Toronto mixes European charm with modern amenities
by Matthew S. Bajko
Watching over Toronto's Gay Village is a statue of Alexander Wood, a merchant and city magistrate considered to be Canada's gay pioneer.
In 1810, back when the city was known as York, he was investigating the case of a woman who said she had been raped. While she told Wood that she did not know who her assailant was, she did mention to him that she had scratched the man's penis during the assault.
Using unusual investigatory methods, Wood proceeded to inspect the genitals of a series of suspects he rounded up. Derided by his fellow townsfolk as "Molly Wood," the term Molly was a euphemism back then for a gay man, Wood avoided being tried on sodomy charges by agreeing to leave Canada for his homeland of Scotland.
Two years later he returned to Canada, fought in the War of 1812, and settled once again in York. For years he lived without incident but then found himself embroiled in a new controversy stemming from his handling of the rape case.
The lifelong bachelor survived the scandal and won plaudits as a civic leader. He used his wealth to purchase a 50-acre parcel of land that was nicknamed "Molly's Wood Bush."
The area is now the heart of Toronto's gayborhood, which runs along Church Street. Wood's statue sits at the corner where the main thoroughfare intersects with Alexander Street (there is also a Wood Street one block over). He is now a revered figure within Toronto's LGBT community.
"It is more than coincidence this became the Gay Village," said Liz Devine, a lesbian who owns her own travel company in Toronto.
The story makes for a great tale, even if the veracity behind the claims that Wood was a homosexual is questionable.
It also encapsulates the spirit of the city itself, which is known for its reinvention and sugarcoating of its past.
Situated on the shores of Lake Ontario, Toronto earned the nickname "Paris on the Lake" for its stunning architecture. It also had another, less flattering slogan.
"Toronto was known for its hogs so its nickname was Hogtown. All the pork processing came through here," said Bruce Bell, who leads tours of Toronto's bustling St. Lawrence Market and downtown financial district.
The city is famous for its back bacon (or pea meal) sandwiches. People line up at the Carousel Bakery inside the marketplace (91 Front Street East) for the quick treat, which is made of cured ham slices on a roll.
Opened in 1901, the market is a larger, less upscale version of San Francisco's Ferry Building Marketplace. The two-level structure houses numerous butchers, fishmongers, fruit sellers, and cheese stands.
In the back of the market is a small eatery called Buster's Sea Cove, which is known throughout the Toronto region for its seafood. Another local delicacy is pierogies, Polish pasta pockets stuffed with potato, cheese, bacon or fruits. European Delight in the market's lower level offers numerous homemade varieties for sale.
Nearby St. Lawrence Market is the Distillery Historic District (the corner of Trinity and Mill streets), a series of old brick buildings that have been transformed into a unique shopping, dining, and arts destination. Built in 1832 as the Gooderham and Worts Distillery, it played a role in keeping Canadians and Americans well stocked with alcohol during Prohibition.
A fun way to delve into the distillery district's vibrant past is to see it via a Segway. Tour guides with Segway of Ontario (37 Mill Street, Building 37, Unit 106) offer hourlong introductions to what went on behind the national historic site's Victorian industrial buildings.
A great spot to grab a latte and people watch at the distillery is Balzac's Coffee. The Mill Street Brewery and Pub, which offers free samples of its ales and lagers, serves up burgers and sandwiches while Archeo Trattoria, housed in a former brick carpentry shop, is a reasonably priced contemporary pizza and pasta house.
Another famous Toronto landmark is the CN Tower (301 Front St. West). At 1,815 feet, 5 inches it is the world's tallest tower and offers spectacular views from its observation deck.
For a different bird's-eye view of the city, visitors can dine at Canoe Restaurant on the 54th floor of the Toronto Dominion Bank Tower (66 Wellington St. W). Rated one of the country's best restaurants, Canoe provides a wonderful, though pricey, introduction to regional Canadian cuisine.
During my visit in October, the menu included maple cured British Columbia Salmon ($22 Canadian) or a lamb lion entree ($42 Canadian). A tasting menu ($150 Canadian per person with local wine pairing
The city is also home to many world-class museums, from the Art Gallery of Ontario (317 Dundas Street West) to the sprawling Royal Ontario Museum (100 Queens Park) with its mixture of natural history exhibits to galleries dedicated to furniture, pottery and artworks.
The Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives (34 Isabella Street) provides a more intimate connection to the city's and country's LGBT history. Housed in a former residence, its collection is said to be the second largest LGBT archive in the world. This year it began hosting special exhibitions in its gallery space.
Toronto is also known for its surrounding wine region and is about an hour's drive from Niagara Falls.
The city's gay nightlife is centered in the Gay Village, with its epicenter being the intersection of Church and Wellesley streets. A popular shopping and dining destination, it is home to various bars and restaurants that turn into nightclubs after dinner.
The most popular gay hangouts are Woody's and Sailor's (467 and 465 Church Street), side-by-side bars popular for their happy hour specials. Nearby is Byzantium (499 Church Street) an eatery that turns into a martini bar in the late evenings and hosts dance parties on the weekends.
For the dance party scene, head to Fly Nightclub (8 Gloucester Street), while the piano bar set can be found at Statler's Lounge (487 Church Street).
Several venues present drag shows, including Zelda's (542 Church Street) and Crews and Tango (508 Church Street).
A popular lesbian hangout is Voglie (582 Church Street). The bar and kitchen offer up drinks and food fireside during the cold winter months, while the outdoor patio is a major draw the rest of the year.
In the summer months, the city's gay denizens head to Toronto Island Park in Lake Ontario, a short ferry ride from the mainland. There are bike paths, a small amusement park and a clothing optional gay beach at Hanlan's Point.
The Gay Village is also host to a world-renowned, weeklong Halloween bash. Every year during the week leading up to Halloween, the business association throws special events, from a drag swap and pumpkin-carving contest to an outdoor dance party.
The centrally located Sutton Place Hotel (955 Bay Street) is a 10-minute walk to the heart of the Gay Village. Made famous two decades ago when Liza Minnelli got stuck in one of its elevators, the hotel nowadays is often used by Hollywood stars in town shooting films.
Victoria's Mansion Inn and Guesthouse (68 Gloucester Street) offers more bed and breakfast type accommodations also close to the city's gayborhood.
Air Canada offers several daily direct flights leaving San Francisco International Airport for Toronto's Pearson International. Visit aircanada.com for flight times and fares.
If you are planning to remain in Toronto during your stay, there is no need to rent a car. The city is flat and easily walkable. The central core has an easy to use transit system that includes buses, streetcars, and an underground subway system. Fares cost $3 Canadian for adults, while an unlimited weekly pass costs $36 Canadian for adults.
The U.S. dollar currently is worth slightly less than the Canadian dollar, with an exchange rate of $1 US equals 0.989409 CAD.
For more information visit
Tourism Toronto has an extensive website for LGBT visitors to the city. It lists everything from hotels and dining to nightlife and local attractions. Go to http://www.seetorontonow.com/Visitor/Gay-Community.aspx
For help booking a trip to Toronto, including theater and hotel packages, visit http://conxity.com/.
To book a walking tour of the St. Lawrence Market, contact tour guide and local historian Bruce Bell through his website at http://www.brucebelltours.ca.
For information about the surrounding areas outside Toronto, go to http://gaytourismniagara.com/.