The Big Smoke, T-dot, New York as run by the Swiss, the worst place in Canada (according to Western Canadians), the GTA. Whatever you want to call it, it’s still known as Toronto. Every year, millions of tourists (and immigrants) make their way here. Ideally, the best time to visit Toronto is from late spring to early autumn (May to October). Unless of course you like freezing cold weather, in that case, come in the wintertime when the temperature can drop as low as –30C and the snow can come up to your waist.
Although Toronto does have things to do in the winter, the city really does come to life in the warmer months.
So without further ado, here are the top ten things to do when visiting Toronto.
1) Experience Multiculturalism
Toronto is the UN in a city. Only a handful of cities in the world can truly call themselves multicultural. It’s amazing how many cities in the world call themselves multicultural and have the nerve to brag about it. Singapore? That’s a joke. They’ve got only four. Melbourne? Getting close. London? Getting closer. New York? Almost there. Toronto is the place where multiculturalism truly symbolizes the spirit of the city.
Over half of the city’s citizens weren’t even born in Canada. Toronto even has SIX, yes six, Chinatowns. There’s also four Little Italys, three Little Indias, two Koreatowns, a Greektown, a Jewish Village, a Jamaicatown, a Portuguese Village, a Little Saigon, and the list goes on and on. Toronto has about 100 different ethnic groups and close to 200 different languages and dialects spoken. When the Bible talked about the Town of Babel, they probably meant Toronto. While walking in Toronto, it’s extremely hard to tell who’s a local, and who’s a foreigner or a tourist because Toronto is more mixed than a salad bowl.
The extreme mix of nationalities hits you as soon as you get off the plane. Just walk around Pearson Airport, and look around. You’ll see a Sikh policeman, or a Chinese ticket clerk, or maybe an Argentinean shopkeeper, or an African bag checker. Who knows what you will find. In Toronto, you’ll find everyone and anyone. It’s the whole world in a city. And you know what, they all seem to get along just fine.
But just for pointers, here are some of the better areas to check out:
Chinatown: Spadina Ave between Dundas and Queen. You might as well be in Hong Kong. It smells, sounds, and looks almost the same. Plus, if you go a block over to Kensington Market, you WILL see the entire UN in just two blocks.
Little Italy: College St between Bathurst and Ossington. Have an espresso or cappuccino at one of the many cafés.
Greektown: Danforth Ave between Broadview and Jones. Absolutely delicious restaurants that stay open ‘til the wee hours.
So there you have it, Toronto – the entire world in a city. It seems like the whole world has come to Toronto. Why haven’t you?
2) CN Tower
You might be wondering, why didn’t I make this #1. There’s a very good reason for that, but I’ll get to that later. But now, I’m going to tell you about
2, The CN Tower.
The Canadian National Tower, a.k.a. the CN Tower is . . . tall. It’s very, very tall. For about a decade, the CN Tower was the tallest building in the world. It’s also the symbol of Toronto. What’s more is that on a sunny day, you can see it from miles away.
The CN Tower is a must see for anyone who visits Toronto. It’s also quite nice to look at architecturally. Most, if not all, locals are actually quite proud of it and brag about it to everybody. It’s the ultimate fitting symbol for a city whose citizens feel that they are better than everyone else.
What to do there? Most people simply just go up to the first observation deck and take a look at Toronto from over 1100 ft/115 stories up. The ride up in the glass elevator is nerve-wracking and ear-popping. Once you get to the top, you’ll be fine. Once you get to the observation deck the first thing you notice (other than the crowds) is that Toronto actually looks … good, even from that high up. To the north, east, and west, it’s a clean city with decent architecture, and a surprisingly large amount of green space. And when you look to the south, you will see the Centre Island and Lake Ontario. However, Lake Ontario is so big that you cannot see the other side, even on a clear day. It’s like an ocean.
After going to the main deck, you can walk down a floor to go the outdoor observation area to see some jaw-dropping views and feel tornado force winds. Most people head to the glass floor. You might just think, eh, it’s just a glass floor. But when the glass floor is 115 floors up, it can give you a heart attack. It’s funny just to watch (or record) the reactions of people who are at the glass floor.
After visiting the main observation level, go visit the Sky Pod. It costs another $10 or so, but it’s worth it. By the way, you also travel another 30 floors up. The Sky Pod is about 145 floors in the air, and you can see REALLY far.
Recently, the CN Tower added another new spectacular (or incredibly stupid) attraction, the Edgewalk. For about $200, if the price doesn’t scare you first, you and other utterly crazy fools can strap yourselves to a harness suit and dangle on the outside of the first observation deck. If that’s not scary enough, perhaps you should just try skydiving from space.
But as cool as the CN Tower is, there’s one thing better in Toronto. It’s what Toronto truly represents. And in Toronto, it’s likely truer than in any city in the world.
3) Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake
Okay. So it’s not Toronto. But these two towns aren’t that far away. They’re only 90 minutes by car or bus. What’s to see? The Falls, of course. Niagara Falls is one of the biggest waterfalls in the world. It’s also one of the most beautiful too. PS, stay on the Canadian side of the Falls, the American side sucks.
In the spring and summer, you can take the Maid of the Mist-the BEST boat ride in the world. It’s also the wettest one too. (But don’t worry; they’ll lend you a free raincoat for the ride. Just don’t wear your Sunday best.)
Niagara Falls also has acres and acres of beautiful parkland especially near the Falls. There’s also many restaurants, shops, hotels, casinos, and bars.
Most people, after seeing the Falls, head to Clifton Hill. Clifton Hill is full of really cheesy museums and fun houses. They aren’t too bad, and they’re great for the kids especially. But adults can enjoy them too.
About a km or two from the Falls are the Niagara Whirlpool and the Spanish Aerocar (cable car). If you’re really brave, try the cable car. I’ve been to the Falls dozens of times, but I still haven’t worked up the nerve to do the cable car. It’s just too f—– scary.
About 10 km from the Falls is Niagara-on-the-Lake. This is ice wine country. Some of the most picturesque vineyards in the world are located here. Most of the vineyards are open to the public. More so, most of them have first rate restaurants and chefs who know how to pair their wine and food perfectly.
Niagara-on-the-Lake also has a beautiful old town. Here you can visit the old shops and bakeries to try some local sweeties. As well, many of the wine companies have shops here so that you can pick up more booze in case you didn’t get enough at the vineyards.
Unfortunately, Niagara-on-the-Lake is not really bus accessible, especially when it’s not summertime. In the warmer months, there are many companies that do bus tours in this area. But if you are going with friends, my suggestion would be to choose one of your friends to be the designated driver. You could also try to negotiate with a taxi driver from Niagara Falls to guide you (and your friends) around so that you can happily puke your guts out from all of that sweet ice wine without having to worry about getting arrested for drunk driving or doing something worse. Maybe after drinking all that wine, try getting a coffee first.
4) Yonge Street
Somehow, I feel that I shouldn’t write this section because I KNOW that you’ll end up on Yonge St. anyways. Everything and anything worth seeing in Toronto is on or near Yonge St. (PS, it’s pronounced “young” (the opposite of old), not “yoong” or “yong”). Yonge St is simply the most important street in the city. And quite possibly, no street in the world is as synonymous with its city as Yonge St. is to Toronto.
Yonge St. (Highway 11) is THE longest street in the world. It starts at Queens Quay (check this area out, too, it’s quite nice) and then meanders over 1800 km to Rainy River in northern Ontario. If you were to drive the entire length of it, it would take you about two whole days to drive it. (I’m not saying that you have to do that. But if you’ve got all that time, why not?) You just need to see the section from Bloor St. to Queens Quay. Also, if you take the yellow subway line, you’re underneath Yonge St anyways.
What’s on Yonge St. you ask? Quite a lot. Here’s a breakdown of the areas between Queens Quay and Bloor.
Queens Quay: Harbourfront, Lake Ontario
Front St.: Hockey Hall of Fame, ACC.
King St.: Giant office buildings over 70 floors high. Check out the CIBC Tower and the Scotiabank Tower for some really cool lobbies, especially the “indoor waterfall” in the Scotiabank Tower.
Queen St.: The Bay’s department store and the beginning of the Eaton Centre, Toronto’s shopping mecca. You MUST check this out. It’s probably the prettiest mall in the entire world.
Dundas St. The end of the Eaton Centre (yes, it’s that big), and Dundas Square. This is the busiest area of the city.
College/Carlton St.: Lots of small shops and College Park
Wellesley St: More small shops, and the beginning of the Gay District.
Bloor St.: Yorkville; Toronto’s trendiest and most luxurious area. This is where the rich come to pay and play.
5) The Ex
For over 100 years, from mid-August until Labour Day, almost 2 million people head to the Canadian National Exhibition; a.k.a. the CNE, a.k.a. the Ex.
What is the Ex exactly? It’s just like your average town fair, but on super-steroids. There are all sorts of rides and games and your typical carnival foods that will clog your arteries and allow your cardiologist to add another payment to his Beemer. There are also concerts and shows that everyone can watch too. It’s also good for shopping and checking out all sorts of new things.
Furthermore, when the Ex is open, you can visit neighbouring Ontario Place for free. Ontario Place on its own isn’t too bad either. There’s the Cinesphere, the giant 6-floor IMAX theatre. There’s also the Molson Amphitheatre where all of your favourite rock stars come out (Tickets for shows at the Amphitheatre are extra, but then the Ex and Ontario Place become free). Ontario Place has lots of rides for the kids and a small water park, too. Ontario Place also has lots of places where you can sit back and have a cold one during the hot summer months.
But the best part of the Ex is the last three days. That’s when the annual air show is held. Well over 100,000 people line the lakeshore each day to see the Snowbirds and other aviators dance in the sky. *Note: bring your hat and sunglasses because staring into the sky on a sunny day really sucks.
But the best part of the Ex is that…it’s fun.
6) Take part in a street festival or parade
In general, Torontonians tend to be a fractured bunch. They go to work, and then go home or just go to where their friends and families are. However, when it’s festival time, hundreds of thousands of people show up to join in or watch the festivities.
Every spring and summer, numerous activities are held throughout the city. There is something for everyone and every kind of group. Toronto’s festivals tend to reflect the different cultures that live in the city.
Here is a list of what to see, when they are held, and where
Italifest (Taste of Little Italy) – All things Italian; food, music, performances. It’s held in Little Italy-College St. between Bathurst and Shaw.
Greekfest (Taste of the Danforth) – All things Greek; food, music, performances. It’s held in Greektown-Danforth Ave between Broadview and Woodbine.
Beaches Jazzfest-Not exactly a jazz music festival. It’s more like a world music festival. But the crowds are enormous and the music is great. It’s held at the Beaches (Woodbine and Queen).
TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival)-Yorkville (Bloor and Bay). This is the world’s second biggest movie festival after Cannes. Every major movie star, promoter, director, and buyer comes to Toronto to promote their film. And just as many paparazzi arrive, too. Tickets sell out really fast and if you’re really lucky, you can get on the guest lists for the after parties to hobnob with the stars of the silver screen. This is usually held in September
Gay Pride Parade-Yonge St between Bloor and Front. Held on the last Sunday in June. Almost a million people come out to watch and enjoy the parade. There’s even more partying after hours in the Gay District (Church and Wellesley). The Dyke March parade takes place the day before.
Caribana-Arguably Toronto’s biggest and most exciting street festival/parade. Almost a million people join in the festivities that turn Toronto into a giant Caribbean city. Lots of fantastic reggae, dub, ska, and steel pan music, and even cooler costumes. It’s the place to get your dagger on and jump up.
Last but not least, the annual Santa Claus parade. For over 100 years, every November, Toronto holds its annual parade where children of all ages can catch their first glimpse of Santa, the elves, and the reindeer as they stroll on the streets of downtown to hundreds of thousands of families.
7) St. Lawrence Market
Easily one of the top ten market halls in the world, the St. Lawrence Market encompasses an entire city block. This place is HUGE. It is paradise for cooks, chefs, and the food lover in you. Every kind of local produce is available here fresh from the farm. In addition, since Toronto has such a demanding palette, hundreds of international foods are sold here, too.
Fresh seafood, delicious mouth-watering fruits and vegetables, hundreds of different kinds of cheeses, and freshly baked bread from every corner of the world, and all different kinds of meats and grains to bust your gut.
If you want even more great food here, try one of the pea-meal bacon sandwiches or perhaps a chicken parmigiana panini sold here.
P.S. After you’ve finished stuffing yourself silly, walk around the St. Lawrence neighbourhood. It’s the oldest part of Toronto, and some parts of this area are really quite beautiful.
8) Get a double-double and some street meat
As the saying goes, when in Rome, do as the Romans do. Well, when in Toronto, that means picking up a double-double (especially for breakfast) and then get street meat for lunch (or dinner). Although you can pick up a double-double at just about any café, to enjoy the full Toronto experience you must get one from “Timmy’s” (Tim Horton’s that is), which are located all over the city (and the country for that matter). All other places just don’t measure up.
As for street meat, it MUST be beef. While pork and veggie options do exist, in order to be like a real local and enjoy the best of the bunch, street meat of the bovine kind must be ordered. Toronto’s street meat is THE finest in the world. No other city’s comes close.
By the way, if you’re wondering what exactly is a double-double or street meat, you’ll just have to go to Toronto to find out.
9) Visit a sporting event/rock concert/show
Toronto is home to teams from every major sport, and then some. At all times of the year, there is something to watch, from the junior leagues all the way to the professionals. Even though, Toronto is one of the world’s biggest bandwagon cities, it’s really hard not to get caught up in the sports fever that grips the city every so often. If any local team happens to win a championship, you can expect to see a street party like no other.
Toronto has the Raptors (NBA), the Blue Jays (MLB), the Argonauts (CFL), Toronto FC (MLS), and the Rock (lacrosse). Toronto also has many junior and minor league teams in these and other sports. Furthermore, Toronto also hosts other sporting events like the Queen’s Plate, the pinnacle of Canadian horse racing, and the Honda Indy (auto racing).
But Toronto’s most favourite team is the Toronto Maple Leafs of the NHL. Toronto’s most beloved team hasn’t won a title for over 45 years. But that doesn’t matter to the 22,000 fans who pack the Air Canada Centre (the ACC) to capacity for every home game. The ACC is also home to the Raptors and the Rock.
Toronto is also a great place to catch live music. Every, I mean, every major rock band and singer comes to Toronto to perform, from A (vril) to Z (eppelin). There are also dozens of pubs such as the Horseshoe Tavern and the El Mocambo where you can catch the wannabes make their start, to the giant Rogers Centre (Skydome) where you and 60,000 of your closest, screaming friends can watch supergroups like U2 or the Rolling Stones. As well, due to Toronto’s large groups of immigrants you can even catch some of your favourite foreign language stars such as Andy Lau and Shakira.
Furthermore, Toronto has a huge live theatre and Broadway musical scene. As well, there are also chances to catch ballets, symphonies, and dramas. It’s said that Toronto fans are the most demanding audience in the English-speaking world. Tickets to major events, even at the Rogers Centre, can sell out in a matter of hours, so book ahead to get the good seats before they’re gone.
10) Centre Island
This is where Torontonians (the locals) go to relax, play and get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. “Centre Island” is actually a group of interconnected islands located in Lake Ontario just south of the city. Although these islands consist of over 200 hectares of land, most visitors simply visit the two busiest islands: Centre Island and Olympic Island. On any give (nice weather) weekend, thousands upon thousands of people will flock to the ferry docks to spend their day on the islands.
How to get there? The only way to get there is by ferry or water taxi. There are three ferries that will get you there: Centre Island, Ward Island, and Hanlan’s Point ferries.
What to do here? First, for the kids, there’s Centreville. This is an amusement park for the kids, and there are some adult rides, too. Even if you’re not a kid, Centreville is pretty cool, and looks like a town from the 19th century. But for almost everyone else, there are acres and acres of pristine parkland. Centre Island is Toronto’s picnic paradise. There is also a fantastic boardwalk on the rear side of Centre Island that stretches the entire length of the island and is fantastic for a good hike.
Although most people don’t visit Ward Island, it really is the most beautiful part of the islands. There are old cottages, marinas, and the Far Enough Farm (a petting zoo).
If you decide to go to Hanlan’s Point, you will see some parkland, a (nude) beach, and the Billy Bishop/Toronto Island Airport, which comprises most of the island.
One last thing about Centre Island; it is THE best place to capture the best views of Toronto’s impressive skyline, one of the world’s best.