History Writes Itself Onto Toronto With These Ten Best Historic Sites

Less than a decade ago, we didn't have apps, Facebook was only for Harvard students and yoga was for hippies. These things have unarguably changed. If you read this article in ten years, it will be different again. Maybe print will come back in style. 

There are no promises for the future, which makes it all the more interesting to look back in time. Going back twenty years, things feel even more removed from our present day situation. Try going back fifty years or even hundreds. We could focus on all of the things that are different, but there is also a sameness through generations. People want safety, they want community and they want to eat well.

Toronto has a sweeping history that, like any city, is filled with drama and negotiation and hardship. It is one thing to read a history book and quite another to see history. Whether you are from Toronto or just visiting, a visit to one of these places will give you a taste of a newer Toronto in an older time. From the first year-round farmer's market and city hall to a castle that was a 3.5 million gift from a military officer to his wife, Toronto has some juicy stories to tell. Pull up a chair and listen.


This living-history village recreates the 1860s with more than 30 restored buildings and such craftsmen as tinsmiths, blacksmiths, millers, clock-makers, and weavers selling their wares. Visitors will also find demonstrations of spinning, hearth cooking, and quilting. The butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker prove how modern life may feel busier than ever, but in may ways, we have it easy. Visiting Pioneer Village is a way to understand firsthand what life was like for an early Ontario pioneer. Every week there are kid's programs that involve tours, baking, and during the holidays, even chestnuts roasting on an open fire.


Toronto has its roots in this historic site, built in 1793 by the British to defend Upper Canada against possible attack by America. Fort York's military capabilities became even more important after Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe moved the provincial capital to York in 1796. During the War of 1812, the bloody Battle of York in 1813 ended here with U.S. troops capturing the town and destroying a number of important structures. Today, the site is home to eight buildings dating back to 1812, and its position near one of Toronto's busiest elevated expressways provides an interesting link between past and present. Visit Fort York for a glimpse at what life was once like for early Toronto soldiers and citizens. In the summer, Fort York offers daily battle and musical demonstrations.

Founded in 1827, this public institution has consistently been viewed as one of Toronto's strongest Universities. In addition to the University of Toronto's place as a leader in post-secondary education, the sprawling downtown campus is a remarkable display of different architectural styles (contemporary, Gothic, Victorian), sculptures and green spaces. It looks well suited for ghost sightings, of which there are many, including a roaming 19th centure stonemason. Stroll through the campus along the Philosopher's Walk pathway, admire the stained glass windows in the Gothic Revival-style Soldiers' Tower or explore the bookshelves at Robarts Library, one of the leading examples of Brutalist architecture in North America. Be sure to pop into the Thomas Fisher Rare Book library, with 700,000 volumes of exciting original materials.


While the Ontario Legislative Assembly building is commonly known as Queen's Park, the name actually refers to the grassy public space that surrounds the provincial parliament. Throughout the warmer months, Queen's Park is one of the city's most popular meeting spaces, where events are held, locals sit to soak in the sun and hot dog stands like to park. But history buffs won't want to miss exploring the building itself, a pink granite and sandstone structure built in the late 1800s. Free 30-minute public tours are available throughout the day, offering an in-depth look at the building and its fascinating history.

Spadina Museum: Historic House & Gardens

Spadina House is an upper-class historic home, built by businessman James Austin in 1866. An ideal place to visit in the summer, the six-acre grounds have Victorian and Edwardian gardens. From chestnut trees to forget-me-nots, it is an understated place to frolic. Inside, the furnished home had a major renovation in 2010, but still feels like you have entered a time machine. Spadina House provides a great sense of the different marks of different generations, from the 1800s until today. It showcases a different Toronto. This is the next door neighbour of Casa Loma, and it ideal to see the two in the same day.

You don't have to be Anglican to appreciate this church. St. James Cathedral was originally erected in wood and was used during the War of 1812 as a hospital. It was rebuilt in stone in 1833 but burned down by 1839 and after being rebuilt again, burned again in 1849. Persistence paid off and an international architectural competition was held with the winner choosing a Gothic Revival design. In the later 1800s, details such as the pinnacles and finials were added. It took until 1980 before further renovations kept this structure standing. Inside everything is linked proportionally and rationally, like a math equation come to life. A carved organ with 5000 pipes sits underneath a royal coat of arms. Stepping inside feels like stepping inside a piece of history.


This stately castle has been dubbed "a rich man's folly." Built in 1917 by Sir Henry Pellat (a financier and military officer) for the exorbitant price of $3.5 million, the home was a gift to his wife. Within ten years, it was valued at only $27,305. It features beautiful, 17th-century architecture, including Elizabethan chimneys, Rhenish turrets, underground tunnels, and secret passageways. The furnishings originally cost $1.5 million. Other features include a marble swimming pool, a 10,000-volume library and 15 baths. Even horses lived in luxury with their names engraved in 18-carat gold above their stalls (lucky horses). Self-guided audio tours (available in seven languages) are available at no additional cost.

Toronto's Distillery Historic District began in 1859 as the site of the Gooderham and Worts whiskey distillery. 100 years later, the distillery was producing nearly half of the total volume of spirits in the province of Ontario, making it one of the country's most important manufacturing facilities (people like their spirits!). As war, prohibition and outsourcing changed the face of Toronto, it did its number on the distillery which closed in 1990. However, 13 years later this historic district got its second chance and became a charming pedestrian-only village. This area of Toronto today is like no other, with cobblestone pathways and Victorian-era buildings housing restaurants, boutiques and art galleries.

This narrow downtown structure was the first example of a flatiron-style building in North America, and is referred to locally as simply "the flatiron building." It was built in 1891 by the Gooderham family as offices for its distillery business. Today, the designated National Historic Site, located in Toronto's St. Lawrence Market neighbourhood and on the edge of the financial district, is home to some of the city's most prized (and expensive!) office space. The flatiron building is one of Toronto's most photographed structures, and for good reason: standing in front of the flatiron's rounded eastern wall and looking west, one sees both the building and some of the city's most impressive skyscrapers—a look at both Toronto's past and its future. After admiring the building and getting the perfect photo, stop in to the Flatiron & Firkin pub in the basement for a meal or a pint.

Learning about history can make one hungry, so why not kill two birds with one stone? St. Lawrence Market has been marked as the world's best food market, according to National Geographic. Even if you don't subscribe, you will certainly rank The St. Lawrence Market highly due to the fantastic collection of vendors selling all manners of food in the southeast end of the downtown core. The indoor marketplace has been in operation since 1803 on what was then "Market Block." It was the first permanent farmer's market, and insightful tours can keep you abreast of this important part of Toronto history. In 1834 it became a temporary office for the local civic government. It was rebuilt after the great Fire of Toronto but continues to be a hub of Toronto activity.


Meet Courtney Sunday

Courtney Sunday has lived in England, Switzerland, Canada and the US, finding her way into the professions of freelance writing and yoga teaching in between travel opportunities. She learned...  More About Courtney