People often ask: What makes a city great? What defines it, both for those who live there and for those who visit? Toronto could easily set itself apart by its cuisine, art, history, or sports. And, thanks to a world-class subway system, streetcars and buses, getting around Toronto is extraordinarily easy to do. Aside from the numerous cabs that swarm the city, the Toronto Transit Commission (
Architecturally speaking, Toronto is an amalgam of different styles. In the early 19th Century, it took much of its architectural inspiration from the Georgian style. By the end of the 19th Century, the city opted for the heavier, bulkier lines of Richardsonian Romanesque. At the turn of the 20th Century, the Toronto City Council opted not to put a height restriction on downtown construction as many other cities had, thus giving rise to some of the tallest buildings in the British Commonwealth, most of which are found Downtown, including the 34-story
The more than 7000 fine dining establishments, bars, cafes, bistros, clubs and dance halls (a large number of which can be found Downtown) suit every taste from bohemian to business.
The downtown area of the city also houses a number of stadiums and arenas where some of Canada's top-of-the-line professional sports teams—the
Running into Downtown is
The Entertainment District
Overlapping Downtown, the entertainment districts is home to numerous world-class museums, art galleries, theaters, dance companies, festivals and parades that add creativity and culture to an already vibrant city. Any of these could serve to define Toronto. While the city may once have had a reputation as Toronto The Good, a nondescript place which shut down and rolled up the sidewalks at sundown, nothing could be further from the truth today. The city is alive with some of the best theaters, museums and galleries anywhere. For example, Toronto is the third largest center of English-speaking theater productions in the world (next to London and New York), with more than 200 professional theater companies and 10,000 performances a year.
One of the oldest theater spaces in the city, the
There's even a thriving film industry in the city. Often called "Hollywood North," Toronto is sought after for its diversity, locations, excellent production centers and local talent. The
But what the city is really all about is the people. And it shouldn't surprise anyone that the name "Toronto" comes from a Huron word meaning "Meeting Place." That's exactly what it is: a multicultural meeting place for more than 4.5 million, home to people of more than 70 different nationalities speaking some 100 languages.
That multi-ethnic gathering has given the city an exciting and awesome energy. It has also created a place of wonderful neighborhoods, each with its defining character and local color. With a plethora of different cultures and neighborhoods bumping into one another like pieces of tectonic plates, the cuisine is as diverse as the population—and matching any taste and affordability, from the unlimited expense account to those counting their pennies. In fact, while there are plenty of upscale haute-cuisine restaurants where price is of no concern, some of the best food Toronto has to offer is tucked away in the small eateries of the city's original
Aside from the
While there is so much to see and do, to experience and taste, it's the residents of Toronto who give the city its special cachet. More often than not, people are glad to stop and give you directions. And don't be surprised if they tarry and chat a while, recommending places to go or filling you in on pieces of their city's history. This is what Toronto is all about. Not just a vast, sprawling metropolis. Not just a collection of concrete and cars. But a meeting place. The Hurons gave them the name. They try to do it proud.
Museums & Galleries
Canada's largest museum is the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), an all-round museum with adjoining planetarium, greeting you with four impressive Amerindian totem poles in the hall. The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) boasts an extensive and well-presented collection of landscape paintings by Canada's famous Group of Seven. Don't miss the world's largest exhibit of Henry Moore sculptures, beautifully arranged by the artist. The AGO is also known for the skillfully simple Inuit stone carvings, as is the Toronto Dominion Gallery of Inuit Art. On a lighter note, the Bata Shoe Museum is unique; among their 10,000 shoes are Elvis' blue suede loafers. The Hockey Hall of Fame also has shoes, but only those with blades beneath them.
Theater & Performances
Busloads of Americans drive for ten hours to spend just three hours in Toronto. Why? With over 500 theater productions every year, the city on Lake Ontario is the second largest stage center in North America. You can see Kiefer Sutherland in a Tennessee Williams play or the metamorphosis of Kiss's hard-rocking lead singer to Phantom (of the Opera) in King Street's Royal Alexandra and Princess of Wales theaters. It is also worth going a little off the beaten track to catch more adventurous offerings in places such as Front Street's Sony Centre.
The grassroots of theater are just as fresh and strong in Toronto. Community-centered theaters such as Tarragon and the Factory master challenges like Beckett, as well as drama from new and upcoming playwrights. Modern dance has found a home in the Premiere Dance Theatre, a multicultural venue for music and movement at the Harbourfront Center. More classical but nevertheless innovative performances can be seen at the National Ballet Company, considered the top dance troupe in the country. The Laugh Resort and Yuk Yuk are still defending their positions as the major comedy spots, but recently Rivoli's backroom has established a reputation for edgy comedy.
Not only is Toronto one of the most popular American film sets—watch out for huge white trucks and sealed-off streets - it is also a great movie theatre city, especially at fringe and second-run cinemas like the Bloor or the Fox. Apart from Hollywood fare at entertainment complexes, you can see international films at the Cumberland, and theme retrospectives at the Cinematheque. Not to mention the Toronto International Film Festival, considered among the top in the world.
No, those lines you see as you walk along Richmond Street are not for soup kitchens. You're in hot nightclub country, the places where only the coolest and hippest get in. Most clubs don't specialize in one style, but often change their playlist daily from retro to dub to techno in order to attract the most diverse dance crowd. The biggest club around here is the Joe, a three-level auditorium-sized dance hall for the masses. The Big Bop is nearly as big, but stays true to its alternative roots. College Street and environs is another good strip with the smoky Comfort Zone late-night hangout.
For live music events, Horseshoe Tavern is the place to see a great young band before it fills the concert halls. Toronto is on the A-list for pretty much every major tour in North America, from the Three Tenors in the Rogers Centre multi-purpose stadium to the Buena Vista Social Club in old Massey Hall or Celine Dion at the Air Canada Centre. The repertoire of classical music offerings is too long to list, but Roy Thomson Hall is a safe starting point for excellent acoustics, be it for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Mendelssohn Choir or the latest Philip Glass opera.
The Air Canada Centre is home to two of Toronto's big sports teams. Cheer the Raptors as they slam dunk against their NBA competitors and the popular blue-and-white Maple Leafs playing for ice hockey's Stanley Cup. They compete for spectators with the Blue Jays, who swing their baseball bats in the 53,000-seat Rogers Centre.
Over the last ten years, Toronto has discovered street life. In the summer, you will have trouble deciding whether to go to Nathan Phillips Square or to Harbourfront for free concerts and different festivals every weekend. East along the lakeshore, Ontario Place combines waterpark fun with massive open-air rock concerts and the first Imax Theatre (Ontario Place Cinesphere) in a family amusement park.
If you think that Toronto, like so many other North American cities, is a relatively young center, think again. More than 8000 years ago, this spot on the northern shores of Lake Ontario was home to prehistoric humans hunting the dense woods for bears and elk. They were followed by a rich and diverse Iroquois culture spread across nearly 200 villages in the Toronto area alone.
British and French fur traders and explorers arriving in the late 16th century changed the power balance in the region. At first, Toronto was interesting for them only as the end of the canoe route from Quebec City. Etienne Brulé, the first European known to visit the canoe "carrying place" the Hurons called Toronto, had no idea he was standing on the site of Canada's largest city-to-be.
In 1751, the French erected Fort Rouillé where Toronto stands today, thus making the city's earliest European roots French rather than British. Destroyed only eight years later in the Seven Years' War, the fort lay burnt until hundreds of British loyalists, fleeing the newly formed United States following the War of Independence, populated the Lake Ontario area.
John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada (now Ontario), set up a strategically well-positioned but swampy garrison town of 12 cottages on the lakeshore around the former French post and, in 1793, the town was named Fort York in honor of the Duke of York. Fort York (now an open-air museum) was soon made the capital of Upper Canada, and later of Ontario.
Ironically, Simcoe's family decided to leave "Muddy York" in 1796, thinking that the stagnating settlement didn't have much of a future. Nevertheless, by 1800, the rectangular grid-iron that still defines Toronto was laid out, largely ignoring the deep ravines, hills and small rivers that shaped the landscape.
The 700 inhabitants of York came under American occupation for a few days during the British-American War of 1812. But the Americans quickly retreated when the war started to go badly for them. In 1834, it took another influential politician to switch the city's name back to Toronto. However, it wasn't all clear sailing for William Lyon Mackenzie, the first mayor of the 9000-population city under its new (old) name. In 1837, the fiery Scot was forced to flee to the United States after leading a failed rebellion to achieve political reform against the so-called "Family Compact," a group of British nobles who ran the city at their discretion without any checks or balances. The group was finally brought down thanks to public outcry, and Mackenzie returned to Canada 12 years later following a pardon.
Looking at a map of Toronto in the late 19th Century, you can see an urban area reflecting its puritanical roots in the conservative layout. It also lived up to its nickname of "The Big Smoke" with a New World version of industrial London: a busy, polluting harbor, factory chimneys spewing untreated soot into the air, coal-black railways chugging away and the obligatory slums as well as mansions, Victorian colleges and churches. The nickname took on a tragic significance in 1904 when a fire destroyed more than 100 buildings in the downtown core. Fifty years earlier, nature had actually helped create a part of Toronto: The Islands, a 15-minute ferry ride from the downtown Harbourfront, were formed by a heavy storm cutting off a spit of land from the mainland.
Toronto lost 10,000 lives when many of its British immigrant inhabitants volunteered to fight in World War I. Then came the Great Depression of the 1930s, bringing hunger, homelessness and an unemployment rate over 30 percent. World War II again meant Canadian men trooping off to fight in Europe, but also British children fleeing the bombings and European refugees coming to Canada, with many settling in Toronto.
Post-war Toronto, even though it claimed close to one million inhabitants, was nothing like the city of today: no skyscrapers, no large Chinese, Portuguese, Greek or Italian communities, no extensive subway system, no bars and closed and curtained shops on Sundays. The new council of Metro Toronto, joining the city and its suburbs in 1953, initiated an unparalleled construction boom in the 1960s.
Torontonians are proud of their superlatives and sometimes see life as an extension of the "Guinness Book of World Records," an attitude that helps puff up the city's collective chest but also lends some credence to its reputation for egocentricity (as in the long-standing joke in the newspaper headline, "Toronto Unscathed in World-Wide Nuclear Holocaust!"). The city lays claim to the tallest free-standing structure in the world (the CN Tower at 553 meters or 1814 feet), the first fully-retractable roofed stadium (Rogers Centre), the longest street (Yonge Street, more than 1,900 km), Canada's biggest museum (Royal Ontario Museum) and university (University of Toronto), the biggest castle in North America (Casa Loma), North America's second largest public transit system (the TTC), and an 11-kilometer (7-mile) maze of underground malls.
Peter Ustinov once called modern-day Toronto a "New York run by the Swiss." Now that New York seems itself to be run by the Swiss, that label might no longer be appropriate. Nevertheless, the city prides itself on its clean and safe streets and large, open green spaces. More importantly, it is the cultural and financial center of the country, an economic powerhouse with a budget bigger than that of the province of Saskatchewan, and home within a 160-km area to a full one-third of all Canadians.
The over 50 percent non-white population is shifting the city's ethnic neighborhoods around; old Victorian areas, once rundown or abandoned, are being gentrified; the skyline glitters from afar with bank towers and shopping skyscrapers like the 65-story Scotia Plaza; and urban development is about to radically change the lakeshore. Outdoor festivals, patios, a new openness and willingness to have fun and to partake in public life—this is the Toronto of today.
At night, that light in the otherwise dark window of the sky, waving weary travelers to a place of comfort, is the magnificent skyline of Canada's largest city. It's a skyline reflected in the inky blackness of Lake Ontario, signaling an ethnically diverse cosmopolitan city that welcomes everyone in from the cold with genuine good-hearted hospitality.
Be you business traveler or world-wandering vagabond, when visiting Toronto, there are two major options on where to stay—and more than 32,000 hotel rooms from which to choose! If you are here for a brief visit, then the airport strip is home to many excellent hotels. However, if it's an extended trip or business that takes you into the city, then the sights and sounds of the bright lights and the big city's downtown is what you may be looking for.
Imagine a hotel so close to the airport that the only way you'll see a cab is if you happen to be watching Taxi Driver in your hotel room. Actually located within Toronto's Pearson International Airport, the Sheraton Gateway is a full amenity, 500-room hotel that is a covered walk from Terminal 3, or a complimentary shuttle from Terminals 1 and 2.
If you're a little more adventurous and actually would like to leave the confines of the airport, a short loop limousine ride will bring you to the Airport strip. Consisting of Airport and Dixon Roads, this piece of the Monopoly board belongs primarily to the well-known hotel chains. And, with 50 airport hotel locations throughout the world, no landing strip would be complete without the Airport Hilton, providing high-end comfort for those who prefer executive class accommodations.
As well, the newly renovated Park Plaza Toronto Airport, the fashionable Delta Toronto Airport and the Toronto Airport Marriott on Dixon Road are top-flight hotels that cater to the business and leisure traveller alike with indoor pools, health clubs and on-site restaurants. In addition, there is the warm and familiar Days Inn on Airport Road, with facilities for the entire family at very moderate rates.
Toronto's downtown is approximately a 20-minute ride from the airport, with the core offering a much greater selection when it comes to suitable accommodations—everything from five-star grand dame hotels to bring-your-own-bed youth hostels, from bed and breakfasts to room service on the terrace.
Directly opposite Union Station stands the granddaddy of all Toronto hotels, the Royal York. At the heart of Toronto since 1929, this hotel is what lodging was once all about. Big and spacious, with a ballroom for a reception area, it is also the entryway to the downtown underground shopping complex known as The PATH.
Further west on Front Street is the InterContinental Toronto Centre. Ideally situated adjacent to the Metro Toronto Convention Centre and around the corner from the CN Tower and Rogers Centre, this deluxe hotel is equipped to provide for both the businessperson and the family on the go.
Then there's Renaissance Toronto Hotel Downtown itself, a four-star hotel right out of left field. Or out in left field. It's the world's only sports and entertainment hotel and, with floor-to-ceiling glass walls overlooking the baseball field, a unique sporting experience in more ways than one.
With its marble pillars and vaulted ceilings, the King Edward provides Edwardian luxury and elegance within Toronto's high end business sector. It's embraced as much for its gracious style as for the gourmet cuisine dished out from Chiaro's, the critically acclaimed on-site restaurant. If the King Edward is elegance, the Delta Chelsea Inn at Gerrard and Bay takes the cake for size. With 1591 (or so) rooms, it's considered the largest hotel in Canada.
West of Yonge on King is the totally out of place Travelodge Toronto Downtown West. More of a motel or a motor inn than a hotel, you'd expect to find this in the suburban outskirts rather than in a big city inner core. Nevertheless, if you feel the need for down home comfort with lots of parking, then this independent is available for about half the price of the bigger, swankier hotels.
Just a long home run away from Rogers Centre is the Westin Harbour Castle. Located on Harbour Square with rooms fronting Lake Ontario, this hotel provides spectacular scenery from both the hotel and the 360-degree revolving Lighthouse Restaurant.
Most of the major hotel chains are represented in Toronto's business and entertainment districts. Across from Nathan Phillips Square and Toronto City Hall, the Sheraton Centre Toronto on Queen Street West is 43 floors of award-winning accommodations. Around the corner from the Sheraton is the Hilton Toronto on Richmond. The Holiday Inn On King, opened in 1991, is close to the theater district and is consistently one of the top-rated hotels within the Holiday Inn empire.
Off The Beaten Path
There are a range of B&Bs available in Toronto for those who prefer the old-fashioned comfort of a large house, the company of pleasant hosts and a secluded street close to but away from the hustle and bustle. The Ambassador Inn on Jarvis is a century-old renovated mansion that's a good alternative to some of the higher-priced chain hotels. Two streets east of Jarvis, in the Old Cabbagetown district, another Victorian B&B, the Aberdeen Guest House, offers a communal setting with large, spacious bedrooms and a weekday continental breakfast.
For those who need longer-term accommodation or accommodation that provides kitchenettes and other conveniences, Toronto has a number of executive apartments available on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. These include the Alexandra Apartment Hotel on Ryerson, north of Queen and east of Bathurst, offering daily maid service and direct phone lines, and Residences On Bay.
Finally, for those traveling light and for both the young and the young at heart, the Global Village Backpackers at Spadina and King comes with 200 beds, multiple washrooms, games rooms and a locker facility.
The final decision, of course, is yours. Five-star luxury or bare-bones economy, Toronto is not only an accommodating place but has the accommodations to suit your needs.