A love letter to Toronto — cleverly disguised as 12 tips for visitors
By now you must have heard the news that Brussels Airlines will start flying to Toronto, Canada from next spring. That may sound like an odd decision given the fact that this will only be their third North-American destination, after New York and Washington DC.
You might even think that compared to places like San Francisco, Chicago or Miami, Canada’s biggest city must be a rather boring place to visit. After all, isn’t Canada more about stunning nature than about 5 million-plus cities?
But I’m here to tell you that if you do, you’re wrong. That Toronto is in fact one of the most dynamic, exciting and energizing places around. I’ll try to convince you of that with a couple of tips that should come in handy once you do indeed decide to visit the city.
1. Take your time
Let’s get this out of the way first. Yes, Toronto is a big North-American city which means it has a lot in common with most major US cities. But don’t be fooled by those similarities: the city — and certainly the country — does have its own (quirky) character. As such, there’s a rather long list of things you can only get away with in Toronto. And that list doesn’t even include putting up a shrine to a dead raccoon (yes, really).
I’ll leave it up to you to decide what that particular Torontonian character is all about. Just give yourself some time to get to know the city and the differences with the US will become obvious.
2. Pick your neighbourhood
Toronto might be a big city but just like for instance London it’s made up of a lot of neighbourhoods. Some of them are rather vaguely defined or not especially remarkable while others — such as Koreatown, Little Portugal or Corso Italia— offer exactly what you’d expect: authentic shops and restaurants combined with friendly locals to point out the best spots.
When it comes to ‘hip and happening’ it looks like West Queen West is still the place to be. A recently gentrified stretch of Queen Street West, it’s filled with coffee places, galleries, (alternative) fashion outlets, bars and the artsy Drake Hotel calling itself a ‘hotbed for culture’.
3. Follow the PATH
Being so close to a very big lake Toronto usually gets some extra snow in winter while summers can be hot and humid. To tackle both problems at once, the city has constructed a set of underground walkways that connect office buildings, malls and subway stations called the PATH. With a total length of 29 kilometres, it covers much of the downtown core and is filled with restaurants, coffee places and all sorts of shops.
You might not need it on a lovely spring afternoon, but at times this city underneath the city can offer quite a relief. Just know that the nearest entrance to the PATH might take you straight through the lobby of some big office building or hotel. Nothing weird about that for the locals but it does take some getting used to as a visitor.
4. Go up the CN Tower…
What does a 553 metre-high tower that serves no real purpose sound like? I’ll tell you: it sounds like a tourist trap. And yet somehow I nearly always find myself up there when I visit the city.
Whatever you might think of it on the outside, it does offer stunning views over the city, the lake, the islands and the smaller city airport. And yes, on especially clear days you can see the mist coming off Niagara Falls (more on that later).
So just skip the extra expensive SkyPod at 447 meters, the revolving restaurant and all sorts of other gimmicks but do head to the main observation deck at 342 meters above the city. For extra thrills you could walk over the glass floor that lets you see those 300+ metres down. And if that still sounds too boring, there’s always the EdgeWalk.
5. …but visit the islands as well.
Toronto has only recently embraced and cleaned up its downtown waterfront but the city has always had ‘the islands’ in Lake Ontario. Think of them as a big urban park — in fact they are — close enough to the city to reach by ferry in about 10 minutes yet far removed from the busy streets of downtown.
They’re a big hit with families with young children, but the car free lanes and boardwalks offer a nice change of scenery for anyone. Just know that a relaxing stroll there can end up on Toronto’s only clothing optional beach.
6. Pay a visit to a museum
Toronto hosts a few world-class museums that are well worth a visit. Both the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) as well as the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) are huge and housed in some of the most interesting buildings the city has to offer. I’m especially fond of the ‘First Peoples’ gallery at the ROM, but both museums really offer something for everyone.
Two offbeat museums that are worth your time as well are the Bata Shoe Museum (yes, a WHOLE museum about nothing but shoes) and the Hockey Hall of Fame. That last one is probably even more interesting if, unlike me, you’re actually a sports fan and/or Canadian, but don’t let that put you off too much. Just don’t go to the mock European castle called Casa Loma, okay? Now that’s a tourist trap if I’ve ever seen one.
7. Do some shopping
We’re talking about the economic capital of Canada here, so yeah, there’s a bit of shopping to do in Toronto. If you’re looking for big brands Eaton Centre is the place to be, while North York (around the ROM) is where you’ll find upscale fashion retailers.
8. Have some street food…
While on the subject of food… You might be disappointed to learn that Toronto hasn’t quite caught up to the food truck mania sweeping the US, mostly die to stricter laws. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any food trucks around, just fewer than you might expect for such a big city.
One thing you will notice when walking around Toronto is that there are LOTS of hot dog vendors around. For a few dollars you get to pick your favourite type of sausage, get it served in a soft bun and… fill it up with free toppings.
Vendors compete against each other by the number of condiments and other toppings they offer. So you can easily make yourself a different hot dog every time you order.
9. …and try some poutine
Poutine is one of those dishes that tastes far better than it looks, I promise. It’s basically fries topped with, at the very least, gravy and cheese curds — a ‘squeaky’ byproduct of making cheese. So yes, they do make a high-pitched sound when you eat them.
The dish has made its way from the rural communities of Quebec to pretty much everywhere in Canada nowadays and has become the de facto national dish.
There are endless varieties on offer ranging from sloppy comfort food to haute cuisine — lobster poutine anyone? In Toronto, get your fix at Smoke’s Poutinerie or the original Quebec chain of Poutineville where you can compose your very own version of the dish.
10. Pick your cuisine
You must have gathered by now that Toronto is an intensely multicultural city. The restaurant scene absolutely reflects that and offer pretty much every kind of cuisine you can think of. On top of that, there’s a growing trend where (mostly Asian) restaurant chains that have yet to appear in Europe or the US use Toronto to test the waters before expanding internationally. Meaning foodies can make quite a few discoveries.
Two of my own recent discoveries are Fresh, a small chain of healthy restaurants with an enormous menu and a tiny place called Japango serving excellent sushi at very fair prices. If you’re a bit more adventurous than me, I’d recommend watching this episode of The Layover and following Anthony Bourdain’s recommendations. Or keep reading and I’ll tell you how to stay up-to-date on the Toronto restaurant scene.
11. Head to Niagara Falls
Toronto isn’t all that far from the world famous Niagara Falls and while they’re not especially huge or spectacular, they’re at least worth a short visit. If you rent a car while staying in the city, you can probably make it an afternoon visit. The town around it is tacky as hell, but quite easy to ignore once you get to the actual falls. For a closer look you could always grab a ticket for one of the ‘Maid of the Mist’ boats that gets you so close you will get seriously wet. All a bit predictable but great fun nevertheless. Do note that the boats leave from the American side of the border!
12. Follow along
A dynamic city the size of Toronto is always changing. One of my favourite ways of keeping up is reading the excellent BlogTO. Not the most creatively named blog for sure, but a great site to know about new restaurant openings, big events in Toronto or indeed the somewhat hidden corners of the city. All written by people who clearly love their hometown.
So, when are you going to Toronto then?