weekend getaway toronto

The top 10 artsy weekend escapes from Toronto

The top weekend escapes from Toronto for art lovers show off the vibrant arts and culture scene in Ontario, from well known destinations like Niagara-on-the-Lake's Shaw Festival to the rolling hills of Caledon and the hidden gem that is the Alton Mill Arts Centre.

While the arts communities in small towns across this province are generally driven by the theatre, landscape painting and craft-related work, it's crucial to remember that an important gallery like Albright-Knox is just two hours away (provided you have luck at the border) and a hotbed for modern art. In fact, when you step back and look at the options art lovers have to explore areas within a short drive of Toronto, you realize that we're collectively spoiled for choice, particularly in the summer and fall.

Here are my picks for the top weekend escapes for art lovers in Toronto.

Soak up modernist theatre at the Shaw Festival
The Shaw Festival is one of the most popular weekend getaways for arts and culture fans for a good reason: it hosts some of the best theatre on the continent. While George Bernard Shaw is the obvious focus, what keeps the festival engaging year in and year out is the addition of works from his contemporaries, esteemed modern playwrights like NoÍl Coward, J.M. Barrie, and Tennessee Williams, to name just a few of the heavyweights regularly featured here. The town itself is perfectly quaint with a host of historic inns, like the Pillar and Post, Harbour House, and Queen's Landing. Travellers on a budget will want to check out the many B&B options.

Immerse yourself in Elora's arts scene (and go tubing)
Elora and nearby Fergus are picturesque towns situated on the Grand River about an hour's drive from Toronto. Both are home to thriving artist communities, though the one around Fergus is more spread out along the back roads of Wellington County. Elora is the bigger draw of the two in part because of the Elora Centre for the Arts, which hosts established artists and arranges events like outdoor art fairs. The towns also host an annual studio tour in the fall. With the Elora Mill closed for renovations, your best bets for accommodations are the many small inns and B&Bs in both towns. Oh, and don't forget to go on a tube ride.

Check out the burgeoning Hamilton gallery scene
We've already fawned over Hamilton's music and culinary scenes, but Steeltown is also an art gallery town. Along with the impressive Art Gallery of Hamilton, James Street North is home to vibrant collection of art spaces that are bringing new life to the city. The unofficial gallery crawl on the second Friday long ago became an established event that brings out crowds that would make even Toronto galleries jealous. Add to that mix the Downtown Arts Centre, The Community Centre for Media Arts, and the McMaster Museum of Art and you might be inclined to strike out the "burgeoning" from the header of this blurb.

Retreat to the Toronto Islands to work on your novel
This one is more for artists than art fans, but if you're looking to retreat from the city to get some work done on an project, this could be the ultimate escape. You'll need to earn it, though. Artists looking to take advantage of Artscape's residency program at Gibraltar Point will need to apply online and explain what they're working on in the hopes of being accepted into the program. Along with private accommodations, success can make use of studio space, a shared kitchen and all the other amenities of the Islands.

Check out Albright-Knox and booming Buffalo
Buffalo, so long the butt of jokes about chicken wings and fires, is back on the upswing. With Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's "Buffalo Billion" initiative pouring money into revitalizing infrastructure across the city, now's as good a time as ever to pay a visit to the Albright-Knox Gallery, one of the city's cultural gems and as good a place to check out modern art as you'll find in most cities. When you pay your gallery visit, you can also check out nearby Delaware Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted (of Central Park fame) and simply a gorgeous urban oasis. If revamped hotels are your thing, make sure you stay at the Hotel at the Lafyette.

Pay the Bard his due at the Stratford Festival
If Shaw isn't your bag, then head to Stratford for its world renowned Shakespeare-focused festival. The stages here have been home to a who's who of acting talent over the last 60 years and continue the trend in 2014 with Colm Feore in a stint as King Lear. While the festival also plays host to non-Shakespearean works (this year's production of Alice Through the Looking Glass is of note), there's nothing quite like taking in a well-acted production of the Bard's work. While there, stay in the gorgeous Mercer Hall Inn or one of the reasonably priced motels around town.

Rediscover the Group of Seven in Kleinburg
The quaint little village of Kleinburg has been engulfed by development over the last decade, but the main drag still retains its historic charm even as the subdivisions lie just outside of town. The main draw here, of course, is the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, one of the finest selections of Group of Seven paintings in the country. Yes, these landscape masters might not impress a younger generation of art lovers as they did in the past, but the work is quite obviously beautiful and the grounds of the gallery are rugged enough to make you forget just how unnatural the landscape is just a kilometre or so away. Stay at the inexpensive Kleinburg Inn or make it a day trip.

Hit up Prince Edward County's arts scene
Prince Edward County has built a name for itself over the last decade as a destination for wine and food, but its original calling card was as a scenic arts community with plenty of antique options. Along with your winery visits, you can hit up the Festival Players Summer Theatre, Art in the County (a juried art fair), the PEC Jazz Festival, and the annual late summer studio tour. Stay at the new Drake Devonshire Inn or go old school at the Merrill Inn.

Take in the Forks of the Credit and the Alton Mill Arts Centre
The rolling hills of Caledon get lots of love for their scenic beauty and the waterfalls in the area, but there's actually quite the arts scene as well thanks mostly to the Alton Mill Arts Centre, a converted mill that houses over 25 artist studios and a ton of events each year. The highlights are probably Doors Open of Headwaters, which invites visitors into the many mills and historic buildings in the area (a hefty dose of which have some artistic purpose) and the 18-day Headwaters Arts Festival in September and October. There are also open studios and other events scheduled throughout the summer. If you've got the dough, the nicest place to stay in the area is the Millcroft Inn.

Get arts and crafty in Muskoka
Muskoka is an arts and crafty kind of place to begin with, what with all those mom and pop type shops in towns like Port Carling and Bala that sell various cottage country-themed accessories and trinkets. But the obsession kicks into high gear in July for the Muskoka Arts and Crafts show in Bracebridge. A huge affair, the festival features over 200 vendors and has been running for over 50 years. It's not the place to acquire conceptual art of course (unless you've learned Duchamp's lesson that all art is conceptual art), but if you're looking to pick up some handmade goods to decorate your home, this could be the weekend escape for you. Skip the shitty chain hotels in Bracebridge in favour of the B&B options.

What did I miss? Plug your favourite artsy weekend escapes from Toronto in the comments below.

Ford escapeThanks to Ford Escape for sponsoring our weekend escapes.Photo of Albright-Knox by Nick Stanley

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