In just a few blocks, you can go from San Francisco to Hong Kong. A few miles away, you can shop like a star in Chicago, or soak up some entertainment from street performers in a New York-style atmosphere.
This is Toronto.
It’s as if the city planners gathered ideas from favorite destinations around the globe to create an area that brings the best of the world all to one place. While many people are probably familiar with the city for its famous Toronto International Film Festival, this Canadian gem has much more to offer than a few days of celebrity appearances each September.
I spent a week in Toronto in August 2012, and, as I traversed the city streets, it quickly became apparent to me that each block offered a different experience from the last. With a seemingly endless supply of diverse restaurants, shops and entertainment options, Toronto is a multifaceted city that changes shape with every turn.
Along a prestigious six-block strip of downtown Toronto’s Bloor Street is the Mink Mile, one of the most popular areas in Canada to find designer-name clothing and other high-profile products. Of course, the idea of a shopping “mile” is nothing new, as anyone who’s visited or heard of Chicago’s Magnificent Mile well knows.
The shops on this stretch represent the most expensive retail space in Canada, with destinations such as Gucci, Chanel, Prada and Burberry lining the street. And for an added touch of lavishness, the sidewalks are composed of Mongolian granite, providing a posh environment for shoppers in search of opulent items.
The surrounding area of Yorkville hosts a stylish, sophisticated crowd, but only in the past few decades has this become the case. The area used to be home to Toronto’s youthful counter-culture, but rising real estate prices forced them over to what is now known as Kensington Market. Today’s Yorkville offers more opportunities for shopping, as well as a variety of upscale dining options for those looking for a refuge from retail.
At the southern edge of the city, visitors can enjoy the calming views of Lake Ontario from Harbourfront Centre. Small islands in the distance give the impression of standing on a Florida beach, though the pier is the only tangible thing separating pedestrians from the water below. This urban area provides a large public space where many gather for organized activities, including concerts, festivals and art exhibitions. In the nearby Queen’s Quay Terminal, specialty retail shops and an art museum can be found – not to mention several options for dining on the waterfront.
A short distance from the harbor is the city’s celebrated CN Tower. Until a few years ago, the 1,815-foot tower was classified as the world’s tallest freestanding structure; it has since lost the title to a skyscraper in Dubai. Initially built by the Canadian National Railway in the 1970s to improve radio and television reception, the tower is now a hot spot for Toronto tourists.
Visitors can ride an elevator up more than 100 stories to the tower’s observation deck to get unbeatable views of the Toronto skyline, or stand atop a glass floor to see passers-by on the distant pavement below. For an even better experience, dine in the tower’s ritzy rotating restaurant – it slowly moves a full 360 degrees, providing an exceptional cityscape view from all angles while allowing its customers to remain seated and enjoy an indulgent meal.
Though not as heavily populated as Times Square, Yonge-Dundas Square in
Toronto’s downtown area draws a strong comparison to New York’s bustling commercial hub with large billboards and constant activity, including a variety of live entertainment performances. The corner of Yonge and Dundas streets is arguably the most traveled intersection in Toronto, drawing people from all walks of life to the square.
One aspect of the square is of particular value to tourists: the sightseeing bus that begins its route from the location. The bus takes visitors to 24 spots throughout the city, including Yorkville and CN Tower, as well as other popular destinations such as the Royal Ontario Museum and the Bata Shoe Museum. Also included in the purchase of a pass is a free boat cruise that provides a tour of the harbor’s islands, where those on board can capture some beautiful photographs of the city from a distance.
For shopping that’s a bit less extravagant than that of the Mink Mile, head across the street to Toronto Eaton Centre. The mall contains a wide variety of stores, including one of Canada’s premier department stores, The Bay. From Eaton Centre, shoppers can also gain access to Toronto’s PATH, the world’s largest underground shopping complex. The 17-mile strip of retail can be accessed at multiple locations throughout Toronto and connects at many points to the city’s subway network.
Collision of Cultures
Beyond the city’s downtown core is a wealth of multicultural areas to explore. Kensington Market, home to Toronto’s laid-back bunch, offers a Bohemian vibe reminiscent of San Francisco. Colorful storefronts are inhabited by vendors selling jewelry, books and body products, and small cafés and eateries are sprinkled throughout the market’s streets. The area sees an influx in activity each summer when Toronto’s Pride Week rolls around; it has become one of the largest gay pride festivals in the world.
Directly northwest of Kensington Market is Toronto’s Chinatown. The area offers a multitude of restaurants featuring authentic cuisine, and some small grocery stores still remain for people wishing to buy fresh food products. Close to Chinatown, visitors can also find Little Italy, Little Portugal and Koreatown, all providing similar cultural experiences with their shopping and dining options.
One of the newer parts of town arrived in 2003: the Distillery District. The unique area combines the appearance of a quaint European city and the ambience of New York’s artistic SoHo, with modern sculptures resting atop brick-lined alleys. In a collection of dated Victorian Industrial buildings, including an 1800s distillery at the center of the action, visitors can now find a charming environment filled with art galleries, theaters, restaurants and boutiques. With its intriguing juxtaposition of old buildings and new talent, it’s become a welcome addition to the city’s art scene.
Rose Davidson is a contributing writer. Feedback welcome at email@example.com.