One spring evening, Clark and I decided to take a road trip. Where could we go for the weekend? Wisconsin? Been there, done that. Michigan…maybe. How about Toronto? Oooh, a different country!
We were leaving for our RTW trip in just a couple of months, and we realized that neither of us had ever been to Canada. As typical Americans, we didn’t know much about it. At least now we know more than these people.
I had never heard much about Toronto, so I had no expectations. I was pleasantly surprised by what we found there. It is quite charming and has just enough hustle and bustle to make a Chicagoan feel at home.
Toronto is the largest city in Canada and the Capital of Ontario. The history of Toronto begins with the Iroquois and then the Huron tribes. The name Toronto comes from the Iroquois word tkaronto, meaning “place where trees stand in the water”. In 1750, French traders came to the land and founded Fort Rouillé, but didn’t stick around long. British loyalist fled there during the American Revolution and England made the Toronto Purchase.
Governor John Graves Simcoe established Fort York at the entrance to the town’s harbor in 1793 changing the cities name to York. American’s captured the town and plundered it in the war of 1812 destroying Fort York and setting fire to the parliament building. This event inspired the “Burning of Washington” in 1814 in which the British (many from Toronto) set fire to most of the government buildings in D.C.
The city was incorporated and took its native name, Toronto, once again in 1834. Slavery was banned outright, so many slaves escaping from the U.S. fled to Toronto. The Great Famine in Ireland brought an influx of immigrants to Toronto during the 19th century and the population steadily grew. The city was the capital of Canada, off-and-on throughout the century.
In 1867, Toronto became the capital of Ontario as well as the home of the vice-regal, or representative of the British Royalty. Many city improvements were made, streets lit by gas lamps, a major sewage system, and a long-distance railway, bringing more and more immigrants to the city.
Much of Toronto was destroyed in the great fire of 1904, but was rebuilt very quickly. The early 20th century saw an influx of more European immigrants. Eastern Europeans, Russians, and Chinese soon followed. Many immigrants lived in Shanty towns around Bay Street called “The Ward”. It was at one time the center for the Jewish Community and then became the first home of many immigrants coming to the city.
After WWII and the removal of racially based immigration laws, more and more immigrants came to the city. Toronto became an ethnic mix of cultures and races. The city experienced Hurricane Hazel in 1954. Yes, a hurricane. It was actually considered an extratropical storm by the time it reached Toronto. There were high winds and flash-flooding. Eighty one people died, 1,900 families were left without homes, and the city sustained $25 million in damages.
The population reached two million by 1971 and many multi-national corporations moved their headquarters to Toronto. By the 1980’s, it had surpassed the well-established Montreal as the center of economics and business for Canada. The Toronto Stock Exchange is the world’s eighth largest in terms of market value. Because of the city’s low crime rates, clean environment, high standard of living, and friendly attitude to diversity, the Economist Intelligence Unit and the Mercer Quality of Living Survey again and again rate Toronto as one of the world’s most livable cities.
The City of Toronto covers an area formerly governed by six separate municipalities. Each district developed with its own history and identity. There is a distinctly different feel in the residential areas that are not too far from the skyscrapers. The six wards in Toronto are York, East York, North York, Etobicoke, Scarborough, and Toronto (or Old Toronto).
The historical residential areas in the neighborhood of Old Toronto like Rosedale, Cabbagetown, The Annex, Yorkville, and Wychwood Park are filled with beautiful Victorian and Edwardian houses. Casa Loma and the Spadina house are the two most notable. The financial district filled with modern buildings and skyscrapers also lies in Old Toronto. Neighborhoods such as Kensington Market, Leslieville, Cabbagetown and Riverdale are home to bustling commercial and cultural areas as well as communities of artists with studio lofts. Toronto also boasts two Chinatowns, Greektown, Little Italy, Portugal Village, Little India, and others.
York and East York are the inner suburbs of Toronto with post WWI single-family homes and apartment blocks. The grid based “planned communities” lie in the outer suburbs in the wards of Etobicoke, Scarborough, and North York. A secondary business center has recently emerged here along Younge St. and the Scarborough City Center.
Toronto has a multitude of Farmers markets that last all summer and into the fall. If visiting during this time you will likely run across them. It is a great chance to pick up a fresh, home-baked, and cheap breakfast or lunch! You can get everything from fresh produce and baked goods to handmade soaps, candles, and clothing.
St. Lawrence Market is one of my favorite places in the city. The three building complex was established in 1803. The South Market is housed in a huge old building that used to be Town Hall. It is now home to venders selling everything from organic vegetables, tasty cheeses, kangaroo sausage, spices, chocolate, and scarves. You can also get a great, cheap, and ethnically diverse lunch at the small restaurants inside the market. We had some delicious Pierogi.
The North Market is a part of the St. Lawrence complex. It is open as a farmer’s market on Saturdays and an Antique market on Sundays. The serious shoppers arrive at 5 a.m. to get the freshest produce, or the best deals. A trip to Toronto would not be complete without a visit to this market. It is closed on Mondays, so plan accordingly!
Kensington Market was founded by Eastern European Jewish immigrants who lived in “The Ward”. The community was made up of densely packed houses full of poor immigrants. The market first became known for selling imported gift items and specialty foods from Europe. Later, when other immigrants inhabited the area, the market evolved. It is now heavily influenced by Chinese culture, as Chinatown is only a few blocks away.
This beautiful station is the central hub for all inter-city transit in Toronto, serving 200,000 passengers each day. The station was constructed between 1914 and 1920 and boasts a beautiful Great Hall. A revitalization project was recently launched to preserve the historic building as well as modernize the lower portions. A visit there is free and worth the view!
Toronto Maple Leafs
The Toronto hockey team plays each season at the Air Canada Centre . This building also hosts concerts and Canada basketball in the hockey off-season. Big names such as Michael Buble, Paul McCarntney, Aerosmith, and Justin Bieber were in this summer’s lineup.
Canadians turn their noses up at Starbucks. They have their own coffee empire known as Tim Hortons. No trip to Canada would be complete without a visit to one. Horton was a Canadian hockey player turned donut and coffee mogul. He died in a car accident in 1974 and never got to see the insane popularity of his little donut shop. We spent many mornings and afternoons in line for coffee and tea at one of the many shops. If you can believe it, I think Tim Horton’s are more numerous in Toronto than Starbucks in Chicago.
This beautiful mansion was constructed between 1911 and 1914 in a Gothic Revival style. It looks like a castle rising above Toronto. There are 5 acres of gardens, underground tunnels connecting the hunting lodge to the stables, and three floors filled with opulent rooms. Admission is about $20 per adult, $15 for seniors and youth.
Hockey Hall of Fame
If you love Hockey, Canada is the place to be. Canadians take their hocky very seriously. Toronto is the home of the Hockey Hall of Fame. It is a museum and hall of fame holding exhibits about the history of hockey, NHL records, rosters, memorabilia, trophies, and information on the honorees inducted each year. The admission fee is $15 Canadian, $10 for kids.
The city’s zoo, which opened in 1974, is located in the Scarborough district and is the home of over 5,000 animals and 500 species. It is divided into six zoogeographic regions: Indo-Malaya, Africa, Americas, Australasia, Eurasia and the Canadian Domain. Some of the notable exhibits are the 5-acre polar bear habitat, largest indoor gorilla habitat in the world, and the new Great Barrier Reef. Admission is $23 Canadian, $17 for seniors, $13 for kids, and free for children 3 and under.
TIP: Pack a picnic and take it to the zoo. You’ll save money and eat with a great view!
You can visit the historical site of Fort York, which is called the birthplace of Toronto. You can get a guided tour in which you learn about the lives of the soldiers. There are guard demonstrations every hour on the half hour like canon firing, flag raising and lowering, live music, and cooking demonstrations (and tastings). There is also a museum housed on the land. You can also attend special events there like balls, family day, teas, walking tours, and commemorations. Entrance is $8.61 Canadian for adults, $4.31 for youth and seniors, $3.23 for children, and free for children under 5 years old.
This is the Empire State building or Sears Willis Tower of Toronto. The CN Tower was the world’s tallest free standing structure on land until 2007 when it was surpassed by Burj Khalifa in Dubai. This iconic needle brings in more than 2 million visitors each year. You can visit the viewing deck and restaurant at the tip of the tower. There are several packages you can buy. The most expensive is the $34.99 Total Experience, which includes the viewing deck, glass floor, skypod, movie, and motion theater ride. Varying packages get cheaper, or you can pay for each attraction a al carte. You can also purchase tickets on-line.
TIP: If you are standing below the CN Tower in the winter, watch out for falling ice!
Rogers Center (Formerly, The Sky Dome)
This sports center is the home of the Toronto Blue Jays. It also hosts fairs, convention, monster truck shows, and other sporting events. It has a fully-retractable roof and hotel with 70 rooms overlooking the field. If you are in to baseball, take in a game! If you just want to see the place you can take a tour. $16 for adults, $13 for children.
We didn’t visit any, but we saw sign after sign along the road on our drive from Toronto to Niagara for wineries . After doing a quick search, I found that the Toronto and Niagara areas are known for their wine. How can anyone pass up relaxing on a fall afternoon by sipping a local wine and enjoying the foliage?
Just a few hours drive will take you through more rural areas and to Niagara Falls. We’ve always heard the view is best from the Canadian side. We’ve never seen either, so we thought we’d head over and check it out. It was very touristy and not as big as I expected, but worth the drive. If you are in Toronto for more than a few days, I recommend making the drive to the falls. It’s free to view, but you’ll pay for parking in a lot (which can be costly) or metered parking in the street (if you’re lucky).