If you’re reading this, then you might be interested in visiting Toronto, Canada’s largest city eh? (Sorry Canadian readers, I couldn’t resist)
Although not Canada’s capital, Toronto is the fourth most livable city in the world according to The Economist’s 2013 Global Livability Survey. For visitors, it is easy to see why. The city is probably most well-known for its movie scene thanks to the annual Toronto International Film Festival, yet I found it to be a fantastic city to visit for culture, dining with more than 8,000 restaurants and shopping.
Toronto is a cultural melting pot, with a rich variety to explore. With diverse neighbourhoods including the more familiar sounding Chinatown and Little Italy, to the more unusual Greektown, Koreatown and Little Portugal, there is something to cater for every demographic in Toronto. The level of acceptance for this is welcoming as well; more than 30 percent of residents speak a language other than English or French, with dual language street signs often found across neighbourhoods.
Top of the list of must-sees for visitors is bound to be the CN Tower. Dominating the Toronto skyline, the tower is likely its most recognised landmark. Built by Canadian National Railways in 1976, at just over 1,815ft, it was the world’s tallest tower, building and free standing structure until 2010. In 1995, the CN Tower was in fact classified as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Offering two viewing levels – the Look Out and optional extra Sky Pod – the 360 panorama out over Toronto, the Toronto Islands and Lake Ontario is incredible.
Make sure that you don’t miss a chance to stand on the famous glass floor that offers a straight drop view from 1,122 ft up. It might not be for everyone, but don’t worry – visitors are reassured that it can take the weight of 14 large hippos!
For those without a fear for heights and some spare dollars ($175 to be exact), then the Edge Walk could be your ticket of choice. This literally takes you outside at the top of the Tower’s main pod where you are strapped into a harness and enjoy the world’s highest free circle hands-free walk. If you are about to get hitched, then you might be interested to know that weddings will soon be on offer.
Sitting next door to the CN Tower is the famous Rogers Centre. With a fully retractable roof, the impressive stadium is home to large scale entertainment events and of course the Toronto Blue Jays, the city’s baseball team. As the only Canadian team to feature in Major League Baseball, a game makes for a family-friendly afternoon or evening that can pass a good few hours!
After a trip up the CN Tower or a baseball game, then an innovative brewery located just a few steps away makes a welcoming refreshment stop – the Steam Whistle Brewery. With its slogan ‘Do one thing. Really, really well’, the emphasis for this quirky microbrewery is creating the best pilsner possible with core quality ingredients, and I would argue that they have done a pretty fine job! As well as being able to sip from one of its recognisable green bottles on site in its bar, a tour of the brewery is fun and informative, comes with a free beer to keep you going as you walk round, and chucks in a six pack for a very reasonable £15. Unfortunately though, this delicious brew is only available in limited parts of Canada, so stock up before you leave if you like it (If anyone from Steam Whistle is reading this, please bring it to the UK!)
The city is ever expanding, with building work and planning notices around every corner. Yet, there is also a sense of history to be found; did you know that Toronto’s version of the Flatiron, officially called the Gooderham building, pre-dates New York’s famous counterpart by a decade – 1892 vs. 1902. The historic Distillery District, once home to the Gooderham & Worts whiskey distillery, is now an entertainment destination with art galleries, restaurants and shops housed in the restored red brick Victorian era buildings.
For a more eccentric sense of Torontonian history, put aside some time to visit Casa Loma. The former home of wealthy Canadian financier Sir Henry Pellatt, Canada’s leading castle is home to decorated suites, secret passages, an 800-foot tunnel, towers and stables. After plans were drawn up in 1911, Casa Loma took three years and $3.5 million to build but unfortunately was too large a financial drain on its creator and so was never completed. If you are film buff, then you might recognise the castle from films including X-Men, the Tuxedo and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.
The Toronto Islands are a chain of small islands, Hanlan’s Point, Centre Island and Ward Island, that offer woodland, green spaces, blue flag beaches and an amusement park. Originally joined to the mainland before being separated by a giant storm in 1858, the Islands provide a slice of peace and quiet from the city itself, free of cars and largely, inhabitants. Over the years it has been a popular escape from the summer heat for city dwellers as the temperature is usually a few degrees cooler. It is hard to believe though that when you stand on a sandy beach that you are actually looking at a lake! The ferry that annually carries more than 1million passengers to the Island each year departs from the Ferrydocks at Queens Quay West, and takes you to one of three docks on the Islands themselves.
Another bonus of a visit to Toronto is its proximity to the natural wonder Niagara Falls. A very comfortable train journey of around 2 hours takes you from the heart of the city straight to the Falls without any fuss. From there, the Falls and surrounding attractions (including the Maid of the Mist as I have previously written about) are on your doorstep. A schedule of trains from Toronto operated by VIA Rail can be found here.
It’s worth bearing in mind when planning a visit that Toronto’s weather varies greatly; when I visited in June, it was pushing 40 degrees celcius, yet we were passing snow caution street signs every few steps. Regardless of the timing of your visit, put aside some time to explore PATH, the largest underground pedestrian system in North America. Designed to help the city get around regardless of what is going on above ground, the system connects 1200 stores and restaurants, 50 office buildings, 20 car parks, five subway stations and a railway terminal over its total 28 kilometre length.
Tempted by the sound of Toronto? I would return in a heartbeat. I think it is appropriate therefore to close with a quote from Hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar, who said: “I always tell people that if I move anywhere it would be Toronto.” Hear hear Kendrick!
My top tips for Toronto:
We found our centrally located hotel – the Hyatt Regency Toronto on King Street West – through Travelzoo, which often has good reduced price hotel deals. It was a 5-10 minute walk to the CN Tower and Rogers Centre, and the rooftop pool was perfect in the heat.
If you are a Starbucks fan, break the mould and go to Canadian chain Second Cup. My partner said it is the best latte he has ever had!
Looking to send a postcard home? Try a visit to the First Post Office where you can write your message with quill and ink, and have it wax sealed to be sent home for a one-of-a-kind souvenir.
The hands-down best calamari I have ever had can be found at Buster’s Sea Cove in St. Lawrence Market. Just don’t miss it.
Like the live music scene or a bit of jazz or blues? Check out The Rex, a hotel and bar on Queen Street West that is always packed to the rafters that offers 19 live shows a week.