Hi-Hostel offers a bunch of free tours in the mornings, and today consists of a Photography tour at 1pm. It’s run by a guy called Alex, who picks us up and has us hop on a tram heading deep in the Western neighbourhoods. The trams work on the same system as the underground, which use cards or tokens. Thankfully, Alex had tickets already pre-bought for us.
The weather is dry, but the fog is intense, so when we make our first stop at Trinity-Bellwoods Park, the skyline is diminished by heavy cloud. It’s too bad considering how great the view must be with clear skies, but nothing to be done about it (fog is pretty much the staple this week).
Toronto has a lot of parks, especially in the outer areas, to make them more habitable for residents. This is also a dog park in summer, and a toboggan run in winter. Not sure on the toboggan, but the number of dogs we saw proved that it definitely serves its purpose.
The local neighbourhoods include Little Portugal and Little Italy, where you still have huge immigrant populations despite gentrification beginning to crawl in. It’s hard to believe we’re only a ten-minute tram ride from the centre of town, because these areas almost feel like completely different cities. The buildings are smaller and crouched together, and (surprisingly artistic) graffiti is everywhere. It’s got great character.
When we go further East, we reach Kensington, which looks much better without the rain. All the buildings are bright and the streets are teeming with the lunch rush. Alex also takes us up to a car park roof to see another view of Toronto…but the fog is still defying us and we get rushed out by security.
The next stop is Chinatown, but a certain ways down Spadina, Alex peels us to the right and takes us down a place of interest – Graffiti Alley. Graffiti is everywhere in Toronto, but this alley is where the art is both encouraged and protected, so you can see some truly impressive pieces if you’re willing to explore. There is everything from tags to full wall murals – although by far the most incredible piece is a building high Aquarium mural that wraps around two sides of a building. It’s been there decades, and it looks spectacular – I just wish it was possible to take a good photo, but the alley and its size make it near impossible.
By this point we’re almost back into Downtown, and the next stop are the Council buildings. The old building stands side by side with the new, and the iconic ‘Toronto’ sign stands in the square alongside the ice rink (which is now thawed out but is available all winter). The current council building has some unusual circular designs to give it a modern look, while the old building has a clock tower hosting a clock face only a metre smaller than Big Ben in London.
However, what really caught my interest in this area, was the sheer number of food vans and stands. Hot Dog stands are littered around the city, but I’ve never seen so many congregated in one place. I take the chance to get a hot dog, and mentally remind myself I can grab poutine from here later.
We also stop outside a TV station whose biggest claim to fame was a fake car bursting out of the wall midway up the building, supposedly depicting ‘breaking news’, but this was more or less our last stop, as Alex then navigated us back through the streets to the hostel, although we stopped every now and then to snap a photo of the odd building (for a city with such big Skyscrapers, they’ve been very good at protecting the smaller historical buildings, especially compared to places like Australia). It was great to get some navigation around the genuine neighbourhoods or Toronto, and it gave me a much better idea of how the city was set up. It also helped me grab poutine in the evening before I had to hop on the underground at King Street for my evening’s entertainment.
Yup, I went on the Casa Loma Escape website and signed up for one of their Escape Rooms. They sell them ticket by ticket, with a maximum number of 12-16 (depending on the game). In the off season grabbing one ticket a day or so before a game is doable, although I was warned it would be much harder in the summer. I’d arranged to do the ‘Escape from the Tower’ game held in the Tower at 7:30, so grabbed the underground for $3.25 and made my way to Casa Loma for 7:15.
The event starts in the underground Swimming Pool (which was left unfinished and now works as a cinema room) where we’re given the rules and told to create a team name (eventually choosing ‘Tower Rangers’) before getting a synopsis on what the setup was. Essentially, in WW2, Casa Loma was secretly used as a base for researching and producing sonar, and we’d be performing one last mission to locate German subs (this whole idea is actually based on history, as the castle was used for this very purpose, using the dance clubs below as a cover).
Unlike most Escape Rooms, this one also involved actors, and we were guided up the tower by a soldier, and aided by a scientist. I won’t give away any of the plot or puzzles, but you need to make your way up four levels, solving puzzles on each floor, before then having to head back down to escape.
And on that topic, that last puzzle is a DOOZY. We failed to figure out the clue, and to be honest I’m not sure I could have figured it out if I’d had a full hour to work on it. If we’d been calm and thought about it, we might have pulled it off, but you really need to think outside the box to escape.
Tickets cost $38, so I won’t be able to afford another one this trip, but I REALLY wish I could. It’s great fun and I’d love to do the rum runners one. Definitely on my to do list next time I’m in Toronto.