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Thunder Bay: An Essential Guide

Thunder Bay is a small city surrounded by vast stretches of wilderness. Perched on the north shore of Lake Superior, the world’s largest freshwater lake, it’s a port city that’s home to about 110,000 people and is also the destination city for dozens of small communities within a few hours’ drive or flight who count on it for health care, commerce and recreation. With Lakehead University calling Thunder Bay home, it's also sizable student population. 

The city streets are laid out in a rough grid pattern, although there are definitely some odd angles and curves. A huge rock formation called The Sleeping Giant, the city’s unofficial mascot, is visible from any spot along the shoreline. There are downhill and cross-country ski areas at both ends of the city, and creeks, green spaces and multi-use trails running throughout the interior. In any given parking lot, you are likely to see a vehicle with a kayak or skis strapped to the roof, or a truck with an ATV, boat or snowmobile in the back. And for a small city, the residents like to think big: Thunder Bay has the most hours of sunshine in the province of Ontario, the most outdoor skating rinks per capita in Canada, and produces the most NHL players per capita in the world.  

Whether you’re visiting for work or for play, this essential guide to Thunder Bay will help you decide what to see, where to go and how to get around.


Thunder Bay runs northeast to southwest along the lakeshore. Until 1970, it was actually two cities: the north end is the former city of Port Arthur (lots of hills and views of the lake) and the south was Fort William (gradually sloping down into the agricultural Slate River Valley and bordered by the flat-topped Nor’Wester mountain range). You still frequently hear locals referring to the two areas by their old names. The area between the two is called Intercity. Fort William First Nation is just across the Kaministiqua River (“the Kam”) at the city’s south end.

The Harbour Expressway runs east-west into the Intercity area. The Thunder Bay Expressway follows the contours of the lake about 3 kilometres inland. To the southwest it is Highway 61, heading to the northern Minnesota border. To the northwest and southeast it is the Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 11-17).  


Public transit

Thunder Bay Transit covers the city with a network of 14 basic routes, with the major hubs being the Water Street terminal, City Hall terminal (this one is temporary), Intercity Shopping centre, Confederation College and Lakehead University. Approximately 90% of the city’s urban area is within 400 metres of a bus stop. Cash fare is $2.65, or you can pick up a family/day pass for $10.80. Tickets are sold at a variety of convenience stores and Shoppers Drug Marts as well as City Hall at 500 Donald St. E. You can access a route map here and you can plan your trip with Google Transit. Use NextLift at www.nextlift.ca to see when next bus is coming to your stop. Buses for most of the city run from 6 a.m. to midnight.


Cabs in Thunder Bay are somewhat pricey: the base fare is $4.15, then $2.50 per kilometre. You can usually find queues at the main venues, such as the airport and Intercity shopping centre, but since their numbers are limited, elsewhere in the city you’re better off calling for a pick up rather than hailing a passing one as you would in a larger centre. The good news is that you can get to most places in the city in 15 or 20 minutes at the most and there’s really no such thing as rush hour.

• Diamond-Lacey’s Taxi, 807-622-6001

• Roach’s Taxi, 807-344-8481


• Radio: Tune in to CBC Radio 1 (FM 88.3) for current affairs; CBC Radio 2 (FM 101.7) for indie, classical or jazz; and Rock 94.3 (FM94.3) or Country 105.3 (FM105.3) for those genres. The campus station at Lakehead University, CILU, is at FM102.7.

• On the hotel TV: CTV Thunder Bay television is on channel 2 (cable 5) and Shaw TV is channel 4 (cable 6).

• Listings for arts and culture, events, food and drink: www.thewalleye.ca

Note: When calling local numbers, you don’t need to include the 807 area code.


• The newly developed waterfront area, officially called Prince Arthur’s Landing but known locally as Marina Park, is a good way to get a feel for this port city’s heritage. Walk the shoreline pathways, check out the public art, get a drink or a meal at the two trendy restaurants and watch the huge laker ships and crisp white sailboats in the harbour. In the summer there’s a splash pad and fountain; in the winter it’s a public skating rink, all with the Sleeping Giant as a backdrop.

• “The Niagara of the North,” Kakabeka Falls, is about 15 kilometres to the west of the city and easily reached by Highway 11-17. Fenced walkways, trails and lookouts give you excellent views of the 40-metre-high falls.

• Eat your way through the Thunder Bay Country Market, open Saturdays year round and Wednesday afternoons in the summer. There’s a robust local agricultural scene, with the locally produced flour, canola oil, honey, veggies, meats and baked goods to prove it.

• Especially popular in the depths of winter, the Centennial Botanical Conservatory offers a mini-tropical getaway in its oversized glass greenhouse filled with exotic plants and pathways around a small waterfall and fountain.

• Fort William Historical Park is a huge reconstructed fur trade post and award-winning heritage site, giving a glimpse of life circa 1815, complete with historical buildings and in-character staff. It also has a high-tech observatory with guided “star walks” to check out the night skies.

• The Thunder Bay Art Gallery specializes in the work of contemporary First Nations artists, one of the few in Canada with this specific focus. Work ranges from drawings and paintings to beaded jewelry and woven baskets.


Where to go if there’s something you need, and quickly

The central Intercity area is home to Intercity Shopping Centre on Memorial Avenue, where you can shop for the usual mall offerings of clothes, sports equipment, home décor, books and DVDs. There’s a Shoppers Drug Mart across the road. On the other side of the mall, on Fort William Road, there’s a big box plaza with a Canadian Tire (that’s a large store that sells many things beyond tires), an LCBO liquor store and TBayTel store (for cell phone issues).

Beer, wine and liquor

You can buy alcoholic products for home consumption at the government-owned Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) stores. There are also several Wine Rack and Beer Store outlets. The local craft brewery, Sleeping Giant Brewing Company, sells its beer in a variety of can and bottle sizes.  

Ontario’s drinking age is 19. Alcohol serving hours are 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.

Published Saturday, August 1st 2015

Header image credit: Courtesy Dick Spooner, City of Thunder Bay



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