I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went to Casa Loma this past March. I had had everyone from friends to patients at the clinic I work at recommending it, but for some reason in my mind I was terrified that it was going to be a super hokey tourist attraction, essentially just a large house decorated and marketed as a castle. I went in totally blind, having no familiarity with the history of Casa Loma or its first owner, Sir Henry Pellatt.
Fortunately, I was wrong and I was not disappointed by the experience! Though the castle is not technically finished (portions of the basement including the pool were never quite completed), it still is indeed a castle, a smaller but still regal version of the castles I saw while touring Europe as a teenager. The original owner and creative mind behind Casa Loma was Sir Henry Pellatt, a man with a number of skills and talents. Heavily involved in the military and local commerce, Pellatt was also a one-mile race record-breaking star and millionaire.
In 1911 Sir Pellatt hired architect E.J. Lennox to help him design his Hill House, his Casa Loma, in Toronto, Ontario. It took roughly three years and $3.5 million dollars to build this grand 64,700 square foot house. According to the Bank of Canada inflation calculator, that would be about $78.5 million dollars today!
Unfortunately Sir Pellatt and his beloved Lady Pellatt only had the privilege of residing in Casa Loma for a decade or so. Soon enough they experienced great financial distress from the war and from the incredible expense of simply building, heating, staffing, and maintaining such a lavish property, and had to leave Casa Loma in 1924. After this, the property was briefly turned into the snazzy Casa Loma Hotel during the years of 1926-1929. This too was short-lived, and during the Great Depression possession of Casa Loma ended up in the hands of the City of Toronto, and is still owned by the city to this day. The Kiwanis Club of West Toronto took over the site and turned it into a tourist attraction open to the public, and continued to run the attraction until 2011 when the Casa Loma Corporation was formed. While the story of Sir Pellatt and Lady Pellatt is quite tragic, I do find it wonderful that such a lovely building and piece of history is accessible now to thousands of people, rather than kept private as a home for only 2-3 people.
It is incredibly hard to pick a favourite room or aspect of this expansive property, but the conservatory is definitely in my top three. The beautiful stain glass windows, the natural light, and shining tile made me feel as if I was in a church, but less stuffy. It’s easy to daydream about high tea or sprawling out for a few hours with a good book in this warm, bright lit space. Also, if you’re into fancy bathrooms, the bathrooms just outside the conservatory down a side hallway are absolutely gorgeous. Each stall has its own sink and hand dryer, and there are two massive floor to ceiling mirrors that are perfect for a quick selfie or makeup touchup before you continue on with your tour.
As you exit the conservatory and make your way into the library space with dining room and concert alcoves, it is so easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer size of the space. The square footage of the library alone is probably 10 times the size of my house! The deep wooden shelving and rich, warm flooring is contrasted marvellously by the intricate cream ceiling. I imagine there would have been more furniture in this space when it was lived in, but nowadays your voice will carry all the way across and echo, easily.
Forgive the poor quality of my camera phone photos, they don’t do the space justice! Sir Pellatt’s study was a dream as it had a hidden secret staircase leading downstairs to his vault. Apparently there are three hidden passageways in Casa Loma, with one yet to be found. Whether or not that is true, is hard to say. I can only speculate that after all of these years if there is one that has yet to be found, it’s either been sealed off and plastered up well, or else has become so damaged that no one has found it. If I worked there it would take all of my willpower not to scour the castle, tapping on walls, in an attempt to find it.
In the basement you have access to a tunnel that takes you quite aways underground to the garage, stables, and plant nursery. Definitely drafty in the winter though, so dress accordingly! I was kind of wandering aimlessly for most of my visit, but if you’ve got a bit of a time crunch or want to see Casa Loma in a more methodical way, I recommend starting from the bottom up. In the basement is the cafe, the gift shop, the movie screening room (the unfinished pool), and washrooms. If you’d like the audio tour recording for your visit, pop by the gift shop first to pick up a headset. I preferred just to read the signs that interested me and wander at my own whimsy, but it was nice to watch the quick 30 minute history video in the unfinished pool first. Since I knew nothing before my visit, it gave me the historical backdrop and helped me figure out the areas I knew I’d want to spend more time in. Had I skipped the video, I probably wouldn’t have figured out that there was a tunnel and would have missed the nursery, which was one of my favourite parts of the experience.
The second floor of the castle hosts all of the bedroom suites, each one more lavish and over-the-top than the last. I’m talking bathrooms bigger than most public school classrooms. Sir Pellatt and Lady Pellatt each had their own respective suites, with Lady Pellatt’s being the largest. There was also a suite specifically designed for the royal family should they have ever chosen to visit, as well as another guest suite. Throughout these of course were hidden servant stair wells to take Casa Loma staff amongst the levels and to their own, much humbler, sleeping quarters.
Make sure you are wearing comfortable shoes and have scheduled a solid 2-4 hours out of your day if you want to thoroughly see everything! I know it may seem tempting to wear some cute heeled shoes, especially if you are set on taking some nice touristy photos of yourself and your travelling partners, but it is not worth it. If you do the tunnel and go through each floor and each room, you’ll have walked at least a few kilometres by the end of your visit. Comfortable footwear is handy as well if you’d like to hike up the number of staircases to the two open towers at Casa Loma.
I went on a Monday afternoon early in March, so I was lucky in that the castle overall wasn’t very busy. However, during busier times I could see there being a bit of a wait to see the towers as the staircases are only large enough for one person to go up or down at a time, and even then it’s tight. If you’re patient though, it is worth the wait. It was still a bit chilly in early March so I didn’t linger at the top of the towers, but it was great to pop my head out and see the skyline view of Toronto from atop the hill.
My only regret about visiting during the winter is that the gardens were covered in snow! I imagine they would be quite lovely to see during the summer. Even without the gardens though, I would say that this attraction was well worth the $30 CAD entrance fee. I think that there’s a little bit for everyone, whether you’re interested in antique cars, architecture, antique organs, interior design, or Canadian history overall. If you’re a film buff you may recognize Casa Loma as the setting for a number of famous movies. They’ve also added in a number of different Casa Loma escape rooms that you can experience after hours, which I think would be spooky and thrilling, particularly the escape room located in one of the towers. If you’re in Toronto and have never been, it’s definitely something I would recommend. I’ve been to Toronto annually for the past 4 years and have done the majority of the recommended downtown tourist attractions, but this is my favourite so far!