Ontario Culture

If you enjoy the arts, you’ll LOVE exploring Ontario culture. Here's a handy, quick introduction to the "Must-Sees".

Ontario is home to many wonderful craftspeople, artists, musicians, actors and dancers. What a treat to witness their work first-hand. You could even plan your whole vacation around cultural activities.

I live in Ontario and I’m always on the prowl for great artsy experiences close to home. Here are some of my best tips for culture-vultures.

Art Gallery of Ontario

Ontario Museums & Art Galleries

Looking for Canadian art in Ontario?

The best way to see works by major Canadian artists like Norval Morrisseau, Kenojuak Ashevak, the Group of Seven, Tom Thomson, and Emily Carr is to head to one of the major art galleries such as:

Many smaller local galleries have excellent collections of Canadian art as well.

For the work of contemporary Canadian artists, visit this gallery in Toronto: Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA).

The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and the Art Gallery of Hamilton (AGH) often feature temporary exhibits showcasing one contemporary artist, so check their web sites for details about their shows as well. The Power Plant in Toronto is another great spot for new art.

The Art Gallery of Ontario, the Royal Ontario Museum and the Art Gallery of Hamilton also have great collections of international art, both historic and contemporary.

Canadian First Nations art is famous around the world, and if you're looking specifically for Aboriginal art, I've written two articles about this topic. Start with Aboriginal Art in Ontario Museums.

For history museums, check out my two-page story on Ontario History Museums.

Arts and Crafts Studios

Don’t you love watching artists at work? It’s fun and inspiring, and you can learn so much about how art and crafts are made.

Harbourfront Craft Studio and the Williams Mill Art Centre in Glen Williams Ontario are just two year-round places to explore. There are many more; just check with the local tourist board of the city or town you’re visiting.

Studio Tours: Many communities also have annual Studio Tours where artists temporarily open their workshops to the public. If you want to combine nature and art I’d recommend the Haliburton County Studio Tour. You need a car but it’s worth it! 

Live Performances

Theatre: Do you love live theatre? You’ll find performances all across the province, from small towns like Orillia to big cities like Toronto. For more info, see my page on Ontario Theatre.

Music: If you’re a music lover, you’ll be spoiled for choice most nights in major cities like Toronto and Ottawa. You'll find everything: rock, folk, jazz, classical, opera... Some of bigger venues are:

In Toronto:

  • Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
  • Massey Hall
  • Roy Thompson Hall
  • Air Canada Centre
  • Molson Canadian Amphitheatre

In Ottawa:

  • National Arts Centre
  • Scotiabank Place
  • Capital Music Hall

But check out the smaller cities too. Hamilton, for example, has a great symphony -- The Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra.

The casinos in Niagara Falls and Orillia also host concerts, including many big-name performers.

And of course many bars feature performers of all kinds. Some have cover charges, and some are free.

We love our music festivals in Ontario... they're a big part of Ontario culture. Some of the biggies are the Toronto Jazz Festival (lots of free concerts!), the Ottawa Blues Festival and of course the almost weekly music festivals that run at Harbourfront Toronto in the summer.

For classical lovers, there’s the Brott Summer Festival in Hamilton and Burlington. A friend and I went to their opera concert last year, and we both thought it was fantastic. The conductor, Brott, is a real entertainer… this ain’t your stuffy music crowd! The Festival of the Sound is Parry Sound is another big classical fest and Ontario culture treasure.

Dance: Is dance your thing? The National Ballet of Canada is world-revered. You can also find flamenco, belly dance and folk dance troupes across the province. And don’t miss the annual Grand River Powwow where you can get down and dance with the best!

Film

The Toronto International Film Festival is one of the biggest film fests in the world and an important part of Ontario culture. It takes place every year in downtown Toronto in September.

The headquarters of the festival, the TIFF Lightbox, is a building in downtown Toronto that shows art films all year around. They also host exhibitions, like the show on one of my favourite film auteurs, the fabulous Fredico Fellini.

Toronto also has numerous other cinemas including repertory cinemas. For more info, see Toronto Movie Theatres.

Other cities have smaller film festivals too, often with a special theme. Hamilton's World Film Festival is growing and has recently moved to October.

Aboriginal Culture

Aboriginal people have lived in the land now known as Ontario for about 11,000 years. Although today many individuals live in cities and towns, there are still several Aboriginal territories, referred to as reserves, across the province. Many host tourism ventures including art galleries, museums and performances.

The largest reserve in Canada is the Six Nations territory near Brantford. They put on the spectacular Grand River Powwow, which is open to visitors, every summer. Many other powwows take place across the province, including the Canadian Aboriginal Festival. In Brantford you'll also find the Woodland Cultural Centre, a museum devoted to Aboriginal history and culture.

The Ontario Archeology Museum in London hosts a great powwow every year and is a good place to learn about historic and contemporary Aboriginal culture.

Looking for work by Aboriginal artists? For more information about where to see it and where to buy it, see my article on Aboriginal Art.

Multicultural Festivals

As a multicultural society, Ontario is also rich in folk and ethnic festivals. Toronto, which is Ontario’s biggest city and the number one destination for new immigrants, is in fact the most multicultural city in the world.

Perhaps that explains why you’ll find so many exciting ethnic festivals in this city. The annual Caribana Festival is the biggest one of all, and it includes several different celebrations, including dances (or “jump-ups”), concerts and the biggest interactive show of all, the Caribana Parade.

Almost every ethnic group in Toronto has an annual festival. The Irish have St. Patrick’s Day, with its parade down the main streets and parties and dances all over the city. Kitchener is home to the largest Oktoberfest outside of Germany.

Arts Festivals

Ontario hosts more arts festivals than you can count. Every community puts on festivals celebrating art, literature, storytelling and more, and often a combination of many different arts.

Toronto is the site of many of the biggest Ontario culture fests: Toronto International Film Festival, IFOA: International Festival of Authors, the Toronto Outdoor Art Show, and Luminato are just a few.

Culture Days is a three-day festival in late October. All across the province, communities host cultural events.

Ontario Travel Secrets > Ontario Culture