Wandering Through the 6ix aka Toronto, Canada
Earlier this summer, I had the chance to wander up to Toronto, Canada and spend some time exploring a city that I'd had the chance to visit once back in 2011 but only as a one-night stop on my way to Niagara Falls, and only because Hugh Jackman was there performing at the Princess of Wales Theatre! Well, that and my youngest child was catching a bus from there to visit a friend who lived in Winnipeg, Canada. I didn't see much of the city then and had always wanted to go back to spend more time there so when the opportunity presented itself, off I went.
If you’ve never traveled internationally yourself but feel like it’s time to give it a whirl, you should really consider wandering to the very international city of Toronto yourself. Not only is it fairly easy to get to - especially for those of us who live on the East Coast of the US - but Canada currently offers a very favorable exchange rate on the US dollar - unlike when I was there in 2011 and the USD was really hurting. Getting more bang for your buck, in addition to the fact that Canadians are genuinely friendly people who are happy to welcome you to their country, definitely makes Toronto the perfect place to stretch your wings as a 'world traveler' as you let the travel bug nibble on you on a bit!
Though you certainly can’t experience everything in Toronto in just one trip - heck, I've been twice now and feel like I've barely scratched the surface! - a few days will definitely give you a good feel for what North America’s 4th largest city has to offer. Located along Lake Ontario’s northwestern shore, Toronto - nicknamed “The 6ix” by hometown hero and rapper Drake for its 416 area code - is composed of a number of hugely diverse neighborhoods making it a vibrant, multicultural city and a great place to visit whether you’re into sports, museums, history, shopping, architecture or food.
Of course the most iconic building dominating the Toronto skyline is the CN Tower, one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World and the tallest freestanding structure in the western hemisphere. Topping out at 1,815 feet, the CN refers to the Canadian National Railway company which built the structure as a radio tower. Opening to the public in 1976, the Tower annually attracts more than 2 million international visitors who have the option of enjoying the views from several different levels, or from a table in the Tower’s aptly-named “360” revolving restaurant. Additionally, visitors to the CN Tower, can now take their experience to the edge - literally - by stepping outside the top of the Tower’s main pod onto a 5-foot wide ledge and going for a stroll. EdgeWalk - in which 6 participants at a time are attached to an overhead safety rail in a harness system - is the first of its kind in North America offering a full-circle hands-free walk 116 stories above the ground and the ultimate in bragging rights when it comes to a visit to Toronto. Let me just say that I do NOT have those particular bragging rights though I have to admit, it would be pretty darned cool if I did!
|Photo Courtesy CN Tower
Back down on terra firma, one of the best ways to get a real feel for just how eclectic Toronto is, is by paying a visit to Kensington Market - a proudly multicultural, funky neighborhood encompassing 10 or so blocks of diverse independent shops, restaurants and cafes, colorful produce markets, spice markets, bars and more. If you're wondering where a good number of the draft dodgers from the United States went to when they moved to Canada back in the 60s, chances are good that Kensington Market was it as it's the type of neighborhood that has embraced all sorts of folks for generations.
Located in the heart of Toronto, the designated National Historic site area also gives you the chance to experience a true taste of Canada via the Great Canadian Food Tour offered by Chopsticks+Forks. The brainchild of company founder and chronic foodie, Jusep Sim, who has been hosting popular international food tours in Kensington Market for more than three years, the recently-launched 2½-hour Canadian food tour has stops at six family-run locations where you’ll sample the most iconic tastes born in Canada. Beginning with an exclusive stop at the Pow Wow Café, an Indigenous Canadian-owned restaurant, not only will you eat your fill of the most iconic tastes born in Canada — like an Ojibway Taco on bannock bread, Montreal-style bagels and Canada’s most popular dessert that dates back to the 1600s — you’ll also learn some of the history of Kensington Market from your knowledgeable and friendly guide. For more about the tour, check out my blog post here.
After enjoying all that good food, walk some of it off by heading to Graffiti Alley, a must-see if you like street art which, in Toronto, has evolved from its illicit origins to become a source of civic pride. Though you’ll see colorful artwork all over the city, the most concentrated display starts at 1 Rush Lane and runs west from Spadina Avenue to Portland Street. In between you’ll find everything from amateur graffiti tags to intricate murals as well as an undersea world that covers almost an entire building. Definitely one of the most Instagrammable and unique parts of the city, chances are good you’ll even see an artist working on a new piece while you’re there as the art is ever-changing.
For art of a more traditional nature, Toronto is home to several world-class museums including the Art Gallery of Ontario, which, at 480,000 square feet, is one of the largest galleries in North America. With a collection of close to 95,000 works spanning the first century to present day, the AGO has plenty to see including the Henry Moore Sculpture Centre which comprises the world’s largest collection of the semi-abstract sculptor’s work, a terrific collection of ship models which contains exquisite examples of workmanship and the light-filled Galleria Italia overlooking Dundas Street which offers a variety of handcrafted beverages and light snacks to go with the artwork and view.
Across town in the University of Toronto district, the Royal Ontario Museum is the largest and most-visited museum in Canada with notable collections of dinosaurs, the world’s largest collection of fossils, minerals and meteorites and many more spectacular displays of art and culture. For those who missed the horrifyingly terrific exhibition: “It’s Alive! Classic Horror and Sci-Fi Art from the Kirk Hammett Collection,” when it was in Salem, Massachusetts, the Canadian-exclusive presentation of extraordinary art owned by the lead guitarist of Metallica, will be on display at the ROM through January 5, 2020. Yet another great reason to visit Toronto soon!
If you're dying to embrace your inner Imelda Marcos (who at one time owned over 1,000 pair of shoes) or just like shoes in general, just down the road from the ROM, the Bata Shoe Museum celebrates the style, development and function of footwear spanning 4,500 years of history with footwear ranging from ancient Egyptian sandals to contemporary gleaming gold sneakers. With an unrivaled collection of over 13,000 shoes and related objects, the BSM is a definite go-to for anyone who loves shoes. Believe it or not, it started with one woman's collection of shoes - and she wasn't Imelda Marcos!
While you’re in the neighborhood, be sure to visit Casa Loma, a 64,700-square foot Gothic Revival-style castle that was completed in 1914 for Toronto financier Sir Henry Mill Pellatt and his wife Lady Mary at the cost of $3.5 million. After Sir Pellatt could no longer afford to keep the castle, it became the Casa Loma Hotel, a luxury hotel that operated from 1926-29. In 1933 the city of Toronto took ownership of the property and in 1937 it began operating as a historic house museum that boasts awesome views of Toronto while self-guided audio tours offer glimpses into many of the castle’s 98 rooms, underground passages and garage with its collection of vintage cars. If it looks a bit familiar while you’re there, that may be because Casa Loma - which means 'House on the Hill' - is a popular location for use in film and television including “X-Men,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and Fox’s 2016 reboot of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again” - just to name a few.
If you're looking for a special dining experience while in Toronto, consider making reservations at BlueBlood Steakhouse which is located inside Casa Loma. Offering a refined dining experience in an upscale environment with a modern and edgy feel, the restaurant has classic heritage architecture, unique heirloom antiques and modern art pieces by Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali. Honestly, when you work out the conversion rate, being able to enjoy a 12-oz Centre Cut Striploin that has been dry-aged 35 days for $60 CAD, while sitting in a castle and being waited on like royalty, is really not bad at all! Definitely something I'd like to try the next time I'm in Toronto and can afford to splurge a bit!
For the sports enthusiasts out there, the home of the newly-crowned NBA champion Toronto Raptors offers numerous sports venues where you can see a game being played as well as the opportunity to learn more about the country’s favorite sport at the Hockey Hall of Fame, or -- in French -- Temple de la Renommée du Hockey. In addition to getting up close and personal with the Stanley Cup, the hall includes exhibits about players, teams, NHL records and other trophies culled from the largest collection of hockey memorabilia in the world. For fans of the former Hartford Whalers, “9 & 99: The Howe-Gretzky Exhibition” pays homage to the most prolific scorers in the league and includes milestone artifacts and rare personal memorabilia from Gordie Howe, who finished his long and distinguished career with the Whalers in 1980. Running through March of 2020, it’s a must for any hockey fan.Oh, and if you're a Wayne Gretzky fan, some of his stuff is in the exhibition too!
Should baseball be more your thing, a visit to the Rogers Centre is a must. Originally named the SkyDome and the previous home to the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, as well as the above-mentioned NBA champion Raptors, since 1989 the multi-purpose stadium has been the home of the Toronto Blue Jays - the only MLB team outside of the US to appear in and win a World Series. The first stadium in the world to have a fully retractable motorized roof, the Rogers Centre has a seating capacity of 49,282, so your chances of getting a really good seat at a really good price even on game day, are really good. If you just want to get your foot in the door and don’t care where you sit, tickets prices start at $15 CAD. Try getting into Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium for even close to that. Heck, try to even buy a beer and a hot dog at any ballpark in America for that!
Other “must see” places that you should put on your list include Old Town Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market, on the site where Ontario farmers have been selling produce since 1803. Incorporating the 1845 Toronto City Hall building into the structure, the current building opened in 1902 and was named one of the “Top Ten Food Markets in the World,” by National Geographic in 2012. On the market’s two floors, more than 120 retailers sell things from cheese to seafood to vegetables in this foodie paradise. Here, you’ll find the local legendary Carousel Bakery with its renowned peameal sandwich, which has caught the attention of legendary culinary celebrities Emeril Lagasse and the late Anthony Bourdain among others. It’s good but to be honest, the peameal sandwich at Bacon Nation in Kensington Market -- a stop on the Great Canadian Food Tour -- is better.
From St. Lawrence Market, take a walk to the pedestrian-only Distillery Historic District, comprised of 46 buildings that once housed a large whiskey distillery. Billed as the largest collection of Victorian industrial architecture in North America, the cobbled lanes of the former Gooderham & Worts Distillery are lined with an array of boutiques and galleries as well as dining options including the Mill Street Brewery, where you can sample two of the brewery’s beers (or root beer if you're not a beer drinker!) while waiting for your table to be ready in the brewpub. East Toronto’s first commercial microbrewery to open in more than 100 years, you can also take one of their daily tours.
Speaking of beer, located near the CN Tower and Rogers Centre in the historic John Street Roundhouse, Steam Whistle Brewing is one of Canada’s largest and most beloved independent breweries producing one of the only remaining Pilsners in the world that adheres to the strict standards of the Bavarian Purity Act of 1516. Using only pure spring water, barley, hops and yeast, the brewery’s Czech-born Brewmaster, Marek Mikunda, oversees the production of one of the most challenging styles of beer to perfect. Take a half-hour tour of the brewery where you’ll also learn about the history of the roundhouse then sit back and enjoy a freshly poured pint or two at the bar as you toast your terrific trip to Toronto!
Steam Whistle is located in Roundhouse Park which is situated on the former Railway Lands and home to the Toronto Railway Museum. Dedicated to preserving the physical legacy, history and experience of rail transportation in Toronto and Ontario, the Toronto Railway Museum encompasses Roundhouse Park and features interpretive plaques in addition to a railway simulator which gives visitors the chance to be an engineer by setting the speed, using the brakes, and blowing the horn all with actual levers! Take a turn on the restored turntable or hop aboard the miniature train ride which is popular with both young and old alike!
Be sure to take a walk past the Gooderham Building (a.k.a. the Flat Iron) and then on to Berzcy Park located right behind it where you'll find a whimsical dog fountain that features a menagerie of 27 cast iron dogs, one cat who looks like he definitely took the wrong turn in Albuquerque, and a lone bone topping it all off! It's just too doggone cute for words!
Other great places to visit in the city include Nathan Phillips Square to pose at the Toronto sign and the Eaton Centre which is home to over 250+ best-in-class retailers, restaurants and services located in the heart of downtown. A shopper's dream come true, the centre comes complete with a striking glass galleria and iconic "Flight Stop" geese overhead.
Obviously in a city the size of Toronto, there are many, many lodging options from pretty much all price-points both in and outside of the downtown area. You may choose to stay in one of the outlying areas to save some money and utilize the area's great public transportation system or, should you chose to stay further afield, it's also easy enough to drive into the city and find somewhere quite reasonably priced to park ahead of time by using an app like Parking Panda. When I wandered up to Canada, we did just that though we did opt to spend one night closer to the action at the Kimpton Saint George in the University section of the city.
Located on Bloor Street across from the Bata Shoe Museum and just down the road from the Royal Ontario Museum, the Saint George makes its home in a great neighborhood and is within easy walking distance of public transportation. The hotel offers 188 guest rooms and suites that are modern and roomy, a nightly hosted evening wine hour from 5-6 pm, a hi-tech 24-hour fitness center as well as complimentary PUBLIC bikes for guests' use, terrific staff and on-site dining at The Fortunate Fox, a hip gastropub where everything's made from scratch and delicious! To be honest, I've not met a Kimpton hotel that I haven't liked and the Saint George was certainly no exception, I highly recommend it as the place to call 'home' while wandering through Toronto!
There's definitely a lot more to Toronto than I've touched on here and though I spent a lot of my time preparing for my trip by binge-watching the filmed-in-Toronto series "Flashpoint", if you'd like a different method of obtaining more information on where to stay, what else to visit, and how to get around the city, be sure to visit Tourism Toronto where you can also book a money-saving package deal offering discounts on both lodging and activities.