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Walking Tours of Toronto

The non-profit initiative [murmur] is one of those unique projects that fleshes out a stroll around the city without human help. [murmur] posts green signs beside buildings in several Toronto neighbourhoods, each displaying a phone number. Travellers can use their cell phones to dial the free main number, punch in the code they see on the sign and listen to a pre-recorded story about the sight. Most often, tales are told by past residents who recount an interesting anecdote full of personal insight. [murmur] offers these behind-the-scenes peeks in popular Toronto areas such as Kensington Market, the Annex and coming soon, Spadina Avenue.

“These are stories bubbling up through the sidewalk cracks rather than a narrative booming down from the sky,” says [murmur]co-founder Shawn Micallef.

Fifteen locations are chosen per neighbourhood, and the content can range from fond memories of a busy Dundas Street lobster restaurant to a quick history lesson on Kensington Market’s Jewish roots. The project’s creators hunt for storytellers by requesting submissions via their Web site at www.murmurtoronto.ca and the selected stories are chosen for their passion, originality and succinctness.

[murmur] allows any cellphone user to access the service, charges nothing and offers something traditional tours over- look. Rather than listening to a script from a flesh-and-blood tour guide, visitors to Toronto can now learn about a city from those who know it best—locals. Who else can dish the dirt on an apartment above a pita restaurant or rant about the coolest underground rock club?

The [murmur] story for Lee’s Palace, a live music venue on Bloor Street recreates one woman’s fond recollection:

“At the end of the summer, pop-rocker Ryan Adams was playing a show at Lee’s Palace. Waiting in line, I was talking to a few other ticket-holders and one said Adams does a great cover of “Rocket Man” by Elton John. That was cool ‘cuz I was really into Elton John. So the show was totally amazing and really great. Ryan came back for an encore, and said, ‘To liven things up, I got a surprise for you.’ Then Elton John walked on stage, sat beside the piano and started playing “Rocket Man” It was so memorable, so amazing.”

Sometimes, [murmur] storytellers remember more simple pleasures, as one former Kensington Market resident recalls a childhood memory of Casa Lisboa, a store on Augusta Avenue:

“[In Kensington], we’d walk around with our family so my Dad could get green olives, sardines and cheese. We passed by Casa Lisboa and stared at the beautiful ponchos, and I said to my mother, ‘I want the burgundy and gray poncho so bad.’ She said it was too big, she wasn’t going to buy it. I said, ‘I wanna be one of the cool people walking around in a poncho.’ My mother gave in and bought one for me and my sister, and we were both thrilled, and every Saturday we wore our ponchos proudly while Dad bought sardines, green olives and cheese.”

“[murmur] allows access to different perspectives on one site,” says Micallef, who began [murmur] as a new-media project in 2003 with two friends when they studied at the Canadian Film Centre. Seed money came from the Toronto Arts Council and, more recently, from Heritage Canada. After outfitting Kensington Market with the audio guide, Micallef and company spread [murmur] to Bloor Street, between Spadina and Bathurst streets, and then to Vancouver’s Chinatown and Montreal’s St. Laurent Boulevard (in French only). Plans are underway to collect public stories about Toronto’s Spadina Avenue, one of the city’s most diverse areas.

Using [murmur] is for the tech-savvy independent sightseer but it’s not the only choice for anyone hungry to learn more about Toronto. Several tour services offer comprehensive trips across the city, some following a traditional structure and others going the specialized route.

Toronto Tours (416-868-0400) has 30 years of experience showing off the city, offering an air-conditioned bus tour that visits the CN Tower, Harbourfront, the Hockey Hall of Fame, the theatre district and more. Notable for their red English double-decker buses trekking across Toronto, Gray Line Hop-On Hop-Off City Tours (www.grayline.ca) lets you see whatever sights interest you and you can jump on or off at one of the tour’s 20 stops. Gray Line also offers fully narrated tours on motor coaches, with daily departures at 10 a.m. from major downtown hotels.

Site-specific tours promise to detail the minutiae behind the bricks-and-mortar landmarks of downtown Toronto. Sports fans will appreciate a tour of the Rogers Centre (1 Blue Jays Way, 416-341-2770), formerly SkyDome, and home to baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays and football’s Toronto Argonauts. Steps away, the Air Canada Centre Tours (40 Bay St., 416-815-5982) offer one-hour guided tours of the stadium housing the NBA’s Toronto Raptors, NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs and is also a popular venue for A-list concerts from the likes of Coldplay and U2.

Canada’s largest university is known for its picturesque buildings, so fans of architecture and academia will enjoy the University of Toronto Campus Tours (416-978-5000), where students lead free walking trips through the school’s seven colleges.

But why stay on land in a city so close to water? Toronto Hippo Tours (416-703-4476) features 40-passenger amphibious vessels that are part-bus and part-boat, splashing into Lake Ontario for 30 minutes after a 60-minute tour of the city’s hot spots. Even more water-friendly is the Mariposa Cruise Line (416-203-0178), a seven-ship fleet that provides a floating tour of Harbourfront and the Toronto islands.

Specialized tours are also worth considering, especially for the traveller who’s seen it all. Beer fans can quaff tasty brew at the Beer Lovers’ Tour (www.beerloverstour.com), which runs only six times a year but is available year-round for private tours. Known in the media as a “beer expert,” guide Oliver Dawson begins at Steam Whistle Brewery, then travels to Toronto’s legendary breweries and Distillery District before finishing with a four-course “beer dinner” at the Granite Brewery. Dawson says that the historical context of the tour also appeals to those who wrinkle their nose at the mention of hops and barley. “Even non-beer drinking spouses who have come on the tour get full value from the scope and presentation of the tour,” Dawson says.

Visitors with a visual arts bent should consider Art Insite (www.artinsite.com), where guided tours traverse through Toronto’s well-known galleries, artist studios and private collections. A free tour of Yorkville’s art gallery district takes place the first Thursday of every month.

For a more supernatural experience, join the haunted-walk series run by Shirley Lum of A A Taste of the World (416-923-6813). In two separate tours, Lum lets the ghosts emerge from Toronto’s historic sites and streets. Trace the last steps of a murderous chase or sip a hot drink at a haunted café. Lum’s company also specializes in food-centered tours that focus on Kensington Market and Chinatown.

Finding hidden gems will now be painless for the average traveller, according to TAP into TO! (416-338-2786, www.toronto.ca/tapto). Modelled after greeter programs in New York, Chicago and Melbourne, this volunteer-driven service invites visitors to experience the city from a resident’s perspective. Torontonians offer tours of their favourite destinations, whether it be a landmark or a little-known lounge. Places beyond the downtown core are showcased, such as the Indian restaurants along Gerrard Street East. Most useful is the fact that Toronto ambassadors conduct tours in a variety of languages, including French, Portuguese, Spanish, Mandarin and Cantonese.

… So what are you waiting for? Get out and tour the town.—David Silverberg

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