This post was most recently updated on July 9th, 2019
How would you go about discovering Toronto on a first-time visit? Would you check the top ten list of things to do on TripAdvisor? Or the tourist pamphlets in your hotel’s reception area? There’s actually another way to familiarize yourself with a new city — taking an urban tour. One of the newest concepts in travel today is “Urban Tourism”.
Urban tourism…what exactly does that mean? It’s getting to know the city where you are…the history, the culture, the people, and the space. Whether it’s where you live…or a city you are visiting, urban tourism is all about making real connections. On a recent visit to Toronto, my husband and I got to experience urban tourism firsthand with Peter Odle and Urban Expeditions.
I had no idea what to expect. We were told to pack light and bring an extra pair of socks. Peter met us in our hotel lobby and hailed us a cab to meet up with another ‘urban tourist’ (Robina, from Holland) who would be joining us in discovering Toronto.
This tour would be unlike any I’ve ever experienced. First of all, Peter was incredibly knowledgeable about Toronto, and its history. It was also clear that he truly loved the city of Toronto. It’s where he lives and works and it’s where he vacations. In fact, I’d say he was refreshingly passionate about us discovering Toronto for ourselves! We figured since Toronto is the largest city in Canada, it was a good place to start.
The Tour begins
We started our tour in west Toronto, near where the original fort was established by the British in 1793. As we walked (pretty quickly, I might add!), he told us about the origins of Toronto: how it got its name, who settled it, who fought for it, and how it began to grow and expand. He shared with us the struggles of the immigrants who came, disasters (like major fires) that defined the people and the city, and the politics of overcoming differences between nationalities, religious beliefs, industries, and more.
We walked through neighborhoods of early row homes, originally built in wood, but re-built in brick after the 1904 fire. We learned how early Toronto residents adapted — to the cold, to poverty, and to the need to expand industry and education. Peter shared the three main keys to Toronto’s growth: bricks, booze, and pigs (or bacon, if you want to keep it all B’s!).
We learned about failed housing projects, revitalization efforts, and transportation issues. (Should the underground metro be expanded? What about the sleek electric trolley system that gets shut down by automobile accidents because they share the same roads?)
Peter led us around the University of Toronto and its colleges, buildings inspired by English architecture, and beautiful hidden courtyards, study nooks, and park spaces. This kind of ‘discovering Toronto’ was fascinating to me.
We passed street art and the colorful Bohemian Kensington Market, where the people are as about as organic as you can get. Peter told us about this close-knit community and how they work together to keep things as untouched by modern commercialism as possible — no big-chain names, just locally owned and operated businesses. I felt like I was getting a back-door pass to all that was Toronto! Places were pointed out to us that we would have never found on our own. And they’d never be listed on a top-ten list of things to see. But some of them should be!
Getting to know the people
Instead of being led to the big-ticket tourist attractions, I was learning about the people who live and have lived in Toronto along with their struggles and triumphs. Did you know that nearly half of all people living in Toronto now were born outside of Canada? There is so much diversity here.
We learned that the British originally worked out a purchase of the Toronto lands from the Mississaugas (the aboriginals) in 1787, but the deal was eventually rejected. Twice. It was not until 2010 when payment was finalized at $145 million.
When the Irish escaped to Toronto from the Great Potato Famine, they brought with them their distilleries and front-yard cabbage gardens. In fact, for awhile, Toronto was mockingly called Cabbagetown. The Irish neighborhood was also known as Corktown, either because of the concentration of people from County Cork…or from the breweries and cork-stopper manufacturers.
A stroll through Chinatown reminded us of the influence of immigrant workers who might have come to help build railroads but stayed and influenced Toronto, along with Jewish, Italian, and other ethnic groups.
Discovering Toronto and its Spaces
Walking through Yorkville taught us that when areas are revitalized, they often displace lower-income residents. It was difficult to fathom all the challenges that Toronto faces as a modern city.
Peter guided us seamlessly around Toronto — taking us to a rooftop bar to see fantastic views and then grabbing a cab to drop us off at the Beltline Trail, where we hiked under a canopy of trees so thick it was hard to remember we were in a metropolitan city. We ended up at the Don Valley Brickworks Park and Governors’ Bridge Lookout, where we enjoyed another spectacular view.
The story of the brickworks was so interesting! After fires destroyed much of Toronto in 1904, building out of bricks became crucial to Toronto’s survival. Good quality clay found near the Don River provided needed material for over 100 years. But now, the brickworks and quarry have been converted to park space and the abandoned buildings provide a community centre.
Nearly 13% of Toronto is public park and green space, twice that of Los Angeles and about the same as San Francisco. So while you might look at the skyline of Toronto as one huge line-up of skyscrapers, there is a lot of green tucked into its boundaries.
So Much MOre
Honestly, I can’t even begin to replicate all the experiences we had discovering Toronto. In about four hours time, we walked nearly 9 miles, talked about everything from Toronto’s history to how to orient yourself in Toronto (look for the CN tower — it’s always south), when to visit the Art Gallery of Ontario free, to where to find the best ethnic food. Peter answered all of our questions and gave us a great gift — a knowledge and affinity for Toronto we could have gained no other way. This small-group format was ideal for conversing and learning. It couldn’t have happened with a large tour group.
- Book an Urban Expeditions Tour as the first thing you do in Toronto. It will help you so much, because you’ll be able to navigate better, and you’ll know what you want to do and where you want to spend more time after taking the tour.
- Definitely bring that second pair of socks. Changing socks about halfway through the tour brings happiness to your feet!
- Stay hydrated. Bring a water bottle. Urban Expeditions provides a snack/drink, but you’ll probably still need water throughout the tour.
- Only with Urban Expeditions can you have your tour customized to what you most wish to
see. You can choose from “pedestrian”, “arts”, “cultural”, or “green”…or you can request a customized combination of one or more of these elements. You’ll be asked what is most important to you. For me, I wanted to learn the history of Toronto, and I wanted good photo ops.
- Guess what! Urban Expeditions has plans in the works to expand to San Francisco, Miami, Seattle, Phoenix and Vancouver. There are also City Games you can participate in, in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Kingston, Chicago and NYC.
- A tour starts at $250 for three guests; that includes a personal guide for four hours, snacks, and all of your transportation. Grab a friend or two and become urban tourists! You can also purchase tickets through Airbnb at an individual rate.
Peter does not call himself a tour guide. Instead he’s a broker of practical local information. His specialty is transforming you into a local as quickly as possible! Discovering Toronto and sharing it with you is his passion.
So much gratitude to Peter for inviting my husband and I to experience an Urban Expeditions Tour. I am convinced there’s no better way to see a city than as an urban tourist!
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