One of my best friends emigrated to Toronto four years ago. It was a suprise departure because she kept it secret from us all until it was actually time to go. At first I was disappointed, I already have two friends in the East (they decamped to Dubai 10 years ago), but then I realised the huge benefit of having friends living abroard, namely free holidays, and fully embraced the fact that I am lucky to have friends spread all over the globe.
The late Peter Ustinov reportedly described Toronto as ‘a sort of New York City run by the Swiss.’ That doesn’t quite cut it. These days the Swiss would only get a brief look in – over 140 different languages and dialects are now spoken in the city, a reflection of the vast international influx there of recent years. A modern day Babel? No, just one of the most multicultural cities in the world.
The whole world is beating a path to Toronto. It always has done. Over half of its 2.7 million residents (my friend and her family included) weren’t even born there or in Canada itself, but still they come. What’s its attraction? It’s a question that’s as valid for a traveller as for someone looking to put down new roots. There’s no doubt that as a new holiday destination it’s got far more going for it than most people could possibly imagine.
Toronto is not only the largest city in Canada – it’s also the fourth largest metropolis in North America after Mexico City, New York and Los Angeles. It’s a business, cultural and industrial powerhouse with the added advantage of a low crime rate. Just how do all those different ethnic groups rub along so well? Well, they feel accepted for a start, and value their new home’s unparalleled diversity and opportunity. A great big melting pot, big enough to take the world and all it’s got.
But what about that visit for the experimental first time traveller? When and where to start? Well, winter is freezing and snow can lie on the ground until early April so plan for a scorching summer where the outdoor lifestyle is de rigueur. It can be humid though so you may have to dodge the odd shower. Alternatively, opt for Autumn – or Fall – when heading out of the city will reward you with dramatic and ever-changing leaf colours.
Toronto has always been a centre for commerce, going back to 1750 when the French built Fort Rouille there to trade with the first nation Iroquois, Seneca, Mohawk and Cayuga tribes. The British then established a settlement, called York, on the northwestern shore of Lake Ontario in the late eighteenth century. As with many a ‘purchase’ deal sponsored by colonialists, the vendors, in this case the Mississaugas, were still arguing over its terms 200 years later. In 1834 York was renamed Toronto, a derivation of the Mohawk word tkaronto, meaning ‘where there are trees standing in the water’.
One definite location to gain a sense on all this local history is at Fort York in the heart of Toronto and the beating heart of the British Colony of the time. In 1813 the Americans took advantage of the British fighting Napoleon in Europe by raiding and burning Fort York. The British just rebuilt it bigger and better. As well as looking at the rebuilt Fort and exhibits, and maybe seeing battle re-enactments, visitors can don the military uniforms of the day – it’s up to you whether you want to be a bluecoat, a redcoat or a even a greencoat.
Another historic ‘must-visit’ is Campbell House, the oldest surviving house from the town of York, built in 1822 for Chief Justice William Campbell. The Georgian style house was due to be demolished in 1972 to make way for a car park but was preserved thanks to a campaign to save it. The solution was to relocate the building over a mile away to a new site, a remarkable engineering feat. Campbell House also hosts a number of musical and theatrical events throughout the year.
If it’s drama that you’re interested, Toronto’s theatre district is only beaten for size by the West End and Broadway. There are upward of twenty theatres ranging from the 1907 beaux-arts style Royal Alexandra to the modernistic circular glass dome of the Roy Thompson Hall auditorium. You can see many of the productions to be found in London and New York, as well as new plays, fringe and national works. Also, if it’s live music that floats your boat – classical, rock or pop – few artistes’ world tour schedules miss off a stop in Toronto.
But that’s all indoors entertainment, and the locals like nothing more than outdoors living in those hot summer months – most eating and drinking is done alfresco, while a short trip out from the city centre to Toronto Island Park, a series of small islands located just offshore, offers an array of swimming beaches, the Centreville Amusement Park and the annual Toronto International Dragon Boat Race Festival.
Without doubt the best way to get your bearings is to take a trip up to the top of the iconic CN Tower, at over 550m the world’s tallest tower from its construction in 1976 until the Burj Khalifa in Dubai stood on its tiptoes in 2008. Most visitors are content to take in the vistas from within the observatory deck, or even through the glass floor that looks directly down to the ground below, but the tower has recently added a vertigo inducing EdgeWalk where thrill-seekers can clip on and walk around the edge of the tower’s main pod. Geronimo to that.
If you are visiting the CN Tower, then consider buying the Toronto City Pass, which gives you admittance to four other major attractions in the city. As well as saving money you’ll be able to skip the lines. The Royal Ontario Museum attracts over 1 million visitors per year to view its vast collection of art, world culture and natural history exhibits while the Ontario Science Centre offers a dazzling array of family-friendly interactive delights. Both museums are worth visiting just to view their exterior designs, the former dominated by Daniel Libeskind’s The Crystal and the latter featuring the world’s largest outdoor hydraulophone which, as every reader will know, is a hydraulic-action pipe organ played by stepping in between the fountain spaces. Perfect for a Bach Toccata or Fugue.
The City Pass also give you entry to the City’s Zoo, but be warned that it’s a train/shuttle bus ride out of the city, so unless you have plenty of time to spare or you’re really keen on seeing the most soporific Pandas in the world, it may be the one to skip. The final attraction on the pass, Casa Loma, should definitely not be missed. Canada’s equivalent of Hearst Castle, Casa Loma – Hill House in Spanish – is a Gothic revival 98-room chateau commissioned by financier and entrepreneur Sir Henry Mill Pellatt. His story is as remarkable as the house and surrounding gardens – having made his money in railways and hydro-electricity his luck turned when the Province expropriated, without compensation, his electricity generation business. That, a string of poor investments and the strain of funding his Casa Loma folly saw him forced into bankruptcy and he died penniless.
Pellatt’s hydro-electricity business, the one taken into public ownership without him receiving a loonie (Canadian slang for a dollar), used the force of the Niagara River to bring the first street lighting to Toronto. Niagara Falls is within easy reach of Toronto – a two-hour drive – so hire a car or opt for an organised excursion. Is it worth the effort? Certainly – the Falls are spectacular and awesome in their power, and you’ll have the advantage of seeing them from the Canadian side (much better than from the American side). If you don’t mind getting wet take a Maid of the Mists boat trip into the basin under the Horseshoe Fall or get up close and personal with the crashing torrent from one of the viewing decks such as Journey Behind The Falls.
But be prepared to turn a blind eye to the actual town of Niagara Falls – it’s like a 1960s seaside resort that Morrissey would describe as silent and grey. It’s incredible that the majestic beauty of this natural phenomenon could be encircled with trashy funfairs, a casino, fast food joints and stag parties. It’s enough to drive you over the Falls in a barrel. Still, if it’s trashy funfairs, a casino etc you’re after…
If you do want to stay overnight in the area then take the short drive down the river to Niagara-on-the-Lake, a well-preserved 19th Century village where the Niagara River meets Lake Ontario. Stroll around, hire a bike, take a boat ride – it’s tranquil and quaint. If you have the time take in a wine tour as well – the area is famous for its Ice Wines, a type of dessert wine produced from grapes that have been frozen while still on the vine. Particularly good with cheese. Or if confectionery is more your thing, check out Chocolate FX – slogan, ‘We’ll coat anything in chocolate.’ Now there’s a challenge.
But a day, or two at the most, is all you need in Niagara before you head back to Toronto, where you’ve still got loads more to do. If it’s fresh sight seeing you’re after, then the new Aquarium, under the CN Tower, is impressive, or if you’re not too foot weary stroll to the Bata Shoe Museum to look at their 1,000 pairs of shoes. It doesn’t say what size they are. By then you’ll be wanting some nightlife, so check out the Distillery District, a bustling pedestrian neighbourhood, and the prosaically titled Entertainment District for pubs, restaurants, clubs and other fun. Torontonians – and they’re all proud to be called that – love a good time and know how to relax. These locations positively buzz with energy.
Cuisine wise, you can’t miss – as well as a China Town, a Portugal Village and a Little Italy to tempt your taste buds you’ll be able to order your favourite recipes from virtually anywhere in the world – not only that, select a dish down to the nearest post code rather than country. The one meal you will have to try is a Canadian fast-food staple called Poutine, French for ‘mess’. It’s a mixture of French fries, cheese curds and brown gravy. Not recommended if you’re on a calorie-controlled diet but marvellous if you have a hangover.
Toronto is fanatical about sport too, so depending on the time of the year you’ll be tempted to take in a game of Ice Hockey (Toronto Maple Leafs), Basketball (Raptors), Major League Soccer (Toronto FC). Perhaps the most famous local team is the baseball giant, The Toronto Blue Jays who play at the Rogers Centre (formerly known as the Skydome), the first stadium to have a fully retractable roof. Now that high-rise apartments dominate the Toronto skyline many of the local residents get a free view on match days. The Jays merchandise is certainly the best, and a strong contender for take-home mementos.
Finally, while Canada is officially bilingual – all street and information signs are written in both English and French – Toronto, like most of the country outside of Quebec is predominantly English speaking (give or take another 139 tongues). Despite that, and to be totally impartial, Toronto can be summarised in three words for most travellers: divertissante, historique and doit-visiter.