Toronto combines small town charm and big city energy in a way that only Toronto can. One minute you’re snapping shots of colourful village-style shops and houses; the next you’re bending your neck to gaze at one of the world’s largest freestanding towers. Nature is abundant. An eclectic mix of neighbourhoods packs in galleries, museums, every cuisine you know and flavours you’ve never heard of. And, Niagara Falls is only two hours away.
Here’s why Toronto needs to be at the top of your holiday hit list:
It’s a waterfront paradise
Toronto’s sparkly, skyscraper-studded skyline sits along the shores of Lake Ontario and its harbour is hugged by an archipelago of islands, three of which you can visit by a very short ferry ride from Queen's Quay. Centre Island is the most popular, thanks to its small amusement park, petting farm and leafy parks where you can coast on family-friendly quadricycles and picnic with postcard views of the city.
Indigenous-owned Oceah Oceah offers unique tours on stand-up paddleboards (including lessons for beginners and yoga for the more proficient). Learn about Indigenous culture as you glide down the traditional Humber River trade route that feeds into the lake, or by the towering clay cliffs of Scarborough Bluffs.
It has more than 150 eclectic neighbourhoods
Kensington Market, characterised by old, colourful houses converted into shops and cafes, is a microcosm of Toronto’s multiculturalism. Caribbean grocers sit alongside African drum shops, Portuguese fishmongers and vintage clothing and record shops. The streets are packed with pedestrians and cyclists, and music spills out from the hip cafes and bars into the air. PowWow Cafe, owned by Anishinaabe chef Shawn Adler (pictured below), serves First Nations fusion cuisine. His fry bread tacos and sweetgrass soda are famous city-wide. (Since the pandemic, the café has been operating irregular hours so be sure to check its Instagram account before visiting.)
Bordering Kensington Market in the downtown corridor is one of Canada’s can’t-miss cultural institutions, the Art Gallery of Ontario. Renovated by Toronto-born starchitect Frank Gerhy, it houses nearly 95,000 pieces of art, ranging from cutting-edge contemporary to works from European masters such as Rubens. Its vast collection of Indigenous Art is largely focused on Canadian First Nations, Inuit and Metis works.
Yorkville is the place for high-end fashion, fine restaurants and five-star hotels. You can walk avenues lined with charming Victorian houses converted into chic independent boutiques and cool cafes, or get your fix of big-name luxury labels inside Canada’s preeminent premium department store, Holt Renfrew. Design-forward Hazelton Hotel is a celebrity magnet, where stars such as Catherine Heigel, Kate Moss and Jennifer Lopez have been spotted. One of Yorkville’s other star attractions is the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), famous for the striking, crystal-like modern extension that pokes out from its original brick facade. Inside, treasures such as dinosaur bones, fossils and lunar meteorites await. The ROM’s Daphne Cockwell Gallery has another important collection of First Peoples art and cultural objects as well as a theatre where you can catch films and live First Nations performances.
For the cheat’s way to get a grip on Toronto’s sprawl, go to the top of the CN Tower for views of the urban expanse that stretch more than 160 kilometres on a clear day. The official Viewfinder App allows you to scan your view to see what neighbourhood or landmark you are looking at.
It’s an urban forest
Toronto may be a buzzing concrete jungle but around 26 per cent of it is covered in trees. One of the best places to experience the forest inside the city is Evergreen Brick Works. Named after the brick factory that once loomed at this site, this is now a pleasure ground of markets and hiking trails that snake along tree-lined ravines and hills.
High Park spans 161 hectares of parkland in Toronto’s west, one third of which remains in an untouched, natural state. From late April to early May, locals flock here to see the pink and white cherry blossoms bloom.
It has a castle and cobblestones
When you think “Toronto” you probably don’t think “castle” but Casa Loma is a stunning architectural marvel plucked straight out of a fairytale. Originally completed in 1914, the Gothic Revival mansion has 98 rooms decorated in an ornate Edwardian style plus lush, manicured gardens.
The Distillery District is a characterful, cobblestoned 19th-century precinct on the site of a former whiskey distillery. It now has a fittingly hip scene, in which indie galleries and small-production theatres share space with restaurants and bars.
Its calendar is packed with events
Baseball, basketball, hockey, concerts, festivals – as pandemic restrictions ease, the events that make Toronto one of Canada’s culture capitals are back on the calendar. If you land in spring and summer, grab a ticket to watch local baseball heroes the Blue Jays at the Rogers Centre. From autumn to spring, it’s all about basketball and ice hockey: catch the Raptors and Maple Leafs at the Scotiabank Arena.
Entertainment fans, this town’s for you. The musical and show scene is huge, centering on the downtown Entertainment District and stretching across neighbourhoods studded with playhouses and theatres. The beaux-arts Royal Alexandra Theatre and the modern Prince of Wales Theatre stage big musicals such as Hamilton (coming 2023), Harry Potter (2022), Come from Away and Jesus Christ Superstar as well as creative pre-Broadway shows. The Canadian Stage company puts on boundary-pushing performances that fuse theatre with dance, music and multimedia – you’ll find something interesting playing in theatres around the city or at the amphitheatre in High Park.
There’s delicious food everywhere
If you don’t eat well in Toronto, it’s your own fault. The stretch of King Street West between Strachan and Bay is a hotspot for ahead-of-the-curve eateries. LOV is vegan at its finest (think “beet tartare” or tempura-breaded palm rings served as “calamari”). Patria is the star of the tapas scene (heroing fresh seafood, Spanish hams and the crowd favourite, brussels bravas, served with chorizo and migas). Lee is famous for French-Asian fusion cuisine created by celebrity chef Susur Lee.
Hit St. Lawrence Market to stroll bustling aisles lined with 120 vendors dishing out fresh gourmet food and artisan crafts.
It’s a gateway to epic wonders
Toronto puts you on the doorstep of one of the world’s most spectacular natural wonders: Niagara Falls. In under two hours you can feel the mist on your face as the epic water plunges and thunders from heights of up to 57 metres. A boat tour with Niagara City Cruises will get you thrillingly close. Nearby, Niagara-on-the-Lake is a charming town of flower-lined streets studded with restaurants and cafes. The fame of the falls means the Niagara wine region is relatively unknown outside Canada: local ice wine, made from grapes that have frozen on the vine, is a sweet delicacy.
For the ultimate Canadian cottagecore experience, the Muskoka region – a rural district where coniferous trees envelop quiet lakes dotted with islands – is the place to rent a waterfront holiday home, lounge on a wooden dock, paddle a canoe or just sit stargazing by a fire.