Toronto’s history captivates visitors, tour by tour

From peameal bacon to the Beatles, pivotal moments in the life of a city on the rise

A view of Toronto’s waterfront, including the St. Lawrence Market building (foreground).
A view of Toronto’s waterfront, including the St. Lawrence Market building (foreground).

In 1966, you could smoke in the city’s elevators, but men had to doff their hats.

In the early 19th century, when Canada was very much British, you could be hanged if caught singing the pro-United States protest song ‘‘Yankee Doodle Dandy.’’

Paul E. Kandarian for The Boston Globe
Bruce Bell leads a group along downtown sidewalks.

Folk legends such as Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot got their musical start during the edgy bohemian days of the now super-trendy and expensive Yorkville section of the city.


The smiling tour guide with the goatee standing next to a cardboard figure of a Canadian Mountie in the historic St. Lawrence Market will be more than happy to tell you about all that and much more.

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‘‘I do this year-round and January can be as busy as August,’’ said Bruce Bell, 55, owner-operator of Bruce Bell Tours since 2003. ‘‘People love Toronto all year; it really is the New York City of Canada.’’

I took Bell’s two-hour-plus tour, starting at the market ($25 per person, food tasting included), and found the former actor, comedian, and playwright equal parts historian and showman as he imparted nonstop information.

Over by the Toronto-Dominion Center, a 5½-acre site of towering office buildings, Bell said the city had been built up markedly since the 1970s, starting when Montreal enacted a rule that only French could be spoken when conducting business. Toronto had no such rule and banks, insurance companies, and other big businesses quickly moved headquarters here, he said.

‘‘Montreal was the richest city in Canada,’’ Bell said. ‘‘But after that, instantly, Toronto became the richest.’’


In the gut of the TD Center, between a couple of buildings, we saw a sliver of the historic Fairmont Royal York Hotel, where ‘‘Queen Elizabeth maintains a suite,’’ Bell said.

Here in the 1960s, he said, the city razed 600 buildings to put up the steel-and-glass corporate center, the first modern buildings in Toronto. They were designed by Mies van der Rohe.

‘‘Over here, where the no-smoking signs are now,’’ he said, rushing to one near a row of elevators, ‘‘there were ashtrays, so now somewhere in the city, there are thousands of van der Rohe-designed ashtrays.’’

Atop the building, we walked through the 54th-floor Canoe restaurant, checking out the stunning view of the city’s Lake Ontario waterfront, and Billy Bishop Airport on one of Toronto’s islands, which is also home to many beaches including, Bell laughed, ‘‘one that’s clothing optional.’’

Also near the airport is a plaque marking the spot of Babe Run’s first professional home run. Right below us was the fabled CN Tower and the Rogers Centre, prompting Bell to note upon finding out I was from Boston, ‘‘where your Red Sox beat our Blue Jays.’’


On another floor, we walked through an old bank board room, which was closed to tours this day but which smooth-talking Bell got us into anyway. It is a well-preserved room in its ’60s-era ‘‘Mad Men’’ stylings, a place of rich wood paneling, giant wood-slab desks, and some of the architect’s legendary furniture, including Brno chairs.

Bell said legend has it that van der Rohe was so much the perfectionist, ‘‘the day the bank opened in 1967, he walked around with a screwdriver to make sure the screws in the light-switch plates were all lined up vertically.’’

We also visited the old Toronto Stock Exchange, which opened in 1937 as then the most modern in the world at a cost of $750,000, with trading taking place around nine hexagonal posts. It closed in 1983 and the building now houses the Design Exchange, Bell said, hosting hundreds of programs, lectures, and seminars a year. All around the vast, empty trading room are towering paintings of Canadian industry.

We walked through the I.M. Pei-designed CIBC building, where Bell said it is no accident that the bank deep inside looks like a church, with giant, ornate archways and an imposing feel.

‘‘The idea was the people didn’t trust banks back in the old days,’’ Bell said, ‘‘but they would if it looked like a church.’’

Paul E. Kandarian for the Boston Globe
Bell leads a tour through the cavernous former Toronto Stock Exchange.

Along the tour, Bell noted World War I monuments — 25,000 men from Toronto died in that war, he said.

Walking by the King Edward Hotel, where Bell has been the official historian since 2004, he pointed out a room at the top where the Beatles stayed in 1964, now officially known as ‘‘The Beatles Suite.’’

The hotel is also famous for a corner booth in a space that is now a function room, Bell said as he ushered us inside. In hushed tones, he pointed to the booth and said it is where Richard Burton and Liz Taylor canoodled one night in January 1964, when Burton was in town doing ‘‘Hamlet.’’

‘‘The city wasn’t crazy about them shacking up,’’ Bell said of the couple, who at the time were married to other people. ‘‘The story goes this is where Richard proposed to her.’’

Later that spring, both divorced and went off to be married in Montreal.

The tour finished up at the St. Lawrence Market, where at the Carousel Bakery, we were treated to peameal bacon sandwiches, a concoction dear to Canadians, Bell said, with a delicious corn-meal-coated pork loin served on a fresh roll and best slathered with Canadian-made Kozlik’s mustard. Between bites of his, Bell proudly pointed out that Canada is the world’s largest exporter of mustard.

Bell’s knowledge has led to his own legacy of sorts. When he started doing the tours, he noticed a lack of plaques throughout the city marking spots of historical note.

‘‘A lot of pivotal moments in history had yet to be marked: the great fire of 1849, the hanging yards, the rebellion of 1837,’’ said Bell. ‘‘So I started raising some money and put up those plaques.’’

That led to the creation of the Bruce Bell History Project and those plaques now number around 75, he said.

Bell, who was born in Sudbury, Ontario, and moved to Toronto at 17, can tailor his tours, he said. A group visiting from Ireland, for example, was treated to one geared to the immigration in the early 19th century of tens of thousands of Irishmen to Toronto. He also does black heritage tours, pointing out that Canada abolished slavery in the 1830s, and that Toronto was one of the stops on the Underground Railroad for fleeing US slaves.

What makes his tour different from others, he said, ‘‘is that I make them individual. In the first few minutes, I know which direction to take, playing off people’s personalities and what they’re looking for.’’

When asked if doing tours is still fun, Bell said, ‘‘Honestly, this is my calling. All those years as an actor, playwright, and comedian were leading up to this third act of my life.’’

Bruce Bell Tours,, 647-393-8687.

Paul E. Kandarian can be reached at kandarian@globe