can choose to do one or all, each takes roughly one hour, and are a great way to see the city. There are nearly 100 buildings across the four tours. Some highlights include the Pagoda, the oldest continually operating tourist booth in Canada, and the Whalen Building, that’s exterior is covered in decorative carved art from animals to flowers. And if you’re looking for a historic place to stay in Thunder Bay consider the Prince Arthur Hotel. It’s located right in the heart of downtown and the architect was also responsible for the New York Grand Central Station.
Fort William Historical Park
Fort William was the hub for the Canadian fur trade. This living history attraction is home to a reconstruction of the Fort William fur trade post just like it was back in 1816, along with a Native camp, fur stores, farm, and Great Hall. Step back in time and learn from costumed characters dressed in the early 1800’s wares.
Located just outside the city, the Fort William Historical Park is a great place to spend the day and perfect for families.
Terry Fox Monument
Just before the turnoff for Thunder Bay’s downtown is the Terry Fox Monument, and a must stop to pay honor to this incredible Canadian. For those who don’t know, Terry Fox became a national hero when he set out to run across the country for cancer research back in 1980. At a young age, he lost one of his legs to cancer, making this cross-country journey even more incredible. He began his Marathon of Hope in St. John’s, Newfoundland, but sadly his journey was cut short near to where his 9-foot tall monument stands today just outside of Thunder Bay when his cancer spread to his lungs. He died nine months later. Every year after his death a Terry Fox Run has taken place continuing his legacy.
The Terry Fox Monument is located on a hilltop, offers stunning views of Lake Superior, Sleeping Giant, and is truly an awe-inspiring stop during your Thunder Bay stay.
Places to Eat in Thunder Bay + What to Eat
Eat a Persian
No, I’m not recommending you eat someone from the Middle East or some Middle Eastern cuisine. This is a purely North American treat. Who doesn’t like sweet treats? And any visit to Thunder Bay should include a trip to The Persian Man. There are two locations in the city. The one on Balmoral Street is a café that also offers light meals and other baked goods. But the best reason to visit is to purchase a Persian. This mouth-watering treat is a cinnamon roll that meets frosted donuts and will have you wanting more! You may not have heard of them but they’re famous! They’ve even been mentioned on the Food Network.
There is a large population of Finnish in Thunder Bay and has been for a long time. And in 1918 the Hoito Restaurant was established on the bottom floor of the historic Finnish Labour Temple. Located on Bay Street in the multi-cultural Bay & Algoma neighborhood of downtown. The restaurant serves Finnish and Canadian home cooking in a family-friendly environment. And they’re well-known for their delicious Finnish pancakes. These light, sweet, and crepe-like pancakes are a must-try on any Thunder Bay to-do list!
(2020 UPDATE: Sadly the Hoito Restaurant is no longer open. But another great breakfast restaurant in Thunder Bay where you can get Finnish pancakes is at the Rooster Bistro.)
Other great food stops in Thunder Bay include; Thunder Bay Oak Cheese Farm – the first farm in Ontario to produce Gouda cheese and Red Lion Smokehouse – a popular pub with a delicious menu that serves up local craft beers. And my favorite place to eat in Thunder Bay is Bight Restaurant. It offers spectacular views of Lake Superior from inside with floor-to-ceiling windows and even better views from Thunder Bay’s best patio. And the menu is full of delicious seasonal Canadian fare.
Other Points of Interest in Thunder Bay
There are so many more things to do in Thunder Bay, Ontario! A few other suggestions include:
Centennial Botanical Conservatory – If you love beautiful gardens then you’ll love Thunder Bay Conservatory. Now over 50 years old, the Conservatory is home to a wealth of plant species. Plus it’s a great free indoor attraction to add to any Thunder Bay itinerary.
Thunder Bay History Museum – Whether you’re a history buff or looking for things to do in Thunder Bay indoors, consider a visit to the Thunder Bay History Museum. Located in a historic building that was once the police station and courthouse, it is now home to six galleries that touch on everything from local history to national heritage. You can even check out their virtual exhibits here.
Thunder Bay Art Gallery – Another great museum in Thunder Bay is the Thunder Bay Art Gallery. Located on the campus of Confederation College, the Art Gallery focuses on contemporary works from First Nations artists and is home to over 1600 works of art.
Visit an Amethyst Mine – There are three amethyst mines in Thunder Bay that are open to the public, all located just north of the Sibley Peninsula. Blue Point Amethyst Mine, Diamond Willow Amethyst Mine, and Amethyst Mine Panorama.
Where to Stay in Thunder Bay
If you’re looking for hotels in Thunder Bay there are plenty to choose from. But there are a few that stand out. One of the most popular places to stay in Thunder Bay is the Prince Arthur Waterfront Hotel. Built in the early part of the 20th century by the Canadian Northern Railway, the hotel offers beautiful suites, a restaurant, and stunning architectural features. Located downtown with sweeping views of Lake Superior and Sleeping Giant, Prince Arthur has everything you’re looking for, class, style, and the perfect location.
If you’re looking for a little something with charm then consider staying at The Courthouse Hotel, in yup, you guessed it, the old courthouse. This boutique hotel has all the elegance but with a great price tag. There is also a range of Airbnb options in Thunder Bay that range from full homes to boutique-style apartments. If you’re looking for more budget-friendly options there are a host of perks, like Sleeping Giant and Kakabeka Falls, which offer camping options.