In anticipation of the 1,000+ attendees of this year’s Travel Blog Exchange (TBEX) to be held in Toronto at the end of the month, I thought I’d touch base with the remarkable Shawn Micallef in search of advice for those traveling to the city. Some background on Shawn:
Shawn Micallef is a senior editor and co-owner of the independent, Jane Jacobs Prize–winning magazine Spacing, and the author of Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto and co-author of Full Frontal T.O.: Exploring Toronto’s Architectural Vernacular.
He currently writes a Friday column in the Toronto Star about the city, is completing a book in the Coach House Books Exploded Views Series, The Trouble with Brunch: Class, Fashion, and the Pursuit of Leisure and starting work on a new book about urbanism in Canada.
Shawn also co-founded [murmur], the location- based mobile phone documentary project, now in more than twenty cities globally. He was the 2011–2012 Canadian Journalism Fellow at Massey College and currently teaches a course on Citizenship in the Canadian City, part of the UC One program at University College, U of T. In the fall of 2013 he will be the writer in residence at the Toronto Public Library.
How would you describe the fabric of the city of Toronto for newcomers?
The older, central core of Toronto is a relatively dense place with a variety of building styles. Toronto is famous for its diversity of people, but its architecture is as mixed up. Often highrise condo buildings will be next to old Victorian homes, a mix that works fairly well in some neighbourhoods, especially along the Yonge Street corridor. There is no particular Toronto “look” — though it’s been argued that the radical heterogeneity of Toronto is the look —and Torontonians have long fretted that they’re not a beautiful city in the traditional sense that Barcelona, Paris or Buenos Aires is. Instead the city has an incredibly interesting “messy urbanism” that makes walking its main streets interesting. While the core of Toronto (running from approximately Bloor West Village to the Beach neighbourhood, and from the lake up to Eglinton) is quite big, there’s a lot more to Toronto, having just become the forth biggest municipality in North America.
Outside of the core the fabric becomes more spread out, but there are still many clusters of highrise buildings and messy urbanism that is replicated in many of the city’s post war stripmalls. Again, not the most pretty places, but in the running for most interesting streetscapes anywhere.
What are your recommendations for travelers who want to engage with the city?
Toronto is a great walking city and one neighbourhood will lead to another without disruption in the urban form. Pick any of the great streets like Queen, Dundas, College, or Bloor and simple walk them. Queen West, from Spadina to Roncesvalles, is an incredible strip of art galleries and shops, and though higher rents are forcing some of these places to move, it remains one of the best city walks in the world.
Pick a few of the bigger tourist points, or even random neighbourhoods, and wander between them. Sometimes the “in between,” no-name neighbourhoods in Toronto present the best surprises.
If you want the cheapest tour in town, ride the Queen Streetcar from end to end (from the Beach in the east and deep into Etobicoke to the west) to watch the city change. If you buy a day pass (at a subway station) you can get off and on whenever a place looks interesting.
Suggestions for often overlooked sites and/or neighbourhoods?
No trip to Toronto is complete with out walking Yonge Street for a while. Walk from the lake up to St. Clair and you’ll get a taste of the variety Toronto offers. Check out the Junction neighbourhood in the West end, along Dundas Avenue with it’s great 19th century streetscape. Take the subway up to North York City Centre station and wander one of the “suburban” centres. You’ll find they aren’t so suburban.
Check out Shawn’s TEDxToronto 2012 Talk On Toronto:
Connect with Shawn Micallef on Twitter.