Downtown Toronto

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.

The Art Gallery of Ontario, or AGO, is celebrated both for its extensive collection of Canadian art and its excellent temporary exhibitions. In 2008 it was feted after a thorough revamp in which the architect Frank Gehry (perhaps most famous for Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum) transformed its appearance with a startling glass-and-wood north facade on Dundas Street, and a four-storey titanium-and-glass wing overlooking Grange Park to the south. The end result can be a little confusing, however, and it takes a little time to get oriented. There are sixfloors: the Concourse Level holds a theatre and learning centre (you may be lucky and catch an exquisite collection of intricate ship models if they’re on view here); Level 1 is largely devoted to European art; Level 2 holds a wonderful collection of Canadian paintings as well as a battery of Henry Moore sculptures; Level 3 offers the Galleria Italia, a soaring, airy, gallery-linking wood-and-glass hall which hosts sculpture exhibits (and an espresso bar, too); Level 4 has a regularly rotated selection of contemporary art, as does Level 5. There is a café, a restaurant, a large gift- and bookshop, and a first-rate programme of guided tours free with admission.

Level 1: the European collection

The AGO possesses an eclectic sample of European fine and applied art, including ivory and alabaster pieces, illuminated manuscripts, exquisite cameos and fine porcelain, much of it the gift of the newspaper tycoon Kenneth Thomson, aka Lord Thomson of Fleet (1923–2006). Early paintings include some rather pedestrian Italian altarpieces, Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s fine Moses Breaking Pharaoh’s Crown, and a strong showing for Dutch painters of the Golden Age, including Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Frans Hals and Jan Van Goyen. Look out also for Rubens’ exquisite Massacre of the Innocents, a typically stirring canvas from the middle of his career, populated with writhing, muscular figures.

Level 2: Canadian eighteenth- and nineteenth-century painting

Distributed among forty numbered galleries on Level 2, the AGO has the finest collection of Canadianpaintings in the world, but it’s not always been shown to best advantage. A recently begun long-term reinstallation initiative should change that, and a plan to incorporate museum loans and pop-up showings by local and Inuit artists should make the gallery a bit more inviting as well. From the eighteenth century, one particular highlight is a curiously unflattering Portrait of Joseph Brant by William Berczy. A Mohawk chief, Brant is shown in a mix of European and native gear, an apt reflection of his twin loyalties. From the early to mid-nineteenth century comes the cheery Passenger Pigeon Hunt by Antoine Plamondon and the bright and breezy The Ocean Bride leaving Halifax Harbour by John O’Brien, who specialized in maritime scenes. Equally enjoyable is the work of the prolific Cornelius Krieghoff. The AGO owns a large sample of Krieghoff’s paintings, including characteristic winter scenes like his The Portage Aux Titres. Look out also for the canvases of one of the era’s most fascinating figures, Paul Kane, notably his Landscape in the Foothills with Buffalo Resting and At Buffalo Pound, where bison are pictured in what looks more like a placid German valley than a North American prairie.

Folksy and/or romanticized country scenes and landscapes ruled the Canadian artistic roost from the 1850s to the early twentieth century. By and large this was pretty routine stuff, but Homer Watson’s glossy Ontario landscapes, with their vigorous paintwork and dynamic compositions, made him a popular and much acclaimed artist – Queen Victoria even purchased one of his paintings, and Oscar Wilde dubbed him “the Canadian Constable”. The AGO possesses several Watson paintings, including the handsome and well-composed canvas The Old Mill, but his Death of Elaine – inspired by a Tennyson poem – is a bizarrely unsuccessful venture into ancient legend, the eponymous maiden looking something like a stick insect.

Level 2: Canada’s Group of Seven

A seminal work, the AGO’s West Wind by Tom Thomson is an iconic rendering of the northern wilderness that is perhaps the most famous of all Canadian paintings. Thomson was the first to approach the wilderness with the determination of an explorer and a sense that it could encapsulate a specifically Canadian identity. A substantial sample of his less familiar (but no less powerful) works are also part of the AGO collection, including the moody A Northern Lake, Maple Saplings, October and the Cubist-influenced Autumn Foliage 1915. There is also a whole battery of preparatory sketches of lakes and canyons, waterfalls and forests, each small panel displaying the vibrant blotches of colour that characterize Thomson’s work.

One of the most distinctive artists of the Group of Seven was Lawren Harris, whose 1924 Above Lake Superior is also a pivotal work, its clarity of conception, with bare birch stumps framing a dark mountain beneath Art Deco clouds, quite exceptional. Equally stirring is his surreal Lake Superior, one of an army of paintings inspired by the wild, cold landscapes of the lake’s north shore. Harris was also partial to urban street scenes and the AGO has several – including two of Toronto – each painted in a careful pointillist style very different from his wilderness works.

A contemporary of the Group – but not a member – the gifted Emily Carr focused on the Canadian west coast in general, and its dense forests and native villages in particular, as in her dark and haunting Thunderbird and the deep green foliage of both In a Circle and Yellow Moss.

Level 2: the Henry Moore Sculpture Centre

The AGO owns the world’s largest collection of sculptures by Henry Moore (1898–1986), with the emphasis firmly on his plaster casts, alongside a few of his bronzes. Given a whole gallery, the sheer size and volume of Moore’s output is impressive, but it was something of an accident his work ended up here at all. In the 1960s, Moore thought London’s Tate Gallery was going to build a special wing for his work. When the Tate declined, Moore negotiated with the AGO instead, after being persuaded to do so by the gallery’s British representative, Anthony Blunt – the art expert who was famously uncovered as a Soviet spy in 1979.

Levels 4 and 5: contemporary art

Spread over two levels, the AGO’s collection of contemporary art showcases work by European, British and American artists from 1960 onwards. Around two hundred pieces are exhibited and they cover a wide range of media, from painting, sculpture and photography through to film and installation. These displays are changed fairly regularly. Showings of work by American photographer Anne Collier, Canadian painter Stephen Andrews and Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul are a few of the recent temporary exhibitions here.

The artist defeated: Cornelius Krieghoff

Born in Amsterdam, Cornelius Krieghoff trained as an artist in Düsseldorf before emigrating to New York, where, at the age of just 21, he joined the US Army, serving in the Second Seminole War in Florida. Discharged in 1840, Krieghoff immediately re-enlisted, claimed three months’ advance pay and deserted, hot-footing it to Montréal with the French-Canadian woman he had met and married in New York. In Montréal, he picked up his brushes again, but without any commercial success – quite simply no one wanted to buy his paintings. That might have been the end of the matter, but Krieghoff moved to Québec City in 1852 and here he found a ready market for his paintings among the well-heeled officers of the British garrison, who liked his folksy renditions of Québec rural life. This was the start of Krieghoff’s most productive period and over the next eight years he churned out dozens of souvenir pictures – finely detailed, anecdotal scenes that are his best work. In the early 1860s, however – and for reasons that remain obscure – he temporarily packed in painting, returning to Europe for five years before another stint in Québec City, though this time, with the officer corps gone, he failed to sell his work. In 1871, he went to live with his daughter in Chicago and died there the following year, a defeated man.

The Group of Seven

In the autumn of 1912, a commercial artist by the name of Tom Thomson returned from an extended trip to the Mississauga country, north of Georgian Bay, with a bag full of sketches that were to add new momentum to Canadian art. His friends, many of whom were fellow employees of the art firm of Grip Ltd in Toronto, saw Thomson’s naturalistic approach to indigenous subject matter as a pointer away from the influence of Europe, declaring the “northland” as the true Canadian “painter’s country”. World War I and the death of Thomson – who drowned in 1917 – delayed these artists’ ambitions, but in 1920 they formed the Group of Seven. Initially, the group comprised Franklin H. Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald, F.H. Varley and Frank Johnston; later, they were joined by A.J. Casson, LeMoine Fitzgerald and Edwin Holgate. Working under the unofficial leadership of Harris, they explored the wilds of Algoma in northern Ontario, travelling around in a converted freight car, and later foraged even further afield, from Newfoundland and Baffin Island to British Columbia.

They were immediately successful, staging forty shows in eleven years, a triumph due in large part to Harris’s many influential contacts. Yet there was also a genuine popular response to the intrepid frontiersman element of their aesthetic. Art was a matter of “taking to the road” and “risking all for the glory of a great adventure”, as they wrote in 1922, while “nature was the measure of a man’s stature”, according to Lismer. Symbolic of struggle against the elements, the Group’s favourite symbol was the lone pine set against the sky, an image whose authenticity was confirmed by reference to the “manly” poetry of Walt Whitman.

The legacy of the Group of Seven was – and perhaps still is – double-edged. On the one hand, they established the autonomy of Canadian art, but on the other their contribution was soon institutionalized, and well into the 1950s it was difficult for Canadian painters to establish an identity that didn’t conform to the Group’s precepts. Despite the Group’s unpopularity among many later painters, Ontario artist Graham Coughtry (1931–99) was, for one, generous: “They are the closest we’ve ever come to having some kind of romantic heroes in Canadian painting.”

CN Tower

To 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.

The tower

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.

Distillery District


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.

Fort York

Modern-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

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”.

Rogers Centre (SkyDome)

Next door to the CN Tower stands the

Rogers Centre

, formerly the


, 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.

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 WilliamButcher, 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.


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


(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.

Planning your own trip? Prepare for your trip

Use Rough Guides' trusted partners for great rates

Rough Guides Editors

written by
Rough Guides Editors

updated 26.04.2021

Ready to travel and discover

Get support from our local experts for
stress-free planning & worry-free travels

Plan my trip ⤍