The inside track on Toronto
Toronto might not be top of the list for North American city breaks but if you’re lucky enough to be heading to Canada anytime soon for some skiing or wildlife viewing (one day I see those polar bears at Churchill – sigh) and you’re stopping over, then check out this insider’s guide. It’s written by Pippa up at Muddy Herts who has friends and family out there so knows all the best places to hang out.
Over to Pippa….
I think Toronto is a perfect city to visit. The pressure’s off for sightseeing – you know, that feeling that if you don’t see three major sights before lunch, you’ve somehow not ‘done’ a city properly – and it’s a perfect city to just chill and enjoy. Neat neighbourhoods. Great coffee. A relaxed urban vibe. And lots of trees, even in the heart of the city.
So, now that I’m almost over my jetlag, here are a few of my favourite bits of TO.
First trick with this neighbourhood is to figure out how to say it. Don’t get all French on it, even if you’re tempted to – it’s ‘ron-says-vales’ or, if you’re trying to look like a local, just call it ‘Roncey.’
It’s a neat neighbourhood – just the right side of hipster for me. You could spend a good long time (and I did) just walking up and down, checking out the little boutiques, the bars with the open fronts, the bakeries with more versions of a doughnut than you can shake a stick at, a bookstore (Another Story – great name) that will have you happily browsing for hours.
Check out Fantail for coffee – and lunch, if it’s that time of day. Great food, good coffee – and coffee matters to Canadians, like really matters – and a very stylish look and feel to the place. Heaving on weekends, but we had no trouble finding a table for 5 on a weekday.
Lots of these Toronto neighbourhoods have gorgeous fruit markets – greengrocers to you and me – with local produce, and bits from further afield, piled high outside. You can quite literally smell them as you stroll by. No probs at all getting the old 5-a-day, you’ll be properly tempted by peaches the size of baseballs and the like.
ROM and Bloor Street West
The ROM – calling it ‘The Royal Ontario Museum’ will mark you out as a tourist long before you pull out your map and your camera – is slap bang in the heart of Toronto. There’s an impressive older building – sort of Victorian era, I think – with a stunning modern addition that looks like a crystal has been dropped from space and landed on its corner, right in the middle of the city. The permanent collection has some amazing things to see – some natural history bits (including ‘the bat cave’ which I declined to visit) and lots of gorgeous art and history, with some stunning Chinese and Japanese exhibits. Definitely worth a look – either on a rainy day or get out of the heat and into the air con when it’s sweltering outside, as it can so often be.
The area all round there, Bloor Street West, is great for a wander afterwards. Some neat bars and restaurants, and you’re getting closer into big-city shopping down that way. Meander down Philosophers Walk – a gorgeous tree-lined walkway – too, or just take in the city life. There’s a very distinctive feel to Toronto city life, with the streetcars, the CN Tower peeking out between buildings, and the politeness. Jeez, I know it’s a bit of a stereotype of Canadians, but everyone is just so darned nice. City life with people smiling? I know. Crazy.
Kensington Market and Chinatown
If you’re looking for more culture, there’s always the AGO (a-gee-oh) – or the Art Gallery of Ontario. Canadian art? Yes, there’s loads of it and it’s often stunning. Yes, those Americans are big and brash and noisy – and those Brits were, well, a bit overpowering sometimes empire-wise – but Canada has been sitting there quietly producing amazing artists (and writers, it has to be said) and you’ll likely be blown away by what’s there. I’m a big fan of the art being produced, mostly in Ontario, in the 1920s – but there’s loads that’s more contemporary that will knock your socks off.
Kensington Market – think vintage, mostly – is also coffee (again…) and street foodie heaven. Check out Jimmy’s for your coffee there, and just reveal in the choices of what else to eat and where. Or head to Chinatown and look for Mother’s Dumplings – where you’ll get, well, dumplings. And you’ll love ‘em.
This whole area is a glorious mish-mash of hipster and hippy. Perfect people-watching territory.
Of course, there are other parts of the city that are just as cool – Leslieville is, I’m assured, ‘really hot’ and there’s a restaurant there, Ruby Watchco, that is properly rated. The area north of Queen around Ossington Avenue, too – Trinity-Bellwoods – has a great park, a fabulous bookshop (Type) and a pastry shop, Nadege, which I’m told is virtually impossible to resist. Why I didn’t make it there, I’ll never know – although it seems a legit excuse to go back. High Park – I thought people were saying Hyde Park until I saw it written down – is a gorgeous green space heading down towards Lake Ontario and a neat little neighbourhood in itself.
And getting around is easy enough. There’s a shiny new train service – the UP Express — that gets you from Pearson airport to Union Station right downtown in about 20 minutes for less than £10. And you get free wifi on board, and attendants in neatly retro waistcoats being lovely and friendly about checking your tickets. The transit system is easy to navigate, and there are buses and streetcars as well as the trains. (There’s just something sort of romantic about a streetcar… or is that just me?)
I can’t wait to go back. Yes, I have friends and family there, but I’d go back there even if I hadn’t. It’s a neat city, a brilliant mix of people, and a load of interesting things to do and see. Love it.