Walking Tour: St. Lawrence & Downtown East
Start: Union Station.
Finish: King subway station.
Time: 2 to 3 hours.
Best Time: Saturday, when the St. Lawrence Market is in full swing.
Worst Time: Sunday, when it's closed.
At one time, this area was at the center of city life. Today, it's a little off center, yet it has some historic and modern architectural treasures and a wealth of history in and around the St. Lawrence Market.
1. Union Station
Check out the interior of this classical revival beauty, which opened in 1927 as a temple to and for the railroad. The shimmering ceiling, faced with vitrified Guastavino tile, soars 27m (89 ft.) above the 79m-long (259-ft.) hall.
Across the street, at York and Front sts., stands the:
2. Fairmont Royal York
The venerable railroad hotel is a longtime gathering place for Torontonians. It's the home of the famous Imperial Room cabaret and nightclub, which used to be one of Eartha Kitt's favorite venues. The hotel was once the tallest building in Toronto and the largest hotel in the British Commonwealth. Check out the lobby, with its coffered ceiling and opulent furnishings. One floor up on the mezzanine is a new gallery of black-and-white photographs that cover the hotel's long and illustrious history.
3. The Royal York
Okay, you're just getting started, but it would be a missed opportunity to not stop in for a bite at one of the many good dining options at the Royal York. The roof garden, where the hotel grows its own mint for mojitos, is also home to several honeybee hives. Expect an eco-conscious menu.
As you leave the hotel, turn left and walk E on Front St. At the corner of Bay and Front sts., look up at the stunning:
4. Royal Bank Plaza
The two triangular gold-sheathed towers rise 41 floors and 26 floors, respectively. A 40m-high (131-ft.) atrium joins them, and 68kg (150 lb.) of gold enhances the mirrored glass. Webb Zerafa Menkes Housden designed the project, which was built between 1973 and 1977.
Cross Bay Street and continue east on Front Street. On the south side of the street is the impressive sweep of One Front Street, the main post office building (okay, not an exciting-sounding sight, but an attractive one).
On the N side of the street is:
5. Brookfield Place
Go inside to view the soaring galleria. Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill, with Bregman & Hamann, designed it in 1993. The twin office towers connect through a huge glass-covered galleria five stories high, spanning the block between Bay and Yonge streets. Designed by artist-architect Santiago Calatrava of Bregman & Hamann, it links the old Midland Bank building to the twin towers.
On Front St., turn left and continue to the NW corner of Yonge and Front sts., stopping to notice the:
6. Hockey Hall of Fame
The ornate old building may be a surprise -- built in 1885, it used to be a Bank of Montreal. Inside, the banking hall rises to a beamed coffered ceiling with domed skylights of stained glass. If you're a hockey fanatic, this is your shrine.
From here, you can look ahead along Front St. and see the weird mural by Derek M. Besant that adorns the famous and highly photogenic:
7. Flatiron or Gooderham Building
This building was the headquarters of George Gooderham, who expanded his distilling business into railroads, insurance, and philanthropy; the original factories are now the Distillery District. At one time, his liquor business was the biggest in the British Empire. The very attractive five-story building occupies a triangular site, with the windows at the western edge beautifully curved and topped with a semicircular tower. The design is by David Roberts.
At the SW corner of Yonge and Front sts., you can stop in at:
8. The Sony Centre
The Sony Centre for the Performing Arts sits across Scott Street from the St. Lawrence Centre. In 1974, when the Sony was called the O'Keefe Centre, Mikhail Baryshnikov defected from the Soviet Union after performing here. The ballet has moved buildings, but this remains a busy theater with musicals and such.
Continue E along Front St. to the:
9. Beardmore Building
At 35-39 Front St. E., this and the many other cast-iron buildings lining the street were the heart of the late-19th-century warehouse district, close to the lakefront and railheads. At no. 45 is Nicholas Hoare, one of the coziest bookstores in the city.
Continue E along Front St., crossing Church St. and then Market St., to the:
10. St. Lawrence Market
The old market building on the right holds this great market hall, which was constructed around the city's second city hall (1844-45). The pedimented facade that you see as you stand in the center of the hall was originally the center block of the city hall. Today, the market is packed with vendors selling fresh eggs, Mennonite sausage, seafood, meats, cheeses, and baked goods. Upstairs is a small gallery of city archival photographs. On Saturday, in the north building across the street, a farmers' market starts at 5am.
11. St. Lawrence Market
Don't forget the famous peameal (Canadian) bacon sandwiches at the Carousel Bakery. There's also Chris the Cheesemonger and Alex Farms for great cheeses, and St Urbain for fresh bagels right out of the wood-burning oven, Montreal-style. Get some smoked salmon from Mike's and make your own sandwich. Other nearby choices include Chefs House, the restaurant at George Brown Chef School.
Exit the market where you came in. Cross Wellington St. and cut through Market Lane Park and the shops at Market Sq., past the N market building. Turn right onto King St. to:
12. St. Lawrence Hall
This was the focal point of the community in the mid-19th century. This hall, once the site of grand city occasions, political rallies, balls, and entertainment, was where Frederick Douglass delivered an antislavery lecture; Jenny Lind and Adelina Patti sang in 1851 and 1860, respectively; Gen. Tom Thumb appeared in 1862; and George Brown campaigned for Confederation. William Thomas designed the elegant Palladian-style building, which boasts a domed cupola.
Cross King Street and enter the 19th-century garden. It has a cast-iron drinking fountain for people, horses, and dogs, and flowerbeds filled with seasonal blooms.
If you like, rest on a bench while you admire the handsome proportions of St. Lawrence Hall and listen to the chimes of:
13. St. James' Cathedral
Adjacent to the garden on the north side of King Street, this is a beautiful Gothic church that is open to the public. The graceful building and its surrounding park make a serene setting to rest and gather one's thoughts, although the park can be a gathering place for some of the city's rougher citizens.
From here, you can view one of the early retail buildings, built when King Street was the main commercial street. Nos. 129-35 was originally an Army and Navy Store; cast-iron, plate-glass, and arched windows allowed the shopper to see what was available in the store. Also note nos. 111 and 125. The Toronto Sculpture Garden (115 King St.; tel. 416/485-9658) is a quiet corner for contemplation.
14. King Street East
From St. James', the venerable Le Meridien King Edward (37 King St. E.; tel. 416/863-9700) is only a block away. You can stop for afternoon tea in the lobby lounge, or light fare or lunch in the Café Victoria (tel. 416/364-6363). For a memorable, fine-dining experience try the singular Lucien (36 Wellington St. E.; tel. 416/504-9900), a favorite among locals.
From St. James' Cathedral, go S on Church St. for 1 block and turn right into Colbourne St. From Colbourne St., turn left down Leader Lane to Wellington St., where you can enjoy a fine view of the mural on the Flatiron Building and the rhythmic flow of mansard rooflines along the S side of Front St. Turn right and proceed to Yonge St.; then turn right and walk to King St. to catch the subway to your next destination.