Art, food, the might and majesty of nature, and the odd bit of thrill – Toronto packs in a lot for tourists
Besides the pleasure of shopping in a market that’s been around since the 1800s, and the fact that there are more than 120 vendors selling cheese, meat, fruits, vegetables and condiments, this is also the place to start your day. On Saturdays, you can start early with the farmers who spread their fresh wares from 7am. What your menu must feature is the signature Canadian peameal bacon on a bun. The salty and slightly sweet bacon (cured with both salt and sugar) is rolled in cornmeal and tucked into a hot bun. That’s all the energy you’ll need to kickstart your day.
The incredible falls are just an hour away from Toronto, and worth a day trip. There are arguments whether the American or Canadian side is more spectacular, but when it comes to grandeur there is no doubt that the latter is simply more ‘palatial’. The Maid of the Mist tours take you into its heart for a quick soak. Thanks to the ever present mist, chances of catching a rainbow or two are incredibly high. You can also do a short walk behind the falls, through the tunnels. But yet another incredible way to catch its glory is via a helicopter ride, a 20-minute flight over the falls.
The Distillery District is one of Toronto’s hippest spaces. The brick-lined Victorian warehouses have been converted to art galleries, stylish stores, independent design outlets, restaurants, bars, and cafes. Weekends see impromptu musical performances and bits of street theatre. The best way to navigate through it all is on two wheels – so jump on to a Segway. You’ll get the added benefit of a guide and therefore access to the stories behind the warehouses. Grab fresh oysters at Pure Spirits Oyster House, or a shot of hot chilli chocolate from Soma, and coffee brewed beer from Mill Street Brew Pub.
OK, first things first – there are no castles or palaces in Toronto. There is, however Casa Loma, which fills in quite admirably. Built sometime around the early 1900s, this is an extravagant building made up of more than 90 rooms, fairytale balconies, turrets, manicured lawns and secret passageways. The owner, a prominent Toronto financier, built it but didn’t get to stay very long in it, thanks to bankruptcy and a weakening economy. Today, it’s a fantastical structure, with dozens of tours on offer.
The Toronto International Film Festival is one of the best showcases for independent and cutting-edge films in the business. The annual event draws in biggies from film industries across the world. However, even if you miss the festival, you can always head to the Bell Lightbox to catch their current shows. The roster through the year features incredible retrospectives and the best of world cinema, along with a fabulous selection of cafes and restaurants along the street.
Wave your hands like you just don’t care, suspended 1,168 feet in the air. The CN Tower was once the tallest structure in the world. The Burj Dubai soon took over that title, and now the Tower is just the ‘tallest extreme adventure’. The lily-livered can go up to the revolving restaurant and tuck in fresh catch, but the rest can first walk across the glass-bottomed floors, before stepping out for a walk around the rim of the tower. It’s very secure, windy, and yes, of course a bit alarming. Most importantly it’s fun – and definitely a must-do.
The highlight of a trip to the Toronto Islands, a group of islands on Lake Ontario, is the ferry ride. If you’d rather do a short trip, instead of getting off at the island, sign up for one of these that take you away from the mainland and meander between the islands. Centre Island is the most popular, with designated picnic spots and bicycle stations. Pick up a quadracycle if there are enough of you – it’s plain cheesy fun and makes for great Instagrams. Wards Island is the residential bit, where alternative living is prized, so there’s a decidedly hippie feel here. At Hanlan’s Point Beach, you can strip off, literally – this is the bit where clothing is optional, but you’re under no pressure to completely disrobe.
Canada has a thriving art scene, and an incredible range of contemporary art galleries. The biggest, most imposing and impressive has to be the Art Gallery of Ontario on Dundas Street – you can’t miss the glass Frank Gehry designed structure. It houses the works of an array of artists, including Andy Warhol. The Clint Roenisch gallery gathers sculpture, film, photography and paintings on Queen Street while LE Gallery showcases the best of contemporary Canadian fare on Dundas Street. The Corkin Gallery themes its exhibitions around consumerism and the environment, collecting masters and modern artists (at Tank House Lane), and the Daniel Faria Gallery, gathers the works of contemporary artists from around the world.
The Victorian buildings along Kensington Avenue were once home to the large Jewish community in Toronto. Today, this stretch hosts an eclectic bunch of people, and is therefore all the more colourful and vibrant. Buildings are painted in bright yellows, blues and reds, if not painted with graffiti (look out for Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’), and cafes serve up large portions of vegetarian fare or huge slices of pie (head straight for Wanda’s Pie in the Sky and ask for a slice of the chocolate covered pecan pie). Vintage and novelty stores are around every corner, and don’t expect any chains or predictable shopping.
You’re in Canada and you’re not skating? And no, you cannot use the weather as an excuse. You don’t need to dance on ice or scoot around playing ice hockey, but you can try a turn on the ice, even in summer. Indoor rinks (there are 40 of these in the city) like the one at the Agincourt recreation centre, are free. You can also sign up for lessons. If you’re visiting in winter, brace the chill at Nathan Phillip Square, where the entire city descends to skate. There will be plenty of tourists too, and after landing on your not so delicate bits, you’re bound to head to the stalls selling hot chocolate.