I have heard Toronto described as “a city within a garden”—a name fitting of the city of 2.5 million, whose population and infrastructure wind their way through parks and verdant hillsides, over rivers and streams, until they arrive at the shores of Lake Ontario.
I would also offer the phrase “a city under construction,” as I have never visited a metropolitan hub so busy with cranes and work crews, nascent metal structures gleaming on the skyline as the city reaches for the sun and races to keep pace with its growing economy.
(Toronto under construction)
As of thirty years ago, a fair share of modern Toronto did not exist. Long expanses of railway yard stretched their way through town, overgrown and underused, standing remains of Toronto’s industrial past. Everywhere one looks now, there are new restaurants, hotels and financial centers; expanded roadways, markets, and entertainment complexes.
Below, find some of the top spots to explore, dine, and stay during a jaunt to the down-to-earth and ever-expanding city of Toronto.
CITY SEE & DO
Do yourself a favor, and explore Toronto on foot. Move through the city as the locals do, and take in the mix of old and new.
Wander through the opulent Union Station and touch the raw limestone walls still graced with invertebrate fossils. Visit St. Lawrence Market, widely lauded as one of the world’s best food markets. Wander from stall to stall, tasting coffees and chocolates, deli fare, produce, and seafood.
(St. Lawrence Market)
Wind your way through the lobbies of historic hotels like The Fairmont Royal York Hotel, which welcomes the British Royal Family each time it hops the pond to visit the Canadian realm of its commonwealth. Marvel at the creativity of Spanish architect Calatrava, whose white archways form the galleria at Brookfield Place.
Head over to the Yorkville neighborhood to stock up on luxury goods and historic charm, then get your daily dose of graffiti, vintage wear and creative cuisine at Kensington Market. Later, make your way through Chinatown toward Queen Street West, a street crowded with boutiques and labeled “Toronto’s coolest neighborhood” by Lonely Planet.
Depending on the season, you can spend your evenings catching a Blue Jays game at the Rogers Center—a gleaming complex beneath the glow of the CN tower—or head to the Air Canada Center for a night of hockey with the Toronto Maple Leafs. If you’re more musically inclined, hit a concert at the historic Massey Hall, whose debut concert was nearly 120 years ago, but whose roster still jams with the artists of today.
(Jays play NY Yankees at Rogers Center)
If you’re a lover of the outdoors, escape the city to explore the Toronto Islands via kayak, and take in Toronto’s ever-growing skyline from across the water. Paddle in search of herons and lighthouses, and bask in the quiet of 230 hectares of parkland comprising the largest urban car-free community in America.
(View of Toronto by Kayak with HarbourFront Canoe and Kayak Centre)
Then, make your way to the Toronto Botanical Gardens, a beautiful stretch of both manicured Victorian gardens and wildflower arrangements set to mimic the Ontario wilderness. Head to the Botanical Garden’s library for a read, and watch the hives of honeybees at work, then follow with a bite of locally-sourced food from TBG Café.
(Toronto Botanical Gardens)
Or, if you’re more inclined to forego the mellow in the name of adventure, strap in for CN Tower’s Edgewalk—the world’s highest full circle hands-free walk. Stroll on CN Tower’s 5-foot wide ledge 1168 feet (116 stories) above the ground, and push your personal limits by stretching outward over Toronto, taking in the views with nothing below you but air.
(CN Tower EdgeWalk)
FOOD & DRINK
Because Toronto stands one of the most diverse cities in the world, with nearly half its population born outside of Canada, the food scene is eclectic and radiates the enthusiasm of a city bursting at the seams.
While my awareness of Canadian edibles was limited to one thing prior to visiting—maple syrup—my sap-licking days in Ohio didn’t prepare me for the elegance and deliciousness of Ninutuk’s maple-sugar creations. Ninutuk produces a maple-based product line aiming to refine the public’s palate through elegant, modern and distinctive offerings. From the maple butter to the soft maple sugar, both of which melt in your mouth, to the snow-cooled maple taffy & blue cheese lollipops—every product is considered through the lens of both taste and design.
(Ninutuk’s maple and cheese lollies)
For a casual and uniquely Canadian meal, seek out one of the many Smoke’s Poutineries around town. While the gravy- and cheese-curd-topped mass of fries is not natively Torontonian (it was invented and is closely guarded by the Quebecois), Smoke’s does a fantastic job of executing both the original recipe, and some corpulent remixes. My favorite Smoke’s original: pulled pork poutine.
(Poutine at Smoke’s Poutinerie)
If you’re seeking more than just French-fry-based dishes, but still want the fun of getting your hands dirty, check out Rose and Sons. The jam-packed diner-cum-patio layout serves as a perfect setting to devour what Rose and Sons calls “no-bullshit food.” Corn bread, herb-covered chicken wings, over-the-top juicy Cornish hens, barbeque rabbit, slaw, and pork and beans are just some of Rose and Sons specialties. And, whatever you do, don’t miss the PB&J and S’mores ice cream sandwiches.
(Cornish hen and sides at Rose and Sons)
(S’mores ice cream sandwich at Rose and Sons)
If you prefer high-end dining in a (literally) high-end setting, enjoy dinner at Canoe, situated on the 54th floor of TD Bank Tower, affording both delicious cuisine and breathtaking views of the city. For culinary mastery that is regionally inspired, I recommend the Nova Scotia swordfish tartare, 45-day aged Ontario ribeye, and Labrador tea leaf smoked duck accompanied by foie gras.
(Nova Scotia swordfish tartare)
For a beer selection that spans multiple walls and continents, stop by Bar Volo, a cozy joint that’s perfect for escaping the tourist bustle with a wily IPA. And, for a drink selection that will blow your mind (as well as wallet if you’re not careful), cap off the night at BarChef. While I’m not typically one to spend the big bucks on a cocktail, I found myself marveling at the artistry and science-fair-esque presentations of BarChef’s concoctions. Each drink from the Modernist menu combines a beautiful serving process with exquisite flavor combinations, culminating in what is essentially an experiment in taste. So, if you’re interested in seeing what delicious concoction can come of alcohol, mist, flavor-layered gelatin, fruit “caviar” and violets, head to BarChef, and ask for the Aviation. (Photos on BarChef’s website.)
At the end of a long day of exploring, I can think of no better place to rest one’s head than Hotel Le Germain at Maple Leaf Square. Le Germain MLS is a boutique hotel with 167 rooms that aims to provide an inviting atmosphere with personalized, yet discreet service. From leaving chocolates and fruit alongside hand-written notes in the evening, to providing fresh, healthy breakfast options in the morning (included in your room price), Le Germain welcomes travelers with warmth and taste. Additionally, the king-sized beds, rain showers, and naturally-decorated, modern rooms provide a space for luxury and relaxation without feeling like Le Germain is trying too hard.
(Superior Room at Le Germain Maple Leaf Square)