All prices herin are in Canadian dollars (2003).
Toronto is a bustling city that has a lot going for it: a wealth of excellent restaurants that reflect the city's broad ethnic diversity; the best entertainment north of New York City - but with far cleaner and safer streets; a cosmopolitan vibrancy, with shops and boutiques that reflect local and national characteristics, but also ones of international renown; superb bars and clubs; a transportation system that is spotless, cheap, reliable and comprehensive; friendly people, naturally; and, thanks to the woefully weak Canadian dollar, all of this can be enjoyed at prices that seem like absolute bargains to anyone from western Europe.
I am Canadian but live in London. Following a visit back to Toronto a few months ago, I began to wonder why I was going back to London. In fact, I still am.
Toronto, Canada's largest and wealthiest city, is the capital of the province, Ontario. It is a pleasant size, with 2.5 million inhabitants. While much of the infrastructure is new and efficient, there are also many areas and buildings with historical significance and character. The city strikes a healthy balance between impressive soaring skyscrapers and concrete streets, with lush parks and leafy avenues. To its south lies Lake Ontario, giving the skyline an attractive waterfront setting. The Don river also runs through it north to south, forging a long gorge, along which is a network of parks, bike paths and some beautiful and relaxing walks.
The city spreads out for miles and consists of a patchwork of neighbourhoods and areas, many characterised by ethnic groups. Virtually all cultures are established in Toronto: there is the Greek area along a street known as 'The Danforth'; there's a Little Italy; a Chinatown; a Jewish area; many Irish, English and Scottish bars, bakeries and pubs; and further out there is a large Indian community. Between all these are pockets of people of Arabic, east European, Far Eastern, Latin American and African descent.
All the major religions are well represented there as well. While Catholic and Protestant communities are the largest religious groups, Toronto is also home to large communities of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and many other religions. Anyone could feel at home in Toronto.
As varied as its population is its climate. Winters can be long and cold, sometimes with temperatures dropping to lower than -20(C. Summers, on the other hand, tend to be warm to hot, with temperatures reaching 35(C. Toronto's summers are often humid, with the humidity making it feel much hotter than the mercury indicates.
Summer temperatures average in the mid to high 20(s, and the evenings remain much warmer than they do in the UK, lingering in the high teens or low 20(s. Bring shorts, light trousers and short-sleeve shirts, and possibly a sweater and light jacket for the months of July and August. There shouldn't be much rain, but an umbrella would be wise nonetheless. Canadians are the World's largest consumers of energy per capita, so you can be assured that their homes and buildings are kept toasty warm in the winter and pleasantly air conditioned throughout summer.
Arriving: Transportation from/to the airport
Toronto Pearson International Airport (TPIA) is located 27 km (16 miles) north/west of downtown Toronto. If you need to get to the city centre from the airport, your best method is by bus or hotel shuttle (check if your hotel offers this service). Depending on the time of day, count on your journey taking about an hour.
The Airport Express bus drops off and picks up passengers at the North Building of the Metro Convention Centre. It is a 24-hour service and destinations include the downtown bus terminal (at the corner of Dundas St West and Bay St), as well as several major downtown hotels. Tickets are $14.25 and $28.50 for one-way/return. Visit www.torontoairportexpress.com for more info.
GO Transit operates bus service to/from York Mills and Yorkdale subway stations and Terminal 2 (Arrivals level) at Pearson Airport. This service costs $3.40 one way for adults and operates every 60 minutes, from approximately 6:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. Monday to Saturday, and from approximately 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. on Sundays. Travel time from Yorkdale station is approximately 30 - 35 minutes, and from York Mills station approximately 40 - 45 minutes. From Yorkdale or York Mills, you can use the subway to get to downtown Toronto. For more information on GO Transit service, including fares, call GO Transit at 416-869-3200 or 1 888 GET ON GO (438-6646), or visit their Web site at www.gotransit.com.
Taxis and limousines friom the airport
A taxi fare will be between $40-45 one way to downtown Toronto. A limousine will cost about $5 more.
There are four daily papers available: the higher end papers are The Globe & Mail, which is Canada's oldest national newspaper, and The National Post, which was started several years ago by Conrad Black to compete with the Globe. There are two local papers: The Toronto Star, a broadsheet, and The Sun, a tabloid.
As for television, there are several Canadian stations and some local Toronto ones. The national one is the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), which also runs several radio stations, if you want quality news, radio programmes and classical music. Local TV stations include City TV, CTV, TV Ontario, and Global. As you might expect, a plethora of channels from the US are also available alongside the Canadian ones.
Transportation: Public and Taxis
Toronto boasts a superb public transportation system, called the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) (www.city.toronto.on.ca/ttc). It is a combined network of trains (subway), buses and streetcars. The services are clean, comfortable, efficient, comprehensive and reasonably priced.
While the subway is not as complex as New York, London or Paris, it is decent, with two lines running east and west (the main one along Bloor St and Danforth Ave; the other line runs in the northern part of the city, along Sheppard Ave). There is also a north-south line that follows two main arteries.
From each subway stop there will be buses and streetcars that will get you where you need to get to. Although Toronto is generally a very safe city, when it gets dark, the TTC has a policy that women passengers can request a bus to stop between bus stops if it is closer to where they need to get to.
Important! Toronto's system offers value for money: you pay one fare for a one-way journey, no matter how far that journey is. Available at the point of payment is a "transfer", which allows you to get off one mode (eg. the subway) and continue your journey on another (eg. a bus).
A single cash adult fare is $2.25, though if you plan on using the TTC during your stay to get around, buy tokens as these are cheaper and more convenient to use (5 for $9.50, 10 for $19). Be careful though as they resemble a 10-cent piece!
Day and family passes are also available and offer excellent value ($7.75), though there are minor restrictions concerning times/days of use.
I was shocked by how reasonably priced Toronto taxis are when I was there last winter - compared to London taxis. If you are two or more travelling and have a fairly short distance to go (a 5-10 minute journey), consider a taxi over the subway as it might work out slightly more expensive but more convenient. A 10-15% tip is customary and expected.
Like any major city, Toronto gets grid-locked during peak hours in the downtown corridor and major arteries in and out of the city. Parking rates downtown can be expensive, and the traffic wardens are efficient. However, petrol is relatively cheap ($0.70/litre), hire rates tend to be cheaper than in Europe, and given the rough grid-pattern of the city, find your way around isn't too challenging. But if your time is limited, spending your time hopping on trains and buses or walking will be the best, cheapest and quickest way of seeing Toronto.
Restaurants and bars
Restaurant and bar meals can cost from between $5 to - well, the sky's the limit. Explore, as there's a rich diversity of cuisine available, and the food is generally much better value for money than in western Europe.
Decent local restaurant chains are scattered throughout the city, and common ones include Swiss Chalet for rotisserie chicken and ribs; Kelsey's for a mixture of chicken, pasta and steak dishes; The Keg is a good steakhouse; Harveys make decent burgers, though for superior ones, try Lick's Burgers (Beaches, Kingston Road and a downtown location at Dundas Ave and Yonge St). There are also several Greek food chain restaurants, with Mr Greek being the commonest. There are also your typical American fast food chains, such as McDonald's, Burger King, KFC and Wendy's. Other restaurants, specific to location, are mentioned below and come on the recommendation of friends who live in Toronto.
Where to eatThe range of restaurants (more than 5000) is diverse (representing 80 different ethnic cultures), the competition great, and the quality and value often unbeatable. Focus on the concentration of restaurants on Baldwin St between Beverley and McCaul street, Queen St west of McCaul St, and College St between Euclid and Grace streets. For further details, visit: www.toronto.com/section/restaurants.
For authentic dishes, visit Toronto's many ethnic enclaves:
Chinatown: see below.
Greektown: along Danforth Ave, between Pape and Woodbine avenues. Some superb Greek cuisine, including a festival in summer when Danforth Ave is closed to cars and pedestrians roam about, enjoying all the hospitality on offer.
Little India: Gerrard St East, a block west from Coxwell Ave. Some excellent restaurants even if the area looks a bit dumpy.
Little Italy: runs along College St between Bathurst Ave and Clinton St. A lively neighbourhood.
Little Portugal: a bustling, exciting area around Dundas Ave West, west of Bathurst St, stretching to Dovercourt Rd.
Where to drink. Depending on the strength of the Canadian dollar, alcoholic drinks can seem reasonable or a bit pricey. When you factor in the tax and tip that get added on, a pint of beer can cost $5-6. When I was there, they worked out a bit cheaper than central London prices.
Most Canadian beers are lagers and are a minimum strength of 5% ABV. While the market is dominated by two huge breweries, Molson's and Labatt's, there are many small micro-breweries, and many of these are excellent. Upper Canada, St Ambrosie, Conner's, Kawartha and Sleeman's are a few smaller, independent breweries that produce some fine and distinct bitters, ales and lagers. They are premium priced (maybe $1 more per pint), but it is worth the difference.
Ontario also produces some world-class wines, particularly "ice wines". These are quite expensive, but are allegedly excellent by international standards. As I am not a connoisseur of Ontario wines, I suggest you visit www.wineroute.com and, if you are a real wine buff, consider exploring the wine route, which is only an hour or so drive west of Toronto, towards Niagara Falls (and the two could easily be combined).
All the central locations will have a variety of watering holes, some great, some mediocre. As I haven't been drinking for many years in Toronto, I would hate to make too many recommendations. If you visit the night life search site, you will find a comprehensive listing of bars with descriptions of each.
But some of my favourite ones and areas included: C'est What?: Front St, just east of Bay St. Subterranean arty bar with a fantastic range of micro-brewery beers, a stage for live bands, and board games to play as you sink into their comfortable couches and chairs...! Then there is 'The Beaches area': a plethora of excellent bars and pubs, including these British style pubs: Lion on the Beach (1598 Queen St East) and The Feathers, on Kingston Rd at Victoria Park Ave (just north of the 'official' Beaches limits). The Feathers has some exceptional micro-beers on tap, an impressive and daunting list of over 200 malt whiskies, and excellent food and service.
Important tipping etiquette for food and drinks
Waiting staff are paid below the minimum wage in Toronto and so depend on tips to supplement their income, and you should find a very high standard of service. Tips should range between 10-15% of the bill's total. Tip on the pre-tax subtotal rather than the final amount as you are tipping on the service provided rather than the service and the tax. However, if you tip on the final amount, the staff won't mind! Although it may seem ludicrous, customers are expected to tip bar staff if you do not use a waiter/waitress (i.e. you order drinks directly from the bar). Failure to tip will be seen as a serious reflection of the service you received and you may be asked whether you were sufficiently dissatisfied as not to leave a tip.
A friend reports: "Bakka Books - Toronto's SF and Sci-Fi book store. Bakka Books is at 598 Yonge Street (just north of the Wellesley subway station).
Central areas and landmarks - heart of downtown
Queen's Quay - this area, centrally located and at the water's front, offers more up-market shops, cafes, restaurants and bars. It's a shame that so many tall buildings (primarily condominiums) were erected and now block some beautiful waterfront scenery. Harbour front has some excellent cultural and artistic events, including literary readings, all year round. There's an artists' complex, where you can watch the artists at work and purchase glassware, pottery, paintings, etc.
Yorkville and the Bay St./Bloor St area - centrally located and home to some fashionable, beautiful boutiques, as well as typical high street shops. Also home to some fine restaurants, bars, stylish cafes and clubs. Aspects, such as Hazleton Lanes, are exclusive and worth moseying around just for a look. It's a far cry from the hippy neighbourhood that was based here when I was a baby - we lived at 10 Hazleton Lane and had as neighbours Keanu Reeves, Joni Mitchell and Mia Farrow's sister (no joke).
Yonge Street - officially the longest street in the World (Ed - Never heard of Watling Street then, eh?), but only the first five or six blocks will be of interest to you in the downtown area (though it remains a main artery for shops and restaurants for many kilometres north. As a main artery, it has some excellent shops, restaurants and bars either on it or just off it. The Eaton Centre (see below), downtown Toronto's largest shopping mall, runs north along it from Queen Street to Dundas Street. Yonge St gets a bit seedy in stretches, with shops that sell herbal smoking accessories (glass head shops) and strip bars (north of Dundas to Wellsley), but don't let that put you off walking up and down it's length, exploring, from Union station to Davenport Avenue.
Kensington Market - I don't know this area well, but it is near the Metro Convention Centre and is a multicultural highlight of the area, offering fresh produce, clothing and cafes.
Eaton's Centre - a major landmark and central Toronto's main shopping mall, loaded with 285 shops, restaurants and bars. Some aspects are quite aesthetically pleasing, such as the stuffed 'Canadian geese in flight' at the Queen Street entrance. If you want to shop, this is an excellent location and has offices that can give you forms, and info you'll need, for on tax-free shopping (save all of your receipts for non-consumable products for when you leave). Visit www.torontoeatoncentre.com
China Town: a bustling and appealing neighbourhood spanning several city blocks, with restaurants, markets and shops selling the spectrum of Asian delicacies. It lies mainly along Dundas Street West, between Bay Street and Spadina Ave.Ontario Place: idyllically situated at the foot of Lake Ontario, just west side of downtown
Toronto, Ontario Place has a lot to offer families: fireworks displays; concerts; bars and restaurants; a six-storey cinesphere, and rides and games for children, as well as tranquil, picturesque walks. It also has an excellent air show in August. Visit: www.ontarioplace.com/
CN Tower: the World's tallest free-standing man-made structure (553.33 m high). Circular in shape, it's the knock-out place to get fantastic panoramic views of the city. It has become the city's main landmark (for obvious reasons) and is located in the downtown vicinity, at Front Street West and John Street. Tickets to the Observation Deck are about $16 and it is open from 08.00 to 23.00. Prepare yourself for the glass floor at the observation deck and for the glass lifts! Union Station is the nearest subway station (it's about a 10 minute walk away). There is also a rotating restaurant, but it is quite dear. For more info, visit: www.cntower.ca
Sky Dome: located at the base of the CN Tower is the Sky Dome, home to Toronto's baseball team, the Blue Jays, and their football team, the Argonauts. It seats 53,000 spectators and is also used as a concert venue. When it was opened in the late 1980s, it boasted the world's only retractable roof.
Air Canada Centre: 40 Bay St, in the heart of downtown Toronto, this is the home of Toronto's NBA basketball team, the Raptors, and their hockey team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Want to see a game? For more info, visit: www.theaircanadacentre.com.
University of Toronto: Canada's oldest university, and home to some of the picturesque streets and parks in downtown Toronto. It's sprawling downtown campus is located between Bloor St and College St (north to south) and Bay St to Spadina Ave (east to west). It has some superb examples of ivy-covered neo-Gothic architecture.
City Hall: there's Old and New City Hall, both next door to each other on Queen St, between Yonge St and University Ave. Old City Hall is a flamboyant pseudo-Romanesque building that was completed in 1899; New City Hall comprises two curved glass and concrete buildings and dates from the 1960s. At the foot of it is Nathan Philips Square, which has an elevated walkway and pool, which serves as a popular ice rink in winter time.
Ontario Legislative Assembly Building: by Queen's Park subway station, this is the seat of the Ontario government. It has a ponderous and heavy character and dates back to 1892. It is another example of pseudo-Romanesque architecture in the downtown area. Free tours are available.
Art Gallery of Ontario: located on Dundas St West, just west of University Ave. (nearest subway station is St Patrick), the AGO is renowned for its wide-ranging collection of foreign and domestic art and its superb temporary exhibitions. It houses some excellent European art (Bruegel the Younger, Italian Renaissance paintings, Dutch Masters, Impressionists, Picasso, Chagall, Gaugin, Nagritte and Modigliani) and Canadian paintings (including the Group of Seven) and Henry Moore sculptures, as well as brilliant Inuit and Native Canadian art. Visit www.ago.net for more info.
Royal Ontario Museum: Right in the heart of downtown Toronto, just south of Bloor St on Queen's Park Boulevard (Museum subway stop). This is Canada's largest and most diverse museum, boasting a comprehensive collection of fin and applied art from the world over, as well as superb temporary exhibitions. All of this is housed within a handsome, five-storey neo-Gothic building that is embellished with Art Deco flourishes. It has an overwhelming collection that will require a full day to do it any justice. It includes Chinese Art, Canadian Heritage, a Life Sciences wing and a floor devoted to the Mediterranean World and Europe. Visit www.ago.net. Adult tickets are $15 (in 2006), but are well worth it.
Bata shoe museum: This was new to me, and I've never been, but it looks comprehensive and impressive, and is located centrally, on Bloor St West at St George St (St George subway station). Designed to resemble a shoe box, it includes sections on the evolution of footwear, with pointed shoes from medieval Europe, and Chinese silk shoes used for binding women's feet. There is an adjoining specialist footwear section, as well as an exhibition devoted to celebrity footwear (worn by Buddy Holly, David Bowie, Elvis Presley, Princess Diana and Elton John, for example). There are also supposedly excellent temporary exhibitions.
Rosedale: leafy streets of the old, well-heeled families in Toronto. This is old money! Just north on Yonge St at Rosedale subway station. Pleasant walks, with a few restaurants, shops and cafes, but little else.
Maple Leaf Gardens: the historical home of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team, as well as a concert venue. This is now a listed building in the heart of Toronto where some of Toronto's greatest sporting moments unfolded. Alas, no longer used for that, but well worth a visit if you're a hockey fan. Located on Carlton St, just east of Yonge St.
Fort York: Toronto was named "York" by its early English settlers and this fort was where the British fought back American forces in the War of 1812. Fort York is houses Canada's largest collection of original War of 1812 buildings and is a designated National Historic Site. It offers guided tours and summer animation, which explore the fort's role in the growth of the city and its colourful military past. It is centrally located and easily accessed (poor military planning): 100 Garrison Road, off Fleet Street, east of Strachan Avenue, west of Bathurst Street. Phone: 416-392-6907. Adult tickets are $5.
Performing arts and film: Toronto boasts the third largest theatre scene in the English-speaking world after London and New York, with dance, opera, theatre, classical music and film. There are a number of summer festivals that are well worth inquiring about, and theatre prices range from $12 to $90 - though same-day performance tickets can be discounted by up to 50% (T.O TIX booth, inside the Eaton Centre. Tel 416-536-6468). There are 4 main theatre districts: the one encompassing the area around Yonge and Front streets is the oldest and most established. To find out what's on, buy a newspaper or check out one of the magazines listed below.
Toronto Island: if you want to escape the city's bustle and get the best views (and photographs) of the Toronto skyline, catch a ferry to the tranquil Toronto Islands (these run every 20 minutes, cost $6 for adults, and the crossing takes about 15 minutes. The Toronto Ferry Docks are located at the foot of Bay St in Queen's Quay. The islands are easy to access and once there you can hire a bike or roam at your leisure. There are three main islands - Centre Island (go there if you have children, otherwise no harm in avoiding it), Ward's Island and Muggs Island. Day trippers can take a picnic lunch, tennis rackets (there are public courts) and swimming costumes - or if you'd rather go au natural, there's a city sanctioned nude beach on the north side of Centre Island. There are three yacht clubs on the islands, a children's park and zoo, beaches, parks, outdoor barbeques and a number of fast food spots if you didn't pack a lunch. For more info, visit: www.city.toronto.on.ca/parks/to_islands/island_index.htm.
Places to visit and landmarks - outside the downtown area
The Beaches - The Beaches, an area of cafes, bars, restaurants, shops, parks and pricey homes along Queen Street East (just east of Woodbine Avenue), has become tres trendy over the last 15 years or so. It has a wonderful, relaxed ambience and is easily accessible from downtown Toronto (take the smooth Queen Street streetcar from the Eaton Centre, for example, for about 15 minutes). There are 3 km of boardwalk (Kew Beach), which line Lake Ontario on one side and parks and residential property on the other. There is much of interest to all ages, and it hosts a hugely popular jazz festival each summer. (For further information, visit http://beach.purrfectpages.com.) Also of architectural interest is the palatial and Byzantine-style R C Harris Water Filtration Plant, at Queen Street's eastern most end. There are free tours of its mammoth interiors. If you read Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion, you will come across this building, as well as an interesting history of many of Toronto's landmarks and the people who built the city in the early quarter of the 20th century.
Science Centre: a shortish trek north of downtown Toronto (30 minutes from downtown's Union Station), but well worth a visit for adults and children alike. Over 800 interactive and fun exhibits about all aspects of science, from genetics to electromagnetics. 'The Human Body' exhibit is hugely popular. There's also a new OMNIMAX theatre, with 320 reclining seats in a 24-metre high wraparound cinema with digital sound. The Science Centre is located at 777 Don Mills Rd, just south of Eglinton Ave.
Niagara Falls and escarpment: a great day out and easy to get to by bus or car from Toronto's city centre. Take the 'Maid of the Mist' tour if you can, but prepared to get a little wet. It's from here that you truly sense the scale and awe of Niagara Falls. Visit: http://www.niagarafallsstatepark.com
Canada's Wonderland: a massive theme park with outstanding rides and attractions for kids and adults, located about a 30 minute drive north of Toronto. This is Canada's version of Alton Towers or Disney World and is worth a day out! An adult day pass is $48, a child's pass (aged 3-6) is $24. Buses directly to Canada's Wonderland leave regularly from Yorkdale and York Mills bus stations. Visit: www.canadas-wonderland.com for more info.
A friend, Eric Koeck, who now lives in downtown Toronto has compiled his list of the top 10 places to visit in Toronto and favourite eating areas/restaurants:
Top 10 places to visit in Toronto...hmmm....
10. College Street West (from Bathurst Street to Grace Street) - Again, a nice place to be in the evening - lots of small resto-bars, many with patios either out front or behind the building. Good people watching. Go to the Big Chill (On Manning Ave, just north of College), and have an ice cream and just sit out side and watch people go by.
9. Eaton Center/Queen Street West (from University to Spadina) - I think they're close enough for people to do both and shopping can be fun for some people.
8. Danforth Avenue (from Chester Subway Station to Pape Subway Station) - A nice place to be around dinner time (if you like Greek food) - most places have pretty good food and the street is fairly busy. Also, nice to stroll along in the evening and people watch.
7. Beaches - A nice walk along the boardwalk and some pubs along Queen Street. Also nice in the early evening when the breeze starts to come in from the lake. I like the R.C. Harris Filtration plant at the very east end of the Beaches - interesting building and some nice views.
6. Bloor/Yorkville - High-priced shopping and good people watching.
5. CN Tower - It may be a tourist trap, but it's very tall and on a clear day the views are really quite fantastic.
4. Spadina Avenue/Kensington Market - Packed with people on the weekends, interesting shops and interesting food.
3. Queen Street West (from Bathurst to Dufferin) - Along Queen Street, heading west from Bathurst to Dufferin is an interesting mix of shops, restaurants/bars/cafes, and art galleries.
2. Niagara Falls/Niagara-on-the-Lake/Winery tour - not really in Toronto, but if you've travelled to Toronto, you should go see the Falls and then go visit Niagara-on-the-Lake and some of the wineries in the area. We really are making some decent wines these days.
1. Toronto Island - A nice walk from Hanlan's Point to Ward's Island takes about 45 minutes and you get a nice view of the lake. Early evening (in summer) is my favourite time to go - catch a sunset overlooking the lake and get some really nice night views of the Toronto skyline. Unless you have children, I strongly recommend avoiding Centre Island.
Some nice places to eat:
Almost anywhere on Danforth Avenue or College Street.
Jules - Spadina Avenue just south of Queen Street West (147 Spadina Avenue).
Almost anywhere on Baldwin Street (from McCaul Street to Beverly Street) - La Bodega is recommended.
Almost anywhere on Harbord Street (from Spadina Avenue to Borden Street) - Kensington Kitchen (124 Harbord Street), Boulevard Cafe (161 Harbord Street), and L'Attitude (89 Harbord Street) are all good. The patio at the Kensington Kitchen is especially nice.
On the high-priced end, I can recommend the following:
Scaramouche - great food, nice view, hard-to-find.
Canoe - great food, great view (top floor of one of the TD Centre Towers, on King St West).
Susur (601 King St West) - one of the world's top chefs (apparently) doing what he does best. The $150 tasting menu (doesn't not include wine!) is really quite amazing.
Here are some useful weblinks for learning more about what Toronto has to offer before you visit:-
www.menupalace.com (for restaurants)
www.thefiftybest.com (for restaurants)
Canadians are easy-going, friendly people and there's little you can do to upset them except mistaken them for US Americans.
There aren't too many words that are different between British English and Canadian English, so you shouldn't have problems that way. But mind these:
Good cause link: Children and Pool Safety.
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