Bustling, friendly, manageable and fascinating, Lisa Marks falls for the charms of Toronto
Toronto may not be showy but it’s a glorious tasting menu of a city, offering a host of unique and unexpected pairings. There are the charming beaches on Toronto Island from where you can marvel at the city’s breathtaking skyline, historic districts packed with modern eateries, buildings so high it feels like you are flying and underground malls where you can shop til you drop during the snowy winter months.
It matches New York for shopping, Paris for sight-seeing and the Highlands for natural beauty (courtesy of the nearby Niagara Falls).
But while Toronto is full of surprises, it’s also easily digestible. It might be the most populated city in Canada but it’s never overwhelming. Walking is one of the best ways to see the sights, and also the architecture, which ranges from Victorian to industrial modern. Treat yourself to a coffee from their ubiquitous local chain Tim Hortons, and go for a stroll. In one morning I managed to amble around the University district, visit the Royal Ontario Museum gift shop and enjoy an enthusiastic Morris dancing display outside the Bata Shoe Museum.
With so much to do the question remains, how can you possibly cram it all in?
Here are three of my favourite Toronto combinations – pairing daytime sight-seeing activities with after-dark entertainment, all designed to help you to fully embrace this charismatic corner of Canada.
Into the heights
Like heights? Then start the day with a hearty breakfast at the Sheraton Centre Toronto’s 43rd floor Club Lounge. You’ll need to book Club Level to access the lounge but it’s worth it (not just for their comfy suites) but to see how many local attractions, including the law courts and the ‘Eye Ball’ building, you can spot.
The Sheraton has recently undergone a £45 million renovation and its central location also offers access to ‘the PATH’; 19 miles of connected subterranean shops and restaurants, that really come into their own when the temperatures outside dip below freezing. Personally I prefer to stay above ground but if 43 floors isn’t high enough, there are other options.
Hop in a cab and make your way downtown to the world famous CN Tower, where you will be elevated to infinity and beyond. It stands 1,815.4ft high and those with no fear can do the Edge Walk, which is a nausea-inducing 116 storeys above ground. I couldn’t even bear to step onto their popular Glass Floor attraction, despite a sign telling me that 3.5 orcas could lounge there and it still wouldn’t break. But I did enjoy lunch in their revolving restaurant, aptly named 360; you just have to remember where your table is because if you go to the toilet everything moves and you find yourself joining a table of strangers for lunch (as I did!).
For the evening I recommend another thrilling elevator experience at the The Fifth Grill and Terrace on Richmond Street. Their menu is French inspired but their entry point is very James Bond. You are invited into an old service lift, which features a heavy sliding grill door by the operator. It opens theatrically onto the restaurant and patio which offers a chilled shabby chic vibe and delicious amuse-bouche.
For more views: visit the rooftop lounge at the downtown Thompson Hotel for sweeping vistas of the city and Lake Ontario.
Toronto is a whiskey-lovers paradise, and as testament to that you can explore the aptly named Distillery District, which supplied the city with booze through Prohibition. It’s a delightfully antiquated yet vibrant part of town featuring more than 40 historic buildings, some of which date back to 1832. Enjoy a sedate walking tour around the boutiques, cafes, art galleries and restaurants, or book a Segway session and whizz along the cobbles.
I heartily recommend lunch on the patio at El Catrin, which serves tasty modern Mexican fare. The Baja cod tacos were heavenly but for me the highlight was their enormous floor to ceiling indoor Day of the Dead mural. It took ingenious Mexican street artist Oscar Flores and his team three months to create by hand and is a must-see.
Pair this with an early evening stop at the CC Lounge & Whiskey Bar, which also takes inspiration from the Prohibition era. Ask to see the hidden ‘whiskey tunnel’ which houses more than 140 varieties of whiskey and was inspired by the route Al Capone used to transport his contraband during the not-so-dry Twenties.
Continuing the theme, drop in at BarChef, whose nondescript front door is easy to miss on Queen Street. In a dimly lit environment, co-owner and genius mixologist Frankie Solarik creates artistic ‘rocktails’ that make you question everything you thought you knew about liquid in a glass. I indulged in his modernist ‘Essence of Fall’ which comprised of (wait for it) spherified maple and fernet branca, brandy, balsam fir, sweet vermouth, rosemary syrup, moss, cedar and soil mist. It was pure theatre; think Mad Max meets Wind in the Willows.
For more cocktails: head to the hipster-packed Sky Yard bar at The Drake Hotel for a winter warming Brown Butter Maple Old Fashioned.
My final pairing is for thrill-seeking adventurers. Start the day with a tour of the graffiti art in bustling Chinatown. Here, the authorities encourage street artists to use the buildings as an exhilarating public canvas and the results are loud, colourful and in some cases, political.
Then head to the water and take a short ferry ride to Toronto Island from the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal. Hire a bike and enjoy stunning views of Lake Ontario and the city skyline, including the omni-present CN Tower as you pedal. The island is small, flat and easy to get around. Bring a picnic for the beach, pack your swimsuit and enjoy a splash in the ocean. There are also amusements and concessions selling ice cream and hot dogs.
Once you’ve worked up a sweat, head back to the mainland and hop on another ferry to a different part of the island (on what might be the shortest ferry trip in the world taking all of five minutes) to Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport. Here, you can indulge in a helicopter flight 2,000 feet over the city. I flew with Toronto Heli Tours and despite the fact that it was my first time in a helicopter and I managed to jam my camera, I was still able to enjoy the sights which included the CN Tower, Ontario’s parliament and the inner harbour area. It was an unforgettable ten minutes and prices start at a reasonable £50 per person.
For more thrills: seek out Cold Tea, a clandestine nightclub in China Town, that serves beer in teapots, dumplings and hip hop in a sparse but friendly courtyard.
Explore Toronto from £535pp with Canadian Affair (www.canadianaffair.com). Package includes return flights from Glasgow with Air Transat, plus six nights at a 4 star hotel in downtown Toronto and return airport transfers. Price based on travelling 4-10 February, 2016; www.seetorontonow.com