The New York of Canada
As unexpected as it sounds, planning a trip to Canada this year was never considered, however returning one more time to New York City was the plan to enjoy once again the Christmas rush and feeling in December. But with such sky-high air fares and way over an already higher average fare for a hotel, it was definitely not optional. Instead, why not Toronto? I cannot believe it I gave it a miss for such a long time. Now all I am thinking is in returning, see more, and enjoy the city in another season other than winter, and other places in this huge country. What a great choice for coming here! And no matter how cold it was (well actually not much colder than back in London anyway), it was still well worth it and not just for Toronto itself, but for being able to see the Niagara Falls during the winter and the Christmas light display during the evening and nights in December, and a brief visit to Buffalo in the USA with a dinner at the mandatory Anchor Bar, the birthplace in 1964 of the now worldwide dish fried chicken wings.
So with Canada, I mark the country 88 visited. I know Canada is vast, and Toronto and Niagara as just a tiny point in the immensity of the country, but that’s another number anyway to add in the list. And from today, it is just 2 weeks to be in country 89, Cuba. From the deep of the winter cold, to the nice summer weather in the Caribbean. How wonderful is to travel. I wish I could be on holidays the rest of my life just travelling.
Toronto is the largest city in Canada, and one of the 4 largest in North America considering its metropolitan area and population. While originally settle by indigenous people, the first Europeans to come were the French, who built the Fort Rouillé in the area now occupied by the Exhibition grounds in the mid 1700’s, however it were the British who truly developed it from 1793, who named it York until 1834 when it was renamed as Toronto. Nowadays, it is said to be one of the most multicultural and cosmopolitan cities in the world, often ranking among the top 3 in the list.
While considering it is barely 250 years old city, the 1904 Great Toronto Fire and the 1954 Hurricane Hazel, the city has managed to retain an incredible collection of buildings and history from all the eras, many of which now clearly defined into historical areas; some of which influenced from the strong immigration that settled around their dedicated districts: Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Portugal, Little Italy, Cabbagetown… For any architecture lover Toronto is an immense playground where traditional Victorian family houses and gloomy skyscrapers are across the road one another and everything in between in different styles from each era. However a very unique Torontonian style is the bay-and-gable style; this is a building which most prominent feature is a large bay window that usually covers more than half of the front of the house, surmounted by a gable roof. Such style is the most truly Victorian heritage in the city.
The dramatic urban change into one of the world’s leading cities started right after WWII, with the new influx of immigrants, and the city doubling it’s population and size becoming Canada’s main power in finance, economy, industry, tourism and transport dethroning Montreal by 1980 which was back then Canada’s most populous city and the prime economic hub. Mushrooming skyscrapers quickly provided an amazing skyline, with ongoing additions non-stop. Masterpieces in art-deco style dot the city while first class architects all want to have a project of relevance, and to name a few of these we have to consider the “unmissable sights” such as the neo-Gothic Casa Loma; the Richardsonian Romanesque Legislative Building; the impressive Allen Lambert Galleria by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, or the iconic landmark of Toronto CN Tower (world’s tallest free standing tower from 1976 until 2010). Countless more of course, but better listed in the next section on what to see and do.
Talking about food would be a long story. One of the most multicultural cities in the world translates in dishes from all over the world, and everywhere. Toronto has been one of the easiest cities I’ve been to find a nice restaurant, at very decent prices. Sometimes surprisingly lower costs than I am used to pay for an even lower quality or lesser portions than what you will get in here. Fancy something, name it and you have it, however there is a huge abundance of Japanese and Korean restaurants, and I mean these are truly real and amazing. There is always a fantastic choice at any of the malls in the city, or within the PATH. But have a guess what the city is seriously missing? Coffee places! Believe it or not, it’s just between Starbucks and Tim Hortons, the later does a nicer one, and great bagels, baguettes and pastries all day for a fraction of the cost that Starbucks.
For more information about Toronto check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Canada’s currency is the Canadian Dollar (CAD). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Toronto
- The Toronto Islands Just across the city’s inner harbour, a short inexpensive ferry crossing from the Island Ferry Park, and you will get the best views of the entire skyline. The postcard perfect picture. From spring through autumn it is a very nice place for chill out and enjoy the multiple gardens and somewhat nature and quietness from the bustling city right across.
- Harbor Front Area This part of Old Toronto covers the entire front along the inner harbour west to east, south of the rail tracks that lead towards Union Station.
-Fort York and Garrison Common The original foundation of the city by the British who built the fort, one of the few historic military grounds in Canada. Located at the very west side.
-Sports Entertainment District The next area after Fort York is home to the major sports venues in downtown Toronto.
-Rogers Centre This famous dome is home to the Toronto Blue Jays of the American League Baseball and the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League.
-CN Tower The landmark and iconic structure in the famous skyline’s silhouette, it is the highest free-standing tower at 500 meters, and has a viewing platform at its top. The views are of course, the best you can get from above the city. Entrance 42 CAD.
-The Aquarium of Canada The largest in the country, right next door to the CN Tower.
-John Street Roundhouse Just south of the CN Tower, a converted old railroad roundhouse shed for locomotives nowadays both the Railway Museum and the independent beer Steam Whistle Brewery. A beautiful place for old and new architecture greatly implemented with each other.
-Harborfront Centre South from the roundhouse, retaining nice converted industrial buildings and main ferry terminals.
-South Core District The next area east from the Sports Entertainment is also home to the main inner harbour ferry pier for accessing the Toronto Islands among great architecture all over with many towers and buildings of every design and height.
-Distillery District The very east district along the Harbor Front Area. Toronto was by 1850’s the largest alcohol distillation in North America, and had the world’s largest whiskey factory in operation by 1860, the Gooderham and Worts Distillery. Nowadays, part of this past is preserved in this district full of old warehouses and fabrics fully gentrified into a high-class trendy area. The largest collection of Victorian-era industrial architecture in North America.
- Downtown – The Financial Core District Returning on a zigzag from the Distillery District just few blocks west. Self explained in its name, here are all the banks and major companies, the motor of Canada; among the highest towers in the country. Its boundaries are the Union Station and King Street at the south, and Queen Street at the north where the Civiv Centre starts. Bay Street crosses north to south, with the Old City Hall tower clearly visible at the northern end.
-St James’s Park and Cathedral The nearest point to previous Distillery District, along King Street East, one of the main arteries in Toronto. The main, largest and oldest congregation in the city, built in neo-Gothic style from 1850.
-St Lawrence Hall By the southeast corner of St James’s Park, it is one of the oldest public buildings still standing in Toronto, built in 1850 in neo-Renaissance style as centre of meetings, exhibitions and a 1000 seat theatre.
-Brookfield Place One of the most spectacular complexes of buildings in the city, composed of 2 towers, the Hockey Hall of Fame housed in the beautiful Beaux-Arts former 1885 bank, and the awe-impressive Allen Lambert Galleria designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. Without doubt, one of the most famous landmarks in Toronto. Just 2 blocks southwest from St James’s Park.
-Royal Bank Plaza Across the street, west from Brookfield Place. Built in the late 1970’s, were among the first skyscrapers in the booming years of construction in Toronto. Their triangular shape and golden (24 carat gold coated) windows and tower tops are a well known silhouette in the skyline.
-Union Station Across the road from the Royal Bank Plaza. The largest station in Canada, built in the late 1920’s on the site of the older station, is the finest example of Beaux-Arts railway station in the country. Impressive outside and inside. Don’t miss the change to enter and admire the Great Hall.
-The Fairmont Royal York Hotel One of the most exclusive 5* historic hotels in Toronto built by the Canadian Pacific Railroad in 1929 in an impressive art-deco style at the front of Union Station.
-Prudential House Like the Fairmont, another art-deco high-rise wonder located around the corner behind the Fairmont, on York Street.
-Former Stock Exchange On King Street, 2 blocks behind the Fairmont, a fine example of art-deco architecture, nowadays the Design Exchange.
-The PATH A massive network of underground corridors originally created to link Union Station to the many office towers in the area without the need of going out to the street, but expanded thereafter into one of the world’s largest underground shopping area. This is great during the harsh winter days since all is under cover and heated in winter, air-conditioned in summer.
- Entertainment District The next area west of the Downtown-Financial Core, (or north from the Sports Entertainment District), marked by the same streets at north and south than the previous district. Here are most of the city’s theatres and cinemas, and a thriving nightlife with plenty of restaurants and bars.
-Roy Thomson Hall Built in 1982, home to the Toronto Symphony.
-The Walk of Fame By the northern side of the Roy Thomson Hall, created from 1998 containing nowadays over 160 commemorative plaques issued to famous Canadians, in a same way it is in Hollywood.
-Royal Alexandra Theatre The oldest continuously operating theatre in North America. The Walk of Fame passes by the front.
- Chinatown Along Dundas Street West and Spadina Avenue. One of the largest in North America, and also historically old from the 19th century upon the arrival of the first Chinese into the country. From the western edge of the Entertainment District is easy to reach just north along Spadina Ave.
- Grange Park District East from Chinatown, if you follow along Dundas Street. Not much to see along here bearing some of the largest museums in Canada, but en-route linking towards the Civic District.
-Art Gallery of Ontario The largest art museum in Canada and the most important, even if not interested in museums, its building’s architecture is great.
-Grange Park From where this district takes its name, is at the south of the Art Gallery where the impressive sight of the Georgian Manor House is.
-College of Art and Design Aligning the east side of Grange Park, another great building for its architecture and of course, its collections.
-St Patrick’s Cathedral Built in 1908 at the corner of Dundas with McCaul St.
- The Civic District Pretty much the epicenter of the city, with the largest public squares, the massive semi-circular towers of the City Hall and some of the grandest and finest old buildings heritage of the British.
-Osgoode Hall The once first law school of Canada built in 1830’s in Georgian style, nowadays home of the Ontario Court of Appeal, the Law Society of Upper Canada and the Great Library.
-Winston Churchill Memorial Created in 1977 by Oscar Nemon.
-Nathan Phillips Square Opening towards the New and old City Halls, is the prime space in Toronto for every kind of public exhibitions and acts, such as the famous Christmas lights and market.
-Old City Hall Built in 1899 in Romanesque revival, was the largest civic building in North America when completed. Nowadays the Central Ontario Court of Justice Criminal Division. Unmissable landmark with its sleek elegant tower.
-New City Hall Impossible to miss, both semicircular towers built in the 1960’s by Finish architect Viljo Revell who never saw it finished as he died before completion.
-Trinity Square Behind the Old City Hall, a small yet nice landscaped square among nice architecture. One of the most historical places in downtown.
-Eaton Centre Also behind the Old City Hall and Trinity Sq. one of the biggest shopping malls within the city centre.
- Discovery/University District North of Dundas Street and centred along both sides of University Avenue. This area is characterised by containing the enormous St George’s Campus University buildings and schools. It is not anymore so touristy area, hence only worth if you have enough time in the city to complete everything else. Some of the colleges are very beautiful and peaceful to walk along.
-Queen’s Park The largest urban park in the city, opened in 1860 by Edward, Prince of Wales.
-Ontario Legislature Building The centrepiece of Queen’s Park right in the middle, one of the largest and grandest neo-classical style jewel in Toronto built in 1920.
-Royal Ontario Museum The farthest important sight in the city, although pretty much worth it for any architecture lover for the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal extension attached to the historical building.
- Gay Village Few blocks east of Queens Park, mostly centred along Church Street south towards Gerrard Street East.
-Maple Leaf Gardens At the corner of Church with Carlton Streets, another impressive art-deco jewel from 1931 constructed as an arena to host ice hockey games, however nowadays into many more uses.
- Cabbagetown Three streets farther east from Church Street, and extending way beyond towards the easternmost boundary of the city itself. This area is famous for its up-scale housing, a quite wealthy neighbourhood and very gentrified described as the largest continuous area of preserved Victorian housing in all of North America. Over here you can see countless bay-and-gable style houses so traditional from Toronto.
Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ) at the northwest is the main gateway not just to the city but to the entire of Canada. The largest hub and with the most flights across all continents. Upon landing (or if departing) you have some good public transport options: the fastest yet not the cheapest would be the Union Pearson Express (UP), this is a fast railway connection to downtown Toronto’s Union Station in around 25 minutes with departures every 15 min, costing 12.25 CAD. Then comes the many bus companies and lines, however to help you in this, the most convenient are TCC and GO Transit. Although depending on where is your final point for arrival in the city, it can be one or another company and bus line, therefore the best is if you ask at the information desk for transports within the arrivals terminal, otherwise I would lead you to confusion if listing here all of the routes.
If your point of arrival/departure is Billy Bishop Toronto City Center Airport (YTZ), as the name suggests, is really near the city centre and therefore the most convenient of them all however not for inter-continental routes as there are none other than some cities in the USA and of course, plenty across Canada. The airport sits in an island, but just 121 meters from mainland to where you can get via the world’s shortest scheduled ferry crossing or via a bridge, then taking the tram.
As last, the farthest option would be Hamilton International (YHM) at 80 kilometres from downtown. To get there you have both the Hamilton Street Railway and the Hamilton GO. Both rail lines link towards Toronto’s downtown.
Once in Toronto, it’s home to the largest transport hub in the country. Being railways, motorways, ferry; and also the largest public transit network in Canada with commuter trains, subways, trams and plenty of buses. However when you consider the city’s importance and size with European standards, it’s easy to think Toronto’s network is quite small and even poor. There are only 4 subway lines, although in truth these are 2, with the other 2 just branching out from the other ones for a few farther stations. Trams in the other hand cover the entire city. Every other street there is one, very frequent and convenient; after all, it is the largest tram network in the Americas. A single ticket either in the subway or a tram costs 3.25 CAD, no matter on the distance, and let’s you transfer within 90 minutes however you MUST remember to take the transfer ticket as you exit from the subway or the tram itself.
The best way to move around town is by getting a Presto Card. This is the magnetic card which you can load with any desired money and then the fare is deducted every time you tap in at any transport method. It does also cost less per ride when using a Presto, and gives you up to 2 hours since you tap in to continue your journey using other transports without extra costs. For example, taking a tram, then changing for a bus, and then changing for the subway will only cost you the single fare of $3.00. This fare is the same if taking the transport for just one stop or as many you need, however exceptions apply such as Pearson International Airport where you take the train instead, at the costs of 9 instead of 12.25 CAD.
Being the largest and most important city in Canada, the 4th largest in North America as a continent itself, you can imagine and expect the countless vast amount of hotels and accommodation of any class. From the very top of the range in luxury to the most modest, and everything in between, however, prices come high across all of them. Canada, same as the USA, have quite high standards and way over the average in fares per night. Finding a good deal is quite difficult, no matter what season in the year although notably higher during the summer months and Christmas period. A good and reasonable point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers. I found a “nice” deal on one of these sites after a long research; it should not be too complicated, only a bit more laborious in the searching and comparing than it generally is for other world cities.
We stayed at The Grand Hotel & Suites, in 225 Jarvis Street, almost corner to Dundas Street. This is a great location by all means, walking distance to almost anywhere in town, either being the Distillery District which is to the east, or 20 minutes’ walk to Union Station and the Civic District where Nathan Phillips Square is. Then it’s not just about the location, but the property itself. A very nice up to great standards 4* apart-hotel with your own kitchen, living room and nice bedroom. Very comfortable, quiet and nicely maintained. Great and welcoming staff everywhere, and a nice breakfast. The higher floor your room is located the nicer the views over town (ours was 1706, awesome I can tell). But check out their incredible rooftop terrace with heated whirlpools overlooking the skyline! Breathtaking. There is also a huge indoor pool, jacuzzi and sauna. Definitely a fantastic choice that we won’t hesitate in recommend anyone and repeat ourselves in the future.