One of my favourite neighbourhoods in Toronto is the Historic Distillery District. Owned by Gooderham and Worts, the Distillery was one of the largest distilleries in the British Empire. Today, it is a popular destination for locals and tourists alike. This Toronto hub for art and culture offers plenty to do and see all year round.
This was an industrial area filled with workers, trucks, and alcohol back in the whiskey production days. Today this is a pedestrian-only area with plenty of restaurants, shops and public spaces. Sometimes it’s also a movie set.
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The early days of the Distillery District
Two brothers-in-law, William Gooderham and James Worts founded the distillery in 1832. It produced whiskey and spirits for the British Empire. The Great War prohibition put a damper on a successful production. The business at the Distillery slowed down dramatically. The production continued is a smaller capacity until 1990. It ceased operations after 153 years in business.
Today, the Distillery is home to the largest, best-preserved collections of Victorian industrial architecture in North America.
Stone Distillery, the oldest building here, is constructed from a very thick limestone. It stands out from the red-bricked buildings surrounding it. This was where the grain was stored, milled and distilled. It has survived explosions and fires, mainly due to its thick limestone walls. Today this is an office space.
You can catch glimpses of the past in designated areas. We got a chance to do just that during the Doors Open Toronto. It was really cool to see the past incorporated into the building we see today. I can only imagine how awesome it would be to have an office here.
In those days, the building stood on the waterfront, and there was a rail line that ran the grain inside the buildings. It made for a very convenient location for shipping the final product. Today, this area is a parking lot, and the waterfront is nowhere in sight.
Today’s Historic Distillery District
Not much was happening at the Distillery after it closed in 1990. Its uniqueness made it a popular spot for film productions, with movies like X-men, Chicago, and The Recruit shot here. A new vision for the place started to take shape around 2001.
Love the Distillery District? Check out TV Shows Filmed in Toronto!
Its new owners wanted to honour the historical past of the Distillery District with something that reflected its original structure while giving the city something to celebrate and be proud of. Unveiled in 2003, this pedestrian-only zone became a destination for arts, culture, and entertainment.
Arts and culture
Intended as a place for celebrating arts, the Distillery District is a place where you will find art literally everywhere. From sculptures of giant spiders, thimbles and signs filled with locks, every corner unveils new delights. On special occasions, there are installations and light displays that attract visitors in droves.
In addition to special events, there are plenty of celebrations of music, dance, theatre, food, fashion and many more. Each season brings a different vibe and keeps a steady flow of visitors to the area. You really can’t go wrong with stopping by, no matter when you are in town.
Add several art galleries and art shops, and you have an artsy vibe unique to this area. Summers bring on numerous outdoor performances and shows, bound to keep you entertained.
Toronto Christmas Market
Like many other cities, Toronto has its own Christmas Market right here at the Historic Distillery District. It became a popular event that organizers started enforcing entry fees during weekends and certain evenings to control overcrowding.
I haven’t been to any European Christmas Markets, so I can’t say for sure if this one rivals them in any way. I can say, though, that it is a wonderful event with lots to do for everyone. Vendors are selling their wares, special food stalls and entertainment. Depending on the weather, you will find ice sculptures and special outdoor heating spots for hanging out with your loved ones.
To avoid crowds and avoid paying the admission, visit during the day on a weekday.
During hot summer days, you can enjoy yourself on the many patios packed with umbrellas, flowers and people. There are also a few coffee shops if you need that shot of caffeine to get you going.
Some of my favourite places here include the Mill Street Brewpub, where you can also get a quick tour of the beer-making process. El Catrin also has a mesmerizing mural inside the restaurant or Cluny Bistro for a nice brunch.
Balzac’s serves fancy lattes and delicious snacks with a hipster vibe. It also has a stunning interior and a relaxing patio for people watching as you’re sipping on your coffee. For a quirkier experience, you can check out the Arena Coffee Bar located in the Sports Gallery. After all, coffee goes well with hockey.
Numerous little shops tucked inside the old buildings make visiting the Distillery even more fun. There is no shortage of unique shops, from home decor, arts and crafts to fashion, shoes, and food.
At certain times throughout the year, you’ll find many outdoor vendors, artisan markets and stalls to shop to your heart’s content. The stores offer a unique blend of offerings that make any shopping expedition a success.
Final thoughts on the Distillery District
Toronto lawmakers have often been criticized for demolishing old buildings and not putting enough effort into their preservation. I’m happy that the Distillery Historic District didn’t suffer the same fate. This has become a great example of how history and architecture can be preserved and revitalized for a new purpose and enjoyment.
As Toronto continues its condominium building path, there is no shortage of them at the Distillery. If you can get one of those units, you are guaranteed access to everything here all the time. It surely makes this area a lot more attractive to live and play in than it used to be.
Have you been to the Distillery District? Let me know! Would you want to?