I have always loved castles and history, but I was not expecting to see a castle in the middle of Toronto! However, Casa Loma (the “house on the hill”) was a joy to visit, an amazing place which had so much to see, we couldn’t even fit all of it in one day. I would highly recommend it to anyone, as it is beautiful, and it has a remarkable story behind it.
The castle – North America’s only “full sized castle” as it describes itself – is, as it name suggests, situated on top of a hill with five acres of land around it. It is one of Toronto’s top tourist attractions, but that shouldn’t put you off. There’s a reason why it’s so popular.
Casa Loma was built in 1911 by Sir Henry Pellatt (who was of Scottish ancestry) and became the largest private residence in all of Canada. It took 300 men nearly two three years to complete (at a cost of an incredible $3.5m – back then!) We would highly recommend starting your visit by going downstairs and watching the documentary about the life of Sir Henry as it puts everything in context and is really interesting.
Sir Henry was truly a remarkable, talented man. He became a successful stockbroker, as well as a successful middle distance runner, and proud military man, and travelled widely. He was also extremely modern and, having realised that supplying electricity could be extremely profitable, he founded the Toronto Electric Light Company in 1883. His company had a monopoly on the city’s street lights by the time Sir Henry was 30.
He also invested in the Canadian Pacific Railroad and made a fortune, and in 1902, he and his partners were awarded the rights to build the first Canadian hydro-generating plant at Niagara Falls. We saw this when we went to Niagara Falls, and it is quite a building! Sir Henry was knighted in 1905 for his military service (there is a Queen’s Own Rifles museum at Casa Loma) and started his plans for Casa Loma after that. He had, at that time, a fortune of $17m (over $400m in today’s money). But the magic did not continue.
The house went over budget and the Pellatts went into debt. This was not helped at all by the Toronto government who decided that private companies should not be able to own electricity. They took over the company – astonishingly, with no compensation offered. The same thing happened with the Niagara power generator, while the First World War made everything worse. Sir Henry’s business decisions no longer seemed lucky. The company went into bankruptcy and he had to sell off his possessions – for a small percentage of its cost (there’s a newspaper report of this in one of the rooms).
Casa Loma is now owned by the city and it’s stunning. The film is eye-opening, and after you’ve watched it, you have a number of options. You can explore downstairs, or outside (definitely go out at some point, as the views of Toronto are wonderful). Before or after the film, make sure you do take a look at the video (on loop) which shows the huge number of films which have featured Casa Loma, from X Men to Chicago. But don’t restrict your visit to the basement area! There are also so many rooms inside, with wonderful furnishings.
We spent a number of hours here, following the self-guided audio tour and so going up secret staircases and seeing servants quarters and family quarters. We admired at the modernity of Pellat’s bathroom (a shower with six taps coming out was a marvel back then) and the decor. The old telephones were fun, while the conservatory was utterly beautiful. Imagine entertaining there!
We also queued up to go to the top of the tower, and although this took 20 minutes or so, I’d recommend it (though perhaps not if you have small children or walking issues as you go up a cramped staircase). The views from the battlements were great here too.
We didn’t make it to the tunnel, which connects Casa Loma to the stables and carriage house. It shows an exhibit of Toronto’s “Dark Side”, from Prohibition to The Great Toronto Fire. I wish we were nearer to go back and see it, but it’s rather far from London…
Overall, I loved the house and came away having thoroughly enjoyed myself, learnt a lot and felt sorry for Sir Henry Pellatt, and particularly how his fortune – and dreams – ended. We all had a great time and I would thoroughly recommend a visit.
Casa Loma is open from 9.30 to 5.30pm every day. It costs 24 CAD per adult, 20 CAD for 14-17 year olds and 15 CAD for ages 4-13. However, we went there via our CityPASS which enabled us to jump the queue entirely!
Disclosure: We were fortunate enough to be given a CityPASS to try out when we were in Toronto. This meant we got free entry into a number of attractions and, as importantly, that we skipped the queue! We genuinely thought the CityPASS was fantastic as it gave you freedom to do what you wanted, when you wanted – but the company had no input into our decisions of what to do, or what we wrote in this post. If you book your CityPASS online, it’s cheaper – 55 dollars per adult and 37 per child.