Toronto - Ontario's Metropolis

Although origins of Toronto's name are lost in time, it is thought to be derived from a native word meaning 'meeting place'. Certainly, aboriginal peoples are known to have come here for centuries to join an overland and canoe route between Lakes Ontario and Huron. Etienne Brûlé was the first European to arrive (in 1615) and the Toronto Passage soon became well-known to French fur traders. A small store was established in the 1720s, a fortified post was built in 1751. Under early British rule Fort York lost prestige, being visited only sporadically by fur traders.

Following the American Revolution of 1775-1783, Loyalist families who had supported the British crown fled the newly established United States for areas in the Upper St Lawrence Valley and Lower Lakes. In 1791 their settlements were severed from the old Province of Québec, and incorporated as the Province of Upper Canada. Its first governor, John Graves Simcoe, developed plans for the provincial capital of York, with government offices and a military garrison on the northern shore of Lake Ontario. Growth was slow. "Muddy York" was twice raided and burned during the 1812 war between the United States and Britain, at which time there were only 700 inhabitants. Rapid growth followed. By 1834 its population reached the 9,000 mark, and the city was renamed Toronto. Now, with a population of 2.3 million, Toronto is considered a first class city - the largest in Canada, it is ranked alongside London, New York and Tokyo.

Present-day Toronto retains the orderly layout developed by Governor Simcoe's surveyors. First-time visitors are surprised by the cleanliness of city streets and subway system, and modern architecture that blends so well with cherished historic sites. They say they feel safe here, and for the most part they are. They like the parks, ever handy scraps of green where they can sit and rest; wooded ravine trails and lakeshore parks.

Before the arrival of post-war immigrants, 80 per cent of Torontonians were Anglo-Saxon. The early l950s brought an influx from Europe, followed by the Caribbean, Asia and other parts of the world. Ethnic neighbourhoods took root and prospered. Now Toronto's Chinatown is one of the continent's largest. St. Clair Ave West is known as Little Italy. Danforth Ave has its Greek shops and restaurants. Hop on a Queen Street streetcar to The Beaches and you will be in a predominantly Anglo enclave with one-of-a-kind shops, tree-shaded streets and a boardwalk along the shores of Lake Ontario. Some of these communities stage traditional parades and festivals. Their restaurants add tremendous verve to what used to be a very bland dining scene. And every June they all come together at Caravan, a ten days' celebration with pavilions featuring food and entertainment of the countries represented.

Yonge Street divides Toronto down the middle, beginning at the lakefront and continuing up into Northern Ontario. (At 1,100 miles, 1,770km, it is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's longest street.) With downtown parking at a premium, and traffic snarls a nightmare, a bus tour is recommended to acquaint you with the city. After that you can easily get around on your own. Subways run north from Union Station, east-west on Bloor Street, supplemented by busses and streetcars to provide efficient public transportation.

Even visitors not interested in serious shopping will still enjoy Toronto's stores, in part for their interesting locales. Downtown at Queen and Yonge Streets, the Eaton Center has 350 stores in a bright climate-controlled multi-purpose complex. The eclectic shops, galleries, clubs and cafes on Queen St West attract the young and trendy. Specialty shops and pubs in The Beaches have their loyal fans, and stores at Yonge and Bloor Streets generally cater to upmarket shoppers. Immediately north of Bloor, between Yonge and Avenue Road, Yorkville is Toronto's most exclusive shopping district. While this is not for the budget-conscious shopper, you will want to pay it a visit anyway for a stroll in the historic lanes and perhaps lunch at a sidewalk café.

All these areas, except for The Beaches, can be reached by a network of underground tunnels extending north from Union Station. This is virtually a subterranean city with three miles (5km) of walkways, trees blooming in January, 'outdoors' seating for restaurants, countless shops and services, plus access to hotels, cinemas and subway stations.

As expansion rapidly continues to march north, the lakefront around which the city was founded has been given a second life. Former wharves, grain elevators and abandoned warehouses are now integrated into Harbourfront, a cultural and leisure center with events the year-round. In summer, footpaths and parklands along the lakeshore here are as busy as those of any seaside resort. Lake activities, more shops, Canada's largest antique market, live theatre, artists at work, cafes and restaurants, free entertainment and imaginative programmes for children all contribute to the holiday flavour.

The lakefront was always a natural gathering place. Back in the 1800s the Canadian National Exhibition was established here as an agricultural fair where Ontario farmers celebrated the harvest each autumn. Still going strong, 'the Ex' now embraces international pavilions, midway rides, a fun fair and top performers on stage during three weeks at the end of summer. Linked to the Exhibition by an overhead walkway, Ontario Place is purpose-built on a series of man-made islands. A childrens' playground, marina, fabulous movies on an Imax screen, restaurants and live shows make this a happy summer destination for families.

Dominating the waterfront and city skyline, the CN Tower at 1,815 feet (553m) is the world's tallest free-standing structure, featuring indoor and outdoor observation platforms, a revolving restaurant and nightclub. Close by, Sky Dome is another famous landmark. This much photographed sports stadium with a retractable roof and integrated hotel is the home of the World Series winning Blue Jays baseball team. In addition, events are scheduled through the year, and guided tours fill you in on statistics. SkyDome can be reached via a covered walk from Union Station. Ferries are frequent to off-shore islands. Harbor cruises offer a grand view of the city waterfront.

In the same general area, but a couple of hundred years away, Fort York was built by the British in 1793, destroyed in the 1812 war, and reconstructed immediately after. Its summer programmes illustrate the life and times of nineteenth-century British soldiers garrisoned at the fort. On holiday weekends especially, it can be extremely colourful as red-coated 'soldiers' go about their business. Similarly the Toronto Historical Society operates several early homes in the city, giving them a lived-in look with costumed residents performing chores of the day. Black Creek Pioneer Village at Jane Street and Steeles Avenue is an aggregation of settlers' buildings essential to a pioneer community, including a former coaching inn where hot lunches are served in its dining room.

No aspect of the visitor's Toronto has expanded so dramatically over the past twenty years as its theatre. Offering more live theatre than any other English-speaking city - London and New York excepted - there were at last count 130 professional theatre companies in town. Performances by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Canadian Opera Company and the National Ballet of Canada are always well attended.

Toronto has outstanding museums and galleries. Best known is the Royal Ontario Museum, fondly known as the ROM at Queen's Park. Nearby, the Bata Shoe Museum has an extraordinary shoe collection spanning some 4,500 years. The George R. Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art is another specialty museum, with a huge collection of pottery and porcelain of the past 3,000 years. At the edge of Chinatown, on Dundas St.West, the Art Gallery of Ontario has the world's largest collection of work by Henry Moore. North of the city (25 miles, 40km) Kleinburg is a perfect setting for the McMichael Collection of Canadian Art, beautifully shown in a rambling log building above the Humber Valley. Canada's famed Group of Seven landscape artists are well represented here, as are Indian and Inuit artists. The gallery has a restaurant, and there are others in town to make this an enjoyable half-day excursion from Toronto. More Canadian art is displayed in the Ontario Parliament Buildings at Queen's Park, just south of the ROM.

Children will want to visit the Ontario Science Centre, particularly popular for hundreds of 'hands on' exhibits. Also the Metro Toronto Zoo, recognized as one of the continent's better zoos. Even with monorail and electric trains providing zoo transportation, there is still a lot of walking involved to cover its 710 acres (287ha).