Toronto, or if you’re Canadian, ‘T.O.’, ‘Tdot’. or ‘the 416’ (after the telephone area code) is the capital of Ontario province (not a state!), even though the nation’s capital, Ottawa, is also located within Ontario. It’s the largest city in Canada and the fourth largest in North America. Toronto can be summed up as a more compact New York – it has the skyscrapers and cold winter weather but cleaner streets, friendlier people, and of course poutine!
Toronto began life in 1793 as the garrison town of York, named after the Duke of York (possibly of the 10,000 men nursery rhyme fame). This part of Canada was controlled by Britain back then, and the town was attacked by the United States in the War of 1812. British troops retaliated by burning down the White House in 1814. The city grew and was renamed Toronto, most likely from a Mohawk word meaning ‘where there are trees in water’. World War II was a tipping point: British war brides, Jewish refugees and Chinese escaping the attentions of Japan. Add to this the stresses of the Cold War, and more recently the handing over of Hong Kong to China. These have all helped create one of the world’s most ethnically diverse cities. Even today, over half the population was born outside of Canada and the area is home to at least 200 different ethnic groups with districts such as Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Jamaica, and Little Portugal emphasing this. Scotland has played a part too, from the Highland clearances to the present day, many Scots have emigrated here, with over 2 million people in Ontario claiming Scottish ancestry.
The weather in Toronto fluctuates from 35°C in summer to as low as -25°C in winter. To combat the cold, check out PATH under the city. It’s a network of pedestrian tunnels and walkways, full of shops and food courts, which runs for 30 kilometres and is the largest underground shopping complex in the world.
If couture is your passion, head to the Bloor- Yorkville area. Boutiques filled with international names such as Tiffany and Chanel can be found here, alongside the more niche Betsey Johnson and Jeanne Lottie. Here you will also find a branch of Roots, a Canadian clothing and homeware chain that originates from Toronto and has been in operation since 1973. Look for the distinctive beaver logo!
West Queen West has vibrant bars, cafes, and kitschy shops. Inabstracto is a design store where you’ll find the likes of mid-century furniture and jewellery, while gravitypope is surely the biggest shoe store in Toronto. In Chinatown, you’ll find Sonic Boom, which is Toronto’s largest independent record store with two floors of vinyl and CDs, T-shirts and turntables.
Nearby Kensington Market has graffiti, vintage shops and cafes featuring food from all over the world. Look out for gourmet popcorn, cartoon and comic character macarons, freshly- baked bread, cheese, disco eggs (splatter painted chocolate eggs) and Berlin-style döner kebabs and currywurst.
Just off Spadina (one of the most prominent streets in Toronto) at College is The Beguiling. This comic shop has two rooms filled with graphic novels, manga, collectables and zines.
Something else you may not have associated with Toronto is cannabis. It is legal to buy if you are 19 or over and can be found in authorised retailers. Look for the official ‘Ontario Authorized’ seal, or check online for a list of sellers. It’s worth mentioning that if you buy cannabis from anywhere else, you could be subject to a fine and imprisoned. The cannabis must be for personal use and you are allowed to purchase up to 30 grams (about an ounce).
The historic Distillery District has transformed from what was once the world’s largest whiskey distillery, to a pedestrianised area filled with boutique shops, bars, restaurants, arts and events spaces. Spirit of York opened here, a little over 2 years ago, reintroducing spirit production – this time gin and vodka. If beer is more your thing, Mill St. Brewery has a large selection, with 3 themed beer flights. In fact, Toronto has a plethora of excellent brewpubs. Look out for Amsterdam, Bandit, Bellwoods, Blood Brothers, Burdock, Folly, and Left Field, while Steam Whistle, across from the CN Tower keeps it simple by only producing pilsner and only one version at that.
Poutine has to be at the top of the list when visiting Canada. Smokes Poutinerie, Poutini’s House of Poutine and NomNomNom are all centrally located and worth seeking out. However, the French fries and curd cheese Canadian classic actually originates from Quebec!
For foodies, a visit to St Lawrence Market is a must. Step inside this 1902 market building and try a peameal bacon sandwich. This unsmoked back bacon made from pork loin, trimmed of fat, wet-cured in a salt-and-sugar brine and rolled in cornmeal, is a local speciality. Why not take a food tour to make sure you are trying the best of the best? The Chinatown and Kensington Market food tour by Culinary Adventure Co. guides you around some great places, tasting everything from dim sum to cherry pie and even cactus! Arrive on an empty stomach as there is food at every stop and there are quite a few. Tours run all year round.
Kasa Moto is a sleek upmarket Japanese- inspired restaurant in the Yorkville area. Not all of the dishes are Japanese in origin, but if you find them here they’ll have an Asian twist. The same applies to their cocktails.
The chic Victor Restaurant at the 4-star Le Germain Hotel Toronto Mercer has a menu that incorporates French and Creole cooking, so you’ll find steak tartare beside shrimp and crab croquettes, and fish fresh from Lake Erie on the menu. Local craft beer is available, but special mention goes to the cocktails, especially the Victor 75 (Bourbon, St-Germain, Angostura bitters and sparkling Riesling from Niagara).
We stayed at the aforementioned Le Germain Hotel Toronto Mercer, a mere 15-minute walk from Union Station. This sleek, modern hotel has a restaurant bar and even a putting green on the roof! It’s tucked away from the main road but within walking distance of many attractions, including the Rogers Centre, Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, Toronto Railway Museum and CN Tower.
Take a 58-second swoosh up in a lift to the top of the CN tower for a view from the tallest free-standing structure in the Western hemisphere, standing at 553.3 metres high. For the more adventurous, there’s the 365 metre high EdgeWalk, the world’s highest full circle hands- free walk. This is a shuffle along a 1.5m wide ledge, 116 storeys above ground. Next door is Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada, open from 9am until 11pm. The aquarium is home to sharks, jellyfish and huge rays. Book a ticket online to skip the queues – we visited at night time, which is generally a lot quieter.
Of course, you can’t visit Toronto and not make the excursion to Niagara Falls. You can book costly tours, some of which include stops at vineyards and/or boat tours, but the cheaper option is simply to hop on a bus. There are a number of companies operating from Toronto Coach Terminal (booking is still recommended). Keep in mind that the terminus in Niagara Falls is a good 45-minute walk from the actual waterfalls, but you’ll find taxis and a shuttle bus waiting.
West Queen West is the city’s art hub. Here you will find Twist Gallery, a 5,000-square- foot converted loft which functions as a gallery and events space. A few blocks away is Stephen Bulger Gallery, which specialises in photography and boasts an inventory of over 33,000 pictures. Love shoes? Bata Shoe Museum is a temple of footwear that includes Elton John’s monogrammed silver platform boots and Elvis Presley’s blue suede shoes! If you’ve seen the original X-Men movie then you may recognise Casa Loma as Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Children. This 98 room majestic, castle-like building has secret passageways, sweeping staircases and extensive grounds to explore.
Sport is big in Toronto. The Rogers Centre, AKA the SkyDome, is the home of the Toronto Blue Jays baseball team. The huge complex hosts all sorts of events including concerts. Tickets to games can be bought online from £10, or if you just want to see inside, tours can be booked at the stadium. Torontonians also follow Toronto Maple Leafs (ice hockey), Toronto Argonauts football (American) and Toronto Raptors (basketball) who won the 2019 NBA finals, a first for a team outside the USA. Again, single visit tickets can be purchased online.
Toronto is served by two airports, Toronto Pearson and Billy Bishop. All flights from Europe land at the main Toronto Pearson Airport. We flew with BA / Air Canada via London Heathrow, but direct seasonal flights are available from Glasgow and Edinburgh with Air Canada Rouge with Air Transat operating all year round from Glasgow. Using the UP Express (Union Pearson Express) to travel into the city, at $25 return, isn’t cheap but will get you into downtown in 25 mins, with trains running every 15. There’s lots of luggage space, free WiFi and power points at the seats. There are cheaper options: a single fare ticket on any TTC bus, such as the 900 Airport Express, costs $3.25. The 900 terminates at Kipling station on line 2 of the subway, from here you can hop on a train into the city centre. Travelling within the city is easy, with bus, tram and subway options available. Either buy a day pass for unlimited travel or pay cash for each journey (just remember to keep your change!).