Urban jungle or thriving multicultural hub? Torontonian Scott Bennett helps you get the most out of this diverse and exciting city…
Where? Ontario, eastern Canada
Why? A unique multicultural mélange and some of the continent’s best food
When? May-Jun or Sept-Oct: pleasant temperatures minus big crowds
The phrase ‘melting pot’ is one often too liberally applied but, talking Toronto, it is suitably apt. Situated on the north-west shore of Lake Ontario, the country’s biggest city is wedged between its Canadian identity and the American cultural onslaught to the south – and Torontonians embrace both with vigour. And it’s not just these two identities you’ll find here – a whole host of nationalities have left their mark on the place.
The French first arrived in 1615, later building a fort at this strategic trading point. In the late-18th century, the Brits took over, purchasing land from the Mississauga First Nations people in 1787 and subsequently establishing the town of York. The city thrived.
After the Second World War, immigrants began flooding in. Now Toronto is one of the world’s most multicultural hubs – more than 30% of residents speak a language other than English or French. The city is also a culture hub: dubbed ‘Hollywood North’ for its film credentials, it hosts an annual International Film Festival. For extra insight, read Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto by Shawn Micallef. Also try the Toronto-set, Man Booker-winning The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood and Headhunter, by Timothy Findley, a re-imagining of Heart of Darkness in the urban jungle. The eponymous album by local Broken Social Scene will get you in the mood.
During the 7-8 hour flight from the UK, look out for views of Greenland, while you fill out the Custom Declaration Card (E311).
Lester B Pearson International Airport, 22km from the city centre, is Canada’s busiest airport. Most overseas visitors arrive in the expansive new Terminal 1. Signs are in both English and French. Free Wi-Fi is available.
At customs your E311 will be stamped; counters are generally well staffed, so it doesn’t usually take long to get through. On collecting your checked baggage, queue to submit your Card; although lines can be long, don’t worry, they move quickly.
In Arrivals there are all the usual amenities — an information counter, currency exchange and ATMs.
Airport Express runs buses to the Toronto Coach Terminal and major downtown hotels. Allow 30mins-1hr for trips to/from the airport. One-way tickets cost CAN$26.95 (£17); there’s a 5% discount for online bookings made in advance.
Taxis are also available outside Arrivals. A fixed fare to the city centre costs CAN$53 (£33).
By far the cheapest way to get into the centre of the city, the 192 Airport Rocket is a frequent public bus that runs to and from both terminals at the airport to Kipling Station, the last stop on the Bloor-Danforth subway line, taking 20-25 minutes. Buy a ticket for $3 (£1.55) on the bus (exact change needed) and that same ticket is valid for your onward subway journey into downtown. Check the Toronto Transit Commission for more bus information and schedules.
VIA Rail trains arrive at downtown Toronto’s Union Station. Amtrak’s ‘Maple Leaf’ service links Toronto and New York; journey time is 13 hours. The Toronto Coach Terminal offers connections to Canadian and US cities – see Greyhound Canada and Coach Canada.
A Toronto CityPASS costs CAN$64 and covers entry to several attractions, including the CN Tower and Royal Ontario Museum, saving more than CAN$50; passes are valid for nine days.
Stare up at totem poles, down from dizzy heights and eat your way around the world
Buy a Toronto Transit Commission Day Pass (CAN$11 [£5.70]) and start at the Royal Ontario Museum (CAN$16 [£5.70]). Opened in 1914, the ROM is the nation’s largest museum, housing dinosaurs, East Asian art and historical Canadian artefacts. One of its literal highlights is the quartet of 25m totem poles. The newest addition is the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal; some argue that it looks like a crashed Cubist spaceship.
Next, take the streetcar down Spadina Ave to bohemian Kensington Market. Fruit and veg stalls and Latin food vendors rub shoulders with radical bookstores and trendy secondhand emporia, while many of the old brick houses have been given graffiti makeovers. It’s a foodie paradise, serving up a wide range of cuisines from Chilean empanadas to Indian curries; grab lunch here.
After eating, head to the CN Tower for a bird’s eye vantage. Adrenalin junkies should check out Edgewalk (CAN$195 [£101]): strapped into a harness, shuffle along a 1.5m-wide ledge up at 356m. Finish at 360, the tower’s revolving restaurant, which has the world’s highest wine cellar and views of the glittering Toronto skyline.
Top end: The elegant Hôtel Le Germain Maple Leaf Square is one of Toronto’s most luxurious hotels – and just a puck-flick from the home of local ice hockey team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Rooms come with goose-down duvets; spa bathrooms have rainfall showers.
Mid range: Constructed in 1909, the boutique Hotel Victoria is one of the city’s most historic, but it’s by no means old-fashioned. Little glamorous touches – crown mouldings, marble columns – were retained in the centennial revamp, but now it’s a sleek and affordable base.
Budget: In the midst of the theatre district, near the CN Tower, Canadiana Backpackers Inn is both charming and homely. There are private doubles as well as dorms, an 18-seat cinema and (best of all) an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast.
Toronto is a city of neighbourhoods, so to make the most of it you’ll need to stay for at least a couple of days. It’s a diverse city with more than 100 ethnic groups, a fact amply reflected in all the different cuisines on offer.
Do get out of the city too – there’s plenty to do in the surrounding area. Niagara Falls is just over an hour’s drive away; the falls are spectacular though you’ll have to turn a blind eye to the host of tacky tourist attractions.
The best time to visit is in spring, between April and June, when there are no crowds and a buzz in the air in anticipation for summer. A short drive away, at the mouth of the Niagara River, Niagara-on-the-Lake is a well-preserved British Loyalist town dating to the late 18th century, and gateway to the celebrated wineries of the Niagara Region. Take a wine tasting tour to sample ice wine, the area’s most famed export.
Population: 2.48 million (Greater Toronto Area: 5.5 million)
Languages: English, French
Timezone: GMT5 (Mar-Oct GMT4)
International dialling code: +1
Visas: Not required by UK nationals
Currency: Canadian dollar (CAN$), currently around CAN$1.9 to the £1
Highest viewpoint: The 553m CN Tower provides spectacular views as well as a rotating restaurant; the highest observation deck is 447m.
Health issues: No special vaccinations are required. Pack warm clothes for chilly winters.
Recommended guidebooks: Toronto (Frommer’s, 2012); Toronto with Niagara Falls and the Niagara Wine Region (Fodor’s, 2012); Toronto (Time Out, 2007); Toronto (Lonely Planet, 2007)
Web resources: www.seetorontonow.com – Toronto Tourism; www.torontoontario.ca
iPhone apps: See Toronto (free) enables visitors to get the inside scoop on year-round attractions; Street Food Toronto (free) allows gourmands to locate Toronto’s food trucks.
Climate: Toronto has an extreme climate. Summer temperatures can soar upwards of 30°C; in winter, temperatures can drop to below -20°C. Spring and autumn are the most comfortable times to visit, with mid-October providing a vivid backdrop of fall colour.
The Art Gallery of Ontario is free 6pm-8.30pm Wednesdays; admission to the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art (MOCCA) is pay-what-you- can; Market Gallery (St Lawrence Market) is always free.