Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Toronto's Railway Lands and Harbourfront

The area around the landmark CN Tower in Toronto was once a large railway switching yard. Owned and maintained by the Canadian National Railway, this prime real estate near the waterfront has since been redeveloped and is today home to the Rogers Centre, Ripley’s Aquarium Canada and the famous tower (whose name refers to the Canadian National, the rail company that built the tower). The neighborhood is named Railway Lands and includes the South Core and City Place neighborhoods (also known as the Entertainment District), and just south is the Harbourfront, which faces the inner harbor and the Toronto Islands.

Downtown Toronto is easily accessible by bus and train, and one morning we took the subway to Union Station, the crossroads of Toronto Transit Commission’s (TTC) subway and streetcar system, Via Rail, Amtrak and GO Transit rail services. This National Historic Site of Canada serves over 250,000 passengers a day, serving as a connecting hub for the Union Station Bus Terminal just across the street and to the airport, with the Union Pearson Express train offering service to the airport.

Connecting Union Station to the CN Tower and the Rogers Centre (SkyDome) is the SkyWalk, a 1640ft enclosed walkway that passes above the York Street subway and the Simcoe Street Tunnel. Opened in 1989, the post-modern curved metal and glass structure was the first major construction project in Railway Lands after the CN Tower.

We emerged from the Skyway behind the Ripley's Aquarium of Canada, our morning destination, and at the base of the CN Tower.

Across the street from Ripley’s are Roundhouse Park, Toronto Railway Museum and Steam Whistle Brewing. The brewery offers a tour and taste, where visitors can learn how the pilsner is made, tour the "green buildings" and catch up on the railway history of the area. We continued south under the Gardiner Expressway, and across to the Simcoe Wave Deck. The 2009 project was inspired by the shorelines of Ontario’s Great Lakes, the 200 foot-long yellow glulam cedar and ipe wood construction an undulating rollercoaster of curves.

We stopped in at the Amsterdam BrewHouse for lunch, sampling their brews with several tasting flights alongside a diverse menu of burgers, seafood and pizza. Once the Blue Jays game ended, a wave of people arrived at the BrewHouse to refuel, the extensive indoor seating area and two outdoor patios providing plenty of space for hungry fans.

The rear patio and the adjacent walkways provide beautiful views of the Inner Harbor and the planes departing from Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport. We admired the view, and even caught glimpse of a mysterious pirate ship in the lake fog, a cannonshot echoing across the water surprising adults and kids alike. Our best guess is that one of the tall ships was rented out for a wedding ceremony as there appeared to be dozens of guests onboard, although you never know…

Having crossed over the Amsterdam Bridge we continued along the Waterfront Trail, passing Lakou Mizik doing their sound check on a concert stage (Cowboy Junkies had performed the previous week). Having circled around the Harbourfront Centre we were now only a short distance from Union Station, marking the end of that day’s tour of the waterfront. However, Harbour Square Park and the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal is just another block over, and so the lakefront exploration could easily extend to the Toronto Island Park via a short ferry ride. Or, you could head west along the Waterfront Trail, to explore the Spadina Quay Wetlands, the Toronto Music Garden and HTO Park. Regardless, the area has come a long way since the years of rail switching yards and shipping warehouses, transformed over the course of two decades into a gathering space with tourist attractions and favorite local spots alike that add to the vibrancy of Toronto’s downtown.

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