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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 any number of things:

The spectacular ride up the CN Tower, the world’s highest free-standing structure, with its rotating restaurant giving diners a breath-taking view of the city, day or night.

The ferry trip from the Harbourfront across the waters of Lake Ontario to the serene and peaceful Toronto Islands, created by a freak storm.

The more than 7,000 fine dining establishments, bars, cafes, bistros, clubs and dance halls to suit every taste from bohemian to business.

The top-of-the-line professional sports teams – Maple Leafs, Raptors, Blue Jays and Argos – playing at stadiums that are the envy of other cities.

The world-class museums, art galleries, theatres, dance companies, festivals and parades that add creativity and culture to an already vibrant city.

Any of these could serve to define Toronto. 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 neighbourhoods, each with its defining character and local colour: from Rosedale to Little Italy, from Greektown to Cabbagetown, from one Chinatown to the next.

Canada’s Metropolis
The biggest city in Canada and the fifth largest in North America, Toronto is located on the northern shore of Lake Ontario. Laid out in a rectangular grid, the city stretches for more than 100 square kilometres. Yonge Street, known as the longest thoroughfare in the world, is the main north-south route. Toronto is an important centre of international commerce, and houses the Toronto Stock Exchange, second only in North America to the New York Stock Exchange.

The automobile, steel and iron industries also play a vital role in the city’s economy with manufacturing plants concentrated along Lake Ontario from Oshawa in the east to Hamilton in the west, an area known as the Golden Horseshoe because of its prime location and easy access to the St Lawrence Seaway, extensive railway networks and multi-lane expressways.

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, used for churches as well as public and commercial buildings. One of the only remaining structures from this era is Historic Campbell House, located on the northwest corner of Queen Street West and University in the downtown area.

By the end of the 19th century, the city opted for the heavier, bulkier lines of Richardsonian Romanesque. Architect EJ Lennox used this style on many of the city’s most famous buildings, including the Ontario Legislature and Old City Hall. 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, including the 34-storey Canadian Bank of Commerce. Of course, these buildings have been surpassed in recent years by the silhouettes that give Toronto its unique skyline: the CN Tower, SkyDome, Royal Bank Plaza, and the TD Centre, to name a few.

Getting Around
Getting around Toronto is easier than 1-2-3. Aside from the numerous cabs that swarm the city, the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) runs a world-class subway system, streetcars and buses. Wherever you end up, there’s sure to be an easy way to get to your next destination. Many bus and streetcar routes operate ’round the clock, and the three subway lines stay open until about two in the morning. The adult fare is two dollars and is good for any one-way continuous trip with transfers available. A copy of the TTC Riders Guide, showing all the major attractions and how to get there by public transportation, can be obtained at any subway station.

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 theatres, museums and galleries anywhere. For example, Toronto is the third largest centre of English-speaking theatre productions in the world (next to London and New York), with more than 200 professional theatre companies and 10,000 performances a year.

One of the oldest theatre spaces in the city, the Royal Alexandra dates back to the early 20th century. Saved from demolition by bargain store king and impresario “Honest” Ed Mirvish, the theatre was renovated at great expense and brought back to its original splendour, and is now home to some of Broadway’s finest productions from Phantom to Cats. The Royal Ontario Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario present spectacular exhibits for the entire family while the National Ballet is a world-class dance troupe offering both classical and new works.

City Of Stars
Similarly, there’s a thriving film industry in the city. Often called “Hollywood North,” Toronto is sought after for its diversity, locations, excellent production centres and local talent. The Toronto International Film Festival, which takes place annually in September, draws countless filmgoers who come for both the flicks and the stars. Not only a forum for the world film industry, the festival also highlights some of Canada’s brightest talent.

Eating out in Toronto is an experience unto itself. With a plethora of different cultures and neighbourhoods 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 cuisineries 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 Chinatown. Here you will find Chinese, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Thai, Indonesian and Japanese dishes to satisfy both the timid and the adventurous. Or check out The Beaches with its lively, pedestrian-filled sidewalks and laid-back neighbourhood character. Greektown and Little India restaurants serve up authentic cuisine whose aromas waft gently out onto the streets.

This Sporting Life
Aside from the Air Canada Centre and the SkyDome housing the city’s pro sports teams, Toronto is also known for its Woodbine horse track, the largest racing property in North America and home to the Queen’s Plate thoroughbred race held each August. This race has the distinction of being the longest running uninterrupted event of its kind in North America. For tennis fans, there’s the DuMaurier International Tennis Open, where the biggest names in the sport compete each summer. The Open alternates the men’s and women’s events with Montreal. And race car fanatics will have no trouble picking up the roar of Molson Indy engines come summer.

Looking to do a little shopping? How about a lot of shopping? You’ve come to the right place be it under one roof, such as the Eaton Centre or Yorkdale, or in the more intimate, chic boutiques of Yorkville and along Bloor West. Antique-hunters won’t know where to turn next between Bathurst and Ossington on West Queen West. And Yonge Street offers a potpourri of storefronts with everything from discount clothing to discount electronics. Finally, if the sun’s too hot or the wind too cold, check out the underground malls, located from Dundas to King between Yonge and University. Don’t worry about getting lost. The area is well covered with PATH signs and connected to both Union Station and Toronto’s subway system.

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.

History of Toronto

If you think that Toronto, like so many other North American cities, is a relatively young centre, think again. More than 8000 years ago, the 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 fighting between the Iroquois tribes and their Huron neighbours, the British sided with the former and the French with the latter. When the Iroquois declared victory over the Hurons in 1749, it also threw back their allies, the French.

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.

Swampy Garrison Town
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 honour of the Duke of York. Fort York (now an open-air museum) was soon made the capital of Upper Canada, and later of Ontario, but never became the capital of Canada itself.

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. One of the few existing features taken into consideration in the creation of the new city was an old Indian trail that became Davenport Road.

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 9,000-population city under its new (old) name. In 1837, the fiery Scot was forced to flee to the U.S. 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.

Reflecting Puritanical Roots
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 harbour, 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 1 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. Nowhere do old and new Toronto come closer together than in its two city halls. The castle-like old city hall, in the Romanesque Revival style favoured at the time, opened in 1899; the modernist arched towers of the new building created a central political and public space in the downtown area in 1965.

A City of Superlatives
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 553m), the first fully-retractable roofed stadium (SkyDome), 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-km 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 centre 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.

Toronto is a prime example of late-20th century, early-21st century history in motion, an “accidental city” as it has been called by former Saturday Night editor Robert Fulford. 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-storey Scotia Plaza; and urban development is about to radically change the lakeshore, especially if Toronto wins its bid for the 2008 Summer Olympics. Outdoor festivals, patios, a new openness and willingness to have fun and to partake in public life ‘this is the Toronto of the 1990s and 2000s. The latest (unpopular) mega-change was the provincially-forced merger of seven municipalities and 2.5 million people into the “Mega City” in 1998. The so-called Greater Toronto Area is now home to over 4 million souls.