For a person as curious as me, I am always out on some sort of discovery. No wonder travel writing appeals so much to me because it gives me the opportunity to explore interesting new places all the time. But of course my inquisitive mind never rests, so when I am not traveling out of town, I venture out locally right here in my chosen home town of Toronto to investigate the nooks and crannies of my city.
Over the last few years I have had an opportunity to explore many different cities in many different ways, by walking, through driving tours, sightseeing buses, architectural tours, even boat tours or by taking public transit; but one of my very favourite ways is to discover a city by bicycle. With a bike you can get almost anywhere, you cover more ground than by walking, but you are still able to stop at any time and admire a particular detail up close. In addition, it helps you burn a few calories, a consideration that is becoming ever more important as my waistline expands.
So I had already done bicycle tours in Montreal and Vancouver, and I was wondering if there was a company in Toronto that offered organized bicycle tours. On the website of my good friend Bruce Bell, a renowned Toronto historian and tour guide, I finally found a link to a company called “Sights on Bikes”. That sounded interesting, so I started investigating their website and contacted one of the co-owners, Jordan Feilders, to tell me more about his company. He suggested that I come out to Sights on Bikes Deluxe City Tour to experience Toronto first-hand in one of his organized bicycle tours.
Punctually at 10 am I was waiting at the southwest corner of the intersection of Yonge Street and Queens Quay. Another lady dressed in bicycle attire came up to me and asked me if I was about to participate in the bicycle tour. I confirmed and she introduced herself as Susan from Florida who was up here in Toronto to join her husband who was here to attend a conference. Just minutes later our tour guide Jordan arrived and welcomed us.
Ever nosy I asked him to tell me a bit about his background and he indicated that he is a graduate of the University of Toronto in International Relations and Environmental Studies. Three years ago he started Sights on Bikes together with two friends, initially as an idea for a cool summer job during university. Since then Jordan has taught skiing in Jackson Hole and also worked during the winter at a lobby firm in Washington, D.C. In the summer he returned to Toronto to run his company and he is on the road with visitors virtually every day.
Jordan took us to a locked storage container on the parking lot and retrieved three bicycles as well as helmets for us. Sights on Bikes’ bicycles are extremely comfortable touring bikes with six gears that make sight-seeing an easy and painless experience. We started cycling up Yonge Street and then turned east on the Esplanade, one of Toronto’s premier restaurant streets that at one point actually used to be at the waterfront of Toronto before the harbour area to the south was filled in.
Our next stop was the St. Lawrence Market, one of two major markets in Toronto. This market was actually Toronto’s first permanent city hall and jail house between 1845 and 1899. A police station also used to be located on the first floor. In the late 1800s the market building was altered radically after the construction of Toronto’s City Hall at Queen and Bay Streets. The central portion of the original market building (the South Building) has survived and the original council chamber of the former city hall today houses the Market Gallery. Susan and I had a quick peek into the market hall and admired the wide assortment of food retailers.
The St. Lawrence Market is one of Toronto’s beloved historic buildings, and the lively atmosphere of the market and the extensive culinary assortment is a huge draw for locals and tourists alike. The market features everything from baked goods, cheese and dairy products, to flowers, fruits, vegetables, meats, poultry and seafood to organic products and gourmet teas and coffees. Several sit-down restaurants and snack-bars will soothe hungry appetites. The North Market across the street features a farmer’s market on Saturdays and an antique market on other days.
The area at the foot of Jarvis and Front Street also used to be the terminus of the Underground Railway, a network of secret routes and safe houses that allowed African slaves to escape from the southern United States to free states and Canada. It is estimated that a least 30,000 slaves escaped to Canada, and many of these slaves arrived on boats in Toronto at the foot of Jarvis Street.
Just one block north of the St. Lawrence Market Jordan made another stop and briefed us on another historic jewel of Toronto: St. Lawrence Hall, located at the intersection of King and Jarvis Streets, was constructed from 1849 to 1850. Originally this structure contained a hall for public meetings on the north side, and a covered market on the south. During its heyday it was used for important social and cultural events as well as lectures. After many years of disrepair it was finally restored to its former glory in 1967 and has again become a location for special events in the city.
Right across the street Jordan took us to our next destination: St. James Cathedral, the oldest congregation in Toronto. First established in 1797, the current cathedral was completed in 1844 and with a height of 305 feet it features the second tallest church spire in Canada (after St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal). One of the most colourful personalities connected to this Gothic Revival church was the Right Reverend Dr. John Strachan, the first Anglican Bishop of Toronto. He was a member of Canada’s “Family Compact”, the conservative elite that first ruled the British colony of Upper Canada. He was known for his fierce loyalty to the British monarchy, as well as his hatred for slavery and republicanism. The cathedral itself has received heritage designations from the Ontario Ministry of Culture, from Heritage Toronto as well as from the Government of Canada.
We followed Jordan up Church Street, and then turned west on Richmond Street to turn north on Bay Street where we made our next stop at Toronto’s Old City Hall. It was built between 1889 and 1899 and designed by famous architect E.J. Lennox who also designed Toronto’s Casa Loma and the King Edward Hotel. Old City Hall is a masterpiece of Richardson Romanesque Revival style with rich carvings adorning the façade. The original budget of $600,000 had grown to more than $2.5 million which caused a major uproar on Toronto’s city council. The clock tower is more than 300 feet (over 100 m) high and features a gigantic bell known as Big Ben. At the time of its completion Old City Hall was the largest building in Toronto as well as the largest civic building in all of North America. Old City Hall was almost demolished in the 1960s but a group of concerned citizens fought to save it, and today it is a National Historic Site.
Jordan not only filled us in on the various sights along the way, he also gave us a civics lesson and explained the Canadian flag, the Canadian parliamentary system, the Canadian healthcare system as well as Canada’s history and the origins of Quebec and Ontario. This type of knowledge is particularly important to out-of-towners who are trying to understand this city and my co-traveller from Florida certainly appreciated this information.
Across the street we stopped at the next site: Toronto’s New City Hall, one of Toronto’s most distinctive landmarks. The building was opened in 1965 and was designed to replace Old City Hall. The architect for this modernist design was chosen in an international competition in 1958 and the winning entry among more than 500 designs was by Finnish architect Viljo Revell. New City Hall is composed of two rounded towers on a rectangular base that features a saucer-like council chamber. In front of New City Hall is Nathan Phillips Square, an expansive public space that is often used for festivals and special events and features a reflecting pond in the summer that is turned into a popular skating rink in the winter.
Then Jordan took us to our next stop: Osgoode Hall, a landmark building just west of New City Hall that houses the Ontario Court of Appeal, the Superior Court of Justice as well as the headquarters of the Law Society of Upper Canada. The original building was constructed between 1829 and 1832 and was named after William Osgoode, the first Chief Justice of Upper Canada. Further expansions happened in the second half of the 19th century. The cast iron gates surrounding the property feature so-called “cow gates” which were intended to keep out grazing cows which were still a frequent sight in the young City of Toronto.
Just southwest of Osgoode Hall is the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, a 2000+ seat theatre that opened in June of 2006. We turned right and headed north on University Avenue, a six-lane divided principal arterial road and Toronto’s widest avenue. One of the main landmarks on University Avenue, the fifteen-storey Canada Life Building, built in Beaux Arts style, was completed in 1929 and was one of the tallest buildings in Toronto at the time. This building is famous for its weather beacon which has been announcing the weather in the city since 1951. Steady green indicates fair weather, red means rain, white means snow, and lights moving up or down indicate a temperature change. Jordan also pointed out the American Consulate which is occasionally a location of protests when various groups voice their opinions against US policy. Further north, University Avenue is dominated by a series of hospitals. The street then splits into the eastern and western half of Queen’s Park Circle, whose centre is dominated by Queen’s Park, another imposing Richardsonian Romanesque Revival structure and the seat of the Ontario legislature.
Our next stop was the University of Toronto Campus, headquarters of Canada’s largest university (with close to 60,000 students) and one of its oldest, chartered in 1827. U of T is consistently ranked as one of the top 30 university in global rankings. We admired historic buildings such as the Soldier’s Tower completed in 1924 to commemorate members of the U of T community who fell during the war; University College with its mix of architectural styles – a National Historic Site which was built between 1856 and 1859; Knox College built in Collegiate Gothic style and opened in 1915; as well as Convocation Hall, a round building modeled after the Sorbonne theatre in Paris and opened in 1907.
Jordan’s tour then took us west on College Street to the Kensington Market area, one of Toronto’s most colourful and diverse neighbourhoods. Traditionally home to successive waves of immigrants, the Kensington Market area is a hustling and bustling area full of edgy clothing retailers, bakeries, ethnic grocery shops, funky stores and restaurants.
Jordan took us to the “Urban Herbivore”, a restaurant that serves fabulous soups and other vegetarian delights. I enjoyed a scrumptious sweet potato soup and a sweet potato muffin. After our short break Jordan led us onto Spadina Avenue, the centre of Toronto’s largest and oldest Chinatown (Toronto has three different Chinatowns within its city limits).
Both today’s Chinatown and Kensington Market area were originally settled by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Later waves of immigration and the northward migration of Jewish residents have made Kensington a very diverse and ethnically mixed neighbourhood that today features many Latin American and various Asian stores and residents. Toronto’s Chinese area was originally located near Queen and Bay Streets, but with the construction of New City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square the Chinese community moved westwards to Spadina. Lower Spadina is also the heart of Toronto’s Fashion District, which even today features many garment factories.
After the hustle and bustle on busy Spadina Avenue, Jordan led us east towards Peter Street which turns into Blue Jays Way and took us right past the Rogers Centre, the former Skydome, Toronto’s multipurpose stadium with the retractable roof. Right at the intersection of Blue Jays Way and Navy Wharf Court there is an imposing monument, the Memorial to commemorate the Chinese Railway Workers in Canada. Jordan stopped to explain the history behind this impressive monument. A wooden railroad trestle with two precariously perched railroad workers illustrates the hard and dangerous work of Chinese workers who built the Canadian Pacific Railroad through the Rocky Mountains in the 19th century. More than 4000 workers were killed in construction-related accidents between 1880 and 1885.
We then cycled past the Rogers Centre on Bremner Boulevard to Roundhouse Park, the green space right next to the CN Tower that features one of the most impressive views of downtown Toronto’s skyscrapers. The former John Street Roundhouse was originally built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1929 to service and repair locomotives; today it features the popular Steam Whistle Brewery.
Jordan then took us underneath the elevated Gardiner Expressway to Harbourfront, a popular entertainment district right on Lake Ontario. Harbourfront Centre features a variety of shopping and dining facilities; there are art galleries, visual arts and exhibition spaces, theatres, concert facilities and an International Marketplace that entices with food and merchandise from all over the world. The nearby Toronto Music Garden is a delightful green space designed by internationally renowned cellist Yo Yo Ma and landscape designer Julie Moir Messervy. In the winter Canada’s largest artificially cooled outdoor ice rink entertains the crowds.
Jordan had already taken us on a very action-packed tour through the city, but the real gem was still waiting for us: a visit to the Toronto Islands. The price of the ferry ride at the foot of Bay Street was already included in the tour price. Although I have been over on the islands numerous times, the ferry ride with its beautiful panoramic vistas of Toronto’s skyline and the arrival on the serene islands are always a real treat. For Susan, the tour participant from Florida, the experience must have been even more special. All of a sudden Toronto’s concrete roads and skyscrapers receded and we landed in the quiet, peaceful and car-free paradise of the islands that offer the perfect view of this hyper-active bustling metropolis. Definitely worth the price of admission…
Having landed at Hanlan’s point, Jordan, our expert tour guide from Sights on Bikes, first took us to a statue of Ned Hanlan (1855 to 1908), a fisherman, hotelkeeper and later championship rower, five time consecutive world champion between 1880 and 1884 in single-scull rowing, who only lost six of his 300 races during his rowing career. Just steps away Jordan pointed out to us the location of Babe Ruth’s first professional home run in 1914. Although the stadium was demolished in 1937, a plaque still remembers this historic event.
We cycled past the nearby “clothing optional” beaches to stop at the Gibraltar Point Light House, a historic building dating back to 1808 that is the setting for a well-known ghost story. Jordan explained that one of the lightkeepers who disappeared and whose murdered body was later found is still said to haunt this area. Further east we stopped at the reflecting pools and the pier that projects southwards from the islands. A snack bar provides welcome refreshments and a bicycle rental booth is located here which also features two-seater quadricycles.
At some point the Toronto Islands were densely populated and featured a variety of grand hotels, retail stores, residential areas, various amusement parks and restaurants. Today only the Centreville Amusement Park remains as well as 62 homes which are mostly located in the eastern section of the islands in Ward’s Island and Algonquin Island.
Resident lease them in 99 year lease agreements, and strict rules apply to the buying and selling of island homes. Many of the houses are still quaint cottages although some have been expanded while others display some signs of neglect. We stopped at a special spot from where we had a perfect view of downtown Toronto’s skyline.
Our deluxe city tour had almost come to an end. Jordan took us past the Centreville Amusement Park with its Swan Pond back to the Centre Island ferry and 20 minutes later we reached the mainland. Our biking adventure ended in front of the Captain John floating seafood restaurant where we said goodbye to Jordan and thanked him for guiding us so expertly through some of Toronto’s most interesting areas. Although I know the city quite well, I found this tour really worthwhile since I learned so many new things about my chosen home town.
Susanne Pacher is the publisher of a website called Travel and Transitions Travel and Transitions deals with unconventional travel and is chock full of advice, tips, real life travel experiences & interesting life journeys, interviews with travellers and travel experts, cross-cultural issues, and many other features.