Even on grey winter days, Jason Kucherawy meets his tour group with a buoyant greeting at a coffee shop across Nathan Phillips Square.
As the main guide for Toronto’s arm of Tourguys.ca, Kucherawy said that on occasion, only one or two people show up for his free “Heart of Toronto” walking tours around Old City Hall. “I tell them you’re in luck, it’s going to be a private tour today,” he said.
Kucherawy has worked in the tourism industry for over 13 years. He’s led everyone from ESL students to corporate executives. His passion for showcasing Toronto also resulted in the creation of his Beer Makes Better History tour in the Distillery District.
Tours such as this exemplify what Kucherawy calls the “fun factor” that sets his walking tours apart from those offered by other tour companies.
“I talk about beer trivia, the history of beer and the role it’s played in Canada,” he said. “There was prohibition and silly rules in pubs and taverns in the 50s and 60s…(where) if you wanted to move to another table, your server had to actually carry your drink because people thought that fights would break out if people were standing or walking around with their beer.
“Also, pubs had small tables only,” he adds. “(Proprietors) thought if you had large numbers of people congregating in one table, it was more likely for a fight to break out. People were just terrified of drunks breaking out into barroom brawls like you’d see in the westerns.
“We want people to have a good time. I get very rewarded to put a smile on people’s faces, to make them laugh,” Kucherawy said. “That’s what our tours are really about.”
Justine Palinska, manager for media relations at Tourism Toronto, said there’s more of a highlight on walking tours now as people are choosing to follow a more “green” lifestyle.
“People want to experience a city the best way possible,” she said. As an avid traveller, she adds, “Walking is a great way (of doing that).”
With over 10 organized walking tours scattered throughout Toronto, visitors get a chance to indulge their interest in local history, architecture, food and visual arts.
Seeing a city such as Toronto from behind car windows, Palinska adds, is different from walking on foot and meeting locals. “When you’re driving, you fly through a neighbourhood and don’t really get the taste, flavour and texture of that area the same way you would (walking).
“You’re able to have a personal connection with the tour guide,” she said, in taking walking tours that are usually led in groups of 10-20 people. She explains that visitors get a chance to ask questions they like without hesitation and are able to find out more destinations of personal importance to them.
Most walking tour guides are recognized by Tourism Toronto as “ambassadors” for their designated areas.
“(They are) Torontonians who have lived in the neighbourhood for quite some time and can speak to what the neighbourhood has to offer,” Palinska said. “These people are extremely candid and full of life and expression.”
Guide books and self-guided tours are also an option for tourists, but Palinska said there’s a lot that visitors gain from traveling around the city with a local.
“The first thing any traveller will tell you is that when you get to a city, getting your bearings is the important thing,” Palinska said.
“Once you know where to go, you just discover on your own…and you might get lost, but while you’re getting lost in a city you’re discovering other things that you may not have stumbled upon should you have been following some type of very strict itinerary. But again that’s how you learn about where you are.”
Kucherawy’s walking tours encourage people to get out and explore the city. Identifying specific sights that his tour group wants to see, Kucherawy sometimes tailors his itinerary to suit the needs of his group.
He regularly leads walking tours of Chinatown and Kensington Market, the downtown core, Old City Hall and Osgoode Hall around the University of Toronto for his popular “Toronto After Dark” ghost tours.