The uniformly glass-fronted skyscrapers etched across Downtown Toronto’s skyline trumpet the clout of a city that has discarded the dowdy provincialism of its early years to become an economic powerhouse in its own right. There’s no false modesty here, kicking off with Toronto’s mascot, the CN Tower, whose observation platforms provide panoramic views over the city and its immediate surroundings. From here, it’s a brief stroll to the handsome symmetries of Union Station, which stands on the edge of the Banking District, where striking high-rises march north up Yonge Street as far as Queen Street with one of their number, the Toronto Dominion Centre, holding the delightful Toronto Dominion Gallery of Inuit Art. Beyond Queen Street lies the main shopping area, revolving around the enormous Eaton Centre, which is itself a stone’s throw from the neo-Romanesque intricacies of the Old City Hall and the modernism of Nathan Phillips Square. From the square, it’s another short haul to the Art Gallery of Ontario, holding the city’s finest collection of paintings, and another, slightly longer trek west to Fort York, an accurate and intriguing reconstruction of the British outpost established here in 1793.
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CN TowerTo the dismay of many Torontonians, the CN Tower has become the city’s symbol. It’s touted on much of the city’s promotional literature, features on thousands of postcards and holiday snaps and has become the obligatory start to most tourist itineraries. From almost anywhere in the city, it’s impossible to miss its slender form poking high above the skyline, reminding some of French novelist Guy de Maupassant’s quip about another famous tower: “I like to lunch at the Eiffel Tower because that’s the only place in Paris I can’t see it.”
Unlikely as it may seem, the celebrity status of the CN Tower was entirely unforeseen, its origins plain and utilitarian. In the 1960s, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) teamed up with the railway conglomerate Canadian National (CN) to propose the construction of a bigger and better transmission antenna. The CBC eventually withdrew from the project, but CN, who owned the land, forged ahead. To the company’s surprise, they found the undertaking stirred intense public interest – so much so that long before the tower was completed, in 1975, it was clear its potential as a tourist sight would be huge: today, broadcasting only accounts for about twenty percent of the tower’s income, with the rest provided by the two million tourists who throng here annually. Come early (especially on school holidays) to avoid the crowds.
Though recently pipped to the post by Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the CN Tower was for several decades the tallest freestanding structure in the world, its sleek and elegant structure tapering to a minaret-thin point 553m (1815ft) above the city centre. Details of its construction are provided in a series of photographs on the mezzanine level, just beyond security check-in. The background information is extremely interesting, revealing all sorts of odd facts and figures, though it’s hardly reassuring to know the tower is hit by lightning between sixty and eighty times a year.
The Look Out Level and the Sky Pod
From the foot of the tower, glass-fronted elevators whisk you up the outside of the building to the indoor and outdoor Look Out Level at 346m. The circular galleries here provide wide views over the city and out across Lake Ontario. Certain features stand out, notably the splash of greenery banding the Toronto Islands, the welter of new condominium blocks marauding across the lakeshore, and Will Alsop’s giant table at the Sharp Centre for Design. At this level also is the reinforced glass floor – a vertigo shock that goes some way to justifying the tower’s pricey admittance fee – and 360 The Restaurant, which slowly revolves around the tower, taking 72 minutes to make one revolution. You are, however, still 100m from the top of the tower, with a separate set of lifts to carry visitors up to the Sky Pod, a confined little gallery that doesn’t really justify the extra expense.
Rogers Centre (SkyDome)
Rogers Centre (SkyDome)Next door to the CN Tower stands the Rogers Centre, formerly the SkyDome, which is home to two major Toronto sports teams – the Blue Jays baseball team and the Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. The stadium seats 53,000 and is used for special events and concerts as well as sports. Opened in 1989, it was the first stadium in the world to have a fully retractable roof, an impressive feat of engineering with four gigantic roof panels mounted on rail tracks taking just twenty minutes to cover the stadium’s three hectares of turf and terrace. The SkyDome was much touted by the city at the time, but the end result is really rather ugly and when the roof is closed the stadium looks like a giant armadillo. Guided tours, worth it only if you’re sticking around for a sporting event, last an hour and begin with a fifteen-minute film about the stadium’s construction.
Toronto Dominion Gallery of Inuit Art
Toronto Dominion Gallery of Inuit ArtThe Toronto Dominion Gallery of Inuit Art boasts an outstanding collection of over a hundred pieces of Inuit sculpture. Spread over two levels – and beginning in the foyer – the collection is owned by the Toronto Dominion Bank, who commissioned a panel of experts to celebrate Canada’s Centennial in 1965 by collecting the best of postwar Inuit art. All the favourite themes of Inuit sculpture are here, primarily animal and human studies, supplemented by a smattering of metamorphic figures, in which an Inuit adopts the form of an animal, either in full or in part. Other sculptures depict deities, particularly Sedna (or Nuliayuk), the sea goddess. Inuit religious belief was short on theology, but its encyclopedic animism populated the Arctic with spirits and gods, the subject of all manner of Inuit folk tales. Most of the pieces are in soapstone, but there are bone, ivory and caribou-antler pieces too. A free introductory booklet, available from the rack at the start of the gallery, provides the background information.
Fort YorkModern-day Toronto traces its origins to Fort York, a colonial stockade built in 1793 on the shores of Lake Ontario to bolster British control of the Great Lakes. Since then, landfill has pushed the lakeshore southwards and marooned the fort, which was reconstructed in the 1930s, under the shadow of the (elevated) Gardiner Expressway just to the west of Bathurst Street. Fort York was initially a half-hearted, poorly fortified affair, partly because of a lack of funds, but mainly because it was too remote to command much attention – never mind that the township of York was the capital of Upper Canada. Yet in 1811 a deterioration in Anglo-American relations put it on full alert. There was a sudden flurry of activity as the fort’s ramparts and gun emplacements were strengthened, but the British realized it was still too weak to rebuff the American army that marched on York in 1813 and they decided to withdraw. In a desperate hurry, the British blew up the gunpowder magazine to stop its contents falling into enemy hands, but they underestimated the force of the explosion, killing or wounding ten of their own men in addition to 260 of the advancing enemy, the fatalities including the splendidly named American general Zebulon Montgomery Pike.
After the war, the fort was rebuilt and its garrison made a considerable contribution to the development of Toronto, as York was renamed in 1834. The British army moved out in 1870 and their Canadian replacements stayed for another sixty years; the fort was opened as a museum in 1934. Throughout the year, costumed guides give the low-down on colonial life and free plans of the fort are issued at reception.
The fort’s carefully restored, thick, earth-and-stone ramparts are low-lying and constructed in a zigzag pattern, both to mitigate against enemy artillery and to provide complementary lines of fire. They enclose a haphazard sequence of log, stone and brick buildings, most notably a couple of well-preserved blockhouses, complete with heavy timbers and snipers’ loopholes. There are also reconstructions of the stone and brick powder magazine, which has 2m-thick walls and spark-proof copper and brass fixtures; the Blue Barracks, the former junior officers’ quarters; and the old officers’ quarters and mess, which hold two original money vaults, hidden away in the cellar. Of the several buildings featuring exhibitions on the fort and its history, the most diverting is the archeological display exhibiting various bits and pieces unearthed at the fort, including buckles, brooches, plates, clay pipes and tunic buttons, and a substantial collection of colonial armaments. The latter includes a rare, cumbersome Gatling gun like the one used against the Métis and a furnace for heating up cannon balls – hence the term “hot shot”.
St Lawrence District
St Lawrence District
The St Lawrence District, lying just to the east of Yonge Street, between The Esplanade, Adelaide Street East and Frederick Street, is one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods, enjoying its first period of rapid growth after the War of 1812. In Victorian times, St Lawrence became one of the most fashionable parts of the city, and although it hit the skids thereafter, it was revamped and partly gentrified in the late 1990s.
St Lawrence Market
The St Lawrence District is home to St Lawrence Market, easily the city’s best food and drink market, housed in a capacious red-brick building of 1844. Spread out across the main and lower levels are stalls selling everything from fish and freshly baked bread to international foodstuffs, all sorts of organic edibles and Ontario specialities, including cheese, jellies, jams and fern fiddleheads. The market is at its busiest on Saturday, when you can also drop by the North St Lawrence Market, an authentic farmers’ market (Sat 5am–3pm) temporarily set up adjacent to the main building while its home is being rebuilt on the north side of Front Street.
St Lawrence Hall
St Lawrence Hall is one of Toronto’s most attractive Victorian buildings, a palatial edifice whose columns, pilasters and pediments are surmounted by a dinky little cupola. Dating from 1850, the hall was built as the city’s main meeting place, with oodles of space for balls, public lectures and concerts. Some performances were eminently genteel, others decidedly mawkish – it was here that the “Swedish songbird” Jenny Lind made one of her Canadian appearances – and yet others more urgent, like the anti-slavery rallies of the 1850s. The bad taste award goes to the American showman and circus proprietor P.T. Barnum, one-time mayor of his home town of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and author of the bizarre The Humbugs of the World. It was Barnum who saw the potential of his fellow Bridgeportonian, the diminutive (60cm) Charles Sherwood Stratton, aka Tom Thumb, exhibiting him as a curiosity here in St Lawrence Hall as well as anywhere else that would stump up a few dollars.
St James Anglican Cathedral
The graceful bulk of St James Anglican Cathedral rises high above its immediate surroundings, its yellowish stone fetchingly offset by copper-green roofs and a slender spire. An excellent example of the neo-Gothic style once popular in every corner of the British Empire, the cathedral boasts scores of pointed-arch windows and an abundance of sturdy buttressing. Inside, the nave is supported by elegant high-arched pillars and flanked by an ambitious set of stained glass windows that attempts to trace the path by which Christianity reached Canada from Palestine via England. It’s all a little confusing, but broadly speaking, the less inventive windows depict Biblical scenes, whereas those which focus on English history are the more ingenious. The nave’s stained glass windows were inserted at the end of the nineteenth century, but those of St George’s Chapel, in the southeast corner of the church, were added in 1935 to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of George V. They exhibit an enthusiastic loyalty to the British Empire that is echoed in many of the cathedral’s funerary plaques: take, for example, that of a certain Captain John Henry Gamble, who was born in Toronto in 1844 but died on active service in the Khyber Pass in 1879; his stone is in the west transept. Spare a thought also for poor old William Butcher, a native of Suffolk, England, who fell to his death when he was working on the cathedral spire in 1839, aged just 27; his stone is in the main entranceway.
Distillery DistrictThe Distillery District is home to Toronto’s most original and diverse arts and entertainment complex, sited in the former Gooderham and Worts Distillery, an appealing industrial “village” on Mill Street. This rambling network of over forty brick buildings once constituted the largest distillery in the British Empire. In operation until 1990 the distillery was founded in 1832, when ships could sail into its own jetty, though landfill subsequently marooned it in the lee of the railway lines and the tail end of the Gardiner Expressway.
Since its demise, the distillery has been sympathetically redeveloped by a small group of entrepreneurs, who chose to integrate many of the original features into the revamp – including its quirky walkways and bottle runways – and, with refreshing integrity, to exclude all multinational chains. One of the architectural highlights is the Pure Spirits building, which features French doors and a fancy wrought-iron balcony. Among much else, the complex holds art galleries and artists’ studios, hand-made jewellery stores, designers, a chocolatier, bakeries, shops, a microbrewery and a couple of performance venues.
- Art Gallery of Ontario
In one of the city’s stranger ordinances, Toronto’s buildings were once decreed to have a “notional maximum altitude”. Owners of historic properties were not allowed to extend their buildings upwards, but they were permitted to sell the empty space between their roofs and the notional maximum to builders of new structures. Consequently, developers literally bought empty space and added it on to the maximum height they were already allowed for their buildings, thus creating the skyscrapers that the original ordinance seemed to forbid.
The arrangement enhanced neither the old nor the new, and was quickly followed up by an even stranger agreement. By the late 1980s, preservationists had convinced the city that no more of the city’s old buildings should be demolished. Yet developers still wanted to build new downtown buildings, and several deals emerged where a new complex would incorporate or literally engulf the old – the most notable example being the Victorian Commercial Bank building of 1845 which is now incorporated within the Brookfield Place mall at the corner of Yonge and Front streets.