The late, great actor Peter Ustinov did a one-man show in Toronto many years ago. When the local media asked him what he thought of the city, in his rather droll manner he said, “Toronto is New York run by the Swiss.” And that was and still is a perfect description of Canada’s great metropolis.
During the autumn, when the trees are ablaze in red and gold, many travelers opt for a fall colors cruise between either New York or Boston and Montréal. This ten to 14-day cruise exposes them to the magnificence of upper New England and the Canadian Atlantic Provinces. Such cruises can either begin or end in Montréal, a city with its own distinctive Québecois charm. It is a bastion of French culture on this continent. And many people do spend an extra few days exploring the city. But if you have been to Montréal before, how about visiting Toronto? Why you may ask? What can it possibly have to offer?
This is so often the attitude, so much so that I almost call Toronto Canada’s largest “forgotten” city. So many consider Vancouver, Montréal and Québec City to be the highlights of the country. And they just do not know what they are missing.
Toronto is only one hour from Montréal by air or four hours by fast train. It is the aviation hub of Canada and actually easier to fly in or out of when traveling between Canada and the United States. Air Canada alone links it to at least 50 American cities. It is also a great connection point for flights between this continent and the rest of the world.
What Peter Ustinov meant when he made that now famous statement is that Toronto has all of the excitement, night life and action of New York, but without the clutter and grime that turns so many off to that biggest of cities. And Toronto is also one of the great melting pots of the world. The public transportation system alone has recorded messages in 80 different languages.
But unlike New York, Toronto is spotlessly clean, exceptionally vibrant and architecturally offers a mix of Old World Victorian along with 21st century modern. And its skyline is actually leaving New York behind, as its outer suburbs compete with the city center to build taller high-rise condos and apartments. Right now there are at least three new residential high rises that are in the 90-story range and more on the way. High-rises seem to crop up like proverbial mushrooms after a rain.
Yet at the same time Toronto is a city of tree shaded streets and thousands of acres of parkland. Each of the small streams that flow through the city on its way to Lake Ontario along the southern margin has carved a valley, or ravine as locally called. All are set aside as public reserves, beautiful parks that are often left in their wild state, but with portions impeccably manicured into elegant gardens. And you can enjoy the hundreds of pathways in such relative peace of mind, as violent crime is quite rare by American standards.
If you crave fine dining and theater, Toronto has it all. There are so many five-star restaurants and local bistros that you would have to spend months sampling them to say you are well versed in the city’s gastronomy. Live theater, concerts and ballet rank Toronto along with New York and London as a major entertainment center. And for those who love sports, this is the only city in Canada with major league baseball, basketball and hockey along with Canadian League football. And such sports, as soccer, lacrosse and curling are also locally popular.
The city along with Vancouver has benefitted from becoming what many have called “Hollywood North” because of the number of movies and television programs filmed there, taking advantage of lower union costs and the currency exchange rate. One anecdote regarding the filming of a story that was supposed to have taken place in New York that reinforces the statement about Toronto being run by the Swiss still makes locals feel a sense of pride. One street had been shut down to traffic for filming. Graffiti had been sprayed on walls with washable paint. And garbage cans were filled to overflowing with litter and many deliberately dumped to spread the garbage over the street. During the two-hour lunch break, a city crew came in and completely cleaned up the street, not knowing it was temporarily being used as a movie set. And that typifies the Toronto attitude.
For those who want to explore a bit of nature, Niagara Falls is two hours away, the Muskoka Lakes and Algonquin Provincial Park, both glacial wonderlands of water and forests, are two to three hours to the north. And there are dozens of small provincial reserves where a bit of pristine countryside has been left.
Here are the major highlights that should not be missed when visiting Toronto, as these are its most popular venues:
- The CN Tower stands 553 meters or 1,815 feet high at the tip of its antenna. The observation platform was the highest in the world at 143 stories, and it offers a panoramic view of the city and its surroundings. Only the new Burj Khalifa in Dubai exceeds it.
- Sky Dome and Air Canada Centre are the two major sports venues in the city centre. The Sky Dome, home to the Toronto Blue Jays has a massive retractable roof. The Air Canada Centre is home to the Maple Leafs and the Toronto Raptors.
- The Islands are a chain of wooded offshore islands that frame in the Toronto Harbour in Lake Ontario. They provide for all manner of outdoor recreation both in summer and winter.
- Hockey Hall of Fame is a museum devoted to the glory of hockey, a game that Canada invented.
- Lawrence Market is one of the most surprising indoor food markets on the continent with its emphasis upon fresh Canadian produce, meats, fish, baked goods and ethnic foods.
- Ontario Place is a major site consisting of very modern venues for a variety of exhibitions and recreational activities during the summer months
- Queen’s Park is the stately home to the Ontario provincial legislature, set in a large oval where University Avenue meets Avenue Road.
- University of Toronto campus is Canada’s largest and most prestigious university, a fact challenged by two other major institutions of higher learning in the country.
- Royal Ontario Museum has the finest overall natural and historic collection of artifacts in all of Canada. The museum also is the home for traveling exhibitions that visit the major cities of the world.
- Art Gallery of Ontario offers a magnificent collection of works of fine art, both Canadian and international.
Outside of Downtown
- Casa Loma is a traditional European Gothic revival castle that was built in the early 20th century by a wealthy British knight, Sir Henry Mill Pellatt. It is used for special events today.
- Edward’s Gardens and Wilkert Creek Park are two connected green spaces in the Don Valley known for their beautiful botanical gardens and explosive fall colours.
- Allen’s Gardens is another beautiful public garden located along the Humber River and connected by miles of pathways through one of the most beautiful wooded preserves in the city.
- High Park is the city’s largest non-ravine park, but still offering essentially a semi-wild woodland environment.
- Ontario Science Centre is Canada’s largest interactive science museum, beloved by both children and adults for its special exhibits. It is also home to the city’s IMAX Dome theatre.
- McMichael Canadian Art Collection in the suburban town of Kleinburg is the most noted gallery featuring the early 20th century collection of Canadian artists known as the Group of Seven.
The list above is only presenting the major highlights of what the city has to offer. When it comes to retail activities, Toronto is truly only second to New York. Eaton Centre located in the heart of downtown is home to Hudson’s Bay Company, the oldest retail store on the continent having begun in 1653 as a trading outpost, Saks Fifth Avenue, now owned by Hudson’s Bay Company, Holt Renfrew and Nordstrom. There are thousands of small boutiques and shops in the downtown, Yorkville, Queen Street West, the Entertainment District and the massive shopping complex interconnecting the entire downtown and known as the Underground City.
Connecting it all together are several means of getting around without the need for a car. Toronto has a very efficient subway system, a fleet of streetcars and busses and for visits to outlying areas there are the double deck GO Trains. And Via Rail Canada links Toronto with Niagara Falls, Ottawa, Montréal and transcontinental service to Vancouver. And the American AMTRAK does offer train service to New York and Chicago.
So do consider a before or after visit to Toronto, the city that has no equal.
Submitted by, Dr. Lew Deitch www.doctorlew.com