Toronto

As the northern hemisphere erupts into a long awaited summer, here’s a series over the next few weeks which look at some of the most spectacular destinations in Europe to try out during the summer months.

Night view of Toronto.

The capital of Province of Ontario, Toronto is Canada’s largest city and the fifth largest in North America. Despite its size, it is rather difficult to tell whether the majority of tourist visitors to Toronto come to see Toronto itself or a certain waterfall nearby. Given that the Niagara falls get 12 million visitors a year, it’s likely that the waterfall is probably a bigger draw than Toronto itself. This is a pity, because whilst there’s a definite attraction to seeing 1 million bathtubs worth of water falling over the edge every second (especially in winter when it partially freezes) the city can hold its own in the “things to do and see” stakes.

Initially Toronto was claimed by the French in the 1700’s but it wasn’t until the American Revolution occurred that the city became an established settlement. Known at the time as York, the town functioned as the administrative capital of English-speaking Upper Canada and became a major manufacturing centre by the 19th century. In 1834, the city was renamed Toronto, a Huron Indian word meaning ‘meeting place’. The Toronto of the 19th and early 20th centuries was a law-abiding city, where rules were made and rarely broken and where the overriding concern was making money. As such, Toronto gained a reputation as a conservative, boring enclave of Protestantism, a reputation that still unjustifiably dogs it to some extent today.

During the 1950s, an increase in immigrants infused Toronto with new foods, new languages and new attitudes. Toronto has gradually developed a multiethnic North American character and shrugged off its colonial identity although small signs still remain, such as English-style pubs. At first glance, Toronto does not appear all that different from any other large American city but closer inspection unveils preserved Victorian and Edwardian buildings and a considerable amount of pubs. This is a city that grows on you bit by bit.

Major attractions

Sitting on the north shore of Lake Ontario, the view of the city today from a boat sailing out on the lake is unmistakable. The skyline is dominated by the CN Tower which is the tallest building in the world (or isn’t)); in my mind the CN tower is certainly tall enough for me. This is an unmistake part of the city skyline and an attraction that is on every tourist’s to do list. If you don’t suffer too badly from heights, you’ll doubtless be glad to know that it is open to the public and boasts the first “walk on air” experience – the unnerving chance to walk on (extremely strong) glass with nothing beneath you but a 113 storey drop to the ground. At time of writing, prices were $19 for adults, $17 for seniors and $14 for ages 4-12.

Just to the north of the nearby financial centre are many of the tourist attractions. These include Toronto City Hall which is a decent example of modern architecture and the nearby Art Gallery of Ontario containing major works from the Italian renaissance, Flemish masters, all the way through to Picasso. Its major attraction is the popular Canadian section including the worlds largest collection of Inuit art. It’s $12 – special exhibitions are often supplementary, but general admission is free on Wednesday nights. Not too far away is the medieval-themed 20th-century built castle Casa Loma, stands a bit further to the north. Completed in 1914 by Sir Henry Pellatt, an admired financier, industrialist and philanthropist, financial ruin forced its sale years later and the castle eventually became the popular tourist attraction it is today. Inside it’s a rather odd hybrid of a medieval-style stonework exterior – including turrets and battlements but an early 20th-century interior. The impressive carved Oak Room is worth a look and children will enjoy discovering the secret passageways and Gothic Great Hall, which has 18m-high (60ft) ceilings. The two-hectare (five-acre) gardens are open between May and October. Adults are $10, concessions are available.

“I did not have three thousand pairs of shoes, I had one thousand and sixty.” declared Imelda Marcos in 1987. Some of her shoes are now in Toronto! The Bata Shoe Museum allegedly looks like a shoe box but I can’t see the likeness myself. Arguably one of the most offbeat major museums you can find anywhere in the world, the museum puts Imelda’s shoe collecting efforts to shame; since the 1940’s over 10,000 shoes are housed in the museum ranging from Chinese bound foot shoes and ancient Egyptian sandals to chestnut crushing clogs and Elton John's platforms. Over 4,500 years of history and a collection of 20th century celebrity shoes are reflected in the semi-permanent exhibition, All About Shoes. The museum has been well thought out, exhibits are very professionally done with a lot of well presented information and history and it’s ideal for anything up to three hours on an afternoon when the weather isn’t fabulous. Adults are $6, concessions are available.

Whilst it can’t compete on the uniqueness of its subject matter, the Royal Ontario Museum has over 5 million objects in its inventory including snuff bottles, a Ming tomb, numerous paintings and a large Canadian heritage collection. The entrance hall is particularly impressive – two massive totem poles from British Columbia flank the stairs to great effect, whilst children would probably enjoy the bat cave. Bear in mind however that the museum is undergoing a $200m renovation and some galleries may be temporarily unavailable, if possible this may be better left until the renovations are finished.

Unmissable however is Fort York. The original birthplace of what has now turned into Toronto, Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe built a garrison on the present site of Fort York. He was worried about war with the United States and planned to establish a naval base at Toronto in order to control Lake Ontario. Simcoe also moved the Capital to Toronto from the exposed border town of Niagara. In the event he was right to be worried – 19 years later in 1812 the United States declared war and invaded Canada. The story of what happened is covered well on the website as well as through displays, events and exhibitions at the site . Today, Fort York is home to Canada's largest collection of original War of 1812 buildings. The Fort is open year round and offers a number of services, including tours, exhibits, period room settings and seasonal demonstrations. During the summer months, the site comes alive with the colour and the pageantry of the Fort York Guard.

Districts to see.

Museums and galleries aside, the waterfront Ontario Place and the Canadian National Exhibition Grounds are excellent areas for families with children. Beyond the trail-laced ravine of the Don Valley to the east of the centre, is The Beaches, with chic boutiques and a waterfront promenade. Several millions of dollars were spent to good effect on it, and it’s only slightly ruined by the difficulty of getting to it from downtown. The expressway gets in the way, badly, although the mayor is said to be investigating ways of making access more friendly. Either cheat and use public transport to access it, or have patience if trying to walk there on foot from downtown because the destination is definitely worth it.

Distillery District of Toronto.
Furtherafield, Toronto is known as a city of neighbourhoods and many of these are a short distance from the Financial District’s towers and worth visiting. There is a district for every taste and whim. The city’s most affluent areas are Rosedale and Forest Hill – pleasant for walks and people-watching. Yorkville, a hippy enclave in the 1960s is today offering elegant cafés and restaurants, a Prada store and even a postmodern park. Spadina Avenue is home to Toronto’s Chinatown, - Toronto’s has an enormous Chinese community whilst Danforth Avenue is home to Greektown. Toronto has the highest population of Italians outside Italy and many of them have made their homes in Little Italy, west of the city centre. Little Italy is chock-a-block with see-and-be-seen outdoor cafes, bars, bakeries and fine ristoranti. Further northwest however is the less touristy, more authentic Corso Italia, which can boast Italian cinemas and proper smoky espresso bars. North of Bloor St is pretty much the Caribbean area, and to the west there's Koreatown. There are also other nationalities with vested interests in Toronto - a Tibetan Buddhist temple and the Ukrainian Museum of Canada are also part of Toronto’s vibrant multicultural scene. Near the University of Toronto, the Annex is a trendy, popular neighbourhood known for its lively nightlife and cultural scene. The area around Church and Wellesley streets between Isabella and Alexander Streets is home to the city’s out and proud gay and lesbian village. Pope Joan (592 Parliament) and Tango (508 Church St) are both well known gay hotspots whilst FAB magazine for the LGB scene comes out weekly.

Getting there and Accommodation.

The usual chains are here for the 5* enthusiast who has money to burn, but there are independents if you look hard enough. At the cheap end of the accommodation scale, like any other major city numerous hostels are available. Click here to book.

The best time for visiting Toronto is naturally enough during the summer which runs from June to early October. July and Autumn can get muggy, so avoid if you struggle with humid, muggy conditions. Outside of the summer season many tourist attractions either reduce their hours or close altogether but the ones that do bother to stay open often have discounts to encourage the dwindling tourists left to pop in and have a look. During the winter season Toronto gets cold and will happily sit at between -5 and -10C and has been known to plunge on rare occasions below -30C. There are numerous indoor activites to keep you interested, but if you’re still unsure, see the BBC’s guide to average conditions in Toronto.

Toronto is served by www.midwestairlines.com who fly to Milwaukee, www.americawest.com fly to Las Vegas and Phoenix, www.westjet.com operates a hub out of Toronto – direct flights are available to Abbotsford, Calgary, Edmonton, Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Halifax, Kelowna, Las Vegas, Moncton, Montreal, New York, Orlando, Phoenix, St John’s, Tampa, Thunder Bay, Victoria and Winnepeg whilst www.canjet.com also fly to Calgary, Halifax, Moncton, New York and St John’s. Connecting onward flights are available with both Midwest and Americawest out of their three destinations, all of which are major hubs, and there are numerous other options as well out of Fort Lauderdale, Las Vegas, New York and Phoenix.