In a diverse city with 2.8 million residents and an abundance of cultural, sports, dining and shopping options, visitors and locals alike are spoiled for choice in Toronto.
On a recent long weekend visit to Canada’s largest city, I had the chance to take in a couple of walking tours, enjoy ROM’s Friday Night Live season opener, 11th Annual Nuit Blanche, Just For Laughs comedy festival, listen to live jazz at a supper club, paint my own canvas at newly-opened Pinot’s Palette — and watch Blue Jays fans head en masse to Rogers Centre for their team’s final home game of the season.
Film and Art Tour with Muddy York Tours
Kevin Both of Muddy York Tours led us around the downtown area, pointing out several film set locations, historical points of interest and other random bits as we discovered why Toronto, like Vancouver, is often referred to as Hollywood North.
Big-league Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) aside, RED, Cinderella Man, Tommy Boy, Murdoch Mysteries, Blues Brothers (2000) as well as a myriad of TV shows (including Designated Survivor, Kiefer Sutherland’s new series) were all shot in Toronto.
Fairmont Royal York’s lobby often stands in for New York City’s Plaza Hotel; Union Station’s been known to replicate the Big Apple’s Grand Central Station.
The tour is also fantastic for architecture fans: Toronto has a superb mix of old and new styles, and Kevin manages to point out a good variety within two hours.
If you’re a Superman fan, head to the corner of Melinda and Yonge Streets, where a young Joe Schuster (who drew inspiration from Toronto’s architecture) once sold newspapers before moving to Cleveland to create the famed series, later selling the rights to Superman at the bargain-basement price of US $150.
West Queen Street West Art and Design District Tour
Betty Ann Jordan is no stranger to the art world: trained as a visual artist, the freelance arts, culture and fashion writer also served as a gallery columnist for 16 years. With over 14 years of art tours under her belt, she’s one of the city’s best authorities on cultural organizations, neighbourhood gentrification and galleries along West Queen Street West and Ossington streets.
Appropriately, we begin our tour at The Drake Hotel, a long-standing culturally-themed hotel dating to the 1890’s. This boutique hotel’s hosted countless artists, musicians and culture fans over the decades, with art exhibitions throughout its lobby, patio and downstairs performance venue.
The Drake employs a full-time art curator that seeks out both Canadian and international artists showcasing a wide range of media.
As we make our way along the stretch of Toronto’s hottest art and design hub, it’s hard for Betty to keep the topic focused on art with one gorgeous boutique and indie shop after the next, punctuated by some of the city’s must-dine spots.
At the Twist Gallery, 94-year-old Joseph Connolly is having his show mounted on the second floor. These are pieces that will be seen for the very first time (opening on October 13, 6 to 8 pm), proving it’s never too early to start making (or exhibiting) art!
Betty leads tours on Saturdays (11 am to 1 pm) by advance reservation (firstname.lastname@example.org) and will take individuals as well as groups ($25 per person).
Indulge Your Inner Picasso at Pinot’s Palette
Just opened last week in Toronto’s Campbell Loft Building (at Dundas and Keele streets) is Houston, Texas-based wine and paint fun spot Pinot’s Palette (aka Paint. Drink. Have Fun.).
Founded in 2009, the company had a vision to get folks to unwind with a glass of wine — and paint a canvas at the same time!
The Toronto space was soon filled with our media group as well as visiting Mexican and Chinese media, making for an internationally-spirited couple of hours spent learning to paint a Toronto skyline at sunset.
We follow along with the instructor up front. By the end of the session, each canvas shows off a style as unique as its creator. Catered food was brought into the back; as our canvases were drying, we feasted on Thai food (and another glass of wine). This location will soon offer an expanded drink selection with beer and cocktails in addition to wine.
It’s almost a good thing that our painting was already chosen ahead of time: I can only imagine sorting through the extensive range of choices! This is a great way to engage a group of friends or colleagues in a casual setting. Aprons are provided so you can continue your evening without wearing the project on your threads.
Just For Laughs: Jim Gaffigan Headliner
Similar to Vancouver’s Just For Laughs NorthWest is Toronto’s Just For Laughs, held this year from September 22 to October 1. We caught one of the final nights with headliner Jim Gaffigan, an award-winning comedian, New York Times best-selling author, top touring performer (and father of five)!
Gaffigan brought out his A-game with a set that had the audience roaring with laughter. No stranger to the world of comedy, Gaffigan recently wrapped the first season of his semi-fictitious TV show, The Jim Gaffigan Show.
This year’s festival featured numerous stars: Roseanne Barr, Tom Green, Kumail Nanjiani (from HBO’s Silicon Valley!) Sinbad, Jake and Amir, Gary Culman, Jim Jefferies, Craig Robinson, Trevor Noah and others in a number of venues across town.
Fellow Silicon Valley fans will be happy to learn that Nanjiani is currently in pre-production on a Judd Apatow feature (written by Nanjiani and wife Emily Gordon).
ROM Friday Night Live
We were also lucky to be in town for Royal Ontario Museum (ROM)’s Friday Night Live 2016 launch event. Live DJ’s, food and drinks filled a space comprising over 80,000 works of art.
All eyes however were on Dale Chihuly’s amazing collection of glassworks on the lower level. If you plan on being in town before January 2, 2017, I highly encourage you to get a ticket and visit this colourful collection of gorgeous glassworks.
The American sculptor’s work has been exhibited all over the world — you may have seen his Bellagio Hotel ceiling filled with 2,000 hand-blown glass flowers weighing in at about 40,000 pounds, supported by a 10,000-pound steel armature.
On a side note, a team of eight to 10 engineers clean and maintain that Vegas masterpiece each morning between 2 and 5 am. And four years ago, Chihuly’s Garden and Glass opened at Seattle Center next to the Space Needle.
Royal Ontario Museum is located at 100 Queen’s Park, Toronto. Visit the website for current exhibits and events.
Dinner at Jazz Bistro
At 251 Victoria Street, Jazz Bistro provides the perfect spot to continue our Toronto arts-fuelled weekend. Jazz Bistro is the vision of Colin and Joan Hunter, both music and fine dining lovers. Our group enjoyed a relaxed dinner inside the main room close to the stage with Ranee Lee and the Richard Ring Quartet performing on the evening of our visit.
Consider heading here on a summer evening: Jazz Bistro has an elegant rooftop wine cellar and patio nestled by Yonge Dundas Square. Jazz Bistro is open for lunch on Wednesday and Saturdays, offers Sunday brunch plus nightly cocktails, dinner and dessert (closed on Mondays).
Nuit Blanche Toronto
For the past 11 years, Toronto’s hosted Nuit Blanche, a sunset-to-sunrise smorgasbord of over 100 thought-provoking, contemporary art projects created by over 300 local, national and global artists, presented indoors and out. Free maps are provided, transit service is extended and there’s a buzz created as thousands of art lovers take to the streets.
As media, we gained access to some of the heavily-visited venues but in the end one of my favourites was to be found right in the heart of Nathan Phillips Square: Floria Sigismondi’s PNEUMA, a stunning film loop created inside the fountain next to the famous Toronto sign.
With so much on offer, I imagine the best way to experience Nuit Blanche is to focus on a couple of neighbourhoods. Bloor Street (between Ossington and Bay) was another focal point, as was the Harbourfront Centre, where I chose to finish off a few hours of art-spotting.
Save the Dates
The 15th Annual Queen West Art Crawl (QWAC) will return next year to Trinity Bellwoods Park. Designed to celebrate and promote the art, culture and diversity of Queen West in Toronto, the art exhibition features a juried selection of the province’s best artists and artisans and also showcases a Kids Zone, Performance Zone and Toronto’s best food vendors.
Nuit Blanche 2017 will also be back for its 12th annual installment and it’s a wonderful (and free!) way to explore Toronto illuminated by world-class artists and multimedia creatives.
All activities and meals mentioned above were graciously provided by Tourism Toronto. Opinions, as always, are my own.