The Royal Ontario Museum: understanding the past, making sense of the present

The Royal Ontario Museum is Canada’s largest museum. Its collections spotlights art, culture and nature from across the world and the centuries. Located very close to the University of Toronto, its mission is to “transform lives by helping people to understand the past, make sense of the present and come together to shape a shared future.”

The Royal Ontario Museum is Canada’s largest museum. Its collections spotlights art, culture and nature from across the world and the centuries. Located very close to the University of Toronto, its mission is to “transform lives by helping people to understand the past, make sense of the present and come together to shape a shared future.”

A few years ago, we lived in Toronto for several months. I would go out and explore the city almost every day. On one of these excursions, I visited the Royal Ontario Museum. They had a special exhibition going on: the Dead Sea Scrolls. Fantastic, I thought.

I battled the crowds to buy a ticket first, and then, to see the exhibition. My expectations built up as I went along the exhibit cases. The climax was the scrolls. What an anticlimax! They looked like rags with something scribbled on them. Anyway, I felt so lucky to be able to see such an important piece of history and culture.

This is why I love museums, because you can see objects that changed the history of humankind in so many ways. I’ll never forget that visit to the Royal Ontario Museum (PSA: avoid Wednesdays, especially during the summer. It’s their busiest day, I was told.)

The Royal Ontario Museum

This National Landmark was officially opened to the public in March 1914. It underwent successive expansions in 1933, 1947, 1968, 1988. The latest to date, and largest, took place in 2002, when The Crystal was added.

At the beginning, the Royal Ontario Museum was governed jointly by the Government of Ontario and the University of Toronto, hence its location in the University district.

The Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto) is Canada’s largest museum. Its collections spotlights art, culture and nature from across the world and the centuries. #ROM #Toronto #museum

The museum buildings are a hodgepodge of architectural styles: Italianate and Neo-Romanesque in the original building Western Wing;) Art Deco, Neo-Byzantine and Gothic Revival in the Eastern Wing; Deconstructivism in the Crystal.

The Crystal

The addition of the Crystal caused a big controversy. I imagine it must have like that of the Louvre pyramid. Jamaican-Canadian businessman Michael Lee-Chin donated CAD 30 million towards the construction of the Crystal which bears his name. Designed in the Deconstructivist style, the Crystal opened in 2007. It is clad in 25% glass Abd 75% aluminium on top of a steel frame.

The Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto) is Canada’s largest museum. Its collections spotlights art, culture and nature from across the world and the centuries. #ROM #Toronto #museum

It is the museum’s main entrance, on Bloor Street. Inside is the three-story-high atrium, a gift shop, seven galleries, a cafeteria and a restaurant and a temporary exhibition hall.

The Royal Ontario Museum has 27 galleries for its permanent collections. Let’s have a look at some of them.

Eaton Gallery of Rome (Level 3)

This the Canada’s largest collection of Roman artifacts. It spans 1,000 years of the history of Rome from Republic to Empire. I learned about different aspects of everyday life and how Roman culture influenced the culture of the places she invaded. The time frame for this collection is 900 BC to AD 476, the Fall of Rome at the hands of the Visigoths.

Reed Gallery of the Age of Mammals (Level 2)

I was thrilled to find a Glyptodon from Mar del Plata, Argentina, in the collection. Not surprising, since the collection represents the biodiversity of North and South America 65 million years ago. Mastodon, sabre-toothed cat and the giant ground sloth are also part of the collection

James and Louise Temerty Galleries of the Age of Dinosaurs (Level 2)

One of my favourite galleries. I love dinosaurs. The specimens here are from the Jurassic (200 to 145 million years old) and the Cretaceous (145 to 65 million years old). Tyrannosaurus rex, Stegosaurus and Triceratops are some of the fossils in this collection.

Galleries of Africa: Egypt (Level 3)

The Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto) is Canada’s largest museum. Its collections spotlights art, culture and nature from across the world and the centuries. #ROM #Toronto #museum

I found this gallery fascinating. I could see a mummy face to face, although I’m a bit squeamish. The 2,000 objects on display (4000 BC to AD 400) include a fragment of the Book of the Dead. How interesting is that! The total number of artifacts amounts to 25,000.

Gallery of Chinese Architecture (Level 1)

This gallery showcases “the largest and best collection of Chinese architectural artifacts outside of China.” I don’t know whether that’s true; however, I found the collection pretty impressive. Among the more than 200 objects, the Ming, Han and Tang tombs really stand out.

Sigmund Samuel Gallery of Canada (Level 1)

Here I learned a lot about Canadian heritage and history. The emphasis is on the early French and British settlers’ legacy: furniture, portraits, religious artifacts and the like.

Daphne Cockwell Gallery Dedicated to First Peoples Art and Culture (Level 1)

This was my first encounter with the rich artistic and cultural heritage of Canadian First Peoples. I loved the intricate decoration of some garments and learning how they survived the cold (way too cold for me!)

The other galleries of the Royal Ontario Museum

The rest of the galleries are, of course, worth taking the time to visit. Greece, Ancient Cyprus, a bat cave, the Gallery of Birds, the Bronze Age Aegean culture, Korea, Byzantium, Rome and the Near East, South Asia, Biodiversity, Chinese Temple Art, the Middle East, Nubia are well represented at the Royal Ontario Museum.

Read it in Spanish here 

Underground spaces I’ve visited in my travels

The theme of this post is the underground. It’s a round-up of underground places I’ve visited in different cities. It’s not meant to be a comprehensive guide for obvious reasons, just a fun list of places that may spur you on to visit as well. I don’t know about you but being in enclosed underground spaces makes me a bit anxious. Everywhere except the underground (metro, subway) as a means of transport. Go figure!

Ho8 German Underground Hospital, The Jersey War Tunnels – Jersey, Channel Islands

Jersey, one of the Channel Islands -together with Guernsey, Herm, Alderney and Sark– is a British Crown dependency. As such, it isn’t part of the United Kingdom but a self-governing possession. Such “trifle” didn’t stop Hitler from invading the Channel Islands as early as July 1940. It was his foothold in the British Isles.

Life during the Occupation can’t have been easy by any stretch of the imagination. Some islanders decided to leave for mainland Britain, many families sent their children there on their own, and many stayed. About 1,200 islanders were deported to camps in Germany for different reasons. Some came back, some did not.

On October 1941, a massive fortification project began. The Channel Islands was part of the Atlantic Wall, the 1,700-mile line of coastal defence devised by Hitler. The manpower for the Jersey fortifications was provided by the Organisation Todt. This organization brought 5,000 foreign workers, all prisoners of war. They lived in shocking conditions. The Russians, however, received the worst treatment because the Nazi considered them subhuman.

They excavated many tunnels throughout the island. The Underground Hospital, or Ho8 -Hohlgangsanlage 8- is part of that network and a Jersey landmark. You can see the original operating theatre, boiler room, telephone exchange and the office of the Head Storeman. Each room has a different theme. You can see gas masks, or old uniforms, makeshift radios people manufactured at home to listen to the news, photos, and original objects, among other things. They also have an Enigma machine, which I thought was brilliant.

There are some urban legends and myths about the tunnels, like the one about slave workers buried in the walls. I was told that’s not the case. However, the atmosphere is eerie. The thought of the way the slave workers were treated and the living conditions under the German occupation filled me with anguish.

El Zanjón de Granados – Buenos Aires

The Zanjón de Granados museum took me back to the times of Santa Maria de los Buenos Ayres, the name with which the city was founded in 1536. The historical record of this site goes back to 1580, when founder Juan de Garay gave it to Juan Fernández. Zanjón de Granados is located in the intersection of Defensa and Chile streets, in San Telmo.       

During our guided visit, we were told that, in 1985, a family bought the property to start a catering business. The old house, from the 1830s, was abandoned and walled up, and a mountain of rubble inside that was 12 feet high. When the restoration work began, they started to find remains of previous, older, constructions. Then, the owners decided to call a renowned local archaeologist, Daniel Schávelzon, so he could work his magic.

In the 1860s, a well-to-do family and their six servants lived in this house. During the guided tour, you can see remains of the sewers and the tank used to collect drinking water. These improvements came about after the yellow fever epidemic that ravaged the city in 1870.  

Towards 1900s, the house was converted into a tenement house, as demand for rooms was high due to the influx of immigrants. You can see the way the house was altered to make more room. They even fitted shops on the ground floor. Also, you can detect the materials used, as for example, the bricks are a different size and hue.

The visit includes a walk along the tunnels, which have been restored beautifully. The guide will point out where the stream called Zanjón de Granados, used to run. It used to flow into the River Plate. There are remains of the cistern tank and the drainpipes built towards 1780 to change the course of that stream and thus avoid flooding.

PATH – Toronto

The guided visit is very interesting and dynamic. Even my seven-year-old nieces listened to the guide and even asked questions.

The PATH is a sort of underground city under Toronto’s downtown area. According to their website and the Guinness World Records, it’s the largest underground shopping complex in the world. It is 19 miles worth of shopping arcades, with approximately 1,200 shops.

The PATH connects more than 50 office buildings, six subway stations, two malls, eight big hotels, and Union Station. It also connects tourist attractions such as the Hockey Hall of Fame, the Air Canada Centre and the CN Tower, which I haven’t visited because I’m scared of heights.

PATH construction started in 1929, when the Royal York Hotel built an underground passage that connected the hotel with Union Station. In my opinion, this is the prettiest section of the PATH, to go from the beautiful station to the magnificent hotel lobby. The rest of the PATH is a bit sterile.

The PATH is great in the summer heat. Although many won’t believe this, Toronto can get hot and humid in the summer. But it is during the harsh winters when you appreciate the advantages of the PATH.

Longhorn Cavern – Texas

Longhorn Cavern State Park is located in the beautiful Hill Country of Texas. This is a day-use only park. The main attraction is the Longhorn Cavern. I did the cavern walking tour. There’s no way in hell I’ll ever do the wild cave tour, where you wriggle, climb and crawl along narrow underground spaces.  

The 90-minute tour takes you along 1.1 miles of developed passages. You can walk straight! The history of this cave is very interesting. This limestone cave used by Native Americans, Confederate soldiers as a store, and outlaws.

During the Prohibition era, in the 1920s, the Longhorn Cave was transformed into a speakeasy. By the late 1930’s, the Civilian Conservation Corps built a road, residences, pavilions and an observation tower.

I think I was able to cope with being underground because the passages were very spacious. And it didn’t hurt that it felt so much cooler than the hellish heat of the Texas summer. We were able to spot a few bats, which was interesting. At one point, the guide turned his light off to show us what pure darkness looks like. It was a few seconds of the darkest darkness I’ve ever experienced in my life.  

Toronto: off-the-beaten-path historic villages

Toronto is a vibrant, modern metropolis. But sometimes it’s nice to get away from the hustle and bustle and spend time in a quieter place, like these four historic villages. They are incredibly well-preserved, almost too perfect, but gorgeous.

Streetsville, Oakville, Unionville and Thornhill provide a welcome change of pace and a glimpse into Canada’s past. All these villages are a delight to walk around, shop and eat. The architecture is mainly Victorian, although there are buildings from earlier and later periods.

I adore visiting these historic villages because I’m interested in local history, the buildings and homes are beautifully preserved and the streets are clean and tidy. Also, I admire the way Canadians honour their past history and integrate it into the present.


TO Villages - Streetsville

Streetsville lies on the banks of the Credit River near Mississauga. It was founded by Thomas Street, who surveyed the lands the British government acquired from the Iroquois. Heritage buildings are scattered throughout the village, like the Grammar School (1851) or the village hall (1860). The Cenotaph in the middle is from 1926 and commemorates local soldiers who died in WWI.

How to get there

By car, via the Gardiner Express W, then take ON-427 N and ON-401 W to Mississauga Rd/Peel Regional Rd 1 S in Mississauga. Take exit 336 from ON-401 W

By public transit: the 21bus towards 21B – Milton GO from Union Station Bus Terminal and a longish walk from the Millcreek Dr. @ Erin Mills Pkwy stop.


TO Villages Oakville

Oakville is located on the shores of Lake Ontario. The town centre is vibrant and modern but I’m interested in Old Oakville, the original settlement. It is a lovely place for a leisurely stroll among historic houses –look out for plaques with information-, along the lakefront and the parks. This guide from The Oakville Historical Society may come in handy.

How to get there

By public transit: take the LW713LWxtowards LW-Aldershot GO at Union Station.

By car: via Gardiner Expressway W and Queen Elizabeth Way.


TO Villages Thornill Historic Village

This pretty little village is located in Vaughn, north of Toronto. Pick up a self-guided walk leaflet at the public library, a lovely white gingerbread house. This village was founded in 1794. After a nice stroll, go towards Yonge Street for refreshments.

How to get there

By car, via the Don Valley Parkway North and Bathurst St/York Regional Road.

By public transit: Queen Station – Northbound Platform Subway1 towards Line 1 (Yonge-University), Finch Station – Subway Platform, Finch Go Bus Terminal Platform 10: Bus77towards Hwy 50 via Centre – WB


TO Villages- Unionville

Unioville is a suburb of Markham, an hour or so northeast of downtown Toronto. It was settled in 1794 but really developed in the early 1840s. Wikipedia tells me that “The main street has been used as a stand-in for fictional Connecticut town Stars Hollow during the first season of Gilmore Girls television show, and for other television and movie backdrops.” Unionville is really beautiful. I remember having a very nice lunch of Central European food.

How to get there

By car, via the Don Valley Parkway North (404), then take the exit right onto 407.

By public transit, a combination of subway and buses.


Have you been to any of these villages?


Make sure to visit this link. Happy trails!


Old Town Toronto walk

Old Town Toronto began as the Town of York, founded in 1793 as part of the British colony of Upper Canada. The city was incorporated in 1834 and renamed Toronto. The Great Fire of 1849 destroyed most of its wooden buildings, which were replaced by solid brick constructions, mostly Second Empire or Georgian in style.

I wanted to experience this part of the city, so I designed a walking tour based loosely on the Insight City Guide: Toronto’s section on Old Town.

3. Old Town TorontoMy starting point was the King Subway Station on the Yonge-University-Spadina (yellow) line and walked down King Street East. Le Royal Meridien King Edward Hotel (37 King. St. East) was on my right. It was built in 1903 on the very spot where York’s first jail was located. Hundreds of hangings took place here until 1826. I briefly wondered (hoped?) whether this stately neoclassical construction was haunted, but I didn’t think so.

Anglican Cathedral of St. James
Anglican Cathedral of St. James

Further up King Street, across the street, is the Anglican Cathedral of St. James. It was built in the Gothic Revival in the 1850s and has the tallest spire in Canada. It houses the retired colours of the Royal Canadian Grenadiers and the Royal Regiment of Canada. Inside, its crisp white walls playfully reflect the colourful light that filters through the stained glass windows. The atmosphere is calm and soothing.

St. James’ Park adjoins the cathedral. As it was sunny, but crisp, autumn day, there were some people eating their lunch and basking in the (rather weak) sun.

Across the street from the park is the majestic St. Lawrence Hall (157 King St.), an awe-inspiring Victorian neoclassical building. Unfortunately, it’s not open to visitors (unless there is a cultural or social event).

St. Lawrence Market
St. Lawrence Market

I then turned right into Jarvis Street. Round the corner is the St. Lawrence Market, built in 1844. The fruit and veg were as fresh as it gets and the meat counters were a symphony of pinks.

After I left the market, I walked west on Front Street and stopped for a quick sandwich and coffee at Second Cup. There are other options for lunch and dinner there too.

The view down Front Street is postcard-worthy: the famous Flatiron Building set among modern steel and glass counterparts and the CN Tower in the background.

I love the contrast between historic and modern - Flat Iron Building in the forefront
I love the contrast between historic and modern – Flat Iron Building in the forefront

I took Wellington Street (to the right of the Flatiron Building) and did a double take. Out of the corner of my eye saw a French chef eating sushi at Ichiban (58 Wellington St). It was none other than Eric Ripert. I thought that if I were a sushi fan, this is where I would come. By the way, I’m not in the habit of stalking world famous chefs.

At 49 Wellington St sits one of the most interesting buildings, the Gooderham Building, popularly known as the Flat Iron Building.

Then followed a longish walk up Church Street and west on Queen Street as far as Yonge St., where Eton Centre is located. Eton Centre is a huge shopping mall but I didn’t stop here (this time, at any rate), I simply crossed it to get to the Old City Hall, built in 1899 in the Romanesque Revival. Across the street is the New City Hall, designed by Finnish architect Viljo Revell in the Modernist style in 1965, it overcame criticism and became one of Toronto’s most recognizable landmarks.

Technically, this is the Financial District, but I thought that the sun setting behind the curved buildings of the New City Hall was a picture-perfect ending to my walk.

Fort York, Toronto’s birthplace

Did you know that American troops invaded Canada once?

Yes – well done, you history buff you!
No – don’t feel bad, I didn’t know it either.

In 1812, the United States and Great Britain went to war. In April 1813, the US Army and Navy attacked York, as Toronto was called then. The outnumbered defenders retreated to Fort York from the beachhead on Lake Ontario. The Battle of York lasted six hours. The Americans occupied the town of York for six days, looting homes, destroying supplies and burning public buildings.

The Canadians retaliated in 1814 by burning the Capitol and the White House, among other buildings, in Washington.

War ended in December 1814 but news reached the Dominion in February 1815. Both sides claim victory to this day.

Fort York history

Fort York started as a garrison built by Lieutenant-Governor John S. Simcoe in 1793 to enable the British to control Lake Ontario.

As is usually the case, civilians settled nearby and gave the community the name of York. Years later, in 1834, the town was renamed Toronto.

The original log buildings deteriorated and were replaced by new barracks by Simcoe’s successors. The British Army continued to sue the fort until 1870, when the Canadian government took on the responsibility for the country’s defense. The army used Fort York until the 1930s.

The city of Toronto restores the fort in the early 1930s and opened it as a museum.

Fort York today –  a visit in pictures

Fort York is located near downtown Toronto on 250 Fort York Boulevard. I took the Red Rocket (TTC’s trolley) to the fort. I had to leg it for a bit to the entrance.

The Red Rocket
The Red Rocket

Fort York has a fantastic view of Toronto's skyline
Fort York has a fantastic view of Toronto’s skyline. What would the soldiers say about the view and the city today?

Welcome. Come in and make yourselves at home
Welcome. Come in and make yourselves at home

First, I visited the 1815 Brick Barracks, which originally housed 100 people each. The soldiers’ wives and children lived here too.
First, I visited the 1815 Brick Barracks, which originally housed 100 people each. The soldiers’ wives and children lived here too.

The 1815 stone magazine stored 900 barrels of gunpowder. Its walls are 2 metre (6 feet) thick. The adjacent well provided clean water. This one is a reconstruction based on old army plans.
The 1815 stone magazine stored 900 barrels of gunpowder. Its walls are 2 metre (6 feet) thick. The adjacent well provided clean water. This one is a reconstruction based on old army plans.

I came across a handful of groups of students. These ones seem to be enjoying the guided visit.
I came across a handful of groups of schoolchildren. These ones seem to be enjoying the guided visit.

Officer's uniform and stove.
Officer’s bedroom.

Officers' mess. Nice and cozy.
Officers’ mess. Nice and cozy.

Fort York
The 1815 Officers’ brick barracks and mess

Fort York
Another view of the fort and Toronto in the background that emphasizes the contrast between historic and modern.

Casa Loma, a medieval castle in… Toronto!

“What do you mean a medieval castle in Toronto?”- You’re entitled to think someone’s pulling your leg. But no, they are not. In fact, there is such a thing in the Annex North neighbourhood: Casa Loma, a medieval inspired castle built in 1911.

9 Casa Loma

The owner, industrialist and financier Sir Henry Pellatt, had his dream home built on a hill overlooking Toronto. It took 300 men almost three years to complete. The house has fantastic views of Toronto skyline. If you go down Spadina (which I recommend so you can enjoy the peace and quiet of the Annex North), you’ll walk into the Baldwin steps surrounded by a beautiful garden. Go up to find Casa Loma.

Toronto skyline
Toronto skyline

I loved the idea of visiting such a lovely house; however, it didn’t feel like a home. To make matters worse, it was rather warm that day and there were lots of school children visiting. As there is no air conditioning, they placed huge fans everywhere, which recirculated the warm air. Despite all that, I did enjoy the visit.

3 Casa Loma

Sir Henry and Lady Mary, his wife, lived in Casa Loma for about ten years until financial troubles caused by ill-advised investments and the First World War caused them to give it up and move to their farm. The City of Toronto owns the property.

Lady Mary's suite
Lady Mary’s suite

The main floor comprises the medieval-looking Great Hall, the library, the dining room, the conservatory, Sir Henry’s study and the billiards and smoking rooms. The second floor contains guest rooms; and Sir Henry’s and Lady Mary’s suites (hers was my favourite). The servants’ quarters (for 40 people!) are on the third floor.

Lovely sitting room
Lovely sitting room

Garden feature
Garden feature


Address: One Austin Terrace, Toronto M5R 1X8

Directions (from Casa Loma website)

Go to Dupont station (located two stops north of St. George station on the Spadina- University line) and walk north two blocks on Spadina Ave. At this point, visitors have the option of climbing the Baldwin Steps (110 steps) at Spadina Ave. and Davenport Road or walking up the hill on the west side of the castle.

Go to Spadina station and take the Davenport 127 bus to Davenport & Spadina. Get off the bus and climb the Baldwin steps (110 steps ), or take the bus one stop further to Davenport and Walmer and walk up the hill on the west side of the castle.

Go to St. Clair West station on the Spadina-University line, walk east on St. Clair to Spadina, turn right (south) and keep walking (approximately 15 minutes) to the castle.

Go to St. Clair station on the Yonge line. Take the St. Clair streetcar (going West) to Spadina Road, get off and walk south on Spadina Road (approximate 10 minute walk) to Casa Loma.

I visited Casa Loma when we were still living in Toronto back in 20101 (when I had short hair!). I didn’t have a blog then so I’m making up for it now!

I love these powder blue sofas
I love these powder blue sofas

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