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A streetcar tour of Toronto

Susan Sullivan in front of streetcar track construction, Riding the busesSusan Sullivan moved to Toronto, Canada’s largest city, a couple of years ago and has enthusiastically embraced it and its streetcars. Here is her recommended one day, hop-on, hop-off streetcar tour of the city.

Toronto is one of the most multicultural cities in the world and there are little ethnic neighbourhoods everywhere. It is also the city the rest of Canada loves to hate but Torontonians embrace that!

Greektown on Danforth Avenue is home to the second-largest Greek community ­outside of Greece. Its Taste of the Danforth is an annual street festival and has a lot of great eating.  The Gay Village around Church and Wellesley is home to Canada’s largest gay community and every June, Toronto hosts one of the largest Pride festivals in the world. In fact the summer is pretty much a continuous street party, with ethnic food fests and things like the Beaches Jazz Festival.

Toronto is a city of neighbourhoods and people identify proudly with their own little pocket. People here advertise their neighbourhood on their cars, with “Beach” decals or “Proud East Yorker” on their license plate. This is something that I have come to appreciate.

I moved to the Beach (actually the Upper Beach because I can’t afford the Beach per se) because it’s like a laid back, little resort town. Everybody’s super friendly and I think the majority of families have a dog and there are a lot of good dog parks and even off-leash areas on the beach. It’s relatively quiet but also easy to get downtown on either the subway or streetcar.

I love travelling around Toronto on the streetcar. It’s not as fast as the subway but you’re above ground most of the time and can look out the window and notice all of the things that you don’t get a chance to see when you’re underground on the subway. You can also use your smart phone, use Google maps, catch up on emails, make phone calls, which you can’t do on the subway.

Toronto streetcar

Streetcars have just about disappeared in North America.  Even Toronto was going to replace them with buses by 1980. But when the city started pulling up the tracks, people protested and today it is one of the few remaining streetcar systems on the continent.

The streetcar is a little bit old fashioned and I like that. It’s pretty quiet and there’s no horn—just a ‘ding, ding, ding’. All the stops are announced and the street names are flashed on a screen, so it’s easy to navigate even if your English isn’t great. Streetcars aren’t perfect, though. Some of them are overcrowded during rush hour and if there’s a breakdown or a car blocking the tracks, things can get backed up.  After a winter snow storm, some people park their cars on the street and block the streetcars but the City says they are going to work on that to speed up the traffic flow downtown.

There are rules you should know if you’re driving a car in the city. When the streetcar stops and opens its doors, you have to stop behind the doors so that people can get on and off and wait until the doors are closed before you pass the streetcar on the inside lane.  A lot of out-of-towners don’t know that. Cyclists also get their tires caught in the streetcar tracks sometimes and a lot of people have stories of going head-over-heels.

CN Tower through the streetcar lines, Riding the busesIt’s easy to see where streetcars run because of the overhead wires and the tracks on the road. Streetcar stops have a sign with an image of a streetcar between two red bars.  The TTC (Toronto Transit Commission) has a one-day metro pass for $10.75 and you can’t beat that for touring around. It can be used for the streetcar, the bus and the subway. There’s also a family pass that is good for a family of up to six people on weekends.

When I first arrived in Toronto, a lot of people told me the subway or driving is the best way to get around but you don’t see much or really appreciate the neighbourhoods unless you ride the streetcar.

Streetcars are concentrated in the downtown core so if you are staying further out, you may need to take the subway to get to a place where you can catch the streetcar. If you only have a day to see some of the city, this is my recommendation for an inexpensive, do-it-yourself hop-on, hop-off type tour.

All the streetcar routes circle around the CN Tower (301 Front St. W). So if you know where the CN Tower is and that Lake Ontario is the city’s southern border, it is easy to figure out which direction is north, south, east and west. So when you start your tour, look for the CN Tower. It’s 553 meters (1,815 feet) tall and after it was built in 1976 it was tallest tower in the world for decades. There are 147 floors and you can go up to the observation tower in a glass-fronted elevator with a glass floor and look out over the whole city or do the “Edge Walk” on the outside of the tower if you dare.

Art Gallery of OntarioThe Toronto Eaton Centre at Yonge and Dundas is a good place to start. The closest subway stop is Dundas Station. The Eaton Centre is right in the heart of the city and takes up more than two city blocks so it’s BIG. Right across from the Eaton Centre is Dundas Square, a big open space where you can just sit and people-watch. There are free concerts and other things going on there during the summer.

If you catch the streetcar on Dundas Street going west, you will see the Art Gallery of Ontario on your left (317 Dundas St. W.). They often have special exhibitions that are world famous. I recently saw According to what? by Ai Weiwei,  an artist from China who takes on issues that cannot be raised in his country. One display was of 10,000 plastic river crabs, symbolizing a feast he invited the world to come to after his studio was demolished by Chinese authorities.

Toronto's Chinatown, Riding the busesHop off the streetcar when it reaches Spadina. It will be obvious that you are in Chinatown, a great place to just meander around. Consider stopping for dim sum. Walk north on Spadina to Baldwin, turn left (west) and you are in Kensington Market. This is a neighbourhood of narrow streets and skinny buildings, some of which are very colourful. It was once a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood but now it’s a multicultural mix with a strong Latin American flavour.

Kensington Market, Toronto, Riding the buses

When you make it back to Spadina, catch the streetcar south (toward the CN Tower) to King Street. (If you’re a fan of Sarah Richardson’s television shows, then you may want to get off at Queen Street and catch a streetcar west to see her Design Inc. studio on George Street. This is Queen West, known for its shops, galleries and restaurants.)

Take the streetcar going east along King Street. There are many stops to hop off at along here. The Entertainment District runs from Spadina to University Avenue and as far south as Lakeshore Blvd. This is where they hold the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). It’s also the home of the National Ballet of Canada, Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Canadian Opera Company. All the big theatres are here, Royal Alexandra, Princess of Wales, Four Seasons Centre and Roy Thomson Hall.

If you’re a sports fan you may want to walk down to the Rogers Centre, which is where you find the Toronto Blue Jays and Toronto Argonauts. It’s very close to the CN Tower. Walk a little further east and you’ll come to the Air Canada Centre, home of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

As you continue east along King Street you’ll pass the Financial District; it’s obvious because of all the skyscrapers. Underneath the big law firms and corporate home offices is an indoor walk called The Path that meanders 27 km (16 miles) with 1,200 shops and places to eat. This is shopping without snow or rain!

Flatiron building backed by Toronto skyscrapers, Riding the busesWhen you reach Bay Street, take the streetcar south to The Harbourfront on Lake Ontario. Consider taking the ferry over to the Toronto Islands or a cruise in the harbour.

Back up to King Street, continue east until Church Street in Old Town Toronto. Walk down a block to Front St. E and you’ll see a really unusual shaped building on your right. It’s a replica of the famous Flatiron Building on 5th Avenue in New York and resembles a cast-iron clothes iron, which is why it got its name.

Turn onto Front Street going east and there before you is the infamous St. Lawrence Market (92-95 Front Street East). This is no ordinary food market but one of the world’s best with more than 120 vendors. It’s been around since 1803.

It will be hard to choose from all the fabulous produce but I suggest you have a look at the booth that claims to be “Home of the World Famous Peameal Bacon on a Bun” since Toronto’s nickname is Hogtown. Then head back up Church to King Street and enjoy your picnic in the beautiful gardens of St. James Cathedral where the Occupy Toronto protest movement camped out during its “Wall Street” demonstration in 2011.

St. Lawrence Market, Toronto, Riding the buses

If you continue east by streetcar along King Street you’ll run into my neighbourhood, The Beach, between Coxwell and Victoria Park avenues. Get off the streetcar and head a block south to walk along the 3.5-kilometre boardwalk running along Lake Ontario before stopping in at one of The Beach’s eclectic restaurants or pubs for a late-day drink. Enjoy.

Building Toronto streetcar systemStreetcar routes
501 Queen
502 Downtowner
503 Kingston Rd
504 King
505 Dundas
506 Carlton
508 Lake Shore
509 Harbourfront
510 Spadina
511 Bathurst
512 St Clair
521 Exhibition East

This interview with Susan Sullivan has been condensed and edited.

Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy

© Riding the buses 2013

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2 Responses to "A streetcar tour of Toronto"

  1. Alex says:

    Actually, the streetcars used to only have gongs as an audible warning signal, but now most of them are now furnished with horns as well.

    1. Sylvia Fanjoy says:

      Thanks for that Alex. I’ll let Susan know. Horns still seem a little old fashion, which is nice.

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