What it's like to be a tour guide in Toronto
We meet on the front steps at Old City Hall. It's a scorching hot afternoon and the area's packed with office workers, ice cream trucks and cabs. Maybe today wasn't the best time to join a free walking tour of my hometown.
Clearly others disagree because about 30 people - from places like New York City, Germany, South Korea and the Netherlands - gather around our tour guide Tim, eager learn the ins-and-outs of Toronto.
I'm on the Tour Guys's Old Town Toronto History Tour, it's supposed to teach me about death, disease and destruction: my second favourite Triple D designation. (This, of course, is my number one.) After taking a slew of walking tours abroad in various cities in Western Europe and Israel, I'm curious about what they're like here at home, especially now that tourism is booming in Toronto.
According to Tourism Toronto, we welcomed approximately 14.03 million overnight visitors to the city in 2015. It's unclear whether or not Drake had anything to do with that record-breaking number.
And with all these tourists, someone must be showing them around the city. Sure, they can take the obnoxious red double-decker buses around town, but those are expensive and well, obnoxious. Many choose to take a different route and rely on free walking tours from companies such as the Tour Guys.
Founders Steve Woodall and Jason Kucherawy both have a background in educational tourism, but back in 2009, they wanted to branch out. "We both wanted to start offering walking tours in our respective cities," says Kucherawy, who's from Toronto. Woodall's from Vancouver.
"We based our company model on the free tours that were very popular in Europe." This means that while their tours are technically free, their guides rely solely on tips to make money (basically, it's a major no-no not to tip at all).
My triple D tour guide Tim says he's been working with the Tour Guys for about one year. He has degrees in history and theatre, making him the ideal candidate for this gig. While he's originally from Adelaide, Australia, he's called Toronto home for the past three-and-a-half years. And he definitely knows his shit.
I join the part of the tour from City Hall to the MacKenzie House. As we walk up Yonge Street and through Yonge-Dundas Square, he chats with participants and answers their questions about the 6ix. While this tour seems to be filled with visitors, not all of them are. Kucherawy also runs some for Urban Adventures, which often attract locals.
Along with taking people through Kensington Market and Chinatown, he leads one about craft beer and another he calls "When Pigs Fry," a bacon, pork and Hogtown history tour, which stops at places like Wvrst and Porchetta & Co. "I basically take people to restaurants where I would take friends from out of town and tie it all into Toronto's history as a pork-producing centre as Hogtown," he says.
Foodies on Foot, which relies on public transit for its tours, also has a local clientele. Founder Steven Hellmann thinks Torontonians are eager to learn more about the city, especially its food culture. As people from around the world are taking more interest in Toronto, it seems like locals are turning inwards too.
And while it might be nerve-wracking to lead locals through their hometown, Kucherawy finds it especially gratifying. "The best complement we can receive is when someone says, 'I'm a local, I've lived here my whole life and I never knew that or I've never been here before.'" And I definitely upped my Toronto knowledge on my tour last week, so thanks Tim.
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