Spreading north from Gerrard Street, Uptown Toronto is something of an architectural hotchpotch, with perhaps the handiest starting point being University Avenue, whose bristling, monochromatic office blocks stomp up towards the imposing Victorian stonework of the Ontario Legislative Assembly building. The Assembly Building marks the start of a small but impressive museum district, made up of the delightful Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, the large but somewhat incoherent Royal Ontario Museum, which possesses one of the country’s most extensive collections of applied art, and the fanciful Bata Shoe Museum. The Assembly Building is also close to the prettiest part of the sprawling University of Toronto campus, on and around King’s College Circle, and is but a short subway ride away from the city’s two finest historic homes: the neo-baronial Casa Loma and the debonair Spadina House next door.
More about Canada
Find out more
Royal Ontario Museum
Royal Ontario MuseumA must-see, the Royal Ontario Museum, or ROM, is Canada’s largest and most diverse museum, holding a vast hoard of fine and applied art drawn from every corner of the globe. What’s more, the permanent collection is supplemented by an ambitious programme of temporary exhibitions, several of which have attracted rave reviews. The ROM comprises two distinct sections: the original building, a substantial and serious-minded stone structure facing Queen’s Park and a large and flashy extension, known as the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, whose six crystal-shaped, aluminium-and-glass cubes march along Bloor Street West. Lee-Chin, a wealthy businessman, footed the bill, but the design was the brainchild of Daniel Libeskind. There’s no disputing the visual impact of the cubes, but they have made the interior of the ROM rather hard to negotiate – be sure to pick up a floor plan at reception.
The museum spreads over five main floors: Level B2 is used for temporary exhibitions; Level 1 holds a superb collection of native Canadian artefacts plus several galleries devoted to East Asia, particularly China; Level 2 is a mix of geology and natural history with the dinosaurs the star turn; Level 3 is more ethnographic, with pride of place being the ancient Egyptian collection; and Level 4 is devoted to textiles and costume.
Level 1: the old ROM entrance hall
The domed and vaulted old entrance hall of the original ROM building is an extravagant affair, whose ceiling is decorated with a brilliant mosaic of imported Venetian glass. Bolted into the adjacent stairwells are four colossal and stunningly beautiful totem poles. Dating from the 1880s, and the work of craftsmen from the Haida and Nisga’a peoples of the West Coast, these poles – the tallest is 24.5m – are decorated with stylized carvings representing the supernatural animals and birds associated with particular clans.
Level 1: the early Canadian galleries
Next to the old entrance hall, rooms 105 and 106 hold much of the ROM’s early Canadian collection, which is strong on furniture, silverware, ceramics and glass. Here also is the iconic Death of Wolfe by Benjamin West. The British general James Wolfe inflicted a crushing defeat on the French outside Québec City in 1759, but was killed during the battle. West’s painting transformed this grubby colonial conflict into a romantic extravagance, with the dying general in a Christ-like pose, a pale figure held tenderly by his subordinates. West presented the first version of his painting to the Royal Academy of Arts in 1771 and it proved so popular that he spent much of the next decade painting copies.
Level 1: the First Peoples gallery
The First Peoples gallery (rooms 107 and 108) is outstanding, its large glass cabinets examining each and every one of Canada’s major native groupings, the exhibits supported by clear and concise descriptions and apposite quotations. Particular highlights include a rare buffalo war robe, recording the owner’s bellicosity on the Canadian prairie; some wonderful West Coast masks and ceremonial headdresses; a dozen or so paintings by the artist-explorer Paul Kane; and, most remarkable of all, the war bonnet and war shirt of Sitting Bull, who fled over the border into Saskatchewan shortly after defeating General Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. During his exile Sitting Bull gave his bonnet and shirt to a Mountie – hence its appearance here.
Level 1: the Chinese collection
The ROM’s world-class Chinese collection, concentrated in rooms 103 and 104, spans six millennia, from 4500 BC to 1900 AD. Key parts of it are devoted to Chinese temple art, including three large and extraordinarily beautiful Daoist and Buddhist wall paintings dating from around 1300 AD. Other key exhibits in this section include a remarkable collection of tomb and temple figurines, comprising a couple of hundred ceramic pieces representing funerary processions of soldiers, musicians, carts and attendants. There is also a fabulous cabinet of snuff bottles, some carved from glass and rock crystal, others from more exotic materials, such as amber, ivory, bamboo and even tangerine skin. The most popular component of the Chinese collection is, however, its Ming tomb. The aristocracy of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) evolved an elaborate style of monumental funerary sculpture, and the ROM holds the only example outside of China, though it is actually a composite tomb drawn from several sources rather than an intact, original whole.
Level 2: the Dinosaurs
Among the assorted natural history galleries on Level 2, the highlight is the Dinosaurs section, which holds the ROM’s splendid collection of fossil skeletons, the pick being those retrieved from the Alberta Badlands, near Calgary in western Canada. The Badlands are the richest source of dinosaur fossils in the world, having yielded over three hundred complete skeletons and 35 dinosaur species – ten percent of all those known today. Among the accumulated beasties, look out for the pig-sized, super-armoured armadillo and the rampant Albertosaurus, a Jurassic-period carnivore of large proportions and ferocious appearance.
Level 3: the Egyptian collection
The ROM is strong when it comes to ancient Egypt, owning several finely preserved mummies, including the richly decorated sarcophagus of Djedmaatesankh, a court musician who died around 850 BC. Even more unusual is the assortment of mummified animals, including a crocodile, a hawk and a weird-looking cat. There is also the intriguing Punt Wall, a 1905 plaster cast of the original in Queen Hatshepsut’s temple in Deir el-Bahri, Egypt. The events depicted on the wall occurred in the year 1482 BC, and represent a military expedition to Punt, which lay south of Egypt near present-day Somalia.
Gardiner MuseumThe Gardiner Museum, just across the street from the Royal Ontario Museum, holds a superb collection of ceramics, beautifully presented and displayed over three small floors. On the main floor, the pre-Columbian section, composed of over three hundred pieces from regions stretching from Mexico to Peru, is one of the most comprehensive collections of its kind in North America, providing an intriguing insight into the lifestyles and beliefs of the Maya, Inca and Aztec peoples. These finely finished vessels are all the more remarkable because the potter’s wheel was unknown in pre-Columbian America, meaning everything on display was hand-modelled. On this floor also is an exquisite sample of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century tin-glazed Italian majolica, mostly dishes, plates and jars depicting classical and Biblical themes designed by Renaissance artists. The most splendid pieces are perhaps those from the city – and pottery centre – of Urbino, including one wonderful plate portraying the fall of Jericho.
The second floor has Japanese and Chinese porcelain, plus an especially fine sample of eighteenth-century European porcelain, most notably hard-paste wares (fired at very high temperatures) from Meissen, Germany. This floor also holds a charming collection of Italian commedia dell’arte figurines, doll-sized representations of theatrical characters popular across Europe from the middle of the sixteenth to the late eighteenth century. The predecessor of pantomime, the commedia dell’arte featured stock characters in improvised settings, but with a consistent theme of seduction, age and beauty: the centrepiece was always an elderly, rich merchant and his beautiful young wife. Up above, the third floor is given over to temporary exhibitions.
Casa LomaA folly to outdo almost any other, Casa Loma is undoubtedly Toronto’s most bizarre attraction, an enormous towered and turreted mansion built for Sir Henry Pellatt between 1911 and 1914. Every inch the self-made man, Pellatt made a fortune by pioneering the use of hydroelectricity, harnessing the power of Niagara Falls to light Ontario’s expanding cities. Determined to construct a house no one could ignore, Pellatt gathered furnishings from all over the world and even imported Scottish stonemasons to build the wall around his 2.5-hectare property. He spent more than $3m fulfilling his dream, but business misfortunes and the rising cost of servants forced him to move out in 1923, earning him the nickname “Pellatt the Plunger”. His legacy is a strange mixture of medieval fantasy and early twentieth-century technology: secret passageways, an elevator, and claustrophobic wood-panelled rooms baffled by gargantuan pipes and plumbing.
The ground floor
A clearly numbered, self-guiding route goes up one side of the house and down the other. It begins on the ground floor in the great hall, a pseudo-Gothic extravaganza with an 18m-high cross-beamed ceiling, a Wurlitzer organ and enough floor space to accommodate several hundred guests. Hung with flags, heavy-duty chandeliers and a suit of armour, it’s a remarkably cheerless place, but in a touch worthy of an Errol Flynn movie, the hall is overlooked by a balcony at the end of Pellatt’s second-floor bedroom: presumably he could, like some medieval baron, welcome his guests from on high.
Next is the library, followed by the walnut-panelled dining room, which leads to the conservatory, an elegant and spacious room with a marble floor and side-panels set beneath a handsome Tiffany domed-glass ceiling. This is perhaps the mansion’s most appealing room, its flowerbeds kept warm even in winter by the original network of steam pipes. The nearby study was Pellatt’s favourite room, a serious affair engulfed by mahogany panelling and equipped with two secret passageways, one leading to the wine cellar, the other to his wife’s rooms – a quintessential choice for any self-made man.
The second and third floors
On the second floor, Sir Henry’s suite has oodles of walnut and mahogany panelling, which stands in odd contrast to the 1910s white-marble, high-tech bathroom, featuring an elaborate multi-nozzle shower. Lady Pellatt’s suite wasn’t left behind in the ablutions department either – her bathroom had a bidet, a real novelty in George V’s Canada – though she had a lighter decorative touch, eschewing wood panelling for walls painted in her favourite colour, Wedgwood Blue.
The third floor holds a mildly diverting display on Pellatt’s one-time regiment, the Queen’s Own Rifles, tracing their involvement in various campaigns from the 1885 suppression of the Métis rebellion in western Canada through to World War I and beyond. From the third floor, wooden staircases clamber up to two of the house’s towers, from where there are pleasing views over the house and gardens.
The lower level and the gardens
On the ground floor, stairs lead down to the lower level, which was where Pellatt’s money ran out and his plans ground to a halt. Work never started on the bowling alleys and shooting range he’d designed, and the swimming pool only got as far as the rough concrete basin that survives today. Pellatt did manage to complete the 250m-long tunnel running from the house and pool to the carriage room and stables, where his thoroughbred horses were allegedly better-treated than his servants, chomping away at their oats and hay in splendid iron-and-mahogany stalls. The stables are a dead-end, so you’ll have to double back along the tunnel to reach the house and the exit.
Before you leave, spare time for the terraced gardens, which tumble down the ridge at the back of the house. They are parcelled up into several different sections and easily explored along a network of footpaths, beginning on the terrace behind the great hall.
Spadina HouseQuite what the occupants of Spadina House must have thought when Casa Loma went up next door can only be imagined, but there must have been an awful lot of curtain-twitching. The two houses are a study in contrasts: Casa Loma a grandiose pile, Spadina an elegant Victorian property of genteel appearance dating from 1866. Spadina was built by James Austin, a wealthy banker of Irish extraction whose descendants lived here until 1983, when the house was bequeathed to the city. The Austins’ long and uninterrupted occupation means the house’s furnishings are nearly all genuine family artefacts, and they provide an intriguing insight into their changing tastes and interests.
Particular highlights of the guided tour include the conservatory trap-door that allowed the gardeners to come and go unseen by their employers, an assortment of period chairs designed to accommodate the largest of bustles, the original gas chandeliers and a couple of canvases by Cornelius Krieghoff. Pride of place, however, goes to the Billiard Room, which comes complete with an inventive Art Nouveau decorative frieze.
Bata Shoe Museum
Bata Shoe Museum
The Bata Shoe Museum was built at the behest of Sonja Bata, of the Bata shoe manufacturing family, to display the extraordinary assortment of footwear she has spent a lifetime collecting. The museum begins on Level B1 with an introductory section entitled “All About Shoes”, which presents an overview on the evolution of footwear. Among the more interesting exhibits in this section are pointed shoes from medieval Europe, where different social classes were allowed different lengths of toe, and tiny Chinese silk shoes used by women whose feet had been bound. A small adjoining section is devoted to specialist footwear, most memorably French chestnut- crushing clogs from the nineteenth century and a pair of 1940s Dutch smugglers’ clogs with the heel and sole reversed to leave a footprint intended to hoodwink any following customs officials.
Level G features a large glass cabinet showcasing all sorts of celebrity footwear. The exhibits are rotated regularly, but look out for Buddy Holly’s loafers, Marilyn Monroe’s stilettos, Princess Diana’s red court shoes, Nureyev’s ballet shoes and Elton John’s ridiculous platforms. Level 2 and Level 3 are used for temporary exhibitions which draw extensively on the museum’s permanent collection – there isn’t enough room to show everything at once.