September 20, 2012
We’re taking a look at some of the opportunities for travel beyond New York City. We’ve already mooched around Long Island, and ventured through upstate New York on the Adirondack train to Montréal. Today we’re following up last week’s guide to Niagara Falls with an exploration of the constantly evolving city of Toronto.
If a visit to the falls is on your New York holiday wishlist, then dynamic Toronto is the obvious choice for a twin-centre city break. The thriving Canadian metropolis on Lake Ontario’s northern shore is just a 90-minute drive from the Niagara region and an ideal destination for anyone seeking a truly multicultural experience.
Thrusting skywards in the heart of it all is the city’s best-known icon, the CN Tower. While it’s no longer the world’s tallest freestanding structure (that title now belongs to the Tokyo Sky Tree) the observation deck remains the best way to orient yourself to the lay of the land, while gazing out to the Toronto Islands and down upon a Blue Jays game at the retractable-roofed Rogers Centre below. And if that’s not vertigo-inducing enough, the hands-free EdgeWalk around the top of the tower’s main pod will certainly blow the cobwebs away.
Back on firm ground, the car-free Toronto Islands can be reached by ferry from the docks at Queen’s Quay West, where a slower-paced world of beaches, boardwalk trails, picnic areas and cutesy old cottages awaits. This old-fashioned family favourite destination is also home to the Centreville amusement park, with rides, swan boats and a petting zoo.
In and around Toronto’s downtown and midtown core are a handful of Canada’s best museums and galleries including the impressive natural history-focused Royal Ontario Museum and ever-expanding Art Gallery of Ontario. Quirkier attractions draw big crowds too, like the gloriously over-the-top Casa Loma; Gothic Revival-style castle and personal folly of a turn-of-the-century Canadian financier. Less grandiose but equally compelling, the Bata Shoe Museum exhibits more than 4,500 years of footwear history, from French chestnut-crushing clogs to ladies’ 1920s swimming shoes.
Toronto is a world-hub of performing arts, home of the National Ballet of Canada, the Canadian Opera Company, and a theatre scene that on this side of the Atlantic is second only to New York. Historic and immensely atmospheric venues include the Beaux-Arts Royal Alexandra Theatre, the 1920s Ed Mirvish Theatre and the 1913-built Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre. It’s also one of the major host venues of the Toronto International Film Festival, held annually in September.
If you’re a shopaholic, you’ll find Toronto truly special. The city centre’s dizzying white steel-and-glass retail temple, the Eaton Centre, hosts 230 big name brands. You can also access several of the 125 entrances to PATH from here; a 28 km underground walkway system lined with a further 1,200 shops and services.
Head to the high-end Bloor-Yorkville neighbourhood for fashionable boutiques touting upscale clothing, jewellery and shoes. You’ll find all the usual luxury brands here like Tiffany and Chanel, but there’s a decent selection of homegrown designers too. Kensington Market is the polar opposite; a mish-mash of narrow streets lined with an international array of new age-y shops and tattoo parlours housed in brightly coloured Victorian houses, selling everything from vintage clothing and second-hand retro furniture to African drums, crystals and palm reading paraphenalia.
Queen Street West is the most interesting shopping strip in town, with a genuinely eclectic range of independent stores, cafes, bakeries, restaurants and late night bars. Be prepared, because it goes on for miles, although the 501 streetcar plies its length too. You’ll find anything and everything here, but our outright faves were the brilliantly-stocked cocktail emporium BYOB, rare vinyl specialists Neurotica and the truly covetable range of mid-century accessories at InAbstracto.
Notable choices in the central downtown area around Yonge Street, Dundas Square and Bay Street include the cool Japanese-Pacific fusion fare and cocktails at Blowfish on Bay, authentic Portuguese grilled meat and seafood at Adega, and top-notch British dishes at highly-regarded gastropub The Queen and Beaver. And don’t write off the 360 Restaurant at the top of the CN Tower as a tourist trap – it’s widely regarded as one of the best restaurants in the city and, of course, the views are unbeatable.
If it’s glamour you’re after, then head to Yorkville’s delectable Crme Brasserie for a seafood-heavy, French-inspired menu; to the gorgeous Victorian-housed Sassafraz for upscale brunch and some of Canada’s finest artisan cheese; or splurge on a special occasion meal at One, where the steaks are impeccable and the Toronto A-listers are out in force.
The section of Queen Street West between Spadina and Gladstone avenues is brimming with small, innovative restaurants, bars and cafes, as is Ossington Avenue which adjoins it. The variety is really quite astounding. Try Parkette for modern Italian comfort food in a warmly rustic diner setting, or whitewashed, natural light-filled Boehmer for contemporary Canadian dishes fresh from the huge open kitchen. Tiny, buzzing Oyster Boy serves up the tastiest molluscs in town, while around the corner Franco-Cuban fare is raised to an art-form at local’s favourite Delux. Finally, amazing pho noodle soup is the signature dish at down-to-earth Vietnamese joint the Golden Turtle (125 Ossington Ave).
Enthusiastic foodies might also want to partake in one of the city’s excellent local food tours. The mix of cultural insight, behind-the-scenes access and delectable tastings make these a really worthwhile activity. The Culinary Adventure Company offers tours of Little Italy, Greektown and Little India among others; Foodies on Foot have a 501 Street Car Food Tour with stops at six different neighbourhoods and Tasty Tours have some treats in store on their Kensington Market Sweets and Chocolate tours.
Toronto does a spectacular line in big city hotels; new and ever more impressive properties seem to sprout from the sidewalk every couple of months or so. In the second half of this year alone there will be grand new offerings from Four Seasons and Shangri-La, while Trump International opened its doors in the spring.
However, away from the skyscrapers the city excels in highly individualistic, quirky hotels with a twist. We stayed at historic landmark and art hotel The Gladstone at the far end of Queen Street West – the oldest continuously-operating hotel in the city – and loved the character, originality and attention to detail. All 37 rooms have been designed and decorated by a different artist, with common areas turned into gallery space for the city’s artist community.
Far from being a gimmick, the Gladstone has its own Director of Exhibitions, responsible for the hotel’s permanent collection and more than 90 different exhibitions every year. It doesn’t stop there either: an ever-expanding calendar of cultural events take place each week in the Melody Bar and Cafe (which is another of Queen Street West’s great dining spots in its own right), including live music, comedy nights, book launches, installations and karaoke. The 501 street car stops right outside the hotel, and it’s about a 15 minute ride back into downtown.
Just up the road, the Drake Hotel is another cultural hub, sleeker and more design-focused than the Gladstone, with a reputation for avant-garde performance art and legendary parties. Rooms are fun and upbeat: huge beds with colourful throws, exposed brick walls, flock wallpaper and clubby leather armchairs. Large scale artworks, hand-made dolls and vintage trunks strike a nicely eccentric note. Don’t miss the Drake General Store a couple of doors away, with a great range of Canadian-made goodies, from maple syrup to t-shirts and even the Drake’s own breakfast granola.
Back towards the city centre, other solid sleeping bets include the Strathcona, the luxury Fairmont Royal York, the theatre district Hotel Le Germain, Canada’s largest hotel, the Delta Chelsea, and the waterfront Westin Harbour – all bookable through Virgin Holidays.
Head to Tourism Toronto for up-to-the-minute city guides, attractions, arts and culture, entertainment and dining.
Visit Part One of this post for an in-depth guide to visiting Niagara Falls. Visit Virgin Holidays for more twin-centre holiday ideas, including tailor-made arrangements for trips to Toronto, Niagara Falls and Montréal. Or why not combine the two great cities of Montréal and Toronto in one trip? Travel between the two couldn’t be simpler: take a short flight or go the leisurely way with Via Rail. Journey time is five hours, with up to six departures every day.
Virgin Atlantic operate five daily flights to New York from London Heathrow, moving to six at the end of October 2012.