Located on Lake Ontario's north shore, Toronto, Ontario is by far Canada's largest city. Toronto's population of about 2.8 million is comparable to that of Chicago, and The Toronto metro area's population of 5.6 million is North America's eighth largest.
Toronto has been compared to many other cities, particularly New York, London and Montreal. On an elemental level, comparisons with these great cities and many others are evident. Like New York, Toronto has an expansive theater district, and glitzy Dundas Square draws comparisons to Times Square. Like London, visitors will find rich history and classic architecture... And like Montreal, Toronto has an attractively unusual and old-fashioned element. But experienced as a whole, Toronto has culture, vibe and a unique gestalt all its own.
Toronto is one of the world's most immigrant-friendly cities, reflected in the city's official motto, “Diversity Our Strength”. More than half of its population is foreign-born, and half of Torontonians are native speakers of a foreign tongue. Although French is one of Canada's two official languages, French is not one of Toronto's most commonly spoken languages... trailing Chinese, Portuguese, Punjabi and Tagalog.
Toronto's neighborhoods are particularly diverse. Chinatown, Greektown, Little Italy, Koreatown, and little Portugal are just a few examples of the ethnic neighborhoods. Other historic neighborhoods like Yorkville and Queen West are largely populated by artists and creative-types. Toronto's mixture of cultures has led to the development of a wildly diverse food scene. Just about any cuisine can be sampled in Toronto. Italian, French, Chinese, American and European Continental restaurants are abundant. The city is dotted with restaurants featuring more exotic cuisine, including Portuguese, Lebanese, Indian, Moroccan, Brazilian, Peruvian, Scandinavian, Russian and Yemeni and countless more. Colorful food trucks serve up a wide variety of street food from the familiar to exotic, and provide an opportunity to try poutine, a distinctly Canadian dish consisting of french fries topped with cheese curds and thin brown gravy.
Getting around in Toronto is moderately easy by big-city standards, but some advance research is prudent. Traffic is often heavy, but drivers who avoid rush hour and are armed with a GPS should experience few problems. Downtown parking is abundant, but often expensive. Toronto has a highly developed public transportation system of subways, electric streetcars, buses, rapid transit, and trolleys extending to the city's outer boundaries. Public transportation is inexpensive and easy to use with a little research.
Toronto has abundant activities and attractions for all types of traveler. The Gray Line double-decker bus tour is a great introduction to Toronto. Making a 2-hour loop of central Toronto, the bus tour offers an entertaining narrated tour of Toronto's streets. Buses run about 15 minutes apart and allow riders to hop off and hop on at many of the city's most popular attractions. The double-decker bus tour is an efficient way to see many of Toronto's signature attractions in a short period of time. Tickets are good for three consecutive days, providing another transportation option.
Built in 1976 as a communications tower, the CN Tower dominates and defines Toronto's skyline. Topping out at 1815 feet, the slender CN Tower was the world's tallest free-standing structure, and remains the tallest free-standing structure in the Western Hemisphere. Located in the heart of the Entertainment District, the CN Tower attracts over two million visitors annually. In less than a minute, glass-walled high-speed elevators whisk visitors to the observation deck 1136-feet up providing spectacular panoramic views of the city and lake below. A segment of the observation deck is fitted with vertigo-inspiring glass floors, presenting a thrilling perspective. For an additional fee, visitors may take an internal elevator from the Observation Deck up an additional 300+ feet to the SkyPod, a smaller enclosed observation platform offering an unobstructed 360-degree view. For those with an extra $250 looking for an extreme thrill, The CN Tower's newest attraction, Edge Walk, allows tethered thrill-seekers to walk hands-free alone a 3-foot-wide ledge around the exterior of the tower's main pod.
Rogers Centre, home of Major League Baseball's Toronto Blue Jays and the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, is situated right next to the base of the CN Tower. Formerly known as SkyDome, Rogers Centre was the first stadium to have a fully retractable motorized roof. The 348-room Renaissance Toronto Downtown Hotel is attached to the stadium, with 70 rooms overlooking the field. Rogers Centre's proximity to the CN Tower and other downtown attractions is ideal for locals and visitors alike.
Opening in 2013, Ripley's Aquarium of Canada is Toronto's newest major attraction. Also located a the base of the CN Tower, Ripley's Aquarium of Canada has quickly become one of Toronto's most visited attractions. Featuring over 13,000 aquatic animals representing over 450 species, the aquarium is divided into nine galleries, and includes North America's longest underwater viewing tunnel.
Founded in 2000, Steam Whistle Brewery operates in the former John Street Roundhouse, a locomotive repair facility built in 1929 within easy walking distance of the CN Tower and Rogers Centre. Steam Whistle produces only one beer... a premium pilsner using only four ingredients... specially selected water, hops, barley and yeast. The brewery is relatively small, and the funky and informative tour is only 30-minutes long. Free samples are quite generous and unlike most brewery tours, Steam Whistle gives each visitor a cold 12-ounce bottle at the beginning of the tour.
Venturing beyond the entertainment district, Toronto is home to the Royal Ontario Museum. Over 100 years old, the Royal Ontario Museum is Canada's largest a museum encompassing science, culture, and art. Highlights include an enormous gallery of beautiful rocks, minerals and gemstones, 14 of the 70 known Martian meteorites, and a huge dinosaur collection. In 2009, the ultramodern Michael Lee-Chin crystal was added to the historic building's facade, adding floor space and an entirely new look to the museum's exterior. A minimum of 3 hours is needed to adequately explore this outstanding facility.
Appearing somewhat out of place in central Toronto, Casa Loma is a 300-foot tall, 98-room medieval-style castle built by Canadian financier and soldier Sir Henry Pellatt from 1911 to 1914. Once the largest private residence in Canada, the extravagant mansion features two towers (accessible to visitors), giant pipe organ, 5-acre gardens, Grand Hall with a 60-foot ceiling and secret passageways. Casa Loma is ideal for those who enjoy historic mansions such as Biltmore or the Newport Mansions.
Just two blocks from the Royal Ontario Museum is the Bata Shoe Museum, a delightfully quirky and unusual treasure. The international collection of over 12,500 shoes chronicles mankind from ancient times to the present through footwear. Ancient bear-fur samurai shoes, 2300 year old Egyptian sandals and an astronaut boot are on display as well as celebrity footwear worn by celebrities including Elton John, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, John Lennon and Shaquille O'Neal. The exhibits are very well displayed and explained. Shaped like a gigantic, elegant shoebox, the Bata Shoe Museum was a pleasant, unique surprise.
Located a few miles from downtown Toronto is the Ontario Science Centre. The science museum uses science to engage visitors in new ways of seeing and understanding the world. Featuring hundreds of hands-on and participatory exhibits, the Ontario Science Centre is a popular family destination.
The Toronto Zoo is one of the world's largest, covering over 710 acres in northeastern Toronto. That compares to the Columbus Zoo's 580 acres. The beautifully landscaped zoo has 6 miles of trails and over 5,000 animals from more than 460 species, including a pair of giant pandas.
For those who plan to visit several Toronto attractions, the Toronto CityPASS provides a hefty 45 percent savings over the combined admission prices of 5 of Toronto’s most popular attractions… CN Tower, Royal Ontario Museum, Casa Loma, Ontario Science Museum and the Toronto Zoo. CityPASS ticket booklets for Toronto and 10 American cities are available online at citypass.com.
Toronto has a wide variety of lodging options, and the Intercontinental Toronto Centre is ideal for both leisure and business travelers. Located in the heart of the entertainment district and in the middle of all the action, the Intercontinental Toronto Centre is just steps from the CN Tower, Rogers Centre, Ripley’s Aquarium and other attractions. Theaters, dining and nightlife are within easy walking distance. The large luxury hotel features clean, modern rooms, beautiful views and an exceptionally professional and courteous staff. Underground parking allows for easy access in the heart of Canada’s largest city. Even the lightning-fast elevators are noteworthy… whisking visitors from the top floors to Front Street just seconds after pressing the call button.
Toronto is full of interesting architecture, cultural attractions, great dining and plenty to do for families and adult travelers alike. Comparisons to other cities are inevitable, but even a brief visit to Toronto will leave a unique, memorable impression.
- Mike Bechtol 2014