Walking Tour: Wychwood
Start: Dupont subway station.
Finish: Pain Perdu or Patachou on St. Clair West.
Time: 2 to 4 hours.
Best Time: Weekdays during business hours or Saturday mornings.
Worst Times: Sundays, when many buildings are closed or reserved for weddings.
This eclectic tour takes in the city archives; a castle; a stately home; a toll keeper's house; and two artist enclaves, one in a sylvan glade, the other in a former public-transit parking lot. The castle is a tale in itself: Toronto's kitschy chateau, Casa Loma, is a museum and events destination, complete with Elizabethan-style chimneys, Rhineland turrets, secret passageways, and an underground tunnel. Built about 100 years ago, it was a dream-come-true for a wealthy financier who, in the long term, had greater architectural ambitions than cash. The neighborhoods involved include busy Davenport; the magical park-like setting of Wychwood Park, with its stately homes; the pretty Hillcrest area, another residential gem; and finally, the new and very progressive development of an old "barn" for streetcars that was saved from ugly development by a brilliant partnership between Artscape, the city's primo art cooperative, and the Stop Food Community Centre, a leading activist organization that works to feed, with dignity, Toronto's poor. Any day of the week, stop by what's known as the Green Barns, and you might find there's a screening of a topical documentary on food politics, an exhibit of resident artists' work, children from the nursery school playing outside, or a bustling farmers market that runs year-round.
From the Dupont subway station, walk N on Spadina Rd. under the train bridge and to:
1. City of Toronto Archives
This often-overlooked repository at 255 Spadina Rd. is the closest thing Toronto has to a museum of the city. Ongoing exhibits, largely photography-based, reflect events and themes in the city's past. The collection has more than 1 million images, dating from 1856.
Walk 100m (328 ft.) N to the top of Spadina Rd., at Davenport Rd., and look up at the zigzagging flight of stairs you are about to climb:
2. The Baldwin Steps
This part of Spadina Road ends at the base of a zigzagging flight of stairs that ascends the pre-Ice Age shoreline of the ancient Lake Iroquois. A public right-of-way that dates from the 1800s, The Baldwin Steps are a rare example in the city of a thigh-burning incline. The panoramic views of downtown and Lake Ontario are worth the effort. The steps are named after Robert Baldwin, a former premier of Ontario who owned land in this well-to-do neighborhood.
Continue on the path for 50m (164 ft.), with Toronto's turreted wonder, Casa Loma, on your left. Instead of visiting, though, turn right into the lush garden setting of this more subdued stately mansion:
3. Spadina Museum: Historic House & Gardens
The historic home of financier James Austin was occupied by the family for more than 100 years, from 1866 until 1980, when it became a city-run museum. In 2010, the interior was completely renovated and updated from a 19th-century setting to one focused on the inter-war years, with an emphasis on decorations from the 1920s. The grounds are as sumptuous as the interiors.
It's just a hop, skip, and a jump across the street to a more exuberant neighbor:
4. Casa Loma
Sir Henry Pellatt, who built this faux chateau between 1911 and 1914, studied medieval palaces and then gathered materials and furnishings from around the world, bringing marble, glass, and paneling from Europe; teak from Asia; and oak and walnut from North America. He then imported Scottish stonemasons to build the massive walls that surround the 2.5-hectare (6 1/4-acre) site. The architect was a local talent E. J. Lennox.
Wander through the majestic Great Hall, with its 18m-high (59-ft.) hammer-beam ceiling; the Oak Room, where three artisans took 3 years to fashion the paneling; and the Conservatory, with its elegant bronze doors, stained-glass dome, and pink-and-green marble. The castle encompasses battlements and a tower, and a 244m (801-ft.) tunnel runs to the stables, where Spanish tile and mahogany surrounded the horses.
5. Sir Henry's Café
Situated on the lower level in what was originally designed as Sir Henry's private exercise room, Sir Henry's Café is just a cafeteria-style coffee shop and feels pretty down-market from the surroundings. But if you're in need of some quick fuel, this is the only stop around. (tel. 416/913-3247).
From Casa Loma, walk down Walmer Rd., then turn right along Davenport Rd. to Bathurst St. The NW corner of the intersection is home to one of the oldest structures in the city, a toll keeper's cottage:
6. Tollkeeper's Park
This little home, built in 1835, is where hapless toll keepers tried to extract pennies from passing horse-drawn traffic along Davenport Road until tolls were abolished in 1890. It's also a rare example of vertical (rather than horizontal) wood planking. The simple living conditions in the two-bedroom home attest to the terms of the office: Any uncollected tariffs were deducted from their pay. A small interpretive center, where costumed docents regale visitors with stories of life in Muddy York, is connected to the house.
Continue W on the N side of Davenport Rd. until you reach the sign for Wychwood Park Private Grounds:
7. Wychwood Park
Don't let the "private" sign deter you: Step through the stone gate to enter another world tucked into the heart of the city. The fortunate residents of this secret enclave like to keep the wooded setting to themselves; another sign just inside the gate -- "Danger Deep Water Quicksand" -- is merely a ruse to deter visitors. Immediately ahead is a pond (often featuring the resident swan) and a fork in the road. The route to the left is a little shorter, but both are pleasant, taking you past many English-style Arts-and-Crafts homes designed by Toronto architect Eden Smith. Marmaduke Matthews envisioned an artist colony when he built the first home here in 1874, naming it after Wychwood Forest in Oxfordshire, England. This early example of a planned community retains its natural landscaping and bucolic setting.
Exit Wychwood Park at the N end and walk N on Wychwood Ave. 2 blocks until you get to:
8. Artscape Wychwood Barns
It's hard to imagine, as you come out at the top of these winding, tree-lined roads, that a TTC streetcar repair barn operated here until the 1990s. Now, it's one of the city's most successful transformations of industry into arts space. Artscape Wychwood Barns opened in 2009; attractions include studios for the 2 dozen artists-in-residence, ongoing exhibits of new work, and archival images of the old Barns. The Stop Food Community Centre, a leading activist organization that fights poverty and pushes political agendas on the food front, runs the food side of the space with a bake oven, greenhouse, community kitchen, and classroom on-site. There are lots of events to check out, from movies to fab dinners/fundraisers. (www.thestop.org). A bustling Saturday farmers market is complete with picnic-like prepared foods, such as butternut squash empanadas and some of the best fish tacos anywhere. If the weather cooperates, sit outside with a bite to eat and watch the parade of dogs, kids, farmers, and shoppers. Kick back: You've earned it.
Walk 2 blocks N to St. Clair Ave. W., where there are plenty of great cafes and restaurants:
9. Pain Perdu or Patachou
Try Pain Perdu (736 Saint Clair Ave. W.; tel. 416/656-7246) for great quiches and croque monsieur, or Patachou (833 St Clair Ave W.; tel. 416/782-0122) for buttery croissants and lovely pastries.