In today’s Toronto Star, Shawn Micallef asks “Where in Toronto Would You Take a Tourist?” It’s a cool article and made me think a lot. I think my ideas of where I would take a tourist overlap with his a bunch. I also think my ideas are informed by what I like to do when I travel. And also what I don’t generally like to do.
A couple of years ago I was lucky enough for my company to send me to Belgium for a series of meetings. It was an excellent opportunity for me as I’d never been to Europe before. I made sure to take a few extra days there so I could look around Amsterdam, a place I was curious about. I did go to a couple of touristy places: the Van Gogh museum and the Anne Frank house. But my favourite thing I did was to ride a bike around the city, exploring and people watching.
When I tell people I went to India their response is, “Of course you saw the Taj Mahal” and they’re shocked when I say I didn’t. If the opportunity presents it, I may do that someday but I won’t go out of my way. Why? Because what interests me more than anything no matter where I go is regular people living their regular lives. (That said, I have a soft spot for history and some of my favourite walks in India were in historic spots). So my favourite moments there were talking to people, wherever that might be – in a restaurant, at a market, on a train.
So if I were to show folks around the Toronto I love, I don’t see us going to the CN tower or other major tourist sites. The thing about touristy sites is that the people you generally see are tourists. I want to know what people do in their cities and what they love. So without further ado, here are some places I’d go:
The Leslie Spit is one of the more interesting spaces of our city. It is a piece of land that juts out about 3 kilometres in to Lake Ontario. During weekdays it isn’t accessible because it’s day job is accepting clean landfill from the city. So trucks make their way out there and dump their contents – not trash but concrete pieces, bits of brick, clean dirt, often hauled from building demolition. It also is made of material dredged from the city’s inner harbour.
But what makes this space so special is that in evenings and weekends, it turns in to a huge, car free park. Cyclists use it for training, runners often run there. There’s also a tremendous number of migratory birds that stop there so it’s a huge destination for birdwatchers.
It’s so big that even on a busy summer weekend, you can find some space to yourself. And in colder months you can often feel like you have the whole place to yourself as I did some time ago.
The Art Gallery of Ontario is a wonderful space and it is definitely somewhere you should visit, but for an interesting experience, I recommend wandering to some of the graffiti hotspots of the city. The laneways in the Annex, “Graffiti Alley” just south of Queen West come immediately to mind as do the laneways near Kensington Market. A lesser known destination that fits in with a nice bike ride is the underpass beneath Highway 401 on the Humber Trail.
There are definitely taggers in this city but there are also some particularly great artists. And the added bonus to a graffiti walk is that you get to be out in the city – exploring and appreciating art at the same time.
A short ferry ride away from the densest part of downtown Toronto is the island. While this summer it was mostly inaccessible due to flooding, it’s often a fantastic summer destination. Once you get there you’ll find another car-free space. Bikes and “quad cycles” that can be “driven” by a family of four are available for rent. In the summer it can be really busy but for a bit of beautiful solitude, go visit on a snowy winter day. You may be the only person out for a walk. It’s magical.
Come with me on one of my library visits. They generally don’t take you to particularly touristy areas. Libraries are placed where people live and work and are some of the most loved places in our city. They attract a cross section of our city from just about any way you can look at it: age, gender, nationality, language, economic class. Everyone goes to the library. And then wander around the neighbourhood. I guarantee you’ll find something good. If you don’t believe me, look at some of the trips I took to libraries here.
Go Grocery Shopping:
As an international city, you can shop for any ingredient you like. Go to a store with goods from any country you like and find the ingredients you want to make whatever it is you’re craving. Or check out some of our supermarkets. These can have as diverse offerings as you’ll see in the neighbourhood. One near me sells everything from pani puri to Russian preserves, Serbian roasted pepper sauce, Peruvian condiments, corn tortillas, Chinese mushrooms, snacks from the Philippines, and marmite along with all of the usual North American staples. It’s amazing what you’ll find.
Go to Kensington Market on a Pedestrian Sunday:
Pedestrians rule this part of the city as a general rule. Cars do pass through but at the whim of the people walking in the street. But on one Sunday a month the streets are closed. People perform, vendors sell food and the streets fill with people, music and dancing:
Celebrate the anniversary of the 2003 Blackout:
In August of 2003, the power went out for much of the east coast. Though I wasn’t in Toronto at the time, I’ve heard many stories from those that were here. People saw the stars downtown for the first time in decades, restaurants and bars gave away food and drink rather than let it spoil, regular people voluntarily directed traffic. People look back on it as a time when the city came together and shared the space better than we usually do. A few years after that, a group of public space activists announced the first “blackout party”. It consisted of a bike ride, some pedestrian activities and the temporary closure (for about 5 min) of a major intersection, turning it in to a “piazza” for people instead of cars. Over the years the celebrations got bigger and they got better at peacefully coexisting with others in the city. I went to many of them, the last one in 2012. In that one we met in a public square for a brief concert of the Lemon Bucket Orkestra, self-described as “Canada’s only balkan-klezmer-gypsy-party-punk-super-band”. Then, led by the band we went to the subway station, completely filling the platform and riding the subway to Union Station. Along the way there was music in the packed subway much to the surprise of those already in the car. There was a quick speech and more music in the train station itself before we went together as a parade with samba drummers and fire spinners up to a small streetcorner a few blocks away where the party continued. It is an experience like no other. Someone on the trip did a great job of editing the video down and if you want to get a feel for the delightful insanity that this involves, have a watch:
These are just a few of the things that I love about the city – and you don’t even have to do these specific ones to get a feel for what I love about it. Just get a little ways out of the touristy areas of the city and take a wander. Talk to people, check out parks and stores and libraries and ride on our transit system. You’ll likely see what I see.
What about you? What do you love about your city that you’d share with people who were visiting?