WHAT TO DO
Toronto is a bright and bustling metropolis along Lake Ontario's northwestern shore in the Canadian province of Ontario. It is the largest city in Canada and the fourth most populous city in North America. Indigenous peoples have travelled through and inhabited the Toronto area for more than 10000 years. After the broadly disputed Toronto Purchase, when the Mississauga surrendered the area to the British Crown, the British established the town of York in 1793 and later designated it as the capital of Upper Canada. York was renamed and incorporated in 1834 as the city of Toronto - it was selected as the capital of the province of Ontario in 1867 during Canadian Confederation. Today, Toronto is an international center of finance, arts, cuisine, sports and culture. It is recognized as one of the most multicultural and cosmopolitan cities in the world that embraces diversity. With so much to offer, Toronto is sure to please.
Start your journey at the city's most prominent landmark, the CN Tower. Dominating the skyline at a height of over 1800 feet, the communications spire stands over Toronto like a beacon. Three observation levels reveal commanding views of the city and lake - even Niagara Falls can be seen on a clear day. There are floor to ceiling windows, glass floors and an 'EdgeWalk' for those with no fear to walk around the perimeter of the main pod, with no fence and no windows, just you, tethered to a track. Note: if you’d prefer to just check it out from the ground, the best street level vantage point for the tower is at the intersection of McCaul Street and Queen Street West, due north. Nearby is the Harbourfront Centre, a cultural megastar made up of more than two dozen waterfront venues, including parks, outdoor stages, theaters and galleries. An artistic juggernaut, this 10 acre complex educates and entertains through a variety of year round performances, events, festivals and exhibits. The main building houses the well respected Craft & Design Studios, where the public can watch artists in residence at work. Also, be sure to visit the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery at 231 Queens Quay West. Easily recognized by its painted smokestack, the Power Plant gallery is just that: a former power plant transformed into Toronto's premier gallery of contemporary art.
From there, make your way to the coolest place in town - the Hockey Hall of Fame. This awesome museum is housed in the former Bank of Montreal building (c 1885) at 30 Yonge Street, inside Brookfield Place. The mecca of Canada's national sport, it is a Canadian institution. Though the Hockey Hall of Fame was first created in 1945, it only took up residence in its current grand home in 1993 after the building had ceased trading as a bank for a few years. The sense of grandeur created by the imposing style gives visitors an idea of how seriously Canadians take their beloved hockey. With over 65000 square feet of space covered in hockey artifacts, there's something here for every fan. Multimedia exhibits showcase the greats, with a focus on Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe. Visitors can walk through a recreated Montreal Canadiens' locker room, watch documentaries and movies, and even shoot pucks at video projected NHL goalies. And, of course, be sure to take a picture with the most famous trophy in all of sports - the Stanley Cup. One cannot visit Toronto without discussing the city's legendary hockey club. Founded in 1917, the Toronto Maple Leafs have won the Stanley Cup 13 times (second only to the 24 championships of the rival Montreal Canadiens). The Leafs play their home games at Scotiabank Arena from October through May, or longer. Note: the hockey club's former home, the hallowed Maple Leaf Gardens is still standing at the northwest corner of Carlton and Church Street.
From the Hockey Hall of Fame, head east on Front Street until you reach the fantastic St Lawrence Market. Opened in 1845, this food hall has been part of the city's fabric for almost 180 years. It's a foodies' paradise, with more than 120 vendors selling fresh produce, fish, meats, cheeses and sweets at South Market. Come here to poke around and to graze. Weekends bring the farmers and antique markets, and both are worth checking out. A few stalls that are not to be missed: Buster's Sea Cove - get the fried haddock sandwich, Carousel Bakery - get the peameal bacon sandwich with maple mustard, Eve's Temptations - get everything, Kozlik's Canadian Mustard - take home a jar, Mike's Fish Market - just because, and St Urbain Bagel - Montreal style bagels in TO. Inside the old council chambers upstairs, the Market Gallery has rotating displays of paintings, photographs, documents and historical relics. Next door, cooking workshops and special events are held at the Market Kitchen. Note: the market is closed on Monday. Next, continue east for a bit until you arrive at the super cool Distillery district. Once the Gooderham and Worts distillery (c 1832), the largest distillery in the British Empire, the Distillery district is now a fabulous collection of restaurants and coffee shops, art studios and galleries, performance spaces and specialty boutiques. The setting is a beautifully preserved Victorian industrial complex with red brick buildings and cobblestone walkways. Some of my favorite spots here are Balzac's Coffee Roasters, Brick Street Bakery, Mill Street Beer Hall, Pure Spirits Oyster House, Spirit of York Distillery and Soma Chocolatemaker.
The Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre is located at 189 Yonge Street. This restored masterpiece is the world's last operating Edwardian double decker theater. Celebrating its centennial in 2013, the Winter Garden was built as the flagship for a vaudeville chain that never really took off, while the downstairs Elgin was converted into a movie house in the 1920s. Today, it serves as a stage for traveling Broadway shows. Note: year round guided tours (Mondays at 5p) of this National Historic Site are 90 minutes long and recount the history and restoration of the complex. Casa Loma can be found at 1 Austin Terrace. Toronto's only castle may never have housed royalty, but it certainly has grandeur, lording over the Annex neighborhood from a cliff that was once the shoreline of the glacial Lake Iroquois, from which Lake Ontario derived. A self guided audio tour leads visitors through the four levels of the Edwardian mansion as well as the 800 foot tunnel to the stables - the top floor houses a military museum. The 98 room mansion was built between 1911 and 1914 for Sir Henry Pellatt, a wealthy financier who made lots of money from his contract to provide Toronto with electricity. Note: to reach the house, climb the steep steps up the slope from Spadina Avenue, north of Davenport Road.
The city's 2 most prominent museums are the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). Located at 317 Dundas Street West, the Art Gallery of Ontario is one of the country's finest museums. It has a wide collection ranging from 15th century European art to contemporary American works. The highlights are the Canadian pieces, including Inuit and other aboriginal sculptures and paintings, and landscapes by Tom Thompson and the Group of Seven (a famous group of Canadian landscape painters from 1920 to 1933). And, of course, the spectacular redesign of the building itself by renowned Canadian architect Frank Gehry is a treat by itself - it's like looking at a huge crystal ship docked on a busy city street. Note: the museum is closed on Monday. The Royal Ontario Museum can be found at 100 Queen's Park. Opened in 1914, it is Canada's biggest natural history museum and one of the largest museums in North America. The permanent collection features more than six million specimens and artifacts, divided between two main galleries: the Natural History Galleries (all on the 2nd floor) and the World Culture Galleries (on the 1st, 3rd and 4th floors). The Chinese temple sculptures, Gallery of Korean Art, and costumes and textile collections are some of the best in the world. The remarkable First Peoples Art and Culture gallery provides insight into the works of art and cultural heritage of Canada’s indigenous people from precolonial times to the present. Note: the museum is open daily from 10a.
Every neighborhood in town has some street art, encompassing everything from graffiti to commissioned murals. Look around and you'll find examples hidden down forgotten streets in the Financial district, adorning brick walls in the Annex neighborhood and the East end, and covering entire facades in the Village, Kensington Market and the West end. The most popular - and perhaps the most photographed - location is Graffiti Alley, a collection of myriad artists' works that spans three blocks just off Queen Street West, between Spadina Avenue and Portland Street. Continue to wander and take in the spectacle that is Queen Street West until you reach Kensington Market. This bohemian neighborhood is multicultural Toronto at its most interesting. The antics in Bellevue Square Park tell you all you need to know about this eccentric and hip area. If you pop along, you’ll find flavors from around the world, pocket size stores selling vintage books and clothing. These co exist happily alongside Victorian houses, eateries and boutiques. My favorite record shop in the city is here at 215 Spadina Avenue. Sonic Boom is the largest independent record store in Canada. It has rows upon rows of new and used vinyl, CDs and even cassettes. For a fancier experience, stroll the fashionable Yorkville neighborhood - it has high end boutiques, galleries and stylish cafes.
Conclude your tour of Toronto with a peaceful visit to a few of the city's lovely parks and green spaces. Located west of downtown, High Park spans more than 400 acres. It has a playground, public pool, picnic areas and sports facilities, and is known for its famous cherry blossoms, which bloom in April and May. The park's Grenadier Pond is a popular fishing spot and when it freezes over, it's used for ice skating. One popular attraction is Shakespeare in High Park, which has been produced in the park's amphitheater every summer since 1982. Note: performances are staged Tuesday to Sunday at 8p, between July and September. Trinity Bellwoods Park is bordered by Queen Street West on the south and Dundas Street on the north. It is 40 acres and has a community recreation center, two pools, playground, tennis courts and an outdoor ice skating rink. A highlight of any trip to Toronto is a visit out to the islands. The serene Toronto Islands are a chain of 15 small islands in Lake Ontario, south of downtown. Take a water taxi from the Harbourfront Centre to Centre Island or Ward's Island. Centre Island has the most in terms of things to see and do, and Ward's Island has the prettiest beach. Note: the 15 minute trip reveals some of the best skyline views in the city.
WHERE TO EAT
Toronto has many great places to eat, drink and indulge. Start your day at Dispatch Coffee, located at 390 Bay Street. This minimalist cafe does some of the best espressos, cappuccinos, mochas and lattes in town. Another solid spot is Rooster Coffeehouse at 343 King Street East. This artsy cafe with chic stylings has a menu of Italian coffees and delicious pastries. White Lily Diner can be found at 678 Queen Street East. This humble restaurant serves ideal versions of all day diner food. Billowy pancakes and homemade donuts are done exquisitely. Biscuits arrive warm and flaky and are topped with a rich sausage gravy that is out of this world. Mira Mira Diner is at 1963 Queen Street East. Recently opened, this place combines diner standards and sturdy homestyle classics. Go with the Canadian benny (peameal bacon, hollandaise, croissant and fresh fruit). One more destination is Mildred's Temple Kitchen at 85 Hanna Avenue. While it does serve lunch and dinner, the crowds come for brunch - despite the notoriously long lines and no reservations policy (during brunch hours only). Patrons come back again and again to tuck into towering stacks of fluffy pancakes studded with wild blueberries, silky smoked salmon eggs benedict and lofty biscuits slathered with house apple butter jam.
Peter Pan Bistro is located at 373 Queen Street West. This cozy spot decorated with eye catching wall tapestries does Canadian comfort food at its best. Chef Noah Goldberg offered me the croque a la truite (smoked Ontario trout, capers, shallots, cucumber, gruyere, dijon and bechamel). The wine list is outstanding and the service is even better. For the best Thai in town, head to the super popular Pai at 18 Duncan Street in the Entertainment district. This casual spot recreates the frenetic energy and ambiance of a Thai night market. The northern Thai menu, devised by owner and chef Nuit Regular, invigorates taste buds with feisty lobster pad thai, luscious golden khao soi with short rib draped on top, and pad gra prow riddled with moo grob (crispy pork) and topped with a runny fried egg. It all pairs well with a refreshing Thai ice tea. Note: the restaurant is always busy so book ahead or get there early. If you're in the mood for ramen, make your way to Hokkaido Ramen Santouka at 91 Dundas Street East. This Japanese import is the go to for signature tokusen toroniku ramen with its rich and fatty broth, thin golden noodles and a side plate of accompaniments, including tender pork cheek.
The best pizza in Toronto is the newly opened Pizzeria Badiali, located at 181 Dovercourt Road in the West end neighborhood. Housed in a corner lot Victorian, it’s where Ryan Baddeley serves up whole New York style pies made with two day fermented dough. For the classic experience and some excellent people watching, take your salty slice of pie and a cold bottle of soda out to the patio. Note: the pizzeria is closed on Monday and Tuesday. The super cool Bar Raval can be found at 505 College Street. The inside of this Spanish pintxos bar, with its Gaudi esque floor to ceiling woodwork, is mostly standing room only. The good news is that it's open daily from 11a, giving the advantage to patrons who want to stop in during off hours to sample tiny plates of jamon croquetas, tuna pickled gildas, shrimp a la planxa and summer peas with chorizo. The drinks are also muy bueno - I enjoyed the Say Less (ketel one vodka, akvavit, green apple, celery, coriander and lime).
Dreyfus is located at 96 Harbord Street. Set in a brick row house, this intimate and stylish eatery serves homey meals along with terrific wines. Owner and chef Zach Kolomeir's menu changes with the seasons. The focus is on pairing the classics of French cuisine with the exceptional products found in Ontarian farms, Canadian fisheries and Jewish Canadian cultural heritage. I enjoyed the beef tartare and roasted Cornish hen with asparagus. The wine list tends toward the trendy with a strong emphasis on small producers of natural wines. Note: the restaurant is closed on Sunday and Monday. Osteria Giulia is at 134 Avenue Road. Here, chef Rob Rossi focuses on the cuisine of Liguria in northern Italy. The menu is an invigorating foray into the depths of the sea. It includes perhaps the purest seafood platter in town, a rotating selection of prawns, octopus, scallops and sardines - served with only lemon, rock salt and top shelf olive oil. The trofie al pesto pasta dish is superb, and the summer strawberry and white chocolate mille feuille for dessert is divine. The cocktails are excellent, the wine list is deep and the service is highly professional. Note: the restaurant is closed on Sunday.
It is now time to discuss the Asian trifecta. The following 3 restaurants are all outstanding and not to be missed. Lee is located at 601 King Street West in the Fashion district. Truly a feast for the senses, dinner at acclaimed chef Susur Lee's self titled flagship is an experience best shared. Slick servers assist in navigating the artisanal selection of East meets West delights. It's impossible to adequately convey the dance of flavors, textures and aromas one experiences in the Singaporean style signature slaw - it has 19 different ingredients. Note: the restaurant is open daily from 5p. Mimi Chinese can be found at 265 Davenport Road. This seductive space appeals to the senses with its triad of bold tones: ruby red banquettes, white lotus flowers and black lacquered tables. Wait staff in white shirts with black ties zip back and forth, presenting diners with theatrical creations. The spectacle never detracts from the food, all of which pays homage to specific regions of China. Palate pleasers include the hidden crispy chicken from Sichuan province and the asparagus fried rice from Hunan province. Note: the restaurant is closed on Sunday and Monday. Dailo is at 503 College Street. Not your typical Chinese restaurant, this stylish Asian brasserie is embellished with teal and gold and serves up French inspired Chinese dishes. From the fried watermelon to the jackfruit and chili glazed back ribs, you'll want to try every single thing on the menu. Note: the restaurant is closed on Monday.
The superb Aloette is located at 163 Spadina Avenue. It delivers the cozy vibes of a diner while reimagining the genre as something slightly more upscale and elegant. You’ll find the usual suspects on the menu such as chicken wings, onion rings, burgers and ice cream sundaes. Owner and chef Patrick Kriss executes dishes meticulously and sources stellar ingredients that make familiar favorites dance and shine with new energy. The chicken wings are rubbed with black truffles and the onion rings are topped with Siberian caviar. Note: the restaurant is open daily from 5p. Found above on the third floor is Aloette's upscale sister, the tremendous Alo. Chef Kriss's flagship, it has been crowned best restaurant in Canada multiple times. The nine course, contemporary French tasting menu with wine pairing changes every few weeks. Highlights include Hokkaido sea scallops, East coast lobster, La Canardiere foie gras, Wagyu striploin and a white chocolate with almond mousse. Note: reservations are almost impossible - be sure to book months in advance or become best friends with your hotel concierge. My most memorable dining experience was at Richmond Station, found at 1 Richmond Street West. The brainchild of celebrity Top Chef Canada winner Carl Heinrich, this wonderful and friendly neighborhood restaurant builds on a foundation of Canadian foods with worldly flavors. With exacting standards and precise plating, the dedicated team does practically everything in house (fermentation, butchery, aging, curing and baking) to reimagine favorite dishes. I went with the chef's tasting menu and wine pairing. It offered duck liver pate with black pepper meringue, Ontario new potatoes with trout roe, butter poached Pacific halibut with a basil puree, Good Family Farms Berkshire pork with truffle jus and a chocolate crepe with creme de cassis chantilly. Most of the wines came from the Niagara wine region in Ontario, and they all were delicious. Note: the restaurant is open daily and reservations are recommended.
Toronto has a number of cool places to have a drink and see a show. Civil Liberties is at 878 Bloor Street West. This rustic speakeasy serves some of the best cocktails in town. There is no menu - the team of knowledgeable bartenders will ask you a few questions and help guide you to find a new favorite or a forgotten classic. Note: the bar is open daily from 6p. Mother is located at 874 Queen Street West. This sophisticated spot does inventive cocktails along with ever changing snacks featuring foraged ingredients in an intimate room. Try the Motherland Old Fashioned (coconut infused rye, bourbon, Islay whisky, sweet potato, saffron, elderflower, homemade woodland bitters, seasonal lacto fermented fruit, cacao port and raspberry pickle). Note: the bar is open from 6p and is closed on Monday. Gift Shop can be found at 89 Ossington Avenue. This not so secret speakeasy behind a barbershop offers craft cocktails in a cozy space with a retro feel. I enjoyed the Angel Face (Calvados, creme de apricot and Beefeater gin). Note: the bar is open from 7p and is closed on Monday.
Midfield Wine Bar is at 1434 Dundas Street West in the West end neighborhood. This welcoming space serves fine wines and small plates to share in a mellow cafe setting with an earthy vibe. Note: the bar is open from 5p and is closed on Sunday and Monday. Library Bar can be found at 100 Front Street West inside the Fairmont Royal York Hotel. This old fashioned cocktail den is a Toronto classic. Do get the Birdbath Martini (Quill gin or vodka, Cocchi extra dry vermouth, house orange bitters and fleur du sel). Note: the bar is open from 3p and is closed on Sunday and Monday. My favorite spot in town is BarChef, located at 472 Queen Street West. This dimly lit, swanky hangout does both impressive and creative cocktails, with over 5000 housemade bitters. I put away several of the Toasted Old Fashioned (Canadian whisky, toasted chamomile and saffron bitters, muddled orange zest and maple). Note: the bar is open daily from 5p. Nearby at 370 Queen Street West is the Horseshoe Tavern. This unpretentious, late night dive is legendary. Stop in for a beer and check out the historic back room for some live music. Note: the bar is open daily from 12p.
Toronto has a cool music scene and some of the best venues in Canada. There are 3 in particular that stand out above the rest. Lee's Palace is located at 529 Bloor Street West in the Annex neighborhood. This small space (capacity 500) has set the stage over the years for The Smashing Pumpkins and Dinosaur Jr. Kurt Cobain started an infamous beer bottle throwing incident when Nirvana played here in 1990. Note: you can't miss it - look for the primary colored mural that seems to scream out front. The Danforth Music Hall is at 147 Danforth Avenue. Originally constructed as a movie theater in 1919, it is now a major attraction for concerts (capacity 1500) featuring international and local artists. The famed Massey Hall can be found at 178 Victoria Street, around the corner from the Toronto Eaton Centre. Opened in 1894, it is a National Historic Site of Canada. Known for its outstanding acoustics, it was the long time home of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. With a capacity of 3000, the hall has hosted numerous historic performances over the years by noted artists including Neil Young in 1971 and Rush in 1976.
WHERE TO STAY
Toronto offers a number of places to call home during your stay and there are 2 that I especially enjoyed. Both are in prime locations and provide exceptional service, modern amenities and comfort. The first is The Hazelton, located in the heart of the Yorkville neighborhood at 118 Yorkville Avenue. This luxury boutique hotel is a short walk from the Royal Ontario Museum and not far from Casa Loma. The stylish rooms feature flat screen TVs, DVD players, minibars and free WiFi. Upgraded quarters offer separate sitting areas. Amenities include the upscale One restaurant, the lovely Spa by Valmont and an impressive art collection.
A second option is 1 Hotel Toronto, located next to Victoria Memorial Square park at 550 Wellington Street West. This elegant and sustainable property is close to the CN Tower and Lake Ontario. Featuring floor to ceiling windows and eco chic decor, the sophisticated rooms come with complimentary WiFi, flat screen TVs and Bluetooth speakers, as well as Nespresso machines and yoga mats. Upgrades add separate living rooms and kitchens. Other perks include 2 high end restaurants (1 Kitchen and Casa Madera) and a lobby bar (Flora Lounge), plus a rooftop terrace that has a pool and a bar (Harriet's Rooftop).
Toronto is very diverse with a multitude of cultures, excellent museums and fantastic restaurants. It treated me well and I look forward to returning. Until then, Go Leafs Go.