Hollywood of the North: Movie Locations, Film Festivals and Celebrity Sightings in Toronto

Walk in the same steps as your favourite actors and actresses in this guide to Toronto's film industry and the Toronto International Film Festival. 

The red carpet at the Toronto International Film Festival, photo courtesy TIFF

It’s played host to a superhero car chase, stood in for a presidential funeral and has even made a few cameos as itself over the years. With a more-than-$2-billion movie and television industry—and a world-class film festival each September—Toronto is a movie-lover’s dream destination.

Filming Locations

1. Downtown Toronto

Digitally scrub out the CN Tower from the skyline, add a little staged garbage to the sidewalks, and Toronto easily passes for New York City, says Bruce Bell, a local historian who provides tours of Toronto and is well-versed in the story of the region, including its use as a popular filming location.

Suits, the New York City-set legal series starring the recently royal Meghan Markle, films in the two-storey glass lobby of the Bay Adelaide Centre, while American Psycho was partially shot among the Toronto-Dominion Centre’s modern black steel towers.

Toronto City Hall, photo courtesy City of Toronto

Toronto City Hall, with its distinctive saucer-shaped central building hugged by two curving towers, appeared as an alien city in the original Star Trek series and Racoon City’s civic hall in Resident Evil: Apocalypse. Comic fans walking at night along nearby Yonge Street will recognize the visually blaring, oversized TV screens that played in the background as Batman clung to the top of the Joker’s hurtling car in Suicide Squad.

Guillermo del Toro, the Oscar-winning director who lives part-time in Toronto, chose to film some of his movie The Shape of Water in the city, using downtown’s Massey Hall and The Elgin theatres, along with other sites like The Port Lands and the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus, to create the film’s 1960s feel.

2. Old Toronto

A national historic site built in 1850, King Street’s St. Lawrence Hall—with its clock-clad cupola—stepped in for the White House in various films, while the Cathedral of St. James, its stained glass depicting George V and his family, was used to recreate President John F. Kennedy’s funeral in the mini-series The Kennedys.

Photo courtesy The Distillery Historic District

It was in a corner banquette in the nearby King Edward Hotel restaurant, amid morality protests outside since both stars were married to other people, where Richard Burton proposed to Elizabeth Taylor for the first time in 1964. Further east, The Distillery District’s cobbled streets and lanes were used in scenes from Russell Crowe’s The Cinderella Man and also depicted a concentration camp in X-Men.

Casa Loma, photo courtesy the Liberty Group

3. Casa Loma

This never-finished castle was the dream of industrial tycoon Sir Henry Pellatt, who spent his $17-million fortune on his Spadina Avenue estate. The popular tourist site is now owned by the city.

Mike Myers’s The Love Guru, and Oscar-winning Chicago filmed here. In its 40 years as a movie location, only 2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World allowed Casa Loma to play itself. Traditionally, the castle stays open to the public during filming, but an exception was made for the superhero movie X-Men.

The Toronto International Film Festival (September 6 to 16)

With world-premiere film screenings, star-studded red carpets and carnival-like atmosphere along King Street West, the Toronto International Film Festival galvanizes the city for 11 days every September. The festival has developed into one of the most important in the world, screening hundreds of films and documentaries, and, more often than not, is a barometer for future Academy Award winners.

Seeing films is only part of the fun. For a portion of the festival, a stretch of King Street West is closed to vehicles and is filled with interactive exhibits, pop-up stores and red-carpet crowds outside Roy Thomson Hall and the Princess of Wales Theatre.

If you are not in Toronto during the festival, the TIFF Bell Lightbox is a year-round film centre with five theatres screening independent films. It is also a learning facility, with filmmaking classes and an extensive research library that includes a large collection of movie-related material.


What to do at intermission

You may think they’re off-limits during the festival, but many hotel bars are open to the public. Stop by The Ritz-Carlton’s Ritz Bar for a fest-inspired cocktail and grab a seat on the patio overlooking the hotel entrance to see the stars climbing into their black sedans on their way to a premiere—or simply walking across the street to Roy Thomson Hall. Other popular spots include The Four Seasons Hotel, the Shangri-La Hotel and the newly opened Kimpton Saint George.

More Toronto Film Festivals

There seems to be a film festival—large or small—going on every single day of the year in Toronto. Here are three you shouldn’t miss.

1. Hot Docs Film Festival

Taking place towards the end of April, the festival offers a thought-provoking mix of Canadian and international documentaries tackling both the fun and the serious.


2. Inside Out Film Festival

With a mandate to challenge perceptions, this LGBTQ festival has been screening films and documentaries since 1991. The festival takes place in late May.


3. Reel Asian International Film Festival

In its 22nd year, Canada’s largest Asian film festival screens films from Asia, along with those created by Asian filmmakers, over 10 days each November.


3 Popular Celebrity-Loved Restaurants

1. Sotto Sotto

Spanning two floors of a converted house, this classic Italian restaurant on Avenue Road has been a perennial favourite for A-listers filming in the city and attending the festival.


2. Montecito 

Co-owned by filmmaker Ivan Reitman, the restaurant displays behind-the-scenes images from his films and a smaller version of Ghostbusters’ Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.


4. Sassafraz 

With its distinctive yellow exterior, this restaurant in trendy Yorkville often draws stars for its French-Canadian cuisine and comfortable and intimate interior.



[This story appears in the September 2018 issue of WestJet Magazine]