Toronto at first glance looks just like any other major American city south of the border. But this energetic and dynamic city is the envy of every American city planner and just about every other international big city. With a metropolitan population of 5.5 million and an urban expanse of some 650 square kilometers (250 square miles), Canada’s economic and cultural center sprawls and stretches as a gleaming, humming retort to those who argue that big cities must inevitably become breeding grounds of poverty, corruption, filth, noise, homelessness, and crime. Toronto, rather, is a city of glittering office towers overlooking heritage buildings where people from around the world live, work and play on safe and clean streets, surrounded by over 200 verdant parks. So “green” and clean is Toronto that an American film shoot once had to haul in garbage to give Toronto the right look of a New York street, and the crew returned after a one-hour lunch break to find the mess had all been picked up.
In recent years, Toronto has grown immensely. Fortunately, its growth has been carefully controlled, ensuring sufficient housing relative to the rate of new office space development. The public transportation in Toronto has always been first-rate with its incredibly efficient subway system. The schools and cultural amenities are just as excellent, and the people like most Canadians are polite and civil. These are all brownie points that together make Toronto such a lovable world-class city.
While the spirit of Toronto is embodied by the soaring CN Tower, its enterprising character is evidenced by the world's largest subterranean city — 12 blocks of restaurants, shops, cinemas, and cafes underground. And while Toronto was once a prudish city of “blue laws” restricting drinking, derisively monikered “Toronto the Good”, it is now a cultural, recreational, and entertainment center with a vibrant nightlife. This is a testament to the city’s adaptiveness and willingness to embrace change. Whereas Toronto was once colonial and conservative British town, it is today a multicultural and bustling cog of North America.
Attractions – Downtown
Toronto Stock Exchange
The Toronto Stock Exchange is located at First Canadian Place, which is in the King and Bay Street area – Toronto’s financial center. At the stock exchange, you can watch from a gallery or via a building tour the frenzied action of brokers on the trading floor.
Nearby in the financial district at Front and Bay Streets is the Royal Bank Plaza, a striking structure with its two triangular gold towers. Besides being a cathedral of commerce, it houses an international art collection that includes the 8,600-aluminum tube sculpture created by Jesus Soto.
City Hall is a acclaimed modern architecture located in Nathan Phillips Square. It stands behind “The Archer”, a Henry Moore sculpture.
The Mackenzie House at 82 Bond Street is only a couple of blocks east of City Hall and near the subway stop, Dundas. This Victorian town house was the former home of Toronto’s first mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie, who is famous for leading the 1837 rebellion. Mackenzie was exiled to the U.S. following the rebellion, but when he returned, his friends and family gave him this house. The home has since been restored to its mid-19th century glory complete with period furniture. The house has displays recounting Mackenzie’s life.
Art Gallery of Ontario
The Art Gallery of Ontario is located at 317 Dundas Street West and is near the subway stops of St. Patrik and Dundas. The Art Gallery sits to the east of City Hall. This gallery has one of the most important collections of art in the country. The Henry Sculpture Centre, for one, has over 300 exhibits and is the largest public collection of works by Moore in the world. There is also a Canadian Collection that has three galleries exhibiting a comprehensive collection of Canadian art work. The European Collection, meanwhile, covers European art movements from the 17th century onwards.
Adjoining the Art Gallery building is the Georgian building, The Grange. This was once the home of the Boultons, a prominent family of Toronto. It was also the first home of the Art Gallery. It has been restored to its 1830s elegance.
Attractions – Waterfront
CN Tower is the most prominent and recognized landmark of the Toronto skyline. Located at 301 Front Street West and open daily, this tower is a tall, slim concrete structure that resembles a giant needle. It still holds the title as the world’s tallest free-standing structure at 554 meters or 1,815 feet high. It features a revolving restaurant, an indoor and outdoor observation deck, and a café. Visitors take a glass elevator to the “Sky Pod”, which is two-thirds of the way up the tower. For those who don’t have a fear of heights, they can continue on up to the higher observation deck, where they’ll be greeted with curved glass windows providing spectacular views of the city. At the base of the tower, there is a “Tour of the Universe”, which simulates a space-shuttle trip in convincing fashion.
Rogers Centre on Front Street is close by the CN Tower, and is a remarkable domed sports stadium with an ingeniously designed 86 meters or 282-feet high retractable roof. This stadium seats 60,000 spectators and hosts the Toronto Blue Jays of Major League Baseball and the Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. It also has a scoreboard that was once the largest in the world. The stadium’s restaurant is huge and the hotel has 364 rooms, 70 of which overlook the playing field. Unfortunately, a 1990 baseball game between Toronto and Seattle witnessed an embarrassing event when a man and a woman were performing intimately and in full view of 40,000 fans. New hotel rules now prohibit “activities not considered appropriate in public”.
Harbourfront is a tourist area along the waterfront between Bay and Bathurst Streets, a sort of urban park where shopping, cultural events, and recreational fun can be enjoyed. At one time, the harbourfront was the site of dilapidated factories, wharfs, and warehouses. The federal government stepped in and refurbished the buildings, recreating the harbourfront into a thriving alignment of marinas, restaurants, shops, cafes, cinemas, and condominiums. In fact, residents today complain that there may be too many condominiums in the area.
Also at the Harbourfront is the York Quay Centre. It is home to a theater and art gallery and is close to a large antiques market. The Queen’s Quay Terminal, meanwhile, features the Premiere Dance Theatre as well as an assortment of shops and offices. At Pier 4, you can find sailing schools and sporting equipment stores. Don’t forget to visit Spadina Quay, especially from June to October of each year when the Canadian Railway Museum opens to the public.
Fort York is west of the harbourfront tourist area on Garrison Road, and is a place where you can find out about some of Toronto's most dramatic history. The fort was constructed in 1793 to defend the town against the Americans. When the city was captured by the Americans in 1813, the fort’s magazine was blown up by the British, killing 300 Americans. It has been rebuilt and restored. Visitors can come and see a picture of what life was like in the early 19th century for a British soldier. The quarters of the officers and soldiers are furnished. In the summer, authentic military drills are performed by uniformed men. Fort York can be reached by taking the subway and stopping at Bathurst.
Marine Museum of Upper Canada
The Marine Museum of Upper Canada sits west along the waterfront at Exhibition Place. The museum is dedicated to the history and shipping and trading of Upper Canada. In the summer, the restored 1932 tugboat, Ned Hanlan, is on display and open to the public.
Hockey Hall of Fame
The Hockey Hall of Fame, no doubt a pilgrimage for millions of Canadian fans, is located at Exhibition Place.
Ontario Place occupies three artificial islands on a Lake at 955 Lake Shore Boulevard West. It is an indoor-outdoor entertainment complex that is open every day during the summer months. The complex includes theatres that look like futuristic pods where films about Ontario are shown. At the Cinesphere, a large geodesic theater screens IMAX films in an 18-meter (60-feet) high screen. The Forum is an outdoor concert hall where musical entertainment performances of all kinds are shown, including ballets from the Canadian National Ballet. The Children’s Village is a supervised play area parents can drop their kids off. The HMS Haida, the Canadian destroyer that saw action in WWII and the Korean War, is moored in a marina.
The Toronto Islands are just a boat trip from Ontario Place and also from the dock at the foot of Bay Street near the Harbour Castle Hotel. The small islands off the downtown waterfront provide recreational opportunities such as swimming, boating, fishing, and cycling and is especially popular in the summer when the heat burns Torontonians. Ward’s Island is the best for swimming. Hanlan’s Point has a nice beach and some tennis courts. Centre Island is the most popular for its rides, playgrounds, and children’s farm.
Attractions – Queen’s Park
Royal Ontario Museum
The Queen’s Park area of Toronto is north of downtown. The feature attraction of this area is the Royal Ontario Museum at 100 Queen's Park. This is the largest public museum in Canada and covers natural sciences, art, and archaeology. The most famous features include the Dinosaur Gallery, the Ming Tomb, the Chinese art treasures, a replica of a bat cave, and the interactive Discovery Gallery.
The McLaughlin Planetarium is another branch of the Royal Ontario Museum, located next to the ROM, which is the Sigmund Samuel Building at 14 Queen's Park Crescent West. This building has an extensive collection of Canadiana, including various folk art. It also houses the George R. Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art at 11 Queen’s Park, which features English Delftware, Italian Maiolica, 18th century European porcelain, and various Pre-Columbian pottery.
Provincial Parliament Building
The Provincial Parliament Building is near the Royal Ontario Museum in Queen’s Park. It is a 19th century Romanesque building colored in pink sandstone. When the house is in session, tours are offered and visitors can watch a parliamentary sitting.
Attractions – Outside Downtown
The Casa Loma sits eccentrically and splendidly atop a hill at 1 Austin Terrace, commanding views over the city. This baronial style mansion has 98 rooms and is a lasting reminder of Sir Henry Pellatt’s great folly. Between 1905 and 1911, the financier spent $3.5 million to build this home. It resembles a set of an old Hollywood movie with its towers, secret cellars, hidden passageways, and outside stables. The home is finished with wood paneling and has a massive ballroom, marble swimming pool, and a glass-dome conservatory. The castle was so extravagant that Sir Henry eventually couldn’t afford to keep up with the tax payments and surrendered it to the city. The nearest subway station to Casa Loma is Dupont.
High Park is the city’s largest park located on Queen Street West where residents and tourists alike can enjoy tennis, fishing, boating, and picnicking. The gardens provide a nice stroll and Shakespeare plays are performed in the open air in the summer.
At the center of High park, you’ll find the Colborne Lodge. This villa was bequeathed to the city by John George Howard. The home is open to the public every days and displays watercolors painted by the artist himself. Howard was also a gifted engineer and the house boasts Ontario’s first indoor flush toilet. High Park can be reached by taking the subway and getting out at the High Park station.
Tommy Thompson Park
For wildlife watchers and those who just enjoy a peaceful retreat, the Tommy Thompson Park (also known as the Leslie Street Spit) might be the place to go. Unfortunately, the park has a hideous spit caused by landfill that spreads out onto the lake. For some reason, wildlife flock to it and today it serves as a sanctuary for herons, gulls, swans, geese, ducks, rabbits, and foxes. The park is located at the junction of Queen Street East and Leslie Street.
Ontario Science Centre
The splendid Ontario Science Centre stands about 11 kilometers (seven miles) north of downtown in the Don River Ravine. This museum integrates effectively with its surroundings, thanks to architect Raymond Moriyama’s brilliant design. The series of buildings connected by enclosed ramps and escalators that give visitors some stunning views. Rumor has it that Moriyama had such respect for the environment that he stipulated in his building contracts a penalty for each tree that had to be destroyed. The museum today is extremely popular. Science and technology are presented to the public interactively and viewer participation is encouraged. It is recommended that you allot some time to see everything. Weekends, especially, can get quite busy. The museum is open daily and located at 770 Don Mills Road.
Given its present status as Canada's largest city, it’s ironic how Toronto got off to a very slow start. Toronto, which means “meeting place”, was named so by the Huron Indians. The Indians along with the French fur traders saw the site as merely the first and last land link connecting Lake Ontario with Lake Huron. In the early 18th century, the French built a fort on the site to protect their traders. The fort was eventually destroyed by the British during the Seven Years’ War. The British showed no interest in repairing or developing the site after their victory until 1793, when the Lieutenant Governor, John Graves Simcoe, decided he wanted to build a town there. It quickly became the capital of Upper Canada, taking the position away from Niagara-on-the-Lake, which was deemed too dangerously close to the U.S. border. Toronto was renamed York in honor of King George II’s son, who was the Duke of York.
In the early days, York was jeered by residents as “Muddy York” for its dirt streets that looked more like bogs. It then earned the nickname “Hogtown” soon afterwards as it became a town where livestock slaughtering took place. Then in 1813, York was attacked by the Americans and every major building was burnt down.
York’s fortunes turned for the better, however. After the war of 1812, York’s economy and population grew and it was incorporated as a city in 1834, reverting to its original name, Toronto.
Early on, economic and political power was exclusively held by a small group of wealthy businessmen. They were dubbed the Family Compact and exercised power that stepped beyond government and business and into other aspects of Toronto life. Because this group was mainly Anglophone, the city developed an English character and English became the language used by its residents. They were also puritanical and imposed strictly-enforced virtues, earning the city the nickname “Toronto the Good”. The population exploded in the second half of the 19th century thanks to the immigration of Irishmen fleeing the Potato Famine and Scots escaping the Highland Clearances. But Toronto did not become a cosmopolitan city until after WWII when immigrants all over the world came. They enlivened a city that was seen as boring and dull into an ethnically diverse metropolis glittering over the north shores of Lake Ontario.
The main street of Toronto is Yonge Street, which runs north-south and cuts the city into east and west sectors. Downtown is considered the area between Jarvis Street in the east and Spadina Avenue in the west and between Lake Ontario in the north and Eglinton in the south. The city proper is actually quite small, but sprawls into suburbs in every direction, many of them large enough to be cities, such as Mississauga and Scarborough.
Toronto is made up of a patchwork of ethnic communities. There are two large Chinatown communities, one at Dundas Street East and the other along Dundas Street West. The Italian community is found between Dufferin Street and St. Clair Avenue West, known among locals as “Little Italy”. In fact, rumor has it that there are more Italians in “Little Italy” than in all of Florence. The Indian community or “Little India” is found along Gerrard Street East. If you want to hear some bouzouki music, you can visit the Greek district known as “Greektown” or “the Danforth” located between Woodbine and Pape Streets. Whereas if you want a bit of every culture, you can visit the open-air Kensington Market south of College Street and between Spadina and Bathurst Streets, although some say the neighborhood has more of a Portuguese feel to it.
Many of Toronto’s other neighborhoods are less ethnic and more defined by the lifestyle or the class of its residents. Forest Hill and Rosedale are both wealthy areas. Beaches, which is at Woodbine along Queen Street East, is another upscale area and is home to many working professionals. The neighborhood has a laidback, California feel to it and sits by a beach and lakeside, which is paralleled by a long promenade lined with restaurants, shops, and cafes.
Cabbagetown, meanwhile, is more blue-collar. It encompasses the area formed by the borders of Parliament Street, Danforth Avenue, Gerrard Street, and the Don River. It was originally built to house factory workers and had deteriorated into a slum by the 1960s. Renovation has rejuvenated the district both residentially and commercially.
Queen Street West, on the other hand, is Toronto’s answer to London’s Ring’s Road. It is a network of trendy restaurants, bars, clubs, boutiques, and galleries and covers the area between Bathurst Street and University Avenue. The neighborhood has a Bohemian feel to it, helped in no small part by the College of Art close by.
For the intellectual crowd, they may feel more at home at Bloor and Yorkville. This area lies within the borders of Charles Street, Yonge Street, Avenue Road, and Davenport Road. At one time, Bloor and Yorkville was a run-down hippie hangout. Today, the neighborhood is lined with chic shops and galleries and trendy restaurants and cafes.
Mirvish Village, meanwhile, has a different atmosphere about it that’s hard to define. Its center is at Markham Street, which is south of Bloor. Here, Eddie Mirvish anchors his flagship store called “Honest Ed’s”. The success of his business allowed Ed to become a well-to-do patron of the arts. He has helped rejuvenate the neighborhood, which is today a nice mix of Victorian buildings tenanted by restaurants, bars, book stores, art galleries, and antique joints.
Carroll, Donald. Insider’s Guide Canada. Edison: Hunter Publishing, Inc, 1996. ISBN: 1556507100.
“Rogers Centre.” < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rogers_Centre>
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