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Canada: the history and must see sights of Toronto

Kieran Meeke / 12 January 2017

Celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2017, Canada is a fascinating country full of history and intrigue. The second installment in a series of articles, we look at the city of Toronto.

The Toronto skyline
Toronto is Canada’s largest city and the fourth largest in North America, with a population heading for three million people in the Greater Toronto area.


On the shores of Lake Ontario, Toronto is one of the most diverse cities in the world, with half of its population born outside Canada. 

It is Canada’s largest city and the fourth largest in North America, with a population heading for three million people in the Greater Toronto area. 

This size, diversity and amiability make it one of the most visited on the continent, with more than 8,000 restaurants and bars and a strong cultural life. 

Its many great museums, theatres and concert halls are home to the Canadian Opera Company and National Ballet of Canada among others.

Toronto was founded in the late 1700s by Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution, on land bought from the native peoples. (This purchase was disputed by them until 2010.) 

Close to what was then the troubled frontier with America, it was laid out as a military settlement from which it retains its grid layout. Originally known as York, of which the landmark Royal York Hotel is a reminder, it changed its name in 1843 to avoid confusion with New York.

A large number of Irish arrived after the Great Famine and by 1851 a quarter of the city was Irish Catholic. This boom continued with the building of the railways in the 1850s. 

Toronto was the capital of the fledgling colony of Canada at various times before Ottawa became the permanent capital in 1865. 

After World War I increasing immigration from countries other than the British Isles, including the Caribbean, brought its population over a million and saw the spread of areas such as Little Italy and Chinatown. 

The opening of the hydroelectric power plant at Niagara Falls in 1911 provided cheap energy for factories that thrived on this influx of labour.

Toronto overtook Montreal in population with another flood of European immigrants after World War II. 

The heated debate over the separation of French-speaking Quebec, including Montreal, from the rest of Canada allowed Toronto to establish itself as the financial and cultural capital of English-speaking Canada.

Getting Around

The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) runs an efficient bus service within Toronto and ferries to the Toronto Islands. There is also a subway and “streetcar” tram system - the 501 Queen streetcar past City Hall is particularly scenic. 

The Toronto Island Ferry has its own ticketing system. GO Transit runs a rail system to the suburbs and a summer weekend service to Niagara Falls.

Taxis and Uber cars are commonly used on the evening, while Bike Share Toronto offers another way to sightsee.

Cool mountain peaks and even ‘cooler’ cities, Canada offers a world of experiences. Find out more about our holidays to Canada here

Major Sights

High Park

Toronto’s largest green space is as big as New York’s central Park and has its own mini zoo, with llamas, buffalo and bison among other animals. The Grenadier Pond has lakeside trails popular with walkers and hikers.

Must-do: See the “Sakura” cherry blossom trees in full bloom during spring.

Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO)

AGO holds more than 80,000 works behind a striking facade designed by Toronto-born architect Frank Gehry.

As well as the world’s largest collection of Canadian art, its large international selection has masterpieces from Rembrandt and Gainsborough to Rothko and Dalí. Its collection of historic ship models is also unique.

Must-see: The Henry Moore Sculpture Centre holds the largest public collection of his work, many donated by him personally.

Rogers Centre

Originally called the “SkyDome” after its all-weather retractable roof, the first of its kind in the world, this multi-purpose stadium is home to the Toronto Blue Jays who play Major League Baseball in the American League East. 

As well as baseball games, many events held here – from car shows to concerts.

Must-do: Catch a baseball game – an eating and drinking experience as much as anything else – among the 49,000 home crowd.

St. Lawrence Market

This massive indoor food market is in an historic building that throngs with artisan bakers, butchers, cheesemakers and other suppliers. At weekends, you can also find antiques and a farmer’s market.

Must-do: Sample a Peameal bacon sandwich from the Carousel Bakery, made with thick grilled Canadian back bacon and toped with honey mustard sauce.

CN Tower

The tallest freestanding structure in the world when it opened in 1976, this is still (just) among the world’s ten tallest. The views from the top are striking and can be enjoyed from the revolving restaurant.

Must-do: Test your nerves by standing on the glass floor.

Dundas Square

More properly Yonge-Dundas Square, Toronto’s neon-lined answer to Piccadilly Circus or Times Square hosts concerts, movies and other free events throughout the year.

Must-do: Enjoy the fountain display, which uses water kept at “pool quality” levels to encourage people to play in it.

Kensington Market

The Kensington neighbourhood is one of Toronto’s most multicultural, a fact reflected in its eclectic shops which may remind UK visitors of Notting Hill or Camden. 

You can find everything from fresh local fruit and exotic veg to Africa art and Peruvian clothing. Bellevue Square Park also hosts concerts and mini-festivals during the warmer months.

Must-do: Explore some of the food offerings that blend various world influences into new concoctions.

Distillery District

Once the home of Gooderham and Worts, the largest distillers in Canada, this pedestrian-friendly area of cobbled streets and heritage warehouses is now filled with smart apartments, chic coffee shops, trendy restaurants, a microbrewery, galleries and quirky shops.

Must-do: Join a walking or Segway tour to explore the largest of collection of Victorian industrial architecture in North America.

Toronto Islands

This chain of small islands in Lake Ontario is home to the largest urban car-free community in North America. It’s a summer playground for the city, with a beach, four yacht clubs, cycle paths and numerous sports facilities.

Must-do: The view from the ferry of the Toronto Skyline is worth the trip alone.

Hockey Hall of Fame

This museum dedicated to ice hockey will either convince you that it is the world’s greatest sport, or at the very least help you understand why so many Canadians think it is. 

Exhibits include lots of jerseys but also a replica of the Montreal Canadien’s dressing room and the real Stanley Cup.

Must-do: Shoot a puck past goalkeeping legend Ed Belfour, or at least his computer simulated twin.

Spadina House

This former family home is now a museum dedicated to life in the 1920s and 1930s, with a six-acre garden from the earlier Edwardian era. 

These interwar years were an important time in the history of Toronto and the house reflects the changes undergoing both the country and the world at large.

Must-do: The Great Gatsby Garden Party every summer is a chance to dress in period costume for your own “Downton Abbey” experience.

Rooftop Patios

For a night out, Torontonians love to head to one of the many rooftop terraces that give a view of their city. With more than 8,000 pubs and restaurants, and locals eating out an average three times a week, a patio is a great selling point.

Must-do: Explore with one of the many guides to “Patio Season” to find your own favourite view.

Major Events

Taste of Toronto

This four-day event on Garrison Common at Fort York during June brings in chefs to create a pop-up restaurant and display their skills. 

The variety highlights a major reason why Toronto has a reputation as one of the world’s most multicultural cities. 

Toronto Jazz Festival

Held over ten days in late June/early July, this festival fills venues throughout the Downtown area with the best of local and international jazz. Headliners have included Wynton Marsalis and the Chick Corea Trio. 

Toronto Caribbean Carnival

“Caribana” is North America’s largest street festival, running for three weeks of events and attracting more than a million spectators to its final carnival parade. 

Led through along Toronto’s Lake Shore Boulevard by Calypso, Soca and Steelpan bands, and deny of dancers, it’s a taste of Caribbean sunshine every July. 

Canadian National Exhibition

More than a million visitors attend CNE every August that includes the three-day Canadian International Air Show. 

What began as an agricultural show now encompasses a fairground, concerts, waterski and skating displays, and much more. 

Food is a major attraction, with new temptations created every year to add to such traditions as Beaver Tails, Corn Dogs, Funnel Cakes and Tiny Tom Donuts.


More than 200 restaurants offer a Prix Fixe menu during this two-week festival of food and drink. It’s normally held in late January/early February. 

Canadian Aboriginal Festival

Everyone is welcome at this showcase of dance, music, lacrosse, costume, food and many other aspects of “First Nations” and other indigenous cultures

Held in November, it includes the Canadian Aboriginal Music Awards.

Royal Agricultural Winter Fair

Every November, the largest indoor agricultural and international equestrian competition in the world brings everything from showjumping to rodeo to Toronto’s Exhibition Place.

Food and drink is also an attraction, with events such as the Craft beer competition. And, like any good agricultural show, it features competitions such as giant vegetables and dog shows.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.