A Weekend Guide to Thunder Bay, Ontario
Thunder Bay, Canada is a lovely travel spot, one good for all travel types: families with young children, single travelers, friends, and couples! For Americans, especially those who live in Wisconsin or Minnesota, Thunder Bay is within arms reach—only 6-10 hours away (where we live in Minneapolis, for example, is roughly 6 hours away). For those who want to fly in from abroad, there's an airport right in Thunder Bay, only minutes from everything you might want to experience. Thunder Bay has an estimated population of 110,000 living in the municipality—the largest populous for a municipality in Northwestern Ontario. Though it may seem like a small city compared to others around the world (by contrast, the city of Minneapolis alone has a population of 400,000, and that's not including the surrounding suburbs or county of Hennepin), there's a lot of activities to do, a lot of sights to see, and a lot of delicious Canadian food to enjoy.
Which makes it the perfect place for a long weekend getaway!
Over Memorial Day Weekend (a holiday here in the United States), Mr. Nerd and I took a three day trip up to Thunder Bay and explored the local sites. We're here to give you a rough itinerary of what you can expect if you decide to visit Thunder Bay in the future. It's a lovely place with untapped travel potential; we can't wait to go back!
How to get there
From Minnesota or Wisconsin —
Thunder Bay is a good half- to full-day drive from most big cities in these states, including the Twin Cities (MN), Milwaukee (WI), Madison (WI), and Green Bay (WI).
No matter which city you come from, the drive will take you up a scenic route along the western shore of Lake Superior, through Duluth, Minnesota, and across the Canadian border. The nice thing about this drive is that there are plenty of places to stop for food, coffee, or accommodations; you can choose to take the Scenic drive past Duluth and enjoy the sights of Lake Superior or get on the expressway and make good speed; and you can enjoy lunch or dinner at Betty's Pies, a place on the lake that's famous for its delicious, homemade pies and hot coffee.
Getting across the American-Canadian border is fairly easy and straightforward. Just make sure to have your visas or passports handy, and they'll send you on your merry way.
One big tip if you plan to drive to Thunder Bay: Watch out for moose and deer on the roads! They're more common than you might think. We saw 3-4 deer on the road during our trip, which averages to roughly one a day!
Flying in from abroad —
If you don't live close enough to drive, you can always fly into Thunder Bay International Airport and skip the road trip and moose sightings. Prices vary by distance and time of year, of course, so make sure to check the prices and book your ticket a few months in advance. Since it's a smaller airport (compared to others), the closer your trip gets, the more expensive tickets will be.
To give you an idea on ticket prices, a round-trip flight from Los Angeles, California or Orlando, Florida to Thunder Bay, Canada, leaving mid-June, is roughly $400-450. A round-trip flight from London, England to Thunder Bay, Canada, leaving mid-June, is roughly $800 (keeping in mind that there are a few layovers in the process).
Note: Some craziness I found... Flying from Thunder Bay, Canada to London is $800 cheaper than flying from Minneapolis, Minnesota to London, and on the same day, too! I wonder why that is. It's always a good idea to check flight prices from multiple different airports near where you live before booking. Who knows, you might find a good deal!
Where to stay
Thunder Bay has a lot of great options for accommodations, ones that fit all budgets. Where you stay is completely dependent on what type of traveler you are and what sort of comforts you like while on vacation.
If you're comfortable with staying in someone else's home, we highly recommend checking out Airbnb's Thunder Bay listings for some great local, scenic stays. We chose to book three nights with a lovely Canadian couple in a lake shore home they'd listed on Airbnb, and wow! Staying with them was such a treat. Not only did we receive tons of great information from them about the Thunder Bay area, but we also got to view a piece of Canada we wouldn't have had we booked a hotel in the city.
I mean ... check out this view, right on Lake Superior!
The downside to Airbnb is that, depending on who you stay with, you might not have complete privacy. We've stayed in Airbnb's where we had the entire house or apartment to ourselves, and we've stayed in Airbnb's where we slept on a pullout bed in someone's living room or guest room. If the price point for an entire apartment isn't right for you, and if you want some privacy—or a place where you can drink and be as loud as you want—you might check out some of these other options instead.
Note: If you're interested in trying out Airbnb, let us know and we can get you a discount for $27 off your first (or next) Airbnb trip! We love to give back to travelers. After all, our traveler friends were how we first learned about the wonders of Airbnb in the first place!
There are plenty of hotels right in the heart of Thunder Bay, and they're all at different price points. Here are a few places you could stay (for fairness sake, I calculated the prices for the same date 50 days in advance).
Days Inn Thunder Bay North: They have free parking, a complimentary breakfast, and are just 10 minutes away from the airport and downtown Thunder Bay. One night stay is roughly $130 CAD (or $99 USD).
Valhalla Inn: If you're looking for something more fancy, this hotel has two restaurants, a coffee shop, and a spa (though these amenities cost extra). They're located right next to the airport and are about 15 minutes away from downtown Thunder Bay. One night stay is roughly $135 CAD (or $103 USD).
Kingsway Inn: An economy budget hotel, Kingsway Inn offers a complimentary breakfast, free WiFi, "krazy golf" for families and kids (only offered May through September), and coin laundry. They're located 5 minutes from the airport and 10 minutes from downtown. One night stay is roughly $70 CAD (or $54 USD).
If your budget is limited/you're backpacking across Canada and you don't mind staying in a hostel, there are a few options to consider in Thunder Bay.
Thunder Bay International Hostel: Unfortunately, their main website seems to be broken, but the Thunder Bay International Hostel is located "on a large section of rural forested property" roughly 11 miles from Thunder Bay. You can camp on their property for $20 a night or stay in one of their rooms for $25 a night. They boast several outdoor activities near by, too, for nature lovers and hikers alike. You can email or call the information listed on the website above to reserve a space.
Sleeping Giant Guesthouse: The Sleeping Giant Guesthouse is open all year long and costs only a little more than the Thunder Bay International Hostel at $30 a night for a private single and $55 for a private double bed. It's very close to downtown Thunder Bay and right next to a university. They offer free WiFi, free coffee and tea, free breakfast, and use of their bicycles. You can call or email the information listed on the website above to reserve a space.
Places to eat
As it'd be remiss of you to travel to Canada and not try some of their delicious food, we sacrificed our diet (for the good of all travelers everywhere!) over our weekend in Thunder Bay to explore different restaurants and try as many unique Canadian dishes as possible.
We found authentic Canadian food indescribably amazing. No matter what you're craving, consider checking out some of these great places in Thunder Bay for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or a cold beer. You won't be disappointed.
The Hoito Restaurant: The Hoito is a Finnish restaurant that serves traditional Scandinavian meals. It's a bit of a hole in the wall, as it's located in the basement of a historic Finnish Labor Temple, but the restaurant is pretty clearly labeled. Even if you miss the signs, we guarantee you won't miss the long lines of hungry people going inside or the sea of happy faces coming outside on the weekend!
The Hoito is located in the Finnish quarter of Thunder Bay and was established in 1918. From the moment you walk inside, you're greeted by the smell of coffee and the sound of excited Canadian chatter. It's a smaller restaurant; the seating area is first come, first serve (reminding us of a church basement after a service), but we guarantee the wait for a table is worth it.
If you want something safe and comforting, we recommend you get the Finnish pancakes, a dish the Hoito is most known for. They also serve bacon, sausage, eggs, and bread ... and if you're feeling adventurous, liver and onions or salted raw fish with a big bowl of clabber.
Prices here are fairly inexpensive, especially if you're coming in from the United States (the dollar is stronger right now than the Canadian dollar). We ordered two main meals and two cups of coffee and paid around $25 (USD) with tip.
Helpful hint: Don't wait around for a server to seat you. Seating is open to anyone; just be sure to get there early or skip going during high traffic times!
Rooster's Bistro: We were encouraged by our hosts to stop by Rooster's Bistro for a delicious breakfast experience. Unfortunately, when we got there (around 11:30 a.m.), we were looking at a 40-45 minute wait. They didn't have a way to check in and get your name on a list, either; we were told we'd simply have to stand in line for a table (and the line was out the door and around the corner).
Obviously, the long line attests to the amazing quality of this restaurant, but we didn't have enough time to wait for a seat. Meanwhile, our host and several other locals swore by Rooster's Bistro, so if you're in the area, it might be worth the patience and persistence to get in.
Take a look at the link to their website if you want to know what they offer on their menu. And if you do stop by, drop us a comment and let us know what it was like! We'd love to hear about it.
Sovereign Room: If you're looking for something a little more eclectic for brunch or dinner, we suggest the Sovereign Room. Located in downtown Thunder Bay, The Sovereign Room is a gastropub that serves delicious cocktails, great local and regional beers, good music, and delicious food that'll fill you right up.
We went to the Sovereign Room because the line for the Rooster's Bistro on a Sunday was too long—a good 45 minute wait. The Sovereign Room was right around the corner and pretty empty at 11:30 a.m., so we grabbed a seat. We had great timing ... 20 minutes later, and Sovereign Room was packed with everyone from business partners, college students, couples, and families.
The atmosphere is a little dark and smoky, but the variety of music, the decorations, and the beer completely makes up for dim lighting. If you're looking for a quiet place to catch up with a friend and drink coffee, this probably isn't the right place for you. If you're looking for amazing eats and a good time, though, consider checking out the Sovereign Room on a Saturday or Sunday around noon.
The Sovereign Room is best known for its delicious, authentic poutine. We went for brunch and shared the breakfast poutine, a delicious mix of roasted potatoes, cheese curds, and an egg all smothered in gravy, and a hamburger with a donut bun. Both were excellent choices. Their coffee and cocktails (especially their mimosas) were also delicious—if not a tad sweet.
(Check out their dinner menu, found on their website, if you're interested in what else they offer. It all looks amazing!)
If you're looking for greasy, delicious hangover food or a great beer on a rainy afternoon, consider stopping by the Sovereign Room. Prices are fairly inexpensive here, depending on what you get. If you cut out the alcoholic beverages, two meals and coffee will range about $30-35 (USD) with tip.
The Missing Horse (aka The Roadhouse): Is it The Missing Horse or The Roadhouse? That is the question. This family-owned restaurant carries both names, and no one really knows which is official. The Missing Horse is located just off Highway 11/17 in the business district, about 15-20 minutes east of downtown Thunder Bay. If you're planning to stop by The Fish Shop (mentioned below), The Missing Horse is conveniently right across the street and great for breakfast eats! Thankfully, too, it never seems too busy, so there will always be a place to sit and a plethora of hot coffee on tap.
The Missing Horse has delicious Finnish pancakes (only second to The Hoito), juicy burgers, and mouth-watering poutine, among other delicious breakfast/lunch fare. It's also very affordable: two meals and coffee cost us about $30 (USD) with tip.
Helpful hint: Don't bank on access to WiFi while you're there. They don't offer their WiFi to customers.
Sleeping Giant Brewing Company: If you're a fan of hops-infused water (beer!), make sure to check out the Sleeping Giant Brewing Company smack in the heart of Thunder Bay. The entrance to their brewery and shop may be small, but don't let that fool you. Their variety of IPAs, APAs, EPAs, and stouts pack a delicious punch!
They don't offer glasses of beer or a place to sit, at least not yet. There are plans to expand in the works, but mums the word on the location and date until they're ready to release that joyful news to the world. Until then, they do offer samples (for those folk who can't make up their mind without trying a sip first), six packs, individual bottles, and beer jugs for sale, as well as miscellaneous merchandise such as glasses, shirts, posters, and beer soap (yes, beer soap. We didn't buy any, but looked and smelled awesome).
Their beer is a reasonable price and very delicious. If you're a beer lover, what are you waiting for? Make sure you stop by on our long weekend tour around Thunder Bay. They're open every day but Sunday (what a bummer) from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more details, check out their website.
What to see:
Sleeping Giant Provincial Park: Oh Sleeping Giant Provincial Park; we could write an entire blog post on this park alone. For nature lovers, SGPP offers incredible views, hiking trails, camping spots, and the ability to wander through the small, sleepy town of Silver Islet right at the bottom edge of the park.
For hikers, there are over 15 different hikes you can take around the park. Each hike is a different length and difficulty, and each leads you down a new, unexplored path through forests, around lakes, and up hills. We recommend taking a few hikes; they all have breathtaking views.
For campers, there are 40 backcountry sites to choose from. Camping sites are first come, first serve, so you'll have to go and hope there's something available the day you want to camp. Firewood and toilets are available in some places. Car camping, group camping, and cabins are also available, making it a great place to camp solo ... or with the entire family!
Even if you don't have time to hike or camp, we highly recommend you cut out some time to drive the loop. The road will take you down into the park, around Silver Islet, and back up. It's about a 30 minute loop but oh, so worth it, and with plenty of places to get out for photo and picnic opportunities.
Note: Camping is only available late May through mid-October. If you're planning to park and hike around, you'll need to get a day pass for your car. The day pass is $15 CAD.
Kakabeka Falls: Kakabeka Falls lies to the west of Thunder Bay by about 20 miles. It's the second highest waterfall in Ontario and is open year round. If you like nature trails, Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park has several hiking trails open in the summer months and cross-country skiing trails open in the winter—there are plenty of ways to enjoy the beautiful Canadian landscape here!
Other than the amazing waterfall, which is what the park is particularly known for, Kakabeka Falls Provincial Park has campgrounds, a beach for swimming, and a great area for birdwatching (including bald eagles).
Mount McKay: When you talk to locals about the must-see attractions in Thunder Bay, Mount McKay is always on the list. Why? Mount McKay towers 1,000 feet above Thunder Bay and offers visitors an incredible view of the city! It's located in an Indian Reserve and is the tallest and best known mountain in the Nor'Wester Mountains (yes, there are mountains in Thunder Bay).
The Mount McKay Lookout is the main reason why people visit, but Mount McKay also has a memorial, eastern paths for hiking, a variety of beautiful plants, and a picnic area for families and travelers.
Shops, Stops, & Activities —
The Fish Shop: If you're wandering around the outskirts of Thunder Bay, be sure to stop by The Fish Shop about 15-20 miles east in the business district. There are many signs along Highway 11/17 to let you know where to turn, so you can't miss it. And trust us, even if you don't like fish, it's a great place to stop.
The Fish Shop opened in 1970 and is run by a woman who's lived in Thunder Bay for many years. It's not only a great place to buy local, fresh fish (especially Finnish-style smoked fish), but it also houses delicious breads and desserts, fresh maple syrup and jams, locally woven rugs and crafted jewelry, and locally mined amethysts.
Thunder Bay is rich with amethyst; you can even mine your own amethysts if you're so inclined (see below). The Fish Shop offers a wide variety of amethysts, including stones with veins of amethyst running through them, earrings, necklaces, pendants, brooches, rings, and more. Even if you don't buy anything, they're stunning to look at.
Other things you can get at The Fish Shop: wood garden decorations and lawn chairs, Finnish hats, books, shoes, and more. We could've spent hours in the shop just looking around, and the owner was really fun to talk to. She'll make you feel right at home!
Fort William Historical Park: History, heritage, and family-friendly activities all come together at Fort William Historical Park. Located 10 minutes from the airport, Fort William Historical Park was built in the 1800s and serves as a "live museum" of sorts today. You can go to see old costumes and buildings, experience exciting reenactments, check out their year-open amphitheatre, or even send your kids to a day summer camp (so that you can go have a drink or get some lunch with a little peace and quiet). There's plenty to do and see at Fort William Historical Park, and one thing we were promised by locals was that it's never, ever boring.
Amethyst Mines: As amethysts are a large commodity in Thunder Bay (and also considered a semi-precious gemstone), there are plenty of amethyst mines along Highway 11/17 that you can visit. If you're looking for a souvenir, you can usually buy one that's already been mined. Otherwise, they allow you to mine your own amethyst—which is pretty cool!
Here are a few mines in the Thunder Bay area to check out. For more information regarding hours, prices, and entrance feeds (if any), follow the links below.
Tips from The Nerds
If you want to visit Thunder Bay, here are a few tips we recommend following:
- Downtown Thunder Bay has metered street parking, but it's free on Saturdays, Sundays, and Canadian holidays.
- Factor driving time into your intended activities and any restaurant reservations you make. Canada is a big place with long roads.
- If you buy any food from a grocery store during your stay, avoid pre-packaged frozen hamburgers at all cost. None of them tasted like actual hamburgers. Steaks are pretty safe, though.
- Canadians are some of the friendliest people we've ever met. Don't be afraid to ask for directions, tips, suggestions, or just generally talk to them. They aren't shy.
- Tipping is welcome in Canada.
- Most credit cards are accepted in Canada. Do be aware that some shops will charge you an extra "ATM" fee if you use a card, so cash may be a better option.
- If you're road tripping, add the cost of gas to your budget. They price gas in cents not dollars (so don't gawk at the triple digit prices!), and it comes to about $5 USD a gallon. Ouch!
- Poutine is pronounced poo-tin, NOT poo-teen.
- The Thunder Bay area seems especially welcoming to hitch-hikers and backpackers; we saw many of them in the area while we visited. It's a possible option for those who need a ride and have no car.
Have you been to Thunder Bay? Is there anything missing from our list that you'd recommend to other travelers? Let us know!