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Explore Guelph's History on Sunday Afternoons

by Jane Litchfield

What can you do on a Sunday afternoon that only costs $5 and gives you a taste of local history and architecture plus some fresh air and exercise? Take a Guelph Arts Council Historical Walking Tour, of course.


Walking Tour Launch 2018 web

The season launch saw an enthusiastic group turn out to take the tour under some much-needed sun. Photo by Kesia Kvill.



Walking tours run on most Sundays from April to October (excluding July), and there are six to choose from. Why not do all six? Some of our fans do the same tour more than once so they can pick up new tidbits from a different guide or another guest on the tour.

The walking tour season starts annually on the day after Doors Open Guelph, which means the 2018 season launched on a sunny April 22. Nineteen people came out to stroll the city’s oldest commercial area and learn about Guelph’s roots. 

Your tour guide will be one of our dedicated volunteers. “These guys are passionate about what they do,” says Guelph teacher, writer, and GAC volunteer Marion Reidel, who has completed all the tours. Some guides are more interested in history; others architecture, or natural features.
You can buy your $5 ticket from your guide (exact change is appreciated) or online through the GAC Events Calendar. The tour schedule is available on our site, in our newly updated brochure. Check the brochure for starting points, which vary. Tours run rain or shine at 2 p.m., except in extreme weather, for about 2 hours.


New downloadable tour booklets

Can’t make Sundays? Take a self-guided tour – now with new digital tour booklets, thanks to our volunteers, including Reidel, who updated the text for all the tours. These downloadable booklets feature historical photos and drawings, many from Guelph Museum archives, so you can compare today and yesteryear as you walk.

You can also buy a printed booklet of each tour with historical information and architectural drawings as a souvenir of your tour, as a gift, or for self-guided walks. Booklets are $5 at The Bookshelf (41 Quebec St.), at the GAC office (42 Carden St.), at Guelph Civic Museum (52 Norfolk St.), or from your guide.

Reidel notes that the new digital booklets aren’t necessarily the same as the guided tours. “We couldn’t include the embellishments and fun stories that you get from the guides.” Guides might also add variations to the route, while the booklets might offer different details.

Reidel says the tours are a good balance of architecture and history. “You learn what a quoin is, and the difference between a Gothic window and an Edwardian one, plus you’ll learn about the movers and shakers and founders of the city.”

One goal of the tours is to create awareness and appreciation for downtown Guelph’s historic buildings. Many original buildings were destroyed in post-war expansion and our volunteers are dedicated to preserving the remaining ones. “There are lessons to be learned,” says Reidel. “St. George’s Square had stunning architecture, and some bad decisions were made.”

The six tours

1.       “Where Guelph Began” encircles the original Market Square and covers many of Guelph’s earliest buildings on Wilson, Carden, and Wyndham streets.

2.       “Downtown Walkabout” tours today’s downtown core with many historically and architecturally interesting buildings, such as the Raymond sewing machine factory.

3.       “The Slopes of the Speed” introduces you to many of Guelph’s most distinguished historic homes along the river, on King, Queen, Palmer, and Stuart streets.

4.       “Altar & Hearth” alternates between Exhibition Park, with its 19th-century homes, and Catholic Hill, with its remarkable stone buildings including the Basilica of Our Lady and St. Agnes School.

5.       “Brooklyn & The College Hill” tours the early industrial area, including John McCrae’s house, and the area that developed around the agricultural college.

6.       “Ward One Guelph” reveals a wide variety of historic architecture in this mixed residential/industrial area, which is now enjoying a revitalization.

You can do the tours in any order, but Reidel likes starting at the top, because they build on each other. “On one tour you’ll see where an industrialist lived, and on the next you’ll see where his factory was.” Her favourite, though, is the Exhibition Park section of Altar & Hearth: “It has fabulous old houses.”

All the tours offer visitors and Guelphites a chance to get a unique perspective on the city’s heritage and an appreciation for Guelph’s historic buildings and homes. And, as Reidel says, “It’s a nice excuse for a walk.”

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