Downtown Toronto’s Hidden Architectural Secrets and Mysteries

Toronto Skyline
Toronto Skyline | © OTMPC

There’s a lot to do in downtown Toronto, and it will take you a while to do absolutely everything. Also, secrets don’t last long here; once something has been “discovered,” word spreads fast. With this guide, explore Toronto’s lesser-known elements—a button begging to be pushed, secret gardens, optical illusions, and eccentric landmarks!

Disco Washroom

Otto’s Bierhalle’s feast-size platters, late-night eats, brunch menu and awesome selection of beers give you plenty of reasons to visit this Queen West joint already, but it gets even better. Without giving too much away, their best-kept secret isn’t on the menu—it’s in the washroom. When you do end up in there, will you hit the red button and see what happens next?

Gravity Defying Room

The literal dollhouse

The home of Shirley Sumaiser at 37 Bertmount Ave is somewhat of a beacon in the neighborhood of Leslieville. The front-facing portion of the house, including the garden and gate, is covered in an eclectic collection of dolls, stuffed toys, plaques, and signs. Over the past two decades, as the exhibit has grown, her home has become a neighborhood attraction and is better known as the dollhouse in Leslieville.

Leslieville Doll House

Peace Garden at Nathan Phillips Square

While everyone else takes selfies in front of the well-known colorful Toronto sign at Nathan Phillips Square, slip away from the babble of crowds into the lesser-known sanctuary of the Peace Garden, created as a response to Art Eggleton administration’s 1983 declaration of Toronto as a “nuclear-free zone.” As part of the city’s revitalization of Nathan Phillips Square, the Peace Garden was relocated to the western side of the square. Its new location gives it a hidden and more secluded quality.

Peace Garden

Toronto’s Half House

This next architectural secret isn’t an optical illusion. Through some miracle, this half building from the 19th century, on Saint Patrick Street, has survived. Back in the day, the unit was one of six homes. During the 20th century, landholding companies were buying property and tearing it down; the other units in this row were torn down one half at a time as owners gave in, but not this one. To this day, Toronto’s Half House stands in defiant resistance.

Toronto’s Half House

Music Garden

Inspired by one of the most famous pieces of music for strings, Yo-Yo Ma recorded a six-part film called Inspired By Bach, exploring Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G Major. A couple of years later, he and a landscape artist called Julie Moir Messervy created a concept for a botanical garden based on the music. The city of Boston was the original location for the Music Garden; when that didn’t happen though, Toronto came through. The spiral walkway in the garden explains the different sections that connect the garden to Bach’s piece. Entrance is free; tours run until late September, and there are concerts throughout the summer on Thursdays and Sundays.

Cube House

The address of 1 Sumach Street has been amusing drivers heading for the Don Valley Parkway for many years. Architect Ben Kutner and his partner Jeff Brown erected this quirky building in 1996, taking inspiration from the cube homes built in Rotterdam and Helmond in the 1970s by the architect Piet Blom. The living space in these units extends from a trunk-like base; Blom saw the units as trees, and so these building clusters became urban “forests.” Over the years, Cube House has been an actual residence; however, earlier this year it was put up for sale, so who knows what will become of it in the future. See it while you can!

Cube House

The Monkey’s Paw

When you head to this book collector’s dream, keep a “toonie” or two on you; the Monkey’s Paw has the world’s first “Biblio-Mat,” a random book vending machine that dispenses a different book every single time. The unique and eclectic collection of books in this eccentric store are hard to come by anywhere else, and you’ll come across titles you didn’t even know you needed but simply have to have. Named after a supernatural short story by author W. W. Jacobs, this quirky little bookshop is one of the best easter eggs in the city!

Bamboo Forest

This stunning atrium in the heart the Toronto’s Discovery District is the result of a microclimate inside the building of University of Toronto’s Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research. On wooden benches, students and the general public can drift away underneath a lush canopy of tropical plants whenever they want. Germany’s Behnisch Architekten and Toronto’s architects Alliance designed the space and used a combination of natural and artificial light to give a dreamy quality to the garden.

Bamboo Garden

Check out the map below for a “secret” tour of the hidden architectural gems in Toronto’s downtown:

landscape with balloons floating in the air


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