Doors Open across Canada

They’re hiding in every community: the pretty church you’ve never been inside, the historic site you’ve never found the time to visit or a private place that’s usually closed to visitors. Whether you’re close to home or on the road, Doors Open events highlight what makes a community unique — and no admission required!

Never been to one of these events? The tradition started in France with the first La Journee Portes Ouvertes event in 1984. The concept is simple: encourage people to come out and explore the places that are part of the history, culture and identity of their community — and make them more accessible by waiving admission fees. It’s an opportunity to learn something new and connect with the people who work behind the scenes. It’s also a chance to satisfy our curiosity — and feel welcome in places we might not venture otherwise.

The idea quickly caught on in neighbouring countries and collectively became known as European Heritage Days. In 2000, Toronto brought the idea closer to home with the first Doors Open event in North America. Since then, more communities across Canada and the U.S. have started hosting their own events. (In Ontario alone, 57 communities are participating in 2012.)

What’s on the itinerary?

Depending on the size of the city or community, events run one or two days and are held once a year.  There are more places than you can possibly visit in a day: even modest events can include a few dozen sites, and Toronto has over 135 participants.

What can you expect to see?

Historic sites. If it’s part of your community’s history, chances are you’ll find it in the Doors Open guide. Local museums, archives, historic homes, schoolhouse, forts, old train stations or trading posts, heritage centres and the like offer educational programs and tours — often with kids in mind.

Many local museums waive admission fees to welcome visitors too. Some of this year’s notable names include the Canada Science and Technology Museum, Canadian War Museum and the National Gallery in Ottawa.

Public buildings.  How often do you get a chance to tour a fire hall, paramedic or police headquarters, post office, water treatment plant or naval reserve? How about a seeing eye dog training centre, nuclear power plant, embassy, transit depot or mail processing plant? Many of these places are off-limits to visitors most days of the year.

Churches and places of worship. Churches, temples and mosques are among some of the most beautiful buildings in a community, but we may not think to visit unless we’re a member or invited to a special event. In Toronto, some of this year’s participants include the Periya Sivan Temple, Toronto West Masonic Hall and the Islamic Foundation of Toronto.

Galleries, theatres and arts centres. Artist studios, art galleries, performing arts centres and theatres — now is your chance for a behind-the-scenes look at the arts. For example, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival opens the doors to its Tom Patterson Theatre for Doors Open Stratford, and offers a free tour of its archives.

In Toronto, visitors can see where all the sets, scenery and props are created for the National Ballet of Canada’s productions at the Gretchen Ross Production Centre. Another new participant this year is the TIFF Bell Lightbox where visitors can tour TIFF’s Film Reference Library.

Businesses. Does your community have a local brewery or factory open for tours? You might be surprised by what businesses open their doors. You might even find a local hotel — big or small — like Gananoque’s Victoria Rose Inn or Ottawa’s Fairmont Chateau Laurier.

Some other places you might not think to visit: vineyards, raceways, newspapers and radio stations.

Places of learning. Many universities, colleges, research centres and private schools also participate in the event. For example, see the Equine Sports Medicine and Reproduction Centre at the Ontario Veterinary College in Guelph or CanmetENERGY, Natural Resources Canada’s clean energy science and technology facility.

Something else to watch for: some libraries offer tours of their rare book collections as well.

Walking tours. See the sites — and get some exercise too — with a guided tour of your community. Find out more about the history and artistry of local landmarks, and hear some stories and secrets.

Green spaces. Are you more of an outdoors person? An off-shoot of Doors Open, Trails Open events are being offered in more areas. These guided walking tours, cycling tours and hikes offer a look at the area’s natural beauty, and are held on the same days as Doors Open.

While they aren’t trails or parks, some historic cemeteries also offer guided tours.

Before you go…

Do a little research. You won’t be able to see it all — but you can help narrow your must-see list by reading up on the sites. For instance, there’s no hurry to see a site that’s usually free for visitors — but a special event or private space are worth seeing.

Also watch for special events and anniversaries. For instance, Doors Open Ontario is celebrating the 200th anniversary of the war of 1812 this year, and many cities are celebrating their 10th year.

Check out amenities and regulations. Not all sites offer washrooms, refreshments or wheelchair access. Be aware that some places may prohibit photography or require that children be accompanied by adults. Also, check your footwear: some sites require closed-toe shoes for safety reasons.

Plan ahead. Most places have plenty of space, but some sites have limitations when it comes to number of visitors. Tours may be offered on a “first come, first serve” basis, or you may need to reserve a spot in advance. Opening hours tend to run from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm, but some sites may have shorter visit times.

Map your route. When you’re choosing your top spots, be sure to factor in travelling time and distance. Many places are on public transit routes or offer shuttle services, but not all offer but not all sites have dedicated parking. (Beware that municipal lots can fill up quickly too.)  

Consider costs. Admission to participating sites is free, but public transportation, parking costs and food should be part of your budget. Many areas hold special performances, exhibitions and events at the same time as Doors Open — but there may be an admission fee.

Stay the night. If you’re heading out of town to take advantage of a Doors Open event, watch for special accommodations and meal packages.

Here’s where you can find more information about events near you:

Your province’s Doors Open website. A few provinces have heritage trusts backing Doors Open and Trails Open events, including Doors Open Alberta, Doors Open Ontario and Doors Open Days Newfoundland and Labrador.

More information about Doors Open Canada can be found on the Heritage Canada website.

The city’s website and events calendar. Just because it isn’t on a provincial website doesn’t mean it’s not happening! Here you’ll find a variety of information and media, including a list of participating sites, links to social media channel, related events, video and photos. The City of Toronto even plans to offer apps for mobile devices.

Tourism information bureaus. As you might expect, local tourism organizations are a driving force behind Doors Open and Trails Open events — and can point you in the right direction.

Don’t worry if you can’t find event information or a list of participating sites just yet. Doors Open events take place through out the spring, summer and early fall and some areas are still in the planning stages. While there’s no guarantee sites will participate every year, a look at previous years’ listings can give you an overview of what to expect.

Whether you plan to explore your own community or go further afield, Doors Open and Trails Open events are a low-cost way to find out what makes a community unique.