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What to See and Do at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto

Nathan Phillips Square is a vibrant, active space that’s located in the heart of Toronto. Each year it attracts millions of people for everything ranging from tourists visiting the city, to special events, special and seasonal gatherings, to protests. As Liisa Ladouceur suggests – it’s a great place to get a pulse on the city.

Nathan Phillips Square
Nathan Phillips Square at night. Photo Credit: Unsplash

Nathan Phillips Square, the urban plaza that houses Toronto’s City Hall, is one of the most popular attractions for visitors to our downtown. And why not? There’s the Instagram-famous Toronto sign, the unique architectural towers, and a reflecting pool—which combined make a perfect background for your “I was here” photo.

But if you have time for more than a photo op, there’s plenty to see and do here. From farmers’ markets and food festivals on summer weekends, ice skating and celebrations of light in winter, and public art year-round, Nathan Phillips Square is a great place to connect with the heart of this diverse city.

It’s also one of the best places to find free things to do in Toronto.

Where Can You Find Toronto’s City Hall (and Nathan Phillips Square)?

Toronto City Hall is located on Queen Street West between Bay Street and famous Yonge Street, a short walk from either Yonge or Osgoode subway stations. City Hall is the building itself, but the plaza which takes up almost the whole city block is called Nathan Phillips Square (named for the Mayor between 1955-1962).

You’ll recognize it immediately. First there’s that big Toronto sign. But also a reflecting pool surrounded by arches.

There are public washrooms and fountains on site and even some of the only pay public telephones left in the city! 

How to Appreciate and Explore This Toronto Attraction?

Take a Photo with the Toronto Sign

Toronto Sign at Nathan Phillips Square
The Toronto Sign at Nathan Phillips Square. Photo Credit: Unsplash

It’s hard to imagine now, with dozens of people gathering around it for photos every minute, but the Toronto Sign was originally temporary!

Installed in 2015 when Toronto hosted the Pan Am Games, it was so popular with both locals and tourists that the city kept it around. The illuminated 3-D sign lights up and changes colours, and it’s similar to those found in cities like Amsterdam and Istanbul. But it’s also uniquely Toronto, in that it’s constantly evolving to recognize our Indigenous history and become more inclusive.

In 2017, the Toronto Sign got a maple leaf, in commemoration of Canada’s 150th celebration. But this place has been inhabited for far longer than 150 years, and in 2018 a Medicine Wheel was added to the other side of the sign to honour our Indigenous Peoples. Its four directions (East, South, West and North) symbolize completeness, wholeness, connectedness and strength.

Then in 2020, the Toronto Sign got a proper make-over. The new 10-foot sign is more durable, and wrapped in a vinyl artwork designed by Joseph Segaj.

You can visit the sign at any time or day or night but it’s especially lovely at night. The colours of the Toronto letters are often commemorative – rotating to acknowledge different charities or major holidays.

If you’re interested in taking a guided tour of the city that includes seeing the Toronto sign at night, make sure you book a spot on this guided sightseeing tour. If an active tour is more your speed, this bike tour of Toronto takes you through the square, and other points of interest in the city.

Tip: For a different vantage point, take the stairs tucked behind the Snack sign on the West side of the sign up to a nice lookout.

Admire the City Hall Building’s Architecture

Toronto New City Hall
Toronto City Hall (New). Photo Credit: Unsplash

No matter what goes on inside Toronto City Hall, I hope everyone can agree that the building itself is a gem. It opened in 1965 and remains both retro and futuristic, with two asymmetrical office towers looking down on a saucer-shaped building where our council does its business.

It replaced the “Old City Hall” – which you can still see just East of here, and now function as municipal courts.

Fun trivia to impress your friends with while visiting: The building appears in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, glimpsed through an alien portal. 

Visit the Eternal Flame

Pope John Paul II first lit the eternal flame (with an ember from the Memorial for Peace in Hiroshima, Japan) for Toronto’s first Peace Garden and Queen Elizabeth II officially opened it. The original location on the square moved but the purpose remains—a place for reflection.

You’ll find it tucked behind the performance stage on the West side, beside a staircase that, on a nice summer day, is landscaped with flowers. 

Join in a Cultural Festival

Nathan Phillips Square is the site for many of Toronto’s best festivals and events celebrating the diverse communities that make up this city. There are food festivals like Taste of India or Taste of Vietnam and special music and entertainment programming for Pride Week, the Toronto Caribbean Carnival, etc. And they are always free to access.

Check the city’s calendar here for what’s on during your visit.

Eat Some Poutine or Hot Dogs From the Food Trucks

Food vendor at Nathan Phillips Square
A hot dog food vendor at Nathan Phillips Square. Photo Credit: Unsplash

Long before Toronto had a food truck “scene,” it had the food vendors parked on Queen just south of Nathan Phillips Square. So yes, you can find something to eat near City Hall. Hot dogs (veggie and halal available), fries and burgers and, of course, poutine, are available most days, rain or shine, and relatively affordable.

There are many public benches around the square to enjoy.

Shop the Farmer’s Market on Wednesdays

Speaking of food, there’s a farmer’s market at Nathan Phillips Square on Wednesdays between June and October. Grab fresh seasonal fruits, artisanal bread or other baked goods, or other local specialties from 8am to 2pm. (Although like most farmer’s markets, the earlier you arrive the better the selection.)

Explore the Public Art

There’s a large bronze abstract sculpture in front of City Hall called “The Archer”, by Henry Moore. The locals didn’t love this at first sight when it was unveiled in 1966, but it has stood the test of time.

There are more sculptures tucked around Nathan Phillips Square, so it’s worth a wander if you appreciate discovering hidden public art.

Around the West side, history and military enthusiasts will surely recognize the looming, scowling figure of Winston Churchill, whose 10-foot statue stands beside “Peace Through Valour”, a memorial to the Italian Canadians who fought in the Second World War. At the very back of the City Hall Building, at the corner of Bay and Hagerman streets, in Larry Sefton Park, is an arrangement of 16 steel l-beams, in memory of the popular steelworkers’ union leader.

My favourite hidden-in-plain-sight artwork here is just west of “The Archer,” on a walking path connecting Nathan Phillips Square to the Courthouse building in The McMurtry Gardens of Justice. It’s a series of sculptures to honour the concepts Freedom of Expression, Freedom of Religion and other pillars of Justice. 


Many street marches and protests end with a gathering here. Come stand and be counted.

Buy Some Art

One weekend each July, the square is filled with booths selling visual art.

More than 400 painters, photographers and other visual artists at all stages of their careers exhibit at the Toronto Outdoor Art Fair, Canada’s largest and longest-running annual contemporary art fair.

There are also art talks, site-specific installations and other programming. For 2023, the TOAF takes place July 7 to 9. 

Celebrate Winter

Skating at Nathan Phillips Square
Skating at Nathan Phillips Square. Photo Credit: Unsplash

Toronto City Hall is one of the best places to be in the winter months. The Cavalcade of Lights kicks off the season with a Christmas Tree lighting and keeps the square glittering into the new year, Fair in the Square is our version of a European Christmas market with crafts, food and drink. And there’s a public skating rink (rentals available) that makes the perfect date night. 

Whatever season you visit, I hope you find something fun to do in and around Toronto’s City Hall!