Walking Tour: The Financial District
Start: The CN Tower, near the corner of John and Front streets.
Finish: A Queen Street West watering hole.
Time: 2 to 4 hours.
Best Time: Weekdays during business hours.
Worst Times: Weekends, when the stock market is closed and the Financial District is dead.
Toronto's answer to Wall Street is a mix of old-fashioned -- and very grand -- bank buildings and modern towers that stretch to the sky.
Start by going up the:
1. CN Tower
Although it has become a symbol of the city, the CN Tower drew a great deal of criticism when it was built in 1975. It has since been recognized as an important symbol of a city trying to forge a new identity. Robert Fulford writes in Accidental City (Houghton Mifflin): "In the 1970s [Toronto] was struggling to shake off the dowdy self-image that was part of its heritage as a colonial city. . . . Torontonians were starting to consider, with shy pleasure, the novel idea that their city might be attractive, even enviable. . . . At that happy moment, the tower reinforced local exuberance and asserted the city's claim to even more attention." However you view it, the most enjoyable thing is the view from it. If you dare, lie down on the glass floor for a unique vertiginous experience.
Proof positive that the CN Tower is an attention-grabber is the dynamic area that has sprouted at its base, including dozens of condo towers, a new St Germain Hotel at Maple Leaf Square, and the charming Roundhouse and Steamwhistle Brewery.
Once you're back down at the base, exit at the corner of John and Front streets. From here, look to the right along Front Street to see the glistening golden Royal Bank towers (part of the Royal Bank Centre). The CBC Centre stretches along the north side of Front Street for a whole long block. Inside, you can peek at the lobby radio studios and take a nostalgic radio-TV trip in the free museum.
Walk N on John St. (with the CN Tower behind you) to King St. Turn right and walk 1 block to:
2. The Princess of Wales Theatre
Princess Diana opened it in 1993. Constructed for a production of Miss Saigon, the theater was the brainchild of impresario Ed Mirvish and his son, David. Try to pop inside for a peek at the 929 sq. m (10,000 sq. ft.) of murals created by Frank Stella. There's one on the exterior back of the building that's worth walking around to see.
Exit the theater and continue along King Street past a cluster of restaurants owned by Ed Mirvish. (Drop in to one to check out the larger-than-life decor Ed has purchased at antique closeouts.) You'll also pass a wall of newspaper clippings about this gutsy Torontonian. Booster and benefactor of the city, he started out in bleak circumstances as owner of a bankrupt store during the Depression. He paid off the debt and launched Honest Ed's, a discount store at Bloor and Bathurst streets that brought him fame and fortune. He saved the Royal Alex from demolition, and he and his son have become theater impresarios in Toronto and in London, where Ed outbid Andrew Lloyd Webber in 1982 for the Old Vic.
Cross Duncan St. Next you'll come to:
3. The Royal Alexandra
John M. Lyle built this beloved theater in 1906 and 1907 at a cost of C$750,000. In 1963, it was scheduled for demolition, but Ed Mirvish bought it for C$200,000 and refurbished it. Named after Queen Alexandra, wife of Edward VII, the magnificent Beaux Arts structure is Edwardian down to the last detail. It abounds with gilt and velvet, and green marble lines the entrance foyer.
Across the street from these two theaters stands the new Metro Hall (55 John St.), designed by Brisbin Brook Beynon. This building is pretty much a white elephant these days -- it was constructed when Toronto had six separate municipal governments and a Metro Council for joint projects and concerns. On occasion, there are art installations on the first floor.
Also on the S side of the street, at the corner of King and Simcoe sts., is:
4. Roy Thomson Hall
The hall bears the name of newspaper magnate Lord Thomson of Fleet (a Canadian press baron who wound up taking a seat in the British House of Lords). Built between 1972 and 1982, and designed by Arthur Erickson, the building's exterior looks very Space Age. Inside, the mirrored effects are dramatic.
(A recent renovation fixed the once-poor acoustics, and the hall now justifiably hosts many of the city's top concerts.)
Continue walking east on King Street. You'll pass through the heart of the Financial District, surrounded by many towers owned and operated by banks and brokerage, trust, and insurance companies.
On the NE corner of King and Simcoe sts. rises the first of the towers that make up the Sun Life Centre; on the SE corner stands:
5. St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church
The church (1874-75) is a quietly inviting retreat from the city's pace and noise. It was designed by the city's premier architect of the time, W. G. Storm, in an inspired picturesque Scottish Romanesque style. Sun Life paid C$4.3 million for the church's air rights. The doors are often locked, but if they're open, duck inside to check out the gorgeous stained-glass window of a highlander in full regalia.
Continue along King St. to University Ave. Opposite, on the NE corner, is the:
6. Sun Life Centre's second tower
A Sorel Etrog sculpture marks this tower. Farther along the block, you'll find another sculpture, Parent I, by British sculptor Barbara Hepworth. It's in a courtyard setting, complete with a splashing fountain, at the northwest corner of York and King streets.
On the NE corner stands:
7. 2 First Canadian Place
The north corner of the structure is the Toronto Exchange Tower, at the corner of Adelaide and York streets. The Sculptor's Society Gallery, which always has an interesting free show, is in 2 First Canadian Place.
Continue along King St. past:
8. First Canadian Place
It sits on the north side, and the Standard Life and Royal Trust buildings (part of the Toronto Dominion Centre) are on the south. At the end of this block, you'll reach Bay Street. The Standard Life building is the work of New York architect Edward Durell Stone with Bregman & Hamann; the marble facing contrasts with the TD Centre, which is black. Again, there are views of the magnificent towers of the Royal Bank Centre from here.
The intersection of Bay and King streets was once considered the geographical center of Toronto's financial power. During the mining booms in the 1920s and 1950s, Bay Street was lined with offices that were filled with commission salesmen peddling penny stocks.
If it's near lunchtime and your stomach is rumbling, this isn't a bad place to take a break:
9. Jump Cafe and Bar
Your best bet for a leisurely lunch in this neighborhood is a block south and a block east of Bay and King sts., at Jump Cafe and Bar. Or, for a more lofty experience, try the iconic Canoe atop the TD Tower : It's one of the country's best restaurants featuring some of Canada's finest ingredients, and on a clear day, the views are stunning.
Our next stop, at King and Bay sts., is the:
10. Toronto Dominion Centre
Built between 1963 and 1969, the center was designed by Mies van der Rohe in his sleek trademark style. The black steel and dark-bronze-tinted glass tower rises from a gray granite base. Step inside and walk through the Royal Trust and Toronto Dominion Towers. Exit the TD Centre on Wellington Street and walk right; you'll come to a small staircase that leads to the courtyard behind the Toronto Dominion Bank Tower. Here, you'll find a patch of grass that holds half a dozen lazing bronze cows. Artist Joe Fafard's Pasture reminds the bankers and stockbrokers that Toronto's wealth derived from other stock, too.
Walk through the Centre to the King St. exit. Exit onto King St. and turn right to continue E. Cross Bay St. On the S side of King St., you'll come to the entrance to Commerce Court. Architecture buffs will want to go into the:
11. Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce
Visit this building (built 1929-31) if only to see the massive banking hall -- 44m long (144 ft.), 26m wide (85 ft.), and 20m high (66 ft.) -- with its coffered ceiling, gilt moldings, and sculpted friezes. Squirrels, roosters, bees, bears, and figures representing industry, commerce, and Mercury decorate the main entrance. For years, this 34-story building dominated the Toronto skyline. New Yorkers York and Sawyer, with Darling and Pearson, designed it. Note the carved heads on the top of the building depicting courage, observation, foresight, and enterprise. In the early 1970s, I. M. Pei was asked to design a new complex while preserving the old building. He set the new mercury-laminated stainless-steel bank tower back from King Street, creating Commerce Court.
Opposite, on the N side of King St., note the:
12. Scotia Tower
It's a red-granite building, designed by Webb Zerafa Menkes Housden between 1985 and 1988.
Walk back to Bay St. and turn right. You're now going N. At no. 303, on the E side, is the:
13. National Club Building
In 1874, the nationalist Canada First Movement, which had started in Ottawa in 1868, became centered in Toronto. It established a weekly, The Nation, entered politics (as the Canadian National Association), and founded the National Club, which moved here in 1907. Today, it's a prestigious private club.
Across the street on the W side, at the corner of Bay and Adelaide sts., stands the:
14. Canada Permanent Trust Building
Enter this structure, at 7 King St. E., to view the beautifully worked Art Deco brass and bronze -- particularly the elevator doors, which are chased and engraved with foliage and flowers.
Cross Adelaide St. As you walk up Bay St., the magnificent Old City Hall is clearly in view. First, on the E side of Bay St., between Richmond and Queen sts., look at -- or stop in to:
15. The Bay
The Hudson's Bay Company started out as a fur-trading business when the first French-speaking settlers came to Canada. Today, the Bay, long known for a mid-range selections of clothing and housewares, is reinventing itself as a competitor in high-end women's fashion and runway frocks. The place to see the new look is the Room at the Queen St location. Elsewhere, you'll still find wool blankets, simple housewares, and casual gear.
Across Queen St. looms:
16. Old City Hall
This solid building, designed by Edward James Lennox, was built out of Credit River Valley sandstone. The Romanesque Revival style shows the obvious influence of H. H. Richardson. Begun in 1885, it opened in 1899, and for years, its clock tower was a skyline landmark. Today, the building houses the provincial criminal courts. Go in to see the impressive staircase, columns with decorative capitals, and mosaic floor. The stained-glass window (1898) by Robert McCausland depicts the union of Commerce and Industry watched over by Britannia. Note the carved heads on the exterior entrance pillars -- supposedly portraits of political figures and citizens of the period, including the architect.
Exit along Queen St. and turn right. Pause at the intersection of Queen and Bay sts. Bay St., Toronto's equivalent of Wall St., curves at this intersection, offering a good view N and S. Cross Bay St., and you'll find yourself in Nathan Phillips Sq., with New City Hall looming above:
17. New City Hall
The city's fourth, it was built between 1958 and 1965 in modern sculptural style. It's the symbol of Toronto's postwar dynamism, although not everyone felt that way when it was built. According to Pierre Berton, Frank Lloyd Wright said of it, "You've got a headmarker for a grave and future generations will look at it and say: 'This marks the spot where Toronto fell.'" The truth is quite the opposite -- this breathtaking building was the first architectural marker of an evolving metropolis. Finnish architect Viljo Revell won a design competition that drew entries by 510 architects from 42 countries, including I. M. Pei. The building has a great square in front with a fountain and pool; people flock here in summer to relax, and in winter to skate. The square's namesake, Nathan Phillips, was Toronto's first Jewish mayor.
City Hall also has some art worth viewing. Look just inside the entrance for Metropolis, which local artist David Partridge fashioned from more than 100,000 common nails. You'll need to stand well back to enjoy the effect. Henry Moore's sculpture The Archer stands in front of the building -- thanks to Mayor Phil Givens, who raised the money to buy it through public subscription after city authorities refused. The gesture encouraged Moore to bestow a major collection of his works on the Art Gallery of Ontario. Two curved concrete towers, which house the bureaucracy, flank the Council Chamber. From the air, the whole complex supposedly looks like an eye peering up at the heavens. Recently, the pretty, elevated walkways were opened to the public after decades; they're a good way to get a close look at the buildings and to the street scenes below.
From City Hall, walk W along Queen St. On your right, behind an ornate wrought-iron fence that once kept out the cows, you'll see:
18. Osgoode Hall
Since the 1830s, this has been the headquarters of the Law Society of Upper Canada, a professional association. Named after the first chief justice of Upper Canada, the building was constructed in stages. It started with the East Wing (built 1831-32), then the West Wing (built 1844-45), and the center block (built 1856-60). The last, designed by W. G. Storm with a Palladian portico, is the most impressive. Inside is the Great Library -- 34m long (112 ft.), 12m wide (39 ft.), and 12m high (39 ft.) -- with stucco decoration and a domed ceiling. The Ontario Supreme Court is across Queen Street.
19. Osgoode Hall Restaurant
It's open only for lunch and during the academic year, but this unusual -- and very good -- restaurant is part of the Law School. The setting is the library, the menus are classic continental, and the clientele often show up in wigs and robes. You need to pass through a security check to get in, but it's worth it. 130 Queen St W., (tel. 416/947-3361).
Walk W 1 block to University Ave. On the NW corner, you can visit:
20. Campbell House
This elegant Georgian residence was home to Sir William Campbell, a Scot who moved to York in 1811 and rose to become chief justice of Upper Canada. A handsome piece of Georgian architecture, it was moved to this location from a few miles farther east.
Stretching NW behind Campbell House, on the NW side of University Ave., is the:
21. Canada Life Assurance Building
Atop the tower a neon sign provides weather reports -- white flashes for snow, red flashes for rain, green beacon for clement weather, red beacon for cloudy weather. If the flashes move upward, the temperature is headed that way, and vice versa.
At University Ave. and Queen St., you can end the tour by boarding the subway at Osgoode station to your next destination, or continue walking W along Queen St. to explore its many shops and cafes.