I had the chance this year to explore Canada’s largest and most cosmopolitan city. I have traveled all over Canada and Ontario, but strangely, I hadn’t visited Toronto before this year. Being from a border state, what a mistake on my part!
Toronto is the financial, entertainment and cultural capital of Canada. With a population of about 2.6 million in the city alone, it’s the fourth-most populated city in North America after Mexico City, New York City and Los Angeles. The city makes up the Golden Horseshoe, a densely populated region around the western end of Lake Ontario. Altogether, the metropolitan area is home to almost 9 million people, or about 26 percent of the Canadian population.
There are quite a few things I knew about Toronto before visiting. I knew it was a very smart and sophisticated city, but I didn’t realize it was one of the most diverse cities in the world. In fact, approximately 50 percent of Toronto residents were born outside of Canada!
I currently live in Michigan, and from Detroit (a border city), Toronto is only a four-hour train ride on Canada’s VIA passenger train service from the city of Windsor. VIA is affordable and the trains are clean and comfortable. By taking VIA, you can avoid the crazy traffic and high parking prices. And upon arrival in Toronto, the exquisite Union Station is a beautiful gateway to the city.
Here are my top things to do in Toronto:
1) Union Station – The stunning building is one of the most beautiful train stations in North America. Currently undergoing a renovation inside, Union Station is the busiest station in Canada with connections to most major cities in the nation as well as a sleek new express train to Pearson Airport called the Union Pearson Express. Union Station is also a National Historic Site of Canada.
What makes the building so beautiful is its Beaux-Art style, with 22 equally spaced, 40-foot-high Roman Tuscan columns made from Bedford limestone. Upon entering the Great Hall for the first time by VIA, I was blown away by its arched windows and marble floors.
Also, the station is the southern terminus to the Toronto Path, an 18-mile network of pedestrian tunnels beneath the office towers of downtown Toronto. The underground shopping complex is the largest in the world.
2) CN Tower – It may sound touristy, but this list would be absolutely incomplete without a visit to the CN Tower. The tower is outrageously imposing. Since 1976, the telecommunications hub has been the international icon of Toronto and rises more than 1,800 feet above the city. It is the tallest, free-standing structure in the Western Hemisphere, and only was surpassed by Dubai’s Burj Khalifa in 2007.
I strongly encourage you to pay the extra money to go above the Lookout Level to the SkyPod, which is more than 300 feet taller than the Lookout. You take a separate elevator on the Lookout Level to travel up to 1,465 feet above the city. On a clear day, you can see up to 100 miles away to Niagara Falls and New York State.
3) The Distillery – If this sounds like the name of a place where whiskey flows, that’s because it was and still is.
Once a huge liquor processing center, The Distillery continues as a large production area for spirits. However, today it’s more the scene of a thriving microbrewery industry. But it’s most well known as the best-preserved collection of Victorian industrial architecture in North America. The District is a national heritage site and also offers superb shopping and dining near the waterfront of Lake Ontario.
4) The Senator – Every big city has a famous diner, and The Senator is that and more in Toronto. Located close to Yonge-Dundas Square – the Piccadilly Circus of Canada – the diner has the best breakfast and brunch in Toronto. The diner is also Toronto’s oldest restaurant, dating back to the 19th century when it was just a house at 249 Victoria Street. It has changed over the years, but today’s retro style and post-wars fixtures date back to 1948. You will leave completely satisfied with their traditional Canadian breakfast. The maple syrup and French toast are both heavenly good.
5) Take in a sport event – In the summer, Toronto residents and visitors enjoy every moment of it outdoors. I recommend going to see a Blue Jays baseball game at Rogers Centre, formerly known as the SkyDome. When I was there this summer, the stadium served as the site of both the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2015 Pan American Games. The stadium has also been home to the Toronto Argonauts Canadian Football team (now at BMO Field at Exhibition Place). It truly is one of North America’s great sports venues, especially when the retractable roof is open on a beautiful summer day.
6) Toronto Islands – It is a short ferry ride from the waterfront to Toronto Islands. The Islands are home to Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport, boat clubs, an amusement park and several sand beaches. However, it feels like a world away with a fantastic view of the city. The island community is considered to be the largest urban car-free community in North America, although some service vehicles are permitted.
7) Little Italy – One of my favorite neighborhoods in Toronto is Little Italy, sometimes referred to as College Street West. Here you can experience the significant Latin-Canadian and Portuguese-Canadian community in the area. The district features some of the city’s best restaurants and cafes along the bar/shopping strip of College Street. Little Italy is popular with young people because of its vibrant nightlife and its proximity to the downtown core and the University of Toronto (the largest university in Canada).
One common sight includes the single-family homes dating to the early-1900s Edwardian period, with front porches and smaller lots, as was the custom at the time. It’s one of the few places left in the world with a high concentration of such architecture.
8) Street Cars – Toronto’s streetcar system is a tourist attraction in its own right, and reminds me a little of Melbourne, Australia. The system is made up of 11 streetcar routes, marking it the largest system in the Americas in terms of ridership, number of cars and track length. Most of it dates back to the 19th century, but the network is concentrated primarily in downtown and in proximity to the city’s waterfront. The subway is nice and clean, but you don’t get the sights and sounds of the city like you do from the street cars.
9) Hudson’s Bay Company – The Hudson’s Bay Company, commonly referred to as “The Bay,” is the largest department story chain in Canada. However, it is so much more than that.
The company was incorporated by English royal charter in 1670 and functioned as the de-facto government in parts of North America before European states and later the United States laid claim to many territories. It is the oldest corporation in the Americas and at one time was the largest landowner in the world.
A fur trading business for much of its existence, The Bay’s long-time headquarters at York Factory on Hudson Bay commanded the fur trade throughout much of British-controlled North America for several centuries. Explorer/traders from the company discovered many parts of the continent.
Today, its Queen Street location is the largest department store building in the nation. It’s the perfect place to buy a quality winter coat.
10) Toronto Sign – Similar to the famous Amsterdam sign in the Netherlands, this giant, multi-colored Toronto sign has become a hit since its recent installation at Nathan Phillips Square for the Pan Am Games. It’s a great place in front of the fountains to relax and enjoy the skyline and take a selfie with the sign.
Nathan Phillips Square hosts a number of concerts, art displays, a weekly farmers’ market, the winter festival of lights, and other events. During the winter, the reflecting pool becomes an ice skating rink with great views of the landmark Toronto City Hall building.
Categories: North America