One of my favourite neighbourhoods in Toronto is the Historic Distillery District. What was once acclaimed as the largest distillery in the world, owned by Gooderham and Worts, is now a popular destination for locals and tourists alike. This Toronto hub for art and culture offers plenty to do and see all year round.
Although today this is a pedestrian-only area with plenty of restaurants, shops and public spaces, this wasn’t always the case. There was a time when this was a very industrial area. A very different spot than it is today.
The early days
The actual distillery was founded by brothers-in-law William Gooderham and James Worts in 1832. It produced whiskey and spirits for the British Empire. The Distillery was a very profitable business until the Great War prohibition put a damper on the production. The business slowed down dramatically after that for a while. However, it continued to operate until 1990, when 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. Although this is now an office space, you can catch a glimpse of its distilling past in designated areas. We got a chance to tour the building during Doors Open Toronto. It was really neat 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. It was also 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. Although, it became a popular spot for film productions, with movies like X-men, Chicago, and The Recruit being shot here. It wasn’t till 2001 that a new vision for the place started to take shape.
Its new owners wanted to honour the Historic Distillery District with something that reflected its original structure while giving the city something to celebrate and be proud of. It was unveiled in 2003 as a pedestrian-only zone and 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 a number of art galleries and art shops, and you have yourself an artsy vibe that is unique to this area. During the summer there are numerous outdoor performances and shows that are bound to keep you entertained.
As many other cities out there, Toronto has its own Christmas Market right here at the Historic Distillery District. It became such a popular event that organizers started to enforce 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. What I can say though, is that it is a wonderful event with lots to do for everyone. There are vendors 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.
Best way to avoid the crowds and paying the admission is to visit during the day on a week day.
During hot summer days you can enjoy yourself on the many patios packed with umbrellas, flowers and people.There 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. There is also El Catrin with 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.
What makes a visit to the Distillery even more fun, is the number of little shops tucked inside the old buildings. From home decor, arts and crafts to fashion, shoes and food, there is no shortage of unique shops.
At certain times throughout the year, you’ll find a number of 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.
Bringing it together
Toronto lawmakers have often been criticized for demolishing old buildings and not putting enough effort into their preservation. I’m very glad that the Distillery Historic District didn’t suffer the same fate. This has become a great example how history and architecture can be preserved and revitalized for a new purpose and the enjoyment of many.
As Toronto continues its condominium building path, there is no shortage of them at the Distillery. If you’re able to 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 than it used to be.
Have you been to the Distillery District? Would you want to? Let me know!