Toronto is a special city not just for Canada, but for the entire world. But what makes this place so unique? Here are 13 sort of clustered reasons why, even though there are many many more. Still, anytime is a good time to appreciate the Earth’s places. Let’s start with some quick geography. Where on the planet is it?
TORONTO: Quick Geography
As you may know or have read in my post about Southern Ontario, Toronto is not only the capital of Ontario province but is also the biggest (as in most-populous) city in all of Canada. With over 2 million 700 thousand in the city and over 5 million 400 thousand in the urban area, it is one of the biggest cities in North America too. Its land area is about 630 square km (391 sq mi). It’s about 21 km (13 mi) at the max top to bottom and about 43 km (27 mi) across.
Like most of the big cities, it is located in the southern part of Ontario on the northwest edge of Lake Ontario. Originally known as York, Toronto comes from Iroquoian languages meaning “place where trees stand in water” and/or “plenty” or “abundance.” The Iroquoian name was popularized by the name of a passage route in the region. The city has 6 larger districts that got sucked together to form the current city:
- Old Toronto
- East York
- North York
The city has a long coastline with offshore islands that create a protected harbor. Toronto is cut by several rivers and ravines, most notably the Don River, Humber River, and Rouge River. Despite this, the city is generally flat with more hilly terrain as you go inland. Let’s take a little tour.
1. Hoods + Squares – shopping & exploring
The most popular and most visited part of Toronto is Old Toronto. Coincidently, it is the district that I’ll be focusing the most on, but by no means is it the only important part of town. When traveling to any city, some of the best things one can do is to tour the neighborhoods and buy something to remember the place by.
One of the most popular hoods by far is Kensington Market, an old Jewish area that turned into an overall hip place to visit. There are all sorts of local shops, street art, and diverse food options. It’s famous for being a marketplace and hotspot for the city’s diversity.
Other quirky hoods good for spending that cash are Queen Street West and Yorkville. Chinatown is also very popular, and a great place to find unique items and foods, let alone get immersed into a different culture.
Toronto is full of other ethnic neighborhoods to explore too. If you like big shopping centers, places like the Toronto Eaton Centre and the Scarborough Civic Centre are right on the mark.
Another big one is Dundas Square, something like Times Square or LA Live in the heart of Old TO. And Nathan Phillips Square is the main square that turns into a big ice rink in the winter. These spots are excellent for feeling the big city vibe.
2. Bricks + Castles – history & art
One really unique place in Toronto is the Casa Loma. This big Gothic Revival-style castle is a really popular place to visit. It’s somewhat of an urban getaway since it’s surrounded by gardens and rests on a hill. The views of the Entertainment District from here are really pretty, and it’s a nice contrast to the main area of the city.
Another neat place is Guild Park and Gardens, a former artists colony set in the woods down in Scarborough. Just off Lake Ontario, there are several relics that were piled together to look like old ruins. It really gives an ancient feel to this New World city.
Speaking of Casa Loma, the bricks used to build it were brought from the Evergreen Brick Works. This is a special site that functioned as a brick factory for about a hundred years. It’s been turned into a park and is now dedicated to promoting environmental sustainability. Now that’s a cool turnaround!
3. Parks + Greens – nature
Toronto has a ton of parks, and locals are never too far from nature. Probably the most iconic one is High Park, a huge area with lakes, trails, touring trains, and a tranquil atmosphere. The park is especially popular in the spring when tons of cherry blossoms burst into bloom.
Other notable parks are Riverdale Park East and Trinity Bellwoods Park, the latter being super popular among locals. On the outskirts of town is the Rouge National Urban Park, a massive natural space to just get lost in nature.
Nearby is the Toronto Zoo, one of the biggest and best zoos in the Americas. In a similar vein, there are the Edwards Gardens, a beautiful section of the city’s Botanical Gardens to explore and get immersed into TO’s floral side. Urban nature: check.
4. Arts + Museums – culture
So Toronto is stocked with museums and galleries. I mean, just infested with them. The cool thing about several of these is the really flashy, almost futuristic design of the buildings. Two museums in particular that fit this description are the Royal Ontario Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario. Not just beautifully designed, these two museums are among the biggest and most renowned in North America (ROM is actually the biggest in Canada).
One incredible museum dedicated to Islamic and Persian art is the Aga Khan Museum. The site holds a pretty building with gardens and waterways around it. Probably the most unusual is the Bata Shoe Museum. That’s right, a museum dedicated to shoes! It looks a lot more interesting than it sounds, mounting shoes anywhere from ancient Inuits to more recent basketball players.
One special mention goes to Graffiti Alley, a section of the city with tons of street art. This popular part of town can be observed on your own or with a guided tour, but several parts of the city boast their local artistic talent.
5. Eastside Old Town – marketplaces & architecture
Old Town is Toronto’s historic core and one of the most popular neighborhoods. Of course, owing to an awesome contrast of old and new architecture like the Royal Bank Plaza and Gooderham Building, there’s more to it than that. The most famous and most traditional market is St. Lawrence Market. It’s a nice place to see the traditional side of TO while getting your grub on.
One extremely important place is the Distillery District, a neighborhood considered the biggest collection of Victorian-era brick buildings in North America. It’s full of shops and eateries amidst the historic buildings. It also happens to be an area for holiday magic. The Christmas Market and Light Festival are held here when the streets are all decorated with lights and Christmas trees. The whole thing just looks like a magical place to be.
We also can’t talk about Canada without mentioning hockey, and guess what? The Hockey Hall of Fame is on this side of town! Check out some Stanley Cups and famous jerseys for all the sports lovers.
6. Ontario Place – history & attractions
A unique part of Toronto on its own is Ontario Place. It’s a big complex that houses all kinds of parks, an amphitheater, exhibits, museums, stadiums, and a marina. One could spend a good part of their day just roaming around this waterfront area.
There are also some important historic sites here like the Princes’ Gates, a majestically arched gateway, or Fort York. This place is a fort that was used by the British back in the early 1800s. It still stands there today to show just how awesome Toronto really is.
7. Pubs + Temples – miscellaneous attractions
I also couldn’t mention Toronto without talking about pubs. The city was very popular for its pubs and breweries, such as the Mill Street Brew Pub. The Madison Avenue Pub, or the “Maddy,” is made out of the joining of manors that morphed into a house now popular to the pub-lic.
Another weird place that has turned into a kind of landmark is the Half House, an old home whose owners on one side refused to let it be demolished. Now it sits as an old relic practically cut “in half” and surrounded by more modern buildings. It’s a pretty wacky feature of the city.
One last random landmark is the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir temple. It’s this really big and beautifully designed Hindu temple dedicated to this specific branch of the religion located out on the edges of Etobicoke. It’s really beautiful inside and out, worth a visit no matter what your faith is.
8. Entertainment District – attractions & landmarks
Like I said earlier, this is probably the most visited and most popular part of Toronto. It’s the site of the famous CN Tower, after all, the tallest free-standing structure in the Western Hemisphere. Besides going to the top and taking in the wide views, daredevils can go a bit higher and take a walk around the edges of this lofty tower.
Home to other popular places like the Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada and the Rogers Centre, lots of events are held on this side of town. A great place to find entertainment (as the name promises) there are several popular theaters and event halls.
These include places like the Four Season Centre and Roy Thomson Hall. Some even come with fancy names like the Royal Alexandra Theatre or Princess of Wales Theatre. An important movie theater is the TIFF Lightbox that hosts all kinds of movie events throughout the year, including the International Film Festival.
9. Festivals + Events
The Toronto International Film Festival is a very special local event, by the way. Others include the Taste of Danforth Greek festival, Canada Day, Pride Week, and the Caribbean Carnival. Yeah, enjoy that sun!
In the dark though is an all-night festival called Nuit Blanche dedicated to artwork and getting people to Scarborough. Another creepy event is the Ghost Walk that happens around Halloween time. People can dress up in costumes and roam around Old Town decorated like a big haunted house. If you’re into that.
10. Bluffs + Waterfronts – coasts & nature
Since Toronto is on a huge lake, you can bet there’s a ton of waterfront to enjoy. Canada’s not particularly famous for having beaches, but Toronto does have a few decent ones. There’s even a neighborhood called The Beaches with a few to lie on.
Closer to Old Town there’s Cherry Beach and the tiny Sugar Beach. It is small but that adds to its unique getaway feel. The umbrellas splayed out on the sand make it seem like a little tropics of the north.
As far as actual waterfront, there is the Harbourfront area next to the Entertainment District where one can enjoy the harbor, walk around, catch a boat ride, or even ice skate in the winter. Just ahead of that are the Toronto Islands, a set of isles right off the city’s coast. The most popular is Centre Island with its own calm beaches and urban park. Some of the best views of T Dot’s skyscrapers are from these islands.
Next to the harbor is the Music Garden which hosts live classical performances and was designed based on one of Bach’s compositions. Getting a ways out of the busy center, Scarborough has a somewhat isolated area called the Scarborough Bluffs. These are a series of forested hills and cliffs overlooking the lake. The colors are spectacular in summer and the place even shelters a few nice beaches. Didn’t expect that one from Canada.
11. Mississauga – city
Toronto’s got a lot of suburbs, but its biggest one is Mississauga. The international airport getting into TO is here, but there’s more to this city than that. Mississauga is coastal just like its larger anchor, so there are some lakeside parks with great views to explore.
There’s also the Credit River and port which is like a peaceful nature getaway that takes hikers into the woods. First and foremost is Celebration Square. This place is “celebrated” as one of the best squares anywhere and is home to many events year-round.
It’s close to pretty buildings like city hall and the famed Marilyn Monroe Towers. These babies look like giant curvy blob-morphs from another planet and are some of the most striking things you’ll find in the Toronto area.
12. Suburbs – nature & attractions
Continuing that thought, the city is surrounded by ideal suburbs. Whether it’s Brampton or Oakville or Oshawa, these places really add to the appeal of Toronto overall. Filled with conservation areas like Heart Lake Park and hiking trails, most of the suburbs are a great way to explore the more natural, rural side of the urban area.
Adding to its conservation parks, Vaughan is also special for being home to Canada’s Wonderland, Canada’s largest and earliest major theme park. And of course, Burlington has the enchanted Royal Botanical Gardens with some mountainous scenery around Mt. Nemo. Visitors can get hyped at a theme park and chill out at a heart-shaped lake afterward. What could be more fun?
13. Culture (+ Closing)
We all know (by now) that Toronto is the biggest city and probably the most diverse in Canada. This city is famed for having open arms to the world’s people and allowing for so many cultures and nationalities to coexist. The city’s people don’t just reside here but are celebrated by the many festivals, events, and exhibits dedicated to them every year.
It’s a massive metropolis that has often been ahead of the pack with its culture, music, film industry, and economic might. Still, in all its growth, Toronto remembers to protect its natural environment and to promote sustainability in a lasting way. This city, like many places in Canada, doesn’t let the cold get to it. Whether it’s ice skating, snowboarding, or hockey, locals know how to make the most of the cold dark months with a face-full of lights … and some good brew.
**Okay world lovers, that’s it for Toronto! I hope you enjoyed this post and learned something about this incredible city. I also hope I showed you part of why Toronto is a special place. Are you from Toronto or ever visited there? Let us know what you would add (or take away) from this little list. I appreciate your readership, and take care of yourselves. Peace.