A culture lover’s guide to Toronto

This article is part of FT Globetrotter’s guide to Toronto

As one of the planet’s most multicultural cities, there is much to spark curiosity and expand perspectives in Toronto. Built by waves of immigrants over decades, this mosaic of cultures is tangible through the city’s patchwork of idiosyncratic neighbourhoods; music, language and food from every corner of the world, and a thriving arts and culture scene.

The story did not begin in 1793 when Toronto was founded as the capital of Upper Canada. The land upon which Toronto stands has been the ancestral home of Indigenous peoples for 12,000 years — the name Toronto originates from tkaronto, a Mohawk word meaning “trees in standing water”. But until the mid-1960s, the city’s cultural landscape was dominated by colonial and European traditions. Today, you can explore visual and performance art by First Nations, Métis and Inuit artists across the city at its world-class institutions, such as the Art Gallery of Ontario (see below) and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, as well as at annual arts festivals and performances staged by the Indigenous theatre company, Native Earth Performing Arts.

Each year in Toronto is punctuated by internationally acclaimed ballet, opera, theatre and festivals. Whenever you visit, there is something to see. Below is by no means the complete set of cultural musts in the city, but merely a scratching of the surface. For a taster of this year’s cultural calendar, head here.

Art Gallery of Ontario

317 Dundas Street West, Toronto, ON M5T 1G4
  • Good for: There’s a lot to marvel at, so plan to spend a good chunk of time here. If you get peckish or parched there’s a bistro and espresso bar

  • Not so good for: Parking is limited, so best bet is to take public transport. Much of the collection skews towards adults, although there are kids’ workshops and play centres

  • FYI: Open Tuesday–Sunday, 10am–5.30pm (until 9pm on Wednesday and Friday). C$30 entrance ($22/£17); Indigenous people and 25-and-under go free; free admission on the first Wednesday evening of the month (pre-book online) 

  • Website; Directions

The curved glass shell of Frank Gehry’s 2008 renovation of the Art Gallery of Ontario, photographed from the outside against a blue sky
Frank Gehry renovated the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2008 © Craig Boyko

The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) is bold in scope, its extensive collection spanning realism, minimalism, pop-art, Indigenous Inuit artworks, Canadian Impressionists, European masterpieces and much more. With more than 120,000 pieces in its collection, it is one of the largest and most distinguished art establishments in North America.

You’ll need stamina or more than one trip to attempt to see it all. The continuously expanding collection includes Australian Aboriginal art, rare Québécois religious figurines, a photography exhibit spanning the history of the medium, arts of Global Africa, First Nations and Inuit carvings, major artworks by the Group of Seven Canadian landscape painters as well as paintings by the likes of Rubens, Monet, Van Gogh and Picasso. A cavernous space is devoted to a horde of Henry Moore sculptures, figures lounging and posing in bronze and ceramic.

‘Large Two Forms’ by Henry Moore: a large bronze sculpture of irregular, curving shapes, in a garden beside the Art Gallery of Ontario, with trees in the background
‘Large Two Forms’ by Henry Moore is among the sculptor’s works in the gallery’s collection © The Henry Moore Foundation. Photograph: © Art Gallery of Ontario

The JS McLean Centre for Indigenous + Canadian Art places Indigenous art at the centre of the gallery’s permanent collections. The exhibit’s opening declaration affirms that the gallery honours “First Nations sovereignty and title to the land”, with texts translated into Indigenous languages. Inuit stories of the supernatural and spiritual are rendered in monochrome prints and works of stone. Giant, brightly coloured paintings span entire walls, depicting scenes of nature, battle, struggle and longing.

‘I awoke to find my spirit had returned’, 2018, by Métis artist Rosalie Favell, the subject of a recent exhibition at the gallery’s JS McLean Centre for Indigenous + Canadian Art: a painting of a woman waking up in bed, surrounded by black and white men and a woman in 19th- and 20th-century clothing, with a small black dog lying at the bottom of the bed cover
‘I awoke to find my spirit had returned’, 2018, by Métis artist Rosalie Favell, to whom a recent exhibition at the gallery’s JS McLean Centre for Indigenous + Canadian Art was dedicated © Courtesy of the artist. © Rosalie Favell

For a feeling of flavour, recent temporary exhibits have seen a series of Rembrandt masterpieces, three decades of Wolfgang Tillmans’ photography and an exhibit devoted to Keith Haring.

AGO’s building itself is a thing of beauty too: an expansion in 2008 by Canadian architect Frank Gehry brought soaring curves of wood and spiral staircases that wind up to the exhibits from the foyer, skylight ceilings and a curved, glass beetle-like shell encasing the building’s exterior, which traversed on the inside feels like walking the length of a rib cage.

TIFF Lightbox

350 King Street West, Toronto, ON M5V 3X5
  • Good for: Film lovers — whether you fancy catching a classic on a rainy afternoon or browsing the extensive reference library

  • Not so good for: While exhibits and special programming are put on year-round at TIFF Lightbox, you will need to check ahead of time to discover if there’s something on of interest 

  • FYI: Toronto International Film Festival takes place this year September 5–15

  • Website; Directions

 The illuminated facade of the Beaux Arts-style Royal Alexandra Theatre, which is one of the venues that hosts the Toronto International Film Festival
The Beaux Arts-style Royal Alexandra Theatre is one of the venues that hosts the Toronto International Film Festival © Mert Alper Dervis/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Along with Vancouver, Toronto has earned the moniker “Hollywood North” by dint of its strong presence at the heart of Canada’s film industry, propelling it to become one of the largest film and television production centres in North America.

The pinnacle of this is the annual Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which sees movie stars, filmmakers, cinema lovers and cultural pundits flock to the city every September to discover the best of new cinema, from established auteurs to upcoming talent. Hundreds of international and independent movies are screened across the 11-day festival. The city’s multicultural pulse is on show here: in 2023, the event’s programme represented 70 countries. The whole city joins in the excitement, and bars and restaurants around town fizz with action.

Posters against a red wall in TIFF Lightbox’s Film Reference Library of films including ‘Pandora’s Box’, ‘The Shape of Water’ and ‘Young Frankenstein’
Posters from the archive of TIFF Lightbox’s Film Reference Library © Nick Wons

Since its inception in 1976, TIFF has become one of the world’s luminary film festivals and is credited with generating an Oscar buzz. Films that win awards here — such as American Fiction last year — are often a good indication of those that will bag Academy Awards. The People’s Choice Award, based on audience balloting, has frequently anointed films that go on to win Oscars, including La La Land, Twelve Years a Slave and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. 

TIFF Lightbox’s Varda café: a sea-blue carpet with modernist purple velvet chairs around small tables leading to a small Art Deco-style bar
TIFF Lightbox’s Varda café © Nick Wons

However, you don’t have to wait for the festival to get a feel for Toronto’s moviemaking credentials. A cathedral to film, TIFF Lightbox in downtown Toronto offers a revolving door of discussions, workshops, festivals and screenings year-round. Opened in 2010 as the permanent TIFF headquarters, the building houses a film reference library, gallery space and a recently launched café and lounge, Varda, named after the late Belgian-born filmmaker Agnès Varda. Special film programming means you can watch classics such as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70 millimetres, Boogie Nights or Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Monster on any given weeknight. 

Royal Ontario Museum

100 Queens Park, Toronto, ON M5S 2C6
  • Good for: Nature lovers, geology enthusiasts, history buffs, art aficionados, aspiring archaeologists or anyone curious to learn about the history of the planet in all its myriad manifestations 

  • Not so good for: The time-poor — you’ll want a couple of hours at least to explore all the museum has to offer (and it will still be tricky to conquer its entirety) 

  • FYI: Open Tuesday to Sunday, 10am–5.30pm. General admission tickets cost from C$26 ($19/£15); special exhibitions are extra. There’s a restaurant and play area for children

  • Website; Directions

Daniel Libeskind’s ‘Crystal’ extension at the Royal Ontario Museum
Daniel Libeskind’s ‘Crystal’ extension at the Royal Ontario Museum © JHVEPhoto/Alamy

Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) is an institution in the true sense of the word. It is Canada’s largest and most well-trodden museum, with a sprawling permanent exhibit covering art, global culture and natural history across the ages. An impressive brick edifice, replete with stained glass windows and a Venetian mosaic dome depicting images of Mayan temples and Egyptian falcons, the foyer is all glistening marble flooring and tall mottled balustrades. In 2007, Daniel Libeskind designed “The Crystal” in homage to the museum’s immense crystal collection — a geometric glass and aluminium mass that juts out of the heritage building like a time-space distortion.

The foyer of the Royal Ontario Museum, with a vaulted, yellow-mosaic ceiling and marble floor with a black and grey star shape at its centre
The Royal Ontario Museum opened in 1914 and today has 40 exhibition spaces © ROM 2018. Photograph: Wanda Dobrowlanski

Opened in 1914, ROM originally consisted of five separate museums, devoted to archaeology, palaeontology, mineralogy, zoology and geology. In 1955, they were fused to become the behemoth that visitors can explore today. For a feeling of span (and time required): there are 40 exhibition spaces displaying just a fraction of the museum’s collection of 13 million artworks, cultural objects and specimens. 

Needless to say, there is much to absorb for both adults and children alike. The natural history collections are meticulously displayed and comprehensively explained, dizzyingly broad in reach, covering insects and arachnids, minerals and gems, plants, meteorites, mammals, fungi, fish and vertebrate fossils. Earth’s Treasures encompasses 4.5 billion years of geological history with potholed meteorites from the moon, precious minerals and rare crystals of every type, size and shimmer imaginable.

A skeleton of a small dinosaur behind glass at the museum’s Dawn of Life gallery
The museum’s Dawn of Life gallery © The Canadian Press/Alamy

One of the standout permanent displays is The Dawn of Life, a fossil exhibit charting the history of the earth from its first cellular iterations to dinosaurs and everything in between. Interactive elements elevate the learning experience: microscopes you can use to zoom in on tiny fossils; animated renditions of the strange creatures that once lurked in the deep seas; petrified tree trunks from prehistoric times that you can trace with your fingers. 

The World Culture galleries house archaeological collections devoted to myriad ancient civilisations. Egyptian. Chinese. Greek. Cypriot. Roman. Korean. Aztec. Aboriginal peoples of Australia and New Zealand. Nigeria’s Yoruba people. Here you’ll find ancient coins and daggers, cowrie shell cloaks, 3,000-year-old mummified skeletons from ancient Egypt, Islamic religious art, carved stone Roman busts, intricate beaded jewellery and cryptic inscriptions. The First Peoples Art and Culture gallery displays works of art and cultural heritage of Canada’s Indigenous people from pre-colonial times to the present, including ceremonial clothing, birch-bark canoes and fine art.

A piece from ROM’s upcoming ‘Quilts: Made in Canada’ exhibition made by Japanese Canadian Kinu Murakami in the New Denver internment camp during the second world war. It is made of rows of images of soldiers
A piece from ROM’s upcoming ‘Quilts: Made in Canada’ exhibition made by Japanese Canadian Kinu Murakami in the New Denver internment camp during the second world war © Royal Ontario Museum. Photo: Paul Eekhoff

This is merely a sample of what’s on offer, and as well as the permanent exhibits, ROM regularly holds temporary ones, some recent ones including wildlife photography collections, an exhibition currently exploring cultural and natural responses to death, an exhibit devoted to Inuit musical expression and artistry. The terrace offers an alfresco experience for music, theatre, talks and performances and there are monthly ROM After Dark evenings.


  • Good for: Experiencing the diversity of Canada’s arts scene 

  • Not so good for: Those not visiting in June

  • FYI: Luminato takes place June 5–16 this year

  • Website

Luminato is an annual celebration of contemporary art, music, theatre and dance. Since its inception in 2007, it has put on dazzling performances each year in theatres, venues and outdoor spaces across the city, showcasing both local and international talent. It’s an eclectic festival — expect bold, experimental, genre-bending productions and exhibitions. 

A black-clad male dancer holds another black-clad male dancer around the hips as he raises his hands in the air in a staging of ‘Nuit’ by the late Canadian choreographer Jean-Pierre Perreault at last year’s Luminato festival
Last year’s Luminato festival included a staging of ‘Nuit’ by the late Canadian choreographer Jean-Pierre Perreault © Elle Marie

When I attended last year, I watched a rendition of Nuit, an interpretative dance devised in 1986 by the Canadian choreographer Jean-Pierre Perreault — in many respects his most important work. Artistic director Laurence Lemieux, who danced in the original production, brought it back to the stage for the first time since Perreault’s death in 2002.

‘Loss’ by Ian Kamau at last year’s festival, featuring a Black man in a grey tee-shirt and red beanie speaking or singing into a microphone; to his right, in the foreground, is a saxophonist and a music stand
‘Loss’ by Ian Kamau at last year’s festival © Brian Medina

This year, there will be different performances and artists on show, of course. But for an idea of scope, last year’s programme included Dragon’s Tale, an opera depicting the origins of traditional Chinese dragon-boat racing; Aalaapi (which in Inuktitut means “choosing silence to hear something beautiful”), a theatrical performance infused with the soundscape of the north of Canada; and Loss, a live-art, multimedia performance exploring the trauma of loss in African-Caribbean communities.

What for you are the highlights of Toronto’s cultural landscape? Tell us in the comments below. And follow FT Globetrotter on Instagram at @FTGlobetrotter

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