People often ask: What makes a city great? What defines it, both for those who live there and for those who visit? Toronto could easily set itself apart by its cuisine, art, history, or sports. And, thanks to a world-class subway system, streetcars and buses, getting around Toronto is extraordinarily easy to do. Aside from the numerous cabs that swarm the city, the Toronto Transit Commission (
Architecturally speaking, Toronto is an amalgam of different styles. In the early 19th Century, it took much of its architectural inspiration from the Georgian style. By the end of the 19th Century, the city opted for the heavier, bulkier lines of Richardsonian Romanesque. At the turn of the 20th Century, the Toronto City Council opted not to put a height restriction on downtown construction as many other cities had, thus giving rise to some of the tallest buildings in the British Commonwealth, most of which are found Downtown, including the 34-story
The more than 7000 fine dining establishments, bars, cafes, bistros, clubs and dance halls (a large number of which can be found Downtown) suit every taste from bohemian to business.
The downtown area of the city also houses a number of stadiums and arenas where some of Canada's top-of-the-line professional sports teams—the
Running into Downtown is
The Entertainment District
Overlapping Downtown, the entertainment districts is home to numerous world-class museums, art galleries, theaters, dance companies, festivals and parades that add creativity and culture to an already vibrant city. Any of these could serve to define Toronto. While the city may once have had a reputation as Toronto The Good, a nondescript place which shut down and rolled up the sidewalks at sundown, nothing could be further from the truth today. The city is alive with some of the best theaters, museums and galleries anywhere. For example, Toronto is the third largest center of English-speaking theater productions in the world (next to London and New York), with more than 200 professional theater companies and 10,000 performances a year.
One of the oldest theater spaces in the city, the
There's even a thriving film industry in the city. Often called "Hollywood North," Toronto is sought after for its diversity, locations, excellent production centers and local talent. The
But what the city is really all about is the people. And it shouldn't surprise anyone that the name "Toronto" comes from a Huron word meaning "Meeting Place." That's exactly what it is: a multicultural meeting place for more than 4.5 million, home to people of more than 70 different nationalities speaking some 100 languages.
That multi-ethnic gathering has given the city an exciting and awesome energy. It has also created a place of wonderful neighborhoods, each with its defining character and local color. With a plethora of different cultures and neighborhoods bumping into one another like pieces of tectonic plates, the cuisine is as diverse as the population—and matching any taste and affordability, from the unlimited expense account to those counting their pennies. In fact, while there are plenty of upscale haute-cuisine restaurants where price is of no concern, some of the best food Toronto has to offer is tucked away in the small eateries of the city's original
Aside from the
While there is so much to see and do, to experience and taste, it's the residents of Toronto who give the city its special cachet. More often than not, people are glad to stop and give you directions. And don't be surprised if they tarry and chat a while, recommending places to go or filling you in on pieces of their city's history. This is what Toronto is all about. Not just a vast, sprawling metropolis. Not just a collection of concrete and cars. But a meeting place. The Hurons gave them the name. They try to do it proud.
Museums & Galleries
Canada's largest museum is the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), an all-round museum with adjoining planetarium, greeting you with four impressive Amerindian totem poles in the hall. The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) boasts an extensive and well-presented collection of landscape paintings by Canada's famous Group of Seven. Don't miss the world's largest exhibit of Henry Moore sculptures, beautifully arranged by the artist. The AGO is also known for the skillfully simple Inuit stone carvings, as is the Toronto Dominion Gallery of Inuit Art. On a lighter note, the Bata Shoe Museum is unique; among their 10,000 shoes are Elvis' blue suede loafers. The Hockey Hall of Fame also has shoes, but only those with blades beneath them.
Theater & Performances
Busloads of Americans drive for ten hours to spend just three hours in Toronto. Why? With over 500 theater productions every year, the city on Lake Ontario is the second largest stage center in North America. You can see Kiefer Sutherland in a Tennessee Williams play or the metamorphosis of Kiss's hard-rocking lead singer to Phantom (of the Opera) in King Street's Royal Alexandra and Princess of Wales theaters. It is also worth going a little off the beaten track to catch more adventurous offerings in places such as Front Street's Sony Centre.
The grassroots of theater are just as fresh and strong in Toronto. Community-centered theaters such as Tarragon and the Factory master challenges like Beckett, as well as drama from new and upcoming playwrights. Modern dance has found a home in the Premiere Dance Theatre, a multicultural venue for music and movement at the Harbourfront Center. More classical but nevertheless innovative performances can be seen at the National Ballet Company, considered the top dance troupe in the country. The Laugh Resort and Yuk Yuk are still defending their positions as the major comedy spots, but recently Rivoli's backroom has established a reputation for edgy comedy.
Not only is Toronto one of the most popular American film sets—watch out for huge white trucks and sealed-off streets - it is also a great movie theatre city, especially at fringe and second-run cinemas like the Bloor or the Fox. Apart from Hollywood fare at entertainment complexes, you can see international films at the Cumberland, and theme retrospectives at the Cinematheque. Not to mention the Toronto International Film Festival, considered among the top in the world.
No, those lines you see as you walk along Richmond Street are not for soup kitchens. You're in hot nightclub country, the places where only the coolest and hippest get in. Most clubs don't specialize in one style, but often change their playlist daily from retro to dub to techno in order to attract the most diverse dance crowd. The biggest club around here is the Joe, a three-level auditorium-sized dance hall for the masses. The Big Bop is nearly as big, but stays true to its alternative roots. College Street and environs is another good strip with the smoky Comfort Zone late-night hangout.
For live music events, Horseshoe Tavern is the place to see a great young band before it fills the concert halls. Toronto is on the A-list for pretty much every major tour in North America, from the Three Tenors in the Rogers Centre multi-purpose stadium to the Buena Vista Social Club in old Massey Hall or Celine Dion at the Air Canada Centre. The repertoire of classical music offerings is too long to list, but Roy Thomson Hall is a safe starting point for excellent acoustics, be it for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the Mendelssohn Choir or the latest Philip Glass opera.
The Air Canada Centre is home to two of Toronto's big sports teams. Cheer the Raptors as they slam dunk against their NBA competitors and the popular blue-and-white Maple Leafs playing for ice hockey's Stanley Cup. They compete for spectators with the Blue Jays, who swing their baseball bats in the 53,000-seat Rogers Centre.
Over the last ten years, Toronto has discovered street life. In the summer, you will have trouble deciding whether to go to Nathan Phillips Square or to Harbourfront for free concerts and different festivals every weekend. East along the lakeshore, Ontario Place combines waterpark fun with massive open-air rock concerts and the first Imax Theatre (Ontario Place Cinesphere) in a family amusement park.
From Little Italy to bustling Chinatown, the Annex Yonge Street and Eglinton, the Danforth to the Beaches, Torontonians rejoice in the multi-cultural mosaic they call home. And nowhere is this more evident than in the vast smorgasbord of culinary delights offered by the Greater Toronto area's more than 7000 restaurants, cafés, bistros, diners, pubs, resto-bars and other assorted eateries.
Toronto has everything from the Kama Classical Indian Cuisine's fiery hot vindaloo and mouth-watering sawara butteryaki at the Rikishi Japanese Restaurant to the upscale French of Arlequin with its duck confit, the power lunches at Acqua, a current hot spot for the downtown business and professional crowd.
Lying west of Yonge, between College Street and Dundas, Little Italy is a natural place to start the gastronomic search. Host to countless classic Italian ristoranti like Giovanna Trattoria, and Trattoria Giancarlo, this section of real estate is the piece of cannoli in a box of fudge. Although the days of the checkered tablecloth and candle in a Chianti bottle may be gone, the mouth-watering food and click-heel service remains. Ironically though, the best pizza does not reside here. We find it a couple of blocks east on Elm, where inside an old Victorian house sizzles Il Fornello. Lest we forget that most important meal of the day, the breakfast-brunch, Toronto offers a variety ranging from the simply solid, void-filling and all-day version at Mars Restaurant to sophisticated entrees, bubbly and jazz accompaniment at Sassafraz.
East of Spadina, from King up to College, sprawls one of Toronto's Chinatowns - the original. It is here among the proliferation of shops, jewelry stores and banks that we'll find some of the best Asian-influenced cuisine on the continent: the emperor's feast at the Bright Pearl Seafood, with imperial lions guarding the entrance; the Thai Princess, with its eager-to-explain uniformed waiters; and the Pho Hung, a Vietnamese hot spot where people actually line up to get in—just like a night club!
Those looking for upscale cuisine and a night cap or two outside the downtown core have only to keep on heading up Yonge towards Eglinton. Clustered around this uptown intersection are some of the city's very best wining and dining establishments—with a little star-gazing thrown in as icing on the cake. Among the group, North 44, Centro Grill & Wine Bar and Grano stand out: North 44 for the inventive cookery of five-star chef Mark McEwan; Centro for its parade of celebrities and unusual combo of sushi bar and Italian cuisine; and Grano for the fresh bread, pick-your-own display-case antipasti and its feeling of old-style warmth and friendliness.
Framed by Front to the South and Bloor to the North, Toronto's downtown core is at its busiest and most expressive during the lunch hour. Sandwiched between Bay and Jarvis, this area encompasses the business and entertainment district of the city. The Shopsy's Deli location at Front and Yonge is the place if you're looking to ease your hunger pangs without too much of a pain in your wallet. There's pastrami on rye, corned beef on a kaiser, roast beef on an onion roll or almost any other deli meat combination you can think of—all topped off with a kosher pickle.
Sports fans have little to complain about when searching for their favorite foods and ambience. There are plenty of places where you can put your foot on the rail, sip a cool lager and watch your team on a big-screen TV. A good starting point is the Hard Rock Café at the Rogers Centre where you can chew on a burger and take part in the seventh inning stretch at the same time. For a more laid-back scene, you can try Hoops Sports Bar & Grill. Located near the Maple Leaf Gardens, this bar went from frenzied to comfortable once the hockey team moved to the Air Canada Centre. And, of course, there's Wayne Gretzky's itself at 99 Blue Jays Way. The Great One, who many argue is the best hockey player of all time, occasionally drops in to autograph a few sticks and napkins.
And we haven't mentioned Turkish (A La Turka), Russian (Samovar Barmalay), Serbian (Skadarlija), Middle Eastern (
There are endless possibilities for walking tours in Toronto, and with so many neighborhoods marked by their own history and presence; it's hard to know where to start. However, the best approach is to plan your walk around a main attraction which will give you the opportunity not only to visit the monument itself but also to visit the district as a whole.
Royal Alexandra Theatre
To get a sense of Toronto's entertainment district, start at the corner of King and John. This area (stretching to Simcoe) is known as Mirvish Walkway or Mirvish Village, named after Ed Mirvish and his son, who have spent awesome amounts refurbishing the area, turning many of the theaters and restaurants into first-class establishments. Their most famous project, the Royal Alexandra Theatre, was saved from certain destruction and has become one of the city's entertainment jewels. Make a pit stop in the middle of your day at the Elephant and Castle. This traditional British pub located in the surrounding Entertainment district serves "pub grub" staples such as Chicken and Pineapple Curry and bangers and mash.
Just down and across the street from the Royal Alexandra Theatre, there's no missing the grand exterior of Roy Thomson Hall, with its glass and upside-down mushroom shape. The interior of this performance hall, a favorite venue for the Toronto Symphony and Mendelssohn Choir, is just as spectacular: luminous and elaborate decor topped by impeccable acoustics. And to wrap up an exhausting day, treat yourself to an upscale meal at Houston's on Adelaide. This place is known not only for its steak and seafood but also for its snazzy cigar lounge/piano bar ambiance.
Toronto Dominion Centre
Head east and on the corner of King and Simcoe, you'll find St. Andrews Presbyterian Church. Constructed in 1876, the church was saved in the 1980's when SunLife Tower paid over $4 million to build above and below it. The Scottish Romanesque Revival architecture stands in time-warp contrast to the skyscraping steel and glass around it.
Halfway between York and Bay you'll pass the awesome Toronto Dominion Centre, consisting of five monolithic skyscrapers. The creation of famous modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the centerpiece building of the group—the Toronto Dominion Tower - was the first International Style skyscraper in the city when built in the late 1960's. The finished product was a meticulously constructed work of art that, while perhaps not visually stunning, set the tone for the architecture that followed. For a unique dining experience stop by C'est What for lunch. This bar/restaurant has 28 locally brewed beers on tap as well as an eclectic menu featuring curries and lamb burgers.
Heading north on Bay you'll come across the National Club Building, a Neo-Georgian structure built in 1874 to promote the Canada First movement—patriots who fought to prevent union with the United States. The Art Deco style along with the vaulted entrance and sculpted bronze elevator doors make the interior a must-see. Back up to King and further east stands the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. When it was built in 1931, the 34-story building was the tallest in the British Empire. Its Romanesque-Revival architecture, handsome wrought-iron detail and gilded moldings work well even in the contemporary backdrop of the city's financial district. For the ultimate Downtown dining experience, make a reservation at 360 The Restaurant at the CN Tower. The menu is distinctly Canadian featuring items such as Roast Rack of Lamb with Braised Leeks and Pork Chops, and the panoramic view is breathtaking.
Further west and right on Wellington you will find the old Commercial Bank of Midland District, now called Number Fifteen. The oldest structure in the area, it was built in 1845 in classic Greek Revival style. Down Bay and south to Front brings you to the old Toronto Stock Exchange, now the Design Exchange, which exhibits work from some of the world's finest fashion and graphic designers. If you're getting hungry, this is good point in the day to grab a slice of pizza at Il Fornello. There are ten different locations around the city, and this gourmet pizza has been voted Toronto's best several times.
On Front Street stands Union Station, completed in 1927 after 12 years of construction. The work of architects Ross and MacDonald, the building was modeled after the great American train stations and inspired by the basilicas of Ancient Rome. The massive, 250-meter long building sports magnificent columns, beautifully vaulted ceilings and ornate etchings in its stone walls.
If you've got some energy left after visiting the entertainment and financial districts, continue with a tour of the Old Town of York, where you'll get a sense of Toronto's rich history. Start at the corner of Yonge and Wellington and walk east to the Gooderham Building, financed by distilleries mogul George Gooderham and also known as the Flatiron Building due to its triangular structure. For a dinner of traditional French-Canadian fare, dine at Le Papillon. This spacious restaurant can seat up to 225 people, but despite its capacity, make a reservation well in advance. After all, this establishment has been voted the most popular French restaurant five years in a row by readers of the Toronto Sun.
St. Lawrence Market
Turning onto Front, the Beardmore Building stands out. During the 19th century, the area was known as the warehouse district, and this building was one of the first structures built to accommodate the busy waterfront industries. Further east to Jarvis, the historic St. Lawrence Market bustles more than ever with its fresh fruit, vegetable, cheese and meat vendors. Built in 1844, Toronto's city hall stood here until 1904 when the space was converted into a public market. Since then it has been expanded, though the old city hall facade is still recognizable. Once home to working-class Irish Protestant immigrants employed in the many factories and warehouses surrounding it, the St. Lawrence Market area today is a trendy neighborhood, with a nice blend of old and new.
St. James Cathedral
East on Front, you'll find Trinity, a beautiful old street that features the Enoch Turner Schoolhouse, the oldest school building in the city and the first to offer free education. It was built in 1848 by Enoch Turner, a local brewer who employed many of the folks who lived in the area. A few steps south is Little Trinity Church, which was built for area Anglicans who couldn't afford the steep pew rents at St. James Cathedral. While not as spectacular as the city's other old churches, the simple Tudor Gothic styling gives it an almost magical appeal.
North to King, there's no missing St. James Cathedral, Toronto's first Anglican church, boasting the highest steeple in Canada and the second highest in North America. Built in 1819, the church was destroyed in a fire that devastated the entire city in 1849. It was rebuilt by architect Frederich Cumberland, who redid the exterior in Gothic Style.
Walk west and turn north on Toronto Street and you'll notice a building with architecture resembling a Greek temple, complete with symmetrical Ionic columns. If by this point in your visit you've had your fill of pub fare, pop in Hiro Sushi Restaurant for lunch. Master chef Hiro Yoshida combines culinary innovation with tradition giving diners a memorable culinary experience.
Back on King, between Church and Leader Lane, comes the magnificent King Edward Hotel, designed by the same architect who oversaw the original City Hall and Massey Hall.
Perhaps you need a break from walking, but still don't want to miss out on the sights. Well, make a break for Lakeshore Boulevard to Toronto Kayak & Canoe Adventures. It allows its patrons unprecedented access to some of the best views of natural wildlife in the city. Take a leisurely float along the waterways and stop off at one of the various café's along the way.
To finish off your tour, return to St. James Cathedral, walk through the Toronto Sculpture Garden, and you'll find yourself at Market Square. Here you can relax in one of the many cafés, enjoying the bustle of Toronto's oldest neighborhood. And, after spending a day visiting the city, what better way to end it than with a romantic dinner at La Maquette. The French haut-cuisine is delicious, and the ambiance is lovely. After all, this restaurant has been named the most romantic restaurant in Toronto.
Queen Street West
If you see nothing else of downtown Toronto, you have to walk Queen Street West between University and Spadina avenues: restaurant next to patio bar next to pub next to pool place next to hip fashion store. Since this strip is becoming increasingly commercialized, the more alternative clubs, cafes and galleries have moved to "West Queen West" (Spadina to Bathurst). The uptown—and up-market—equivalent of this area is Yorkville, a handful of blocks of nouvelle cuisine temples like the Sassafraz, and over a dozen exquisite galleries for every collector's taste, which lend Toronto a bit of Montmartre flavor.
With so much to see and do, one of the following friendly touring companies may help you not miss any of Toronto's hidden gems.
A Taste Of The World (+1 416 923 6813 / http://www.torontowalksbikes.com/index.html) Genova Tours (+1 416 367 0380 / http://billgenova.tripod.com/genovatours/)
Gray Line Sightseeing (+1 416 594 3310 / http://www.grayline.ca/tours/scripts/graylinelocations/locationsmain.asp?location=toronto) Hop-On Hop-Off City Tour (+1 800 594 3310 / http://www.grayline.ca/tours/pages/graylineca/graylineca_545_HopOnHopOffCity.asp) Olde Town Tours (+1 416 614 0999 / http://www.swiftrans.ca/)
Toronto Tours (+1 416 869 1372 / http://www.torontotours.com/) Mariposa Cruise Line (+1 416 203 0178 / http://www.mariposacruises.com/) Toronto Kayak & Canoe Adventures (+1 416 536 2067 / http://www.paddlethehumber.com/)