Summer is here! (Well, in three days, if you want to be exact.) If you’re like us, you’re probably wondering what kinds of things you can do to keep the summer break fun without breaking the bank. I’ve compiled a list of 50 of our family’s very favourite tried, tested and true summer activities. Yep, that’s right. F-I-F-T-Y. The best part? Many of them are cheap or free. Now, some of these are specific to my city. But many cities offer similar recreational opportunities, so please feel free to use these as inspiration for your own adventures.
Side note: I posted these on my other (now defunct) blog a few years ago but decided to update the list and share them here.
Without further ado….
Fifty Budget-Friendly Summer Activities
1. Catch bugs.
Every kid needs a bug net, wouldn’t you agree? Last year, we caught many a hapless grasshopper and butterfly. And at least once a year, we sneak out to the woods at dusk and catch fireflies. Fireflies are usually at their peak for about two weeks in the early summer. Regardless of whether you find any, however, I’m willing to bet that the adventure alone will be worth it.
2. Be a tourist in your own city.
We love playing tourist right at home. One of our favourite tours is the waterfront trolley ride. It costs only a few dollars and is an amazing way to see the Hamilton harbour and learn about its history from a knowledgeable guide. Check and see what kinds of tours operate in your area and learn a little bit more about where you live.
3. Go to an outdoor concert.
Gage Park is a large park in our city that holds free summer concerts pretty much every weekend. Every Sunday evening in August, for example, Seven Sundays in Gage holds outdoor music concerts at the band shell. Check their Facebook page for more info. Let’s hear it for warm summer evenings spent listening to live music in the park!
4. Go to a splash pad.
Did you know that there are over 50 splash pads in the City of Hamilton? You can find a list of locations here.
5. Set up a kiddie pool.
Or even just a bucket. Hours of fun means, for moms, hours of freedom. (Note: This is the perfect chance to work on your tan, Mama! Kick back with a book. And maybe an iced coffee or five.)
6. Eat dinner at the park.
Spontaneously. It doesn’t even have to be picnic-style food. Just pack up your dinner and walk it over to the park. You’ll be glad you did.
7. Go to a festival.
Hamilton has some amazing FREE festivals. Francofest, It’s Your Festival, the World Music Festival, Festival of Friends, Cactus Festival, Locke Street Festival and more! For a complete list including dates and times, click here.
8. Do a messy craft—outside.
Confession time: I actually don’t like messy crafts. But outdoor messy crafts are a whole different story. Stick an easel outside, let the kids go crazy, hose ’em off when they’re done, and everyone wins. True story.
9. Feed the birds.
We love to feed the birds at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington. There are a few places where the chickadees (and even the occasional nuthatch) will eat right out of your hand.
10. Eat breakfast on the porch.
Sometimes, the simplest things are the most exciting. We have a small bistro set on our porch and my girls love to eat outside. In the early mornings, while the neighbourhood is still quiet, it’s so relaxing to eat breakfast al fresco. (Well, relaxing for us. Maybe not so much for any poor souls who are trying to sleep in.)
11. Go to the zoo.
We love the zoo. However, it can get a bit expensive. Our solution? Look for deals on sites like Wagjag and Groupon to cut down on costs. You can also pack your own snacks and picnic lunch and avoid the pricey snack bars.
12. Find a free petting zoo.
I have three words: The Dutch Mill. I honestly think that this place is the best kept secret in the Hamilton area. Next to the cafe/store, there is a huge fenced in play area in which kids (along with the farm animals) can roam free … for free. You need to go. Right now.
(Did I mention that the petting zoo/play area is free?)
And if you want to purchase some food or shop a little, you can always duck inside. The food is outstanding, and the store . . . well, just trust me. You’ll love it.
13. Visit a waterfall.
With over a hundred to boast of, Hamilton is called the City of Waterfalls for a reason. Occasionally, some of the larger waterfalls are even illuminated at night. So cool.
14. Go canoeing.
I’m lucky to have married a guy with a canoe. My husband is an outdoor enthusiast and goes camping and canoeing when he is able to. In Hamilton, there are a few great places to canoe, beginning with the Desjardins Canal and Cootes Paradise in Dundas. There’s also Big Creek, which is out Ancaster way. And, of course, the Grand River.
Our very favourite places to canoe are actually about four hours north…but totally worth the drive.
15. Visit a public garden.
The Royal Botanical Gardens are absolutely stunning. The McMaster University Greenhouse is another really cool place to visit. If you are looking for a free public garden, the rose gardens and greenhouse at Gage Park (Hamilton) are always a great choice. My girls especially get a kick out of the turtles, fish and tropical birds in the greenhouse. (Please note that the Gage Park greenhouse is currently being rebuilt and is closed for the 2018 season.)
16. Go for a hike.
17. Venture off the beaten path.
Make it your goal this summer to do a bit of exploring. Follow a deer path and see where it leads. Explore a pine thicket. Live a little. You’ll be glad you did, I promise. (Just please watch for ticks!)
18. Go for a Sunday drive.
Whatever happened to Sunday drives, anyway? I say we bring ‘em back. Roll down the windows, turn up the stereo and just drive. The kids will nap in the back and you and your spouse can spend some quality time catching up. (Because things always work out beautifully like that, right?)
19. Go camping.
You wouldn’t believe how many people think that our family is crazy because we camp. What they don’t know is just how much they are missing out. Our eldest daughter went on her first camping trip when she was four months old. We’re talking real camping, by the way—the kind where you dehydrate your own food and portage your canoe through northern Ontario wilderness while swatting away millions of mosquitoes. But you can car camp too. It’s a great way to see the world without spending a lot of money. And it builds character. Loads of character.
20. Go on a train ride.
Whether it’s the GO train to Toronto, the market train in St. Jacobs, or the scenic train in Port Stanley, take the train. Your kids will always remember it. Unless, of course, they’re three-months old like our sweet girl in the photo below. But you’ll hold the memory close for always and that counts too.
21. Visit an aviary.
Here’s another well-kept secret. The Westdale Aviary in Hamilton is open on Saturday afternoons. And admission is by donation. Did you know that? Well, now you do. As a bonus, it’s situated near the Churchill Park playground and some RBG hiking trails, so you can make the outing extra fun. Oh, and it’s not too far from Second Cup.
(I may or may not take my kids to the aviary just so I have an excuse to stop at Second Cup and grab a large iced caramel corretto with an extra shot of espresso topped with extra whipped cream and chocolate curls and caramel. I’m always thinking only of the children…)
22. Visit a heritage village.
Westfield Heritage Village is always a fun place to take the kids. With collections of buildings from several different periods staffed by amazing volunteers, what’s not to love? Here’s a tip: During the Telling Tales Festival in September (one of my all-time favourite festivals), admission is free.
23. Go to an amusement park.
Okay, so this is not cheap or free. But it is fun, which is why I included it in the summer bucket list. When my children are three or four years old, I take them on a “mommy date” to Centre Island in Toronto. The older two still talk about their trips—in detail—to this day. And the youngest? Well, this year is her turn. What a fun, special way to make memories!
24. Go to the beach.
I love the beach. And did you know that there are some really amazing beaches in Hamilton that rarely have issues with water quality? Beach Boulevard, for example, was open 98% of the time last year, which is much higher than most of my go-to beaches outside of the area. For current water quality test results, see here.
25. Visit the playground.
Am I the only one that finds that time slows down—like, I mean slows down—when you’re at the park? But even if the playground doesn’t top my summer bucket list, the kids sure love it. Here’s a little tip for all the moms out there: Bring a book. Or a friend. Or a crossword. Or even some knitting, if that’s more your thing. Better yet, find another mom there and make a new friend. It will make the playground much more enjoyable.
26. Watch fireworks.
Whether it’s a huge display put on by the city or a few small ones that you shoot off in the backyard, fireworks are a summer must.
27. Go to a wading pool.
My kids love, love, love going to the wading pool. There are several free ones in the Hamilton area. You can check out the hours and locations here.
28. Go for a bike ride.
Hamilton has gorgeous waterfront trails, rail trails and hiking trails that are suitable for cycling. Don’t have a bike? No problem! You can use the awesomely convenient bike share program.
29. Sleep in the backyard.
You don’t have to travel far to have a camp-out. And if the backyard isn’t your style, set up the tent in the living room. Honest, your kids will love you for it.
30. Catch frogs.
Or toads. Just, take it from us, don’t use your butterfly net. It’s not meant for amphibians.
31. Climb a tree.
This probably goes without saying, as climbing trees in summertime is a given.
32. Sidewalk chalk
Anywhere and everywhere. Yep, I sometimes get right in there with the kids. There is something so satisfying about covering a sidewalk (or back deck, in our case) in chalk.
33. Have a water fight.
My kids think that water fights are, hands down, the most fun thing on the face of the planet. I agree.
34. Eat ice cream.
(Bonus points if you eat it after bed time while strolling down the beach.)
35. Learn about other lifestyles and cultures.
Some of our favourite summer outings in the past have been to see Toronto’s Chinatown, an old order Mennonite farm tour in St. Jacobs (on a horse-drawn trolley!), and Hamilton’s Aboriginal Festival. We love learning about other lifestyles and cultures. Keep an eye out for cultural events that are open to anyone AND are free.
36. Make popsicles.
You can find a gazillion popsicle recipes on Pinterest. I usually just freeze leftover smoothie and we’re good to go. Yum!
37. Eat s’mores.
I grew up s’moreless and never knew what I was missing until a few years ago when my husband introduced me to the incredible deliciousness that would forever change my life. Bless that man!
38. Visit a farm.
We love farms. We have three favourites so far. Whispering Hearts Horse Rescue (which has its annual open house in July) tops the list. I don’t know what it is about horses, but I simply love them. I’ve only ridden once and I’m rarely around them, but I just think they are the most beautiful creatures on earth. (Maybe it’s because I harbour secret dreams of being a cowgirl?)
The Alpacas from Eight and Mud also top the list of favourite farms and animals. Those things are hilarious. Man, the underbites get me every time!
And last but not least, we had the opportunity several years ago to visit Simpler Thyme Organic Farm with a homeschool group. The owners are sweet, gentle people who welcome anyone and everyone with open arms. Our kids had such a great time and we learned so much.
39. Visit a farmer’s market.
One of my favourite things about the farmer’s market down the street is the opportunity to buy directly from the growers. You will never get fresher food, unless you pick the harvest yourself.
Speaking of picking your own harvest…
40. Go berry picking.
Or anything picking, really. There are several pick-your-own fruit and vegetable farms in the Hamilton area. We like Lindley’s.
41. See a parade.
Aren’t parades fun? The crowds, the music, the decorations on the floats…
…people throwing candy and other free stuff at you…
The Ancaster Heritage Day Parade usually takes place on the second weekend in June, followed by a soapbox derby, strawberry social, children’s events, a used book sale… Trust me, you don’t want to miss it.
42. Watch a sunrise. Or a sunset.
Only God can make that kind of beauty. It fills my heart.
43. Go see a sporting match.
Confession: My husband and I aren’t really into sports. A few years ago, however, we stumbled across a Society of Creative Anachronism combat practice in Churchill Park (Westdale).
Apparently, this group makes their own chain-mail, forges their own weapons, and engages in medieval combat. It’s a little strange, but completely intriguing. And I think it counts as a sport, right? You can find them most Monday evenings practising in front of the Westdale Aviary.
And now, for some rainy day activities…
44. Go to the library.
The Hamilton Public Library has an amazing summer reading program. Sign up and get prizes for reading books, attending programs, and completing special tasks. You can earn gorgeous books, ice cream vouchers, and (my personal favourite) museum and RBG passes.
45. Go to a museum.
Wanna know something? You can go to civic museums in Hamilton for free. Yep, it’s true. Log into your library account and search for the civic museum pass. Place a hold on it and, when it’s your turn, the library will call you to let you know that you can pick it up. It’ll let in two adults and two children for free.
Here’s a picture at one of our favourite museums (sadly, not included in the civic museum pass but still a great place nonetheless):
46. Go to the pet store.
This honestly is one of my kids’ favourite things to do. Maybe it’s because we don’t have animals in our house (except for the odd rogue mouse with a death wish) or maybe it’s because my kids genuinely love animals of any kind. Whatever the case, they always beg to go to the pet store. And hey, why not? It’s one store where I know we won’t be spending money.
47. Jump in a puddle.
Everyone needs to do this at least once a summer. Choose a hot, rainy day and go puddle-jumping crazy.
48. Wash toys—in the rain.
Sometimes, when it’s drizzling, I put my kids in their bathing suits and send them outside with a bucket of water and some toys. They are completely and totally over the moon with happiness. And I get some quiet time. Win-win.
49. Make story stones.
Collect some smooth rocks and draw pictures on them with permanent marker. My kidlets play with their story stones all the time.
50. Make a blanket fort.
Chairs + blankets = hours of fun.
Oh, and one more. It’s a bonus one. An extra. A freebie. Are you ready?
51. Read together.
Hope you have a wonderful summer filled with amazing, beautiful, cherished memories!