entertainment options and blessed with natural beauty
Toronto is that quintessentially Canuck phenomenon – full of accomplishments that go comparatively unnoticed. The fifth-largest city in North America, it’s Canada’s financial and corporate headquarters, and seat of the world’s seventh-biggest stock market. It’s the third most significant English-speaking theatre capital, after New York and London, has a film festival almost as prestigious as Cannes’, and boasts more than 50 dance companies. According to the United Nations, it’s one of the most multicultural cities on earth, with more than half of its citizens born overseas.
Yet Toronto isn’t seen as exotic and upand-coming like Beijing, avant-garde like New York, or chic like Paris. People have lived along Lake Ontario at the mouth of the Don and Humber rivers since the end of the last Ice Age, and still Toronto lacks the gravitas of Rome or St Petersburg. Hollywood shoots numerous films and television shows here annually, but as a sort of geographic body double – a standin for other US capitals.
That actually makes sense, for as James Howard Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere, once wrote: “Toronto is what many American cities wish they could be. ”The city is alive – nowhere more so than in its cheek-by-jowl entertainment and financial districts, where office towers stand steps from theatres and opera houses, sports stadiums, galleries and restaurants of every ethnicity.
This is the “exuberant diversity” of a densely packed downtown – the kind that US urban philosopher Jane Jacobs envisaged in 1961’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, years before she moved to Toronto and became a champion of the city. Among more recent high-profile supporters and cheerleaders, Richard Florida, a US émigré and author of The Rise of the Creative Class, calls it a blueprint for culturally vibrant cities.
And with high-caliber five-star hotels opening, an acclaimed film festival ensconced in its sparkling $140 million headquarters, and head-turning gallery additions in the past few years by Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind, Toronto is doing its best to draw the world in for a closer look.
There’s perhaps no better gauge for Toronto’s rising arts and culture scene than the TIFF Bell Lightbox on King Street West. This is the Toronto International Film Festival’s complex of five cinemas, restaurants and event and gallery space, which takes up a full city block. The venue opened in September 2010, and has attracted Hollywood A-listers and European royalty – not to mention a continuous stream of star-struck tourists and local film buffs.
It’s easy enough to get one’s bearings downtown. Toronto streets line up in a fairly tidy grid, with the corner of Bloor and Yonge acting as an unofficial center point. Downtown extends roughly from Bloor Street south to Lake Ontario, and either side of Yonge Street for several blocks, west to Bathurst and east to Parliament.
If I left the Lightbox walking west on King, my first choice of cultural pit stop might be Spin Toronto – a “ping pong social club, ”it’s the Canadian outpost of a hip New York chain co-owned by actress Susan Sarandon. Or I could take the next major east-west thoroughfare, Queen Street, to discover the boho-chic restaurants and avant-garde fashion of Queen West neighborhood. This is where UK designer Oliver Spencer opened his first Canadian shop, next to the country’s flagship Fred Perry store. It’s also a hub for live music, with venues including the Cameron House, the Rivoli, the legendary Horseshoe Tavern and Velvet Underground.
Past Trinity Bellwoods Park, Queen Street morphs into an art and design district dotted with private galleries, antique shops and the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art. Eventually you reach the Drake Hotel, which has a popular alternative performance venue in its basement.
“You’re in the heart of the emergent downtown. Here, business and arts are intermixed”
But I need to venture east on King Street for my next meeting. Walking past celebrity handprints pressed into concrete on Canada’s Walk of Fame, the theatre row and Roy Thomson Hall – home of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra – I soon reach the financial district for a tour of the Trump International Hotel and Tower.
Toronto’s downtown business hotels are undergoing an ambitious makeover. Opened in 2011, the Ritz-Carlton received the city’s first five-diamond AAA rating, a feat matched by the new Four Seasons Toronto in 2014. Trump Toronto and Shangri-La joined the spate of Toronto luxury hotel openings in 2012. Thompson Toronto and Hôtel le Germain Maple Leaf Square are two recently opened boutique options for the more discerning.
Aside from the Four Seasons, all are situated near the Lightbox – and not by chance. “You’re in the heart of the emergent downtown, ”says Donald Trump Jr., executive vice-president of the Trump Organization. “In other major financial capitals such as New York City, business and arts districts are separate from each other – here, they’re intermixed, and there are plenty of leisure options for the weekend. So this is really going to be a seven-day hotel.”
Shows and sports events are on the doorstep of offices around the Toronto Stock Exchange at King and York streets. There’s the Air Canada Centre, hosting rock concerts, basketball and hockey; Rogers Centre for football, baseball and music; and Second City, the comedy theatre that launched the careers of such notables as John Candy and Mike Myers. The Four Seasons Performing Arts Centre showcases opera and ballet, and the Sony Centre for the Performing Arts is an off-Broadway-style theatre.
Above: Cameron House, Spin Toronto
Above: Stock Lounge at Trump International Hotel and Tower, Toronto Left: Toronto Stock Exchange