The name “Toronto” brings many images to mind: a thriving cultural hub known for its contributions to the film, fashion and music industries; a centre of technology, and home to Canada’s major broadcast and media outlets. However, Toronto’s rich history offers an equally enticing visitor experience with dozens of must-see historical sites throughout the city. Here are some of the must-visits.
A Gothic Revival style mansion and garden located in mid-town Toronto, Casa Loma was constructed from 1911-1914 by a wealthy Toronto financier and is one of Toronto’s top tourist sites. With 98 rooms covering 64,700 square feet, expansive stables and a hunting lodge, it was the largest private residence in Canada. A popular prohibition-era nightspot, it operated for a brief period in the 1920s as a luxury hotel, and was also the site of sonar-research for U-boat detection during the Second World War. The castle underwent an extensive $33-million restauration project, which was completed in 2012 and is now a popular filming location for movies and television. It’s also wedding and concert venue, a museum and features one of the city’s best Escape Rooms if you’re into that sort of thing.
This National Historic Site located in North Toronto has served the city since 1876 and is the final resting place of many prominent Canadians including former Prime Minister William Lyon MacKenzie King, Métis artist Youngfox and pianist Glenn Gould. The cemetery is one of the city’s most peaceful and idyllic destinations and one of the top places to visit in Toronto. Enjoy its miles of walking paths and see statues, botanical gardens, rare and distinct trees, and a number of historical memorials.
Canada’s most renowned venue for concerts and lectures, Massey Hall was constructed in 1894, financed by the Massey-Ferguson holding company. Countless dignitaries and cultural figures have appeared on its stage, including Winston Churchill, George Gershwin and Luciano Pavarotti. In 1994, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the hall, the Centuries Bar was constructed in the lower level and features portraits of hundreds of artists who have performed there over the years.
A Toronto sightseeing must-see, Fort York is a 43-acre national historic site located in the heart of the city. It was built by the British Army and Canadian militia troops in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and is a significant landmark in the war of 1812, when the U.S. Army and Naval Forces attacked what was then the city of York from Lake Ontario. The outnumbered British forces abandoned the fort, setting fire to the powder magazine as they fled and killing or wounding several hundred U.S. soldiers. Following several more raids by the Americans over the summer, the British rebuilt the fortifications, most of which are still standing.
Spadina house, whose name is derived from the Ojibwe word for “hill” or “sudden rise of the land,” is a popular Toronto historic attraction that sits atop Davenport Hill near Casa Loma. The graceful mansion and gardens reflect 20th-century life in Toronto, and over the years the art, decor and architecture of the house have reflected styles including Victorian, Edwardian, Arts and Crafts, Art Deco, Art Nouveau and Colonial Revival. The exterior of the home is notable for its botanically themed carved keystones and spectacular gardens.
Among the top destinations for Toronto historic tours, Black Creek Pioneer Village is an open-air heritage museum in North York where visitors can experience rural Ontario life in the 19th century. A delightful and engaging visit for families and those with a passion for Canadian history, the site features over 40 historical buildings including a water-powered grist mill, blacksmith’s shop and one-room schoolhouse staffed by historical interpreters and artisans.
With its traditional brick-paved streets reserved for pedestrians and cyclists, fine dining options, and numerous galleries and cultural offerings, the Distillery District is a Toronto sightseeing must-see. The National Historic Site is home to the largest collection of Victorian-era industrial architecture in North America and is the home of the much-loved Toronto Christmas Market. Renowned for its “best in class” creative products, the Distillery is a top shopping destination for fashion, gifts and artisanal delicacies.
Home of the oldest congregation in the city, St. James Cathedral is one of Toronto’s top historic sites and a prime example of Gothic Revival architecture. After the original building was destroyed by the Great Fire of Toronto in 1849, an international competition was opened to the leading architects of the day. Every element of the cathedral, from the flying buttresses to the pinnacles and pointed arches, is designed to flood the interior with light.
One of Canada’s best places to visit, St. Lawrence Market was named the World’s Best Food Market by National Geographic in 2012. Operating continuously for 208 years, the market features 120 vendors, merchants and artisans, and takes pride in providing fresh, authentic products and an unforgettable visitor experience.
With so many unique historical gems, each of Toronto’s singular neighbourhoods offers an opportunity to step into the past.