Culture and Creativity
In the past decade, Toronto has undergone a dramatic cultural renaissance. New opera and ballet houses have been built, landmark museums and galleries have been made over to stunning effect, the Toronto International Film Festival has been given a contemporary new home and a host of festivals have been added to an already rich roster of cultural events. Add to that list the bold architecture that appears around most every corner and it’s easy to see why Toronto has become the go-to city for the arts.
Home to artists and art appreciators alike, Toronto is a hotbed of art, performing art and architecture. Indeed, in a global survey of 60 cities across 40 countries, Toronto was ranked the fourth-best city in the world to experience culture (behind only New York, London and Paris).
The streets of the city are populated with 125 galleries, as well as museums, theatres and world-famous festivals like Luminato, Caribana and, of course, the Toronto International Film Festival. Some critics have called this critical mass of culture unprecedented. Indeed the streets themselves frequently become cultural showcases—sculptures and installations delight and surprise around most every corner and at the city’s numerous cultural festivals artists of all stripes transform pedestrian pavement to art extraordinaire.
But it isn’t just the quantity of artists, art installations and art houses that earn Toronto its reputation as a cultural fount. The quality of the city’s productions—both large and small—have put it on the map as a top destination for cultural experiences.
A Vibrant Culture of Museums and Galleries
An urban renaissance of museums and galleries is reshaping the city’s cultural institutions.
When “starchitect” Frank Gehry recently redesigned the beloved Art Gallery of Ontario in a multimillion-dollar expansion, it was the talk of the town. A native Torontonian, Gehry grew up playing in the Grange Park just outside the gallery, and his much-anticipated reimagining of the AGO, with its billowing glass façade, decorates the city’s skyline in a seamless blend of old and new.
The AGO boasts 40,000 pieces of art, including the work of prominent 19th century impressionists. The gallery pays homage to Canada’s most celebrated artists, housing the world’s largest public Henry Moore collection, as well as baroque and medieval ivories from newspaper baron Ken Thomson, the gallery’s largest private donor. The jewel in the crown of the AGO’s collection is The Massacre of the Innocents, by Peter Paul Ruebens. It has the distinction of being one of the most expensive Old Master paintings ever sold at auction. To date, Thompson has gifted the AGO with more than 2,000 pieces displayed in 30 different galleries.
The AGO is also home to an extensive collection of Canadian art, representing over 11,000 years of artistic expression in Canada. The collection includes carvings, sculpture, painting and other media, as well as one of the finest collections of Inuit art in the world.
Other visitor favourites at the gallery include the fiery, redheaded Marchesa Casati from Augustus John, landscape paintings from the Group of Seven, and works by Van Gogh and Picasso.
No trip to Toronto is complete without a visit to the newly renovated Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), with its statement-making Michael Lee-Chin Crystal protruding at sharp angles over the city streets. Once inside Canada’s largest history museum (there are 6 million objects in the collection), visitors enjoy the educational and artful displays in the 40+ galleries. Popular exhibits include the Bat Cave, the Egyptian Mummy Collection and the early Canadiana exhibit, considered the country’s best collection. Housing one of the finest Chinese temple art collections, the museum, which first opened in 1914, also has a luxe restaurant, C5, as well as a well-stocked gift shop.
Adjacent to the ROM, the neo-modern façade of the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art lures visitors into Canada’s only ceramic museum, which showcases 3,000 ceramic works, including Meissen porcelain and Faience pottery from France. Toronto collectors and philanthropists George and Helen Gardiner originally opened museum to house their lifetime collection of American artifacts and European porcelain.
And talk about a shoe collection! Local resident Sonja Bata has scoured the globe collecting rare shoes for this 12,500+ footwear extravaganza, now on exhibition in the Bata Shoe Museum. Celebrating over 4,500 years of footwear history, the museum houses everything from early footwear, like leather sandals from ancient Egypt, to shoes and boots from pop culture icons. Aptly housed in a shoebox-designed building, view actress Marilyn Monroe’s red leather pumps, artist Pablo Picasso’s pony skin ankle boots and the legendary John Lennon’s Beatle boots.
Step inside the Museum of Inuit Art Gallery, along Toronto’s Harbourfront, and experience the wonderful collection of hand-carved soapstone carvings depicting iconic images of Canada’s North. The minimalist white interior is the backdrop for polished stone Inukshuks, walruses and Inuit hunters.
In trendy Yorkville, where the bold and beautiful like to wile away the hours on patios and in luxe boutiques, high-end galleries fetch big interest among collectors. Check out the Mira Godard Gallery, one of Canada’s largest commercial art galleries, and the extraordinary collections of the late aboriginal artist Norval Morrisseau at the Kinsman Robinson Gallery. This local fixture also showcases the whimsical bronzes from the late local sculptor, William McElcheran, whose life-sized bronze businessmen statues dot Toronto’s Financial District.
Old neighbourhoods have morphed into avante garde gallery settings. Visit the east end’s Historic Distillery District, where local artists work in revamped art studios and galleries showcase innovative pieces. The Thompson Landry Gallery specializes in Quebec artists, while the Corkin Gallery is renowned for its contemporary photo installations.
Queen Street West, between Ossington Avenue and Dufferin Street, is where hipsters and local artists congregate. The Camera Lounge/Bar is a classic spot to discuss and watch experimental cinema. Local gallery owner Stephen Bulger, known for his sublime black and white prints of Andre Kertész’s Paris and New York images, also exhibits contemporary photographers.
Along gallery-rich Ossington Avenue, there’s a dynamic arts scene. Step inside the artist-run centre Gallery TPW, specializing in Canadian photography and new media. The funky gallery also displays work from large format industrial landscape photographer Edward Burtynsky, a Toronto resident.
For the work of talented local artisans, Toronto shops offer a marvelous selection of contemporary crafts and designs. Visit Bounty, in the Harbourfront Centre, for a broad selection of Canadian crafts, including glass, metal, ceramics, textiles, turned wood, jewelry and personal accessories. Located in one of the city’s premier shopping destinations, Yorkville, The Guild Shop offers handmade items created by local artists. Their wide selection of goods includes everything from large pieces of wooden furniture to felt handbags and copper wall hangings.
Toronto’s performing arts are a mainstay of a cultural renaissance, as the city plays host to some of the country’s finest ensembles and theatre companies.
The Entertainment District—home to many of the city’s most distinguished theatres—owes much to visionaries like Ed Mirvish, a local businessman and theatre impresario who revitalized historic jewels like the Royal Alexandra Theatre and The Princess of Wales Theatre. Those grandes dames, along with the Canon and Panasonic theatres, are all stages for Mirvish Productions’ impressive roster of shows. The country’s largest theatrical production company, Mirvish has delighted audiences with productions like Les Miserables and a 10-year run of The Phanton of the Opera and is set to stage Billy Elliot, Priscilla Queen of the Desert and the just-opened Rock of Ages this year.
Currently the longest-running large musical production in Toronto is Jersey Boys, by Dancap Productions, at the Toronto Centre for the Arts. This summer Dancap is mounting special productions of South Pacific and Miss Saigon in Toronto’s new opera house, the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.
The city’s renowned Toronto Symphony Orchestra, helmed by music director Peter Oundjian, takes centre stage at the Roy Thomson Hall, a modern building lauded for its excellent acoustics. Apart from being home stage for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the venue also hosts international musical acts (Diana Ross is slated in the coming months) and, during the Toronto International Film Festival, the nightly galas.
On Yonge Street, a cluster of stages cater to a diverse audience. At Front Street East, the erstwhile theatre previously known as the O’Keefe Centre—it opened in 1960 with the critically-acclaimed Camelot starring Richard Burton—and now known as the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, is scheduled to reopen later this year after a major renovation to celebrate its 50th anniversary with cutting-edge productions like iD, a fusion of hip-hop and breakdance, as well as the The Merchants of Bollywood.
Up the street, at Yonge and Shuter Streets, is the legendary Massey Hall, where everyone from Duke Ellington to Elvis Costello have performed. In the coming months, the celebrated theatre—now declared a historic building—will see a number of small alternative bands and big rockers, including Aussie legends, Crowded House.
The Canon Theatre has staged such acts as Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera, Toronto’s longest-running production. The venue has a long history of hosting crowd-pleasers. In the 1920s, the 2300-seat theatre was a vaudeville and motion picture house and even then people scurried there for entertainment.
For a taste of Toronto’s theatrical past, reserve seats for nightly performances at the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres, now operated by Ontario Heritage Trust. The tiered theatre, another Thomas Lamb architectural masterpiece, remains the last stacked Edwardian theatre in the world. Upstairs a virtual forest, with leaves covering the low-lying ceiling, and a hand painted fresco awe theatre-goers, while downstairs carved golden-lion buttresses remain a reminder of yesteryear’s gilded glory. Recently, the Winter Garden hosted Canadian folk royalty Rufus Wainwright’s first opera, Prima Donna.
Watch the Canadian Opera Company and the National Ballet of Canada on stage at their new home, The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, on Queen St. West. Former prima ballerina Karen Kain is the artistic director of a ballet company known for classics as well as contemporary ballet. Meanwhile Canada’s largest opera company, the COC, continues to charm audiences worldwide as its young music conductor Johannes Debus masterfully conducts a repertoire of contemporary and classical operas. When at home, the stellar ensemble wows with performances such as The Flying Dutchman and next year watch for Aida and The Magic Flute.
Torontonians love a good party—and never more than when there’s a festival in town. Thankfully, that happens with great frequency. Whether a celebration of great art or great culture, a myriad of festivals routinely transform Toronto’s streets, cinemas and show spaces into party central.
At the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF)—the world’s largest public film festival—the red carpet is rolled out for international celebrities, directors and press who arrive in throngs for viewings of the latest global films. Open to the public, Toronto residents participate in droves—lining up for screenings and parties and watching for the A-list actors who are seen shopping and dining in Yorkville. For most of September, Hollywood North (as Toronto is known) earns its moniker. In fact, there are more than 75 film festivals in Toronto each year. For a guide to Toronto's diverse film festivals, click here.
Shutterbugs and photography fans gather in May to view the cutting-edge work of an international array of shooters at the Contact Photography Festival. The work of 1000-plus renowned photographers is showcased at various venues across the city, making this festival a big draw for residents and visitors alike.
Toronto’s love of the arts is radiantly captured at Luminato. The 10-day early-June event includes art installations and performances as well as Luminato’s hallmark "accidental encounters with art." Festival-goers are invited to participate, explore, and celebrate their own creative spirit. Now in its fourth year, 2010’s festival featured the much-anticipated North American premiere of Prima Donna, Canadian singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright’s debut opera.
Spend a sleepless night absorbed in art. As fleeting as the night itself, Scotiabank Nuit Blanche offers night owls cutting edge performances and innovative public art installations into the wee hours. For one night—this year’s event will be held October 2—Toronto’s downtown morphs into a free outdoor art gallery with 40 curated art projects popping up in unexpected places, and an additional 100 independent projects by local schools and neighbourhoods.
But on sunny, warm days the city really comes alive. Pick a day and discover a parade or celebration in full swing. Neighbourhoods come alive to celebrate the city’s diverse mosaic of cultures. The Taste of the Danforth, a Greek festival along Danforth Avenue, is a longstanding mainstay in August. By Bloor West Village, red booted Cossacks fling red-ribboned girls wearing white blouses and embroidered skirts at the Toronto Ukrainian Festival. Meanwhile, copious espresso, World Cup talk and culinary delights define the Little Italy Festival, an annual event celebrating Toronto’s rich Italian heritage.
Jazz it up with the numerous festivals devoted to this genre. Hear sultry strains from acclaimed musicians who perform during the TD Toronto Jazz Festival. This year watch award-winning Harry Connick Jr., musical pioneer Herbie Hancock and the talented Angelique Kidjo, Africa’s preeminent diva. Near Kew Gardens in Toronto’s east-end Beach, crowds jam in front of the popular bandstand to Toronto’s biggest and longest free music party, The Beaches International Jazz Festival an attraction that draws musical talent from around the world. This festival also rocks on Queen Street East with 50 jazz bands performing in a Streetfest as well as the festival opener at Woodbine Park.
Gay Pride Week (June 25-July 4) is a fun 10-day street festival that includes numerous themed events: Dyke March, Family Pride, and Streetfair. Pride Week’s pinnacle is its famous Pride Parade. Now in its 30th year, the extravaganza features blocks and blocks of floats, zany flotillas, drag queens—and big crowds drawn from both the city’s gay and straight communities. The Pride Week Festival is the biggest in the country and the third largest in the world.
For those feeling hot, hot, hot, the grand spectacle that is Caribana (a tribute to Caribbean culture) is a crowd pleaser, drawing hundreds of thousands of onlookers from both sides of the Canadian border. North America’s largest street festival, the event begins on July 15, 2010, and features a 1.5-kilometre parade of fabulous one-of-a-kind costumes and live calypso bands that strut in the summer heat.
No matter what time of the year, there’s always something exciting happening in the city. Click here for a full calendar of events, festivals and shows.
Toronto’s architecture - a unique blend of historical and contemporary design
From the Victorian grandeur of the Industrial Age to the sleek, minimalist designs of the twentieth century, Toronto’s skyline tells an eloquent tale of its colourful history and modern cultural Renaissance.
Remnants of the classical architecture of Old Toronto are well preserved in many of the city’s historic neighbourhoods. Cabbagetown, a Heritage District known for its collection of Victorian structures, is home to a number of architecturally significant homes from a variety of periods, including Georgian, Queen Anne and the Second Empire.
The industrial, red brick Distillery Historic District, which was once the largest whisky producer in Canada, has been carefully refurbished and is now home to a charming combination of art galleries, shops, restaurants and performance venues.
In the heart of the city, Old Town Toronto is a popular tourist destination. Purchased for the first mayor of Toronto, William Lyon Mackenzie, Mackenzie House is a Greek Revival row-house and museum that includes a recreated print shop, gallery and many changing exhibitions. Also in Old Town is the St. Lawrence Market, which has been open to the public since 1803. One of Canada’s oldest continuously operating markets, it’s home to more that one hundred and twenty vendors offering everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to antiques and artisanal crafts.
A unique combination of the modern Gothic Revival and the Romanesque Revival styles, the iconic Gooderham Flatiron Building, with its distinctive wedge shape, is a rare example of “flat-iron” architectural form. Just down the street is an iconic piece of Toronto’s skyline, the Fairmont Royal York Hotel. In 1929, when the hotel officially opened as The Royal York, the twenty-eight-story structure was the tallest building in the British Empire.
The sixties era introduced sublime, modern facades to the cityscape, including the new Toronto City Hall, a much talked about structure with an unusual spaceship-like exterior, designed by Finnish architect Viljo Revell, The structure’s distinctive curving, asymmetrical towers, which surround the saucer-like council chambers, gave rise to the building's original nickname "The Eye of Government" - from the air, the building looks like an enormous, unblinking eye.
In the seventies, Toronto’s skyline began to change dramatically. The construction of Ontario Place, designed by German born architect Eberhard H. Zeidler, added the futuristic, golf ball shaped Cinesphere, the world’s first permanent IMAX theatre, to the city’s waterfront. Still the tallest freestanding structure in the Western Hemisphere at 553.33m high, the CN Tower welcomed its first visitors in 1976. Classified as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the tower’s three hundred and sixty degree views offer visitors breathtaking vistas of the city, Lake Ontario and the surrounding area.
Featuring the world’s first retractable roof, making it the ideal sports venue in rain or shine,
Rogers Centre, formerly known as SkyDome, opened in 1989. It is home to two of Toronto’s professional sports franchises, the Toronto Blue Jays and Toronto Argonauts.
Toronto’s Financial District is home to the works of world-renowned architects like Mies van der Rohe, Santiago Calatrava and Edward Durell Stone, who designed the First Canadian Place. The Toronto Dominion Bank Centre, a cluster of gleaming black steel and tinted glass skyscrapers, a Mies signature, is highly coveted for its minimalism, while Calatrava’s herring bone glass structure of the Allen Lambert Galleria elegantly stands next to the heritage buildings surrounding it. If you’re gazing up at the RBC Plaza and don’t be surprised by the glare—the two towers are clad in 24-carat gold leaf.
Other internationally celebrated architects have left an indelible mark on Toronto. Designed by Daniel Libeskind, the annex to the Royal Ontario Museum, an enormous glass addition called the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal, was the talk of the town when completed recently. The geological artifacts in the museum's collection were the inspiration behind the angular extension, which serves as a dynamic meeting spot for locals and visitors alike.
Toronto-born Frank Gehry’s renovation of the Art Gallery of Ontario includes a billowing façade of glass and wood, as well as the dramatic sculptural staircase and 40-foot glass ceilings of historic Walker Court. It’s the first building the prominent architect has designed in Canada.
Architect Bruce Kuwabara, the visionary behind high profile local architectural firm KPMB, continues to lead the collection of Cultural Renaissance projects in the city, including the National Ballet School (with Goldsmith Borgal & Company), the Gardiner Museum, the Royal Conservatory of Music’s Koerner Hall and the future home of the Toronto International Film Festival, Bell Lightbox.
The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts is home to the Canadian Opera Company and the National Ballet of Canada. Architect Jack Diamond, of the Toronto firm Diamond and Schmitt Architects, envisioned the project as a way to tie together music and dance in an ensemble of glass and steel, balanced with light woods, against a minimalist backdrop. The structure is Canada’s first purpose-built opera house.
A focal point for art and creativity in Toronto is the Ontario College of Art and Design. Nicknamed by locals as the “floating table top” or “checkerboard on stilts”, the campus’s latest addition is the Sharp Centre for Design, Created by British architect Will Alsop, the Sharp Centre’s striking design was honoured with a Royal Institute of British Architects Worldwide Award.
Canadiana in Toronto
More than beavers, maple syrup, and Mounties, Canadiana is a diverse range of historical, cultural, sporting and artistic achievements that are uniquely Canadian. Past and present, Toronto is often at the epicenter of the events and moments that add to the cultural mosaic of Canadian experiences.
For a glimpse into Toronto’s early years, tour the original settlement at Toronto, Fort York. This historic site, near the waterfront, is home to Canada’s largest collection of structures from the War of 1812. Daily re-enactments of life at Fort York, including sword drills, balls and cooking demonstrations, take place throughout the summer.
Learn about how Canada’s early pioneers lived at the Black Creek Pioneer Village, a recreated typical Ontario village from the 1800’s. This historic village includes a variety of period buildings like an old schoolhouse and blacksmith shop, and hosts daily activities scheduled regularly around the 40-building complex. Villagers, in authentic period dress, demonstrate and explain how rural Torontonians lived, worked and played in mid 19th century.
Hockey is Canada’s national passion, and Toronto is home to many pieces of hockey history. Despite the fact that the team hasn’t brought home the Stanley Cup since 1967, Toronto loves its hometown team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. When the team is on home ice, downtown Toronto kicks into high gear. If you’re not fortunate enough to score tickets, the many local bars and taverns are a great place to meet with local fans and catch a game on the big screen.
The Hockey Hall of Fame, dedicated to the glory of the sport and the talent and passion of its players, is located in downtown Toronto. Home of the Stanley Cup, it also houses the world’s largest collection of hockey memorabilia and has many fun and interactive exhibits. The home of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Air Canada Centre, is conveniently located just a few blocks away.
Canadians love a good laugh, and many internationally recognized comics launched their careers from Toronto’s comedy incubator The Second City. The club nurtures young talent and boasts an A-list of alumni who have gone on to successful careers, including Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Mike Myers, John Candy, Dan Aykroyd, and Eugene Levy. Yuk Yuk’s, another local comedy club, showcases stand-up comedians: it was here that actors Jim Carrey and Howie Mandel developed their acts in the eighties before reaching celebrity-status.
Today, Canada’s superstars are immortalized and celebrated in Toronto’s Entertainment District along Canada’s Walk of Fame. Located along Ed Mirvish Way, the celebrity-star program was launched twelve years ago to commemorate Canada’s most talented performers. Stars are awarded for achievements in fine arts, music, sports, science, innovation, film and literature.
Honourees include silent film siren, Mary Pickford. Known as “America’s Sweetheart”, Pickford was actually from Toronto. Starlet Fay Wray, the thirties vixen from the film classic King Kong, also has a star on the Walk of Fame. Singer Alanis Morissette, figure skater Kurt Browning and author Margaret Atwood are recent inductees.
For a truly Torontonian shopping experience, visit the flagship store of the Hudson’s Bay Company, located between Yonge and Bay Streets. This department store, which takes up an entire city block, is a pillar of the Canadian HBC franchise, the creation of which predates Canadian confederation. In the early days, the HBC was Canada’s first store; it later became an outpost in the far north for fur trading. These days, “The Bay” (an affectionate nickname) is a high profile shopping destination featuring brand name merchandise from around the world.
Roots is a global fashion empire with humble beginnings as a shoe store in Toronto. Roots co-founders, Michael Budman and Don Green, have specialized in creating a Canadian brand with fine leather goods and highly sought after accessories that are particularly popular during the Olympics. The company has outfitted Olympic athletes for both Team Canada and Team USA.
An iconic silhouette on the Toronto skyline, the CN Tower, at 553.33 m, is the World’s Tallest Tower, according to Guinness World Records. A popular tourist attraction, the tower has two millions visitors per year and provides stunning panoramic views of Toronto and the surrounding area.
Carved, polished soapstone symbols of Canada's Great North—Arctic animals along with its northern residents the Inuit—are on display at art galleries and for sale at various gift shops across the city. The big one is the Museum of Inuit Art Gallery along Toronto's Harbourfront.
Toronto welcomed approximately 10 million overnight visitors in 2009 from all corners of the world. Visitors to Toronto spent more than $4 billion and support more than 100,000 jobs in the region.
With more than 40,000 hotel rooms, 7,000 restaurants, 125 museums and galleries, Toronto is Canada’s most-visited city and a popular choice for weekend leisure getaways as well as meetings and conventions.
Toronto’s primary airport is Toronto Pearson International Airport, Canada’s busiest airport and also the airport with the most daily flights into the United States anywhere in the world. Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport sits on Toronto Island a short ferry ride from downtown, and serves shorter routes in Canada and the U.S.
For a detailed statistical look at Toronto's visitors (leisure and business) click here for our 2009 report.
Visitors to Toronto enjoy walking the city’s diverse neighbourhoods, from Old Town to Chinatown, and the Entertainment District to Yorkville’s “Mink Mile”. Throughout the year visitors can take advantage of a world of culinary choices all within a few blocks, including the 200-year-old St. Lawrence Market in the heart of downtown and the eclectic Kensington Market that capture Toronto’s diversity.
In the spring and summer Toronto’s extensive waterfront comes to life with tall ships, arts events and expansive, swimmable beaches. A short ferry ride from downtown, the Toronto Islands are a car-free natural zone filled with parks and channels for kayaks and canoes, plus an amusement park for children.
All year long Toronto’s streets pulse with the energy of festivals such as the Toronto International Film Festival (September), Caribana (July), Luminato (June) and WinterCity (January-February).
Meetings and Conventions
Toronto is a natural hub for international meetings and conventions. With half the U.S. population within a 90-minute flight and air access from nearly every country, large international groups can meet easily in Toronto. Just as importantly, Toronto’s diversity makes it a welcoming environment for international delegations.
Toronto’s primary convention centres offer not only top-level service facilities, they are also achieving world-leading standards in sustainability and green meetings. The Metro Toronto Convention Centre, home to the G20 Summit, as well as the Direct Energy Centre and Allstream Centre, home to the G20 Media Centre, combine with dozens of hotels and distinct venues throughout the city to provide an inspiring backdrop to meet and exchange ideas.
Click here for an overview of Toronto as a top global destination for Meeting, Conventions and Incentive Travel