Toronto offers sights great and small for tourists

The CN Tower attracts tourists for a reason. It's awesome! (Credit: Pat Healy)
The CN Tower attracts tourists for a reason. It’s awesome! (Credit: Pat Healy)

The attractions of Ontario’s capital city run the gamut from small must-see art galleries to breathtaking iconic landmarks, like the CN Tower, above. Take in a little bit of each and learn what makes the Great White North so great.

Queen Street West
During the day, Queen Street West offers a shopping experience for thrift store scavengers, record store fiends and high-end fashionistas alike, but at night the area turns up. The best music clubs offer decidedly different fare from one another. The Horseshoe Tavern, an 87-capacity honky tonk/rock club is best known for a surprise Rolling Stones gig in the ’90s (imagine being one of less than 100 people to see the Stones up close!). Classic rock pedigree aside it’s a great place to take in a local band or a touring act. The layout is like nothing we’ve seen at a rock club before; in front of the stage is a dance floor and then behind that there are rows of stools facing each other with a thin table in between, like a school cafeteria, but with the acknowledgement that the only thing you’d be putting on that surface would be a drink, not a lunch tray. The Cameron House is good for free folkier fare, and the venue lets local graffiti artists go wild with the artwork. The Rex Hotel Jazz & Blues Bar offers exactly what its name promises and it’s been doing so for more than 40 years. Conversely — and fortunately — Bovine Sex Club doesn’t offer what its name promises: It’s just harder-edged bands. Nashville Pussy is playing there this week, which should be a good indication. Queen Street West is also where you’ll find lots of pop-up activity when big fests come to town, which happens quite frequently (the Toronto Film Festival takes over the city next month). We took in some amazing acts during Jason Collett‘s Basement Revue, a pop-up variety show during the city’s Luminato festival, put together by the Broken Social Scene musician. A particular favorite was Halifax singer Rich Aucoin, who performed against a backdrop of Internet memes that he sampled the audio of and brought out a parachute that he enshrouded the audience in, just like gym class.

Rich Aucoin livens up the proceedings at the Basement Revue. (Credit: Pat Healy)
Rich Aucoin livens up the proceedings at the Basement Revue. (Credit: Pat Healy)

Little Portugal
The area known as Little Portugal is home to many small art galleries. Though most have a DIY feel, the works within are often so exquisite you’ll be shocked they’re not behind a velvet rope, with a guard asking you not to stand so close. Dundas Street West is teeming with so many galleries that you may feel like you need a guide to show you what’s what. That’s where Betty Ann Jordan of Art InSite comes in. Jordan brings an insider’s eye and an unparalleled excitement to the proceedings. If you can’t do a tour with Jordan, we highly recommend the MKG127 gallery, LE Gallery and If you notice a lot of graffiti on the buildings of Toronto (or on the interiors like at Cameron House) and you want to learn more about it, there’s an informative Walking Graffiti Tour led by the Tour Guys.

Yes, that is graffiti of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's face on a crack pipe. (Credit: Pat Healy)
Yes, that is graffiti of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s face on a crack pipe. (Credit: Pat Healy)

The Dundas Street West area is also home to homey little bars such as Get Well, The Red Light and The Communist’s Daughter, the latter of which features a band where the bartender actually plays horn while working the bar. No trip to the area would be complete without a visit to The Monkey’s Paw, a bookstore specializing in obscure works that are perfect for quirky gifts. The Paw also features a one-of-a-kind machine that you put a dollar into and get a random book, which you’re encouraged to review for the store’s blog.

Put a two-dollar coin in the Biblio-Mat and get a random book. (Credit: Pat Healy)
Put a dollar in the Biblio-Mat and get a random book. (Credit: Pat Healy)

A view from the top
The CN Tower: Yes, this purposeful landmark is a tourist trap, but that doesn’t mean it’s not cool. If looking 1,815 feet down on the city from behind glass isn’t enough for you, you can pay $175 to strap onto the exterior of the tower. There’s just something epic about this tower.

Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada: Speaking of epic, the highlight of this mammoth aquarium is standing on a conveyor belt and being transported through the tunnel-like tanks that enable you to look up and watch sharks and other creatures swim overhead. Another highlight is that they’re open until 11 p.m., which means you’re less likely to be surrounded by field tripping grade school kids.


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