There is no doubt in my mind that bicycling is one of the best ways, if not the best way, to explore a city. You cover more than walking, you can easily stop anywhere, and you can get to the hidden spots that you wouldn’t be able to access by car and transit. I have decided that this summer I am going to spend a lot of time exploring Toronto, perched on the padded seat of my bicycle.
So after last week’s official Toronto biking tour with Sights on Bikes, today I set off by myself to check out the city. On a beautiful Saturday morning I left Toronto’s east end and cycled into the Taylor Park Creek system which is a beautiful and serene valley surrounding a creek, completed devoid of vehicular traffic. I came back up at Stan Wadlow Park near Woodbine Avenue and cycled westwards on one of Toronto’s designated bicycle lanes on Cosburn Avenue, turned south on Logan Avenue and made my first stop at Withrow Park where several merchants were selling a wide variety of home grown and organic food products. The action on the playground was in full swing (literally) and local East York and Riverdale residents had come out to enjoy and sample the bounty that was on offer.
Cycling west on Hogarth Avenue I decided to do an experiment: to cycle while the camera was rolling to give my viewers a real idea of what this neighbourhood looks like. The Riverdale area, located south of Danforth Avenue – East Toronto’s main thoroughfare, is a quaint residential area with Victorian homes and tall, leafy trees. Over the last few years, many homes in the Riverdale area have been upgraded and renovated, and the resulting gentrification and the central location have made it a very popular neighbourhood.
I arrived at Broadview Avenue, a north-south connection between Danforth and Eastern Avenues. Broadview Avenue overlooks the Don River Valley and offers several excellent lookout points of the downtown skyline. I stopped to take in the amazing panoramic view of Toronto’s downtown skyscrapers and watched the hustle and bustle on the Don Valley Parkway while soccer players were getting their exercise on the fields below the embankment.
Just minutes south of here I stopped at the intersection of Toronto’s Eastern Chinatown at Broadway and Gerrard Streets. The City of Toronto features the second largest Chinese population in Canada after Vancouver and has three Chinatowns within its city limits. The Chinese and Vietnamese stores at Broadview and Gerrard stretch from Broadview to Carlaw Avenue along Gerrard Street and sell inexpensive produce, meat, seafood and other general merchandise.
Close by is a historic landmark: the Don Jail was built between 1862 and 1865 and is one of Victorian Toronto’s most important remaining intact structures. The jail was expanded in the 1950s to increase capacity. The facilities in the old section of the prison are very outdated and one particular judge actually credited a person with three days for every one day spent serving in the prison, just to account for the harsh circumstances. The Don Jail was also the location of Canada’s last hangings: two convicted murders were hanged here in 1962.
I then crossed the bridge over the Don Valley and cycled north on Sumach Road to head into the Cabbagetown neighbourhood for a quick visit to Riverdale Park, a public part that features athletic fields and is anchored around Riverdale Farm, a publicly accessible farm that is operated by the city. From 1888 onwards Riverdale Farm was actually Toronto’s Zoo, but after the opening of the much larger Toronto Zoo in the eastern end of Scarborough in 1974, this site was converted into a farm that is accessible free of charge from April to October.
Riverdale Farm is extremely popular with young families since it features farm animals such as horses, donkeys, cows, goats, sheep, pigs and poultry. Groups of young children were gathered around the horse pen and checked out the various barns with different animals in it. I had to chuckle when I saw one of the city workers taking two goats and several kid goats for a walk on a leash – I had never seen a goat on a leash before. Riverdale Farm features a central farmhouse, a tearoom that sells snacks and refreshments as well as washroom facilities. The grounds around the farm house are beautifully maintained and landscaped with a wide variety of flowers that are in full bloom.
The north entrance to Riverdale Farm is exactly opposite another historic Toronto landmark: the Necropolis Cemetery is the oldest burial ground in Toronto with many graves dating back to the early 1800s. Many early famous Toronto personalities are buried here, including George Brown, the founder of the newspaper that became the Globe and Mail, as well as William Lyon Mackenzie – Toronto’s first mayor. Beautiful gravestones tell tales of times long-gone, and of the cemetery’s 50,000 residents, each of whom left a mark on this city.
The area surrounding Riverdale Farm and the Necropolis Cemetery is called Cabbagetown, a residential area that got started in the 1840s by Irish immigrants. The name of the neighbourhood originated because the relative poor residents resorted to growing cabbage in their front yards. Cabbagetown has undergone substantial gentrification since the 1970s and today is one of the most desirable and picturesque residential neighbourhoods in the city. Many successful urban professionals, professors, artists and politicians call this Heritage Conservation District their home.
From Cabbagetown I cycled west on Wellesley Avenue, a major east-west connection in downtown Toronto. I crossed the intersection of Church and Wellesley, the heart of Toronto’s gay community. The Church Wellesley Village is one of Canada’s most vibrant communities and home of various special events such as Pride Week and the Church Street Fetish Fair. Dozens of shops, restaurants, bars and outdoor patios make this a popular entertainment district.
Continuing past Yonge Street, Toronto’s main north-south artery that was formerly listed as the longest street in the world in the Guinness Book of Records, I continued towards Queen’s Park, site of the Ontario Legislature. The park surrounding the Legislative Assembly of Ontario was opened by Edward, Prince of Wales in 1860 and named after Queen Victoria.
One of the architectural crown jewels of Toronto, the Ontario Legislative Building was designed by Buffalo-based architect Richard A. Waite, and completed in a Richardsonian Romanesque style in 1893. The northwest corner also features the apartment of the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario, the Queen’s representative in this province, since 1937. Various statues of famous politicians grace the grounds and the area on the south side of the building facing University Avenue is often used for ceremonial occasions.
Today, the park area on the north side of the Legislature was full of merchants, getting ready for Afrofest. Various Caribbean and African entrepreneurs were getting ready to sell all sorts of food, clothing, music, jewelry and other ethnic products. I would have loved to sample some of delicacies, but when I arrived around noon time the food stands were still getting set up and none of the food was ready yet.
Heading west from Queens Park I entered the campus of the University of Toronto, with about 60,000 students Canada’s largest university which was founded as King’s College in 1827. According to a 2006 Newsweek International Ranking, U of T is the first-ranked university in Canada, and comes in as number 18 world-wide and number 5 outside the United States. Researchers at the University of Toronto have been responsible for such discoveries and achievements as the extraction of insulin, the first practical electron microscope, and the world’s first electronic heart pacemaker.
The central part of the downtown campus of U of T features some stunning architectural heritage buildings in the Romanesque and Gothic revival style, particularly on King’s College Circle. Hart House, a multi-purpose student centre was financed by donations by the Massey Foundation and named after Hart Massey (1823-1896), the Canadian industrialist who founded a successful farm equipment empire.
By now my appetite had been triggered and I was ready to have a nice lunch, so I cycled south on McCaul Street to Baldwin Street which features two blocks of eclectic and diverse eateries, most of whom have outdoor patios on the street side. Indian, Chinese, Japanese, French, Italian and Thai restaurants are represented on this quaint neighbourhood street, offering a wide range of eclectic tastes. I plunked myself down at the Kuni Sushi Ya Restaurant and satiated my hunger with a miso soup and a very satisfying vegetable tempura while contemplating the remainder of my route. The great thing is that Baldwin Street is a rather relaxed, Bohemian Street, so even in my biking outfit with messy hair I did not attract any uncomfortable attention.
After strengthening myself I continued my ride south on Beverley towards the Rogers Centre, the former Skydome, Toronto’s multi-purpose stadium with the unique retractable roof and home to the Toronto Blue Jays (Major League Baseball) and the Toronto Argonauts (Canadian Football). I was particularly fascinated by the outdoor sculptures on the northwest side of the stadium: “The Audience” portrays a variety of sports fans who are celebrating their favourite team’s achievements.
A couple of minutes west on Blue Jays Way I stopped at a memorial to Chinese railway workers, who helped build Canada’s railways in the second half of the 19th century. Many of these Chinese labourers made up the main labour force in the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway in British Columbia. 5000 railway workers were recruited from China and an additional 7000 Chinese labourers were brought in from California. Many of these workers either became ill during construction or died while planting explosives or perished in various construction-related accidents. Living conditions were squalid and the workers generally lived in tents. The monument to the Chinese railway workers pays a moving tribute to the contribution and fate of the Chinese railway workers.
Curving around the southern façade of the Rogers Centre I arrived at Roundhouse Park, a large public space immediately to the south of the CN Tower, named after the John Street Roundhouse, a facility for the inspection, service and repair of locomotives, built in 1929. The facility, today a designated National Historic Site, was closed a long time ago, and today is home to Toronto’s Steam Whistle Brewery Company which produces a popular premium pilsner beer.
Continuing on I cycled underneath the Gardiner Expressway, an elevated highway that connects downtown Toronto to its western suburbs, and I finally arrived at Toronto’s waterfront in an area called Harbourfront. Surrounded by a multitude of high-rise condominiums, Harbourfront is one of Toronto’s premier entertainment districts and features restaurants, a shopping centre for high-end retailers, galleries and a theatre. An international market offers merchandise and food from all over the world. A multitude of sightseeing boats of all kinds docks at the foot of Harbourfront and free concerts delight the plentiful crowd.
From here I took the bicycle trail on Queens Quay to continue into Toronto’s East end and to finally arrive at home after a solid four or five hours of riding and discovering some of Toronto’s exciting neighbourhoods.